Freelance work is often either so busy it’s crazy nights looking at a bleary screen—or it’s crickets. Nothing to do. Welcome to the feast or famine of freelance.
This cycle of super busy and brain-dead slow is the bane of many freelancers. Feast or famine happens when all the work comes at once, deadlines stacked on deadlines, and you get so busy you only focus on client work. Then everything dries up, and you’ve got nothing to do. You boost your marketing in a panic, only to start the whole process over again.
Feast or famine is basically the opposite of the steady paycheck of a normal job. It’s extra stress you don’t need. But it’s not inevitable.
General Feast or Famine Tips
The feast or famine cycle is pretty common to freelancers. But it doesn’t have to be. There are some general approaches you can take to minimize or even eliminate the hassles of feast or famine.
- Marketing – Duh. You need to do your marketing, when you’re bored and when you’re busy. Market all the time. That’s the best way to break the feast or famine cycle. You have to keep the pipeline filled or your work will slow to the inevitable famine.
- Big, repeat clients – Hunt down some large clients with lots of work. You need a few big dogs who keep coming back for more. Maybe it’s a big company with lots of web needs, or a designer or agency bringing you in as a subcontractor. The more repeat business you have the less you need to be knocking on doors.
- Recurring work – Anything you can do to line up recurring work is a great way to break the feast or famine cycle. Sell WordPress maintenance, security, backup, etc. You could even handle hosting and domain renewal for clients and make a little extra. All that recurring revenue will bring consistency to your income and balance the extremes of feast or famine.
- Line up work – Instead of taking every project that comes along and getting too busy, line projects up and schedule your work out. Instead of telling a client ‘no,’ ask if you can do it later. Don’t just accept their timeline—make their schedule work with yours. One freelance writer is considering a paid wait list where clients pay up front to secure a spot on his future schedule.
- Have margin with money – The more you can cut back your debts and expenses, the easier it will be to survive those slow famine days. But being frugal isn’t the only way to beat feast or famine. You can also boost your income. One approach is to set your prices so you could survive working just three days a week. That doesn’t mean you only work three days a week, but it means you can. That extra room in your budget will help you survive the famine times.
Those ideas and business practices can really minimize the impact of feast or famine. But it can still happen. You can’t control everything.
When It’s Famine
Here are some ways to deal with famine when it does strike:
- Routine – Maintain your sanity with routine. After a busy season it might be nice to sit in front of your computer and twiddle your thumbs. But after a couple days of doing nothing, you’re going to start going crazy. This is when a routine is helpful. Even if you don’t have client work to do, you still need to work. Go to your office, power up your computer and do your work—focus on your business.
- Catch up – Lots of stuff falls by the wayside when you get busy. So when things slow down, it’s a chance to catch up. “All you’ll need to do is spend the time that you’d normally be working for clients on your own work,” says the Freelancers Union. Reconnect with others, update your online presence, tackle those big projects you always put off (whether it’s for your business or around the house), clean your desk—even take a vacation.
- Side project – It can be helpful to have a side project. It’s not something you’re relying on for income, but who knows? It could always take off. A side project can keep you busy during slow times and provide some creative relief. Maybe you’re building a WordPress plugin or coding your own app. Side projects you can start and stop are ideal
- Marketing – And of course when times are slow you need to be doing your marketing. Kick your networking into high gear. Reach out to past clients. Do whatever it takes. But remember, loads of marketing when it’s slow and none when you’re busy is what got you into this mess in the first place. Resist the temptation to binge market. Find ways to invest in your marketing now that can pay off when you’re busy. Set up systems like drip-email campaigns that with some upfront time investment can bring in work while you’re busy with client projects.
When It’s Feast
When freelancing tips into the feast it can be hard to manage anything else. It’s a good problem to have. But there are a few things you can do to help alleviate the eventual rollercoaster of the feast or famine cycle.
- Get some help – When things get crazy busy it’s OK to get help. Consider subcontracting. It can be a great way to flex and handle the huge piles of work, then step back when things slow down. It doesn’t have to be a permanent situation. This is a good reason why it’s important to develop freelance relationships.
- Save money – You’re rolling in the work and rolling in the dough, but don’t celebrate just yet. Now is the time to set money aside. Save, don’t splurge. Shore up your emergency fund for the possible famine. Put the government’s share aside for taxes. Save a chunk for the next time you need to upgrade your computer.
- Marketing – And of course when times are busy you also need to do your marketing. Even an hour a week can make a big difference. But remember, loads of marketing when it’s slow and none when you’re busy is what got you into this mess in the first place. So find that time.
Feast or famine impacts nearly every freelancer. But there’s a lot you can do to minimize the impact on your savings and sanity. Take action now with some general approaches that can help you avoid the cycle altogether. And when you are in the midst of the feast or famine cycle, take action to minimize it.