The Little Things That Matter The Most – Part I

Posted: March 11th, 2009

Part I: The Search For Stability

Freelancers often take a lot of things for granted. This is fairly normal and is primarily due to there being an endless number of things to learn while you actually are freelancing. We do learn the basics pretty fast: find work, do it fast, collect and repeat. There are essential lessons we need to learn, however, so our freelance business doesn’t go under which can happen faster than you think.

This will be the first post in a three part series on the simple, typically overlooked things that a freelancer should pay attention to. Today’s post covers an essential business lesson that a majority of freelancers, not just newer ones, often overlook: the source of your income. Wendy Piersall somewhat outlines this in her article in Sparkplug CEO:

You may be thinking to yourself – I don’t run a blog network, and I don’t sell text links or paid reviews, so this story has nothing to do with me or my business. And you’d be dead wrong.

The story of KMM [Know More Media, who went out of business] isn’t about networks or selling page rank. It’s about having all of your eggs in one basket.

Even if you are a one-man or one-woman show, this is an absolutely critical lesson you must learn. My freelance business ended because of two reasons – lack of work-life balance and lack of diversification of my income. I started my business at the end of the dot-com heyday. 4 years later the market was so saturated with laid-off freelancers that I couldn’t find work at half of my old rate.

I was kind of surprised at the number of conversations I had at BlogHer with people who were struggling with this same issue – that the economy was starting to take a bite out of their income, and that it was getting harder and harder to find clients. These people were still thinking of how to grow their business by finding more clients. They are making the Know More Media mistake.

Now, this post refers to entrepreneurs who have businesses in blogging, yet the same principles apply to us as freelancers. The typical freelancer has a varying client client base but depends only on a few clients for steady work and income. One problem with this is if the main clients are the wrong type,  you may fall victim to a sudden loss of work in the event of, say, an economy collapsing into despair.

To counter this, freelancers need to be on the lookout for clients with stability. That is, clients who are in established and successful businesses. These clients are typically ones that you will have a long and profitable relationship with, even in troubled times. If you haven’t paid attention to this, you may be surprised to find that most of your clients don’t fit the stable type. The following are signs of a stable client:

  • Client has continual growth in their business
  • The business is well managed down to the fine details (i.e. communication)
  • There is a contingency plan in the event of unexpected emergencies (or recession!)
  • Professionalism in everything they do

Now we have the following signs of the client who exhibits instability:

  • Start up businesses
  • Businesses or individuals constantly “trying new things” instead of sticking to one idea and riding it
  • Has you starting, stopping and scrapping way too many projects
  • Your instinct tells you that you don’t honestly see their business going anywhere

Does this mean you should leave your clients if they fit the above criteria? No. A client that appears to be unstable may, in fact, give you reliable business for a long period. The tendency is, however, that your business relationship will be short-lived with cost (yours) almost always being the determining factor. Cost issues arise due to lack of funding or income, poor business decisions, or sudden economic change which typically afflicts “unstable ” clients.

If these types of business or individuals make up your major clients then its not time to panic yet, but actively search for those clients that have a record of  stability. Do the research and see how long they’ve been around the block, ask them questions on their business and get a feel of their stability before you agree to work with them.

While, personally, I’ve had my share of unstable clients in the past, I am lucky to work for a small company who met all of the criteria for stability. They are currently laughing off the recession, while supplying me with enough work that I can’t remember if I actually signed a treaty with the devil for it or not.

The point is to KEEP LOOKING for clients who fit this type. They are out there and they will be the ones who keep you in business for the long haul.

See also:

Part II: The Phone Call
Part III: Document Everything

More on the author, Johnny Spence
Johnny is the founder of The Freelance Rant and a freelance web programmer with 8 years in the business. Have a visit at his company Oscarrr!web or see what he's up to on Twitter.

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