Building a Career on Bursty Work

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?

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