When it rains, it pours; but when it’s dry, it’s a drought. If it’s not a feast, it’s a famine.
Most of us who’ve been knee deep in the freelance trenches know this familiar cycle all too well. Even during times when work is abundant, there’ll be those frequent periods when assignments become fewer and further between, projects hit the back burner, and deadlines extend past the New Year.
It’s especially true at the end of the year, since many clients are taking time off for the holidays. For freelancers, these slow times when employment is scarce can be scary since you don’t know when or where your next paycheck is coming. Even when you’ve learned that work will pick up in a few months, it’s hard to take even the most temporary hit to your income.
Freelancing gives a great deal of autonomy, but these moments of financial inconsistency can leave us strapped. So, when the going gets glacial, you don’t have to lose your pace. Here are some tips on how to endure those typical end-of-year lulls and plan ahead to maximize the downtime:
1. Reach out to clients.
Just because clients have gone a bit quiet doesn’t (usually) mean they’ve dropped off the face of the earth, and neither should you. Stay in contact with your clients past and present, and continue cultivating opportunities. If the other side is silent for the time being, harness it as the time to be particularly proactive, not passive. Keep brainstorming for ideas and pitching them to new and existing clients.
As blogger Nicole Dieker puts it, emailing a work client with "I have three ideas that would work great for you" has a more ambitious ring than, "Have anything available for me to write/design/produce/create?"
The end of the year is also a good opportunity to express gratitude to your clients for your ongoing working relationships. Reach out with a note (preferably handwritten) or greeting card thanking them for their business, and that you’re looking forward to collaborating further in the New Year.
Staying vigilant on the freelance front during down periods can help place you and your talents front and center when the busier seasons come -- and maintaining a constant presence with clients at all points of the year may even progress you from freelancer to regular contributor, or even steady staffer.
2. Build your brand.
Part of what makes successful freelancers successful is that they don’t stay idle, even when the workflow is. Keep building your personal presence and brand. Market, market, market yourself. Tackle that to-do list you’ve been putting off all year long.
Expand your LinkedIn profile, and schedule your social media activity several months out to stay visible on your channels; using online tools like Hootsuite or Sprout Social can help manage your calendar. You might take the time to build that professional website and showcase your growing portfolio. Or, print up some new business cards and attend professional meet-ups or networking events tailored to your industry to meet new contacts and reconnect with existing ones.
Also make this a season to keep honing your expertise and stay abreast of industry developments; take some online courses germane to your job, or attend a community college class or seminar. It could be for anything, like finding ways to monetize your blog, joining an online writer’s consortium, or becoming skilled in graphic design.
3. Get side gigging.
Part-time hustles aren’t just for college students. Use some of the same creativity from freelancing for finding opportunities to earn extra cash, whether it’s tutoring or teaching; selling some of your wares through an online marketplace; become a local tour guide or docent; or, if you’ve got a blog/brand following, raising some income through paid ads. Freelance photographer Mike Wilkinson explains:
"[Freelancing] is a tough business, and when you’re working in a niche as competitive and low paying as outdoor adventure, another source of income can be a necessity," Wilkinson writes.
If push comes to shove, don’t be fearful to start Ubering, or take up seasonal retail work if need be. Wilkinson notes that you should choose an opportunity that offers fringe benefits to enhance your freelance business, where you can network and meet new clients or receive discounts on relevant supplies and equipment.
Designer Dennis Field imparts some wisdom on generating passive revenue when freelance times get tough. "Whatever you choose to do for a passive income, note that the solution won’t immediately surpass your consulting income, but it should help you reduce the effects of the slow time," Field writes. "One thing to think about when developing your passive cash-flow solution is to develop a solution that doesn’t distract completely from your primary goals and business. You’re not developing a distraction, you’re creating some side revenue."
4. Manage your money.
The best money advice for a freelancer lull is to save money during times of the year when work is busier -- and to avoid spending it if times are tough. Building a financial buffer may be difficult during lean months, but can at least avoid dipping into what you have saved with a little planning in place.
You can guarantee this by keeping a detailed budget of your income and expenses. It’s already tempting to sit back and live off your savings, but when other late-year expenses (like Christmas shopping) take priority, start taking a conservative approach with your money.
Aim to conserve at least 10% of your earnings towards an emergency fund -- "just in case" money when work is slow and bills need to be paid. Remember that most freelance pay is pre-tax, so your take-home compensation will be more than you’ve actually earning. Using a self-employment tax calculator can help estimate your annual income taxes when it comes time to file. You’ll also want to investigate which deductions you can take for your solo business ventures and other tax breaks, like supplies, software, travel, or associated costs with setting up a home office.
During this time of year, you may also want to reconfigure arranging how your clients pay you. If it’s been monthly, will bi-monthly work better for you? What about dividing up your expected pay quarterly? "Spreading out this cash flow through time creates overlap and minimizes the harshness of your slow times," writes Field.
Learning to anticipate -- expect, even -- a slow patch of work may mean investing in a project management software or other program to track your projects and predict dips in workflow.
5. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
Some of us can be our own worst critics (I’m often guilty of this), so it becomes easy to blame ourselves for hitting a freelance lapse at any time of the year. Even the most in-demand solo contractors hit slow periods. It’s the nature of the beast, the rhythm of the industry, so take an honest look and learn from your lessons. Don’t take a lack of seasonal opportunity too personally. Instead, take it as a time to recharge your batteries, and to reflect on yourself and your career. Stay active.
Make it a chance for personal growth and self improvement: for achieving something you’ve always wanted, like learning how to speak Dutch, spending more time with family, or volunteering your time for a worthy cause. Filling the downtime with productivity can give you a clearer focus and vision when the freelancing begins picking up again. And when it does, those slow lulls will be easier to manage.