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Summary:

Another web developer was recently complaining to me: “I just got three new clients – I’m overwhelmed! I don’t know how I’m going to get everything done!” I pointed out that this was one of the best problems for an independent web worker to have – […]

Another web developer was recently complaining to me: “I just got three new clients – I’m overwhelmed! I don’t know how I’m going to get everything done!” I pointed out that this was one of the best problems for an independent web worker to have – especially when you consider the alternative. I’ve been in the position of eating the last bite of food in the house while wondering where the next one was coming from, and believe me, it’s no fun.

Still, there are strategies for making a career based on unpredictable, and often short-term, contracts more manageable. While fields like software development and web design are likely to continue suffering from the “feast or famine” cycle for independents, you don’t have to be completely at the mercy of your client base’s whims to succeed. Here are five tips to help you deal with the situation.1. Don’t depend on a single client. While this may be hard when you’re getting started, taking all of your work from one company is a dangerous strategy. If they decide to cut their consulting budget, you can find yourself with no income prospects at the worst possible time. Plus, the IRS is more likely to consider you an employee in disguise, which will cause you no end of grief. I find that 3-5 active clients works best for me.

2. Keep the pipeline full. Even if you have plenty of work to keep you busy right now, don’t stop marketing yourself. We’ve discussed the various ways to find web work in the past, and you shouldn’t neglect them even when you’re working hard. It’s far, far better to have a stream of prospective clients to talk to than to find yourself without prospects when times are tough.

3. Keep some reserve work handy. One way to make sure you hit your desired billable hours every week is to have a pool of lower-priority work that you can do when you’re between high-priority jobs for a few days. In the past, I’ve offered clients discounted rates for work that they’re in no tearing hurry to get done to help build up this pool. Better 10 hours at 80% of my rate than 0 hours at 100%.

4. Learn to say yes. Unless you’re sure that you have enough work for months, you should be extremely wary of turning down contracts that are a good fit for your skills. “I can’t do that” is a response that will ensure the prospective customer never calls you again. “I’d love to work on that, let’s figure out a schedule that works for both of us” or “I can do a faster job on this for you if I work with another developer I know who’s really great” are much more likely to close the deal.

5. Use down time productively. If all else fails and you do end up with a non-working week, don’t spend it playing minesweeper. Besides nailing down your next contract, you can also spend this time working on your professional development.

If you’re an independent or a web worker in a small shop, what tips do you have for smoothing out the boom and bust cycle?

  1. Hey Mike,

    Do you have any tips on how to schedule multiple clients as a soloist?

    In my freelancing days I never had more than one, and always believed clients would get spooked if I could only offer them 10-15 hours per week (given several clients and humane work hours).

    How do you tell a client–straight, without flinching–that you can only offer a day or two per week?

    P.S.: No problem here with rates. Pay my rate or buh-bye!

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  2. I find that for me, most engagements have a sort of “snake swallowing a rabbit” shape – some work up front while we’re making design decisions and setting up tools and integrating me into the team, a hard core of dedicated work in the middle, and ramp down at the end with things like deployment and postmortems.

    So in my ideal weeks, I try to have one in ramp-up phase, one in full steam, one in ramp-down. Rather than splitting 15/15/15 hours across three clients, I aim for more like 10/25/5. Then the pitch becomes “I can do heavy work on your application in 2-4 weeks, but we can get started working me into the team right away; I can give you 10 hours starting Monday and we’ll adjust from there.”

    The other thing that helps is to say something like “I know my hours are going to cost you more than the employee hours, so let’s be smart about how many of my hours we put on the project. Let’s start out around 10 a week and see whether you need more help than that.”

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  3. Hi Mike, thanks for your response!

    Do you think this could put a developer at a competitive disadvantage versus other developers who can offer more time (and may be cheaper, too)?

    This may depend upon the type of work, the type of client, and whether you are a contractor or a subcontractor, but I wonder how this is perceived by companies who view freelancers as “employees for rent.”

    I suppose that’s why you need to market yourself more as a company and not an individual–challenging for a soloist without a storefront–and also differentiate your services from the competition. IOW, you’d better have something the other guy doesn’t to charge more and spend less time with the client.

    I see how you’re proposing the arrangement with the client–that would make me a bit uncomfortable to say but I suppose it could be learned. ;)

    In my world the clients are government, which means you’re always coming in under someone else’s banner due to contracting regulations. I get a smaller cut, I have to commute onsite, and they want all my time. Not a bad gilded cage overall, but lacking some of the freedoms (and uncertainties) of agency-style client work.

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