There comes a time in every freelancer’s business when the initial surge of client work gets slow. It can be a needed relief after a windfall period, or a notice on your business door to go big or go back to a job. How you choose to respond to this respite or revelation is up to you, and your endeavor’s continuing success will likely depend on your adaptation to this ebb and flow.
When I was a child, every year I eagerly awaited the ending of the school year—throwing my book bag in the back of the closet, running for the pool, and thinking not upon such subjects as math, homework, and Mr. So-and-so’s ever growing ear hair and anger management issues. As I aged, it became standard for next year’s teacher to start inflicting their power upon me by requiring me to read books and write reports, or work through workbooks I download off their class portal website. These teachers knew the key to empowering me to return to school still mentally strong and heaven-forbid, even smarter than when I left school last, was to keep my brain working through the vacation trips and long sleeping hours and dog days of summer.
What these teachers dealt with time and time again, before this system, was students returning to their classrooms having forgotten everything they’d learned the last few months. Students remembered waterslides instead of environmental watershed. They thought of finding animals in the clouds rather than understanding animals in biology. They only read menus at summer burger joints, and never felt the need to read a book.
But teachers are smart. They knew if they just employed homework to keep us in the game, we would walk in not only having not forgotten as much, but also having learned some new things. And this made the returning review take up a much shorter bit of the beginning of school year.
Here we are, going through a similar but more organic version of the iconic summer vacation when the industry we work in has natural declines in business activity. If you work with educators, you may actually have the iconic summer vacation from work as the educators enjoy their wine by the pool. Shop owners may notice an influx of business leading up to certain holidays and falling off after. For local-based marketers or designers, this ebb and flow may be relevant to the locale you are in, and flex around special events such as college home-coming or the huge city parade.
Your work flow may also flex in strength around your own marketing campaigns. Did your Facebook ad campaign recently stop running? Did you stop attending local networking events to participate in a sports league?
Dealing with the slowness
Regardless of the how you came to be in this slow season, your instinct may be to start freaking out. Initially, you start coping with the emptiness by checking in with all of your past clients that you enjoyed working with. You post ads for your work on all of the sites that allow you to do so for free. You may go to three new networking events every week with a stack of business cards, wishing you had remembered to order more before your funds started running low. Maybe you even go work at a friend or parent’s house to save on your own electricity costs.
This may bring in a gig or two, and if it doesn’t, you may be tempted to start dropping all of your prices—or worse come to worst, you may even check in with the past clients that were AWFUL to work with. But let’s take a step back real quick if you are almost there!
Understanding the cause
Let’s look at a few things to understand how you got into this position so we can prevent it from happening again. Note: This is not a thorough list of all possibilities obviously, but it is a few of the most common things I see happen with freelancers, so see if you can improve your business in any of these areas.
- Insufficient marketing system—Maybe your entire career has been based on-word of-mouth and you don’t want to “cheapen” yourself by advertising on the side of Facebook or your favorite blog. But it’s important to recognize that even referred people want to at least preemptively review who you are before they put their trust in you. Make yourself available online. Post some samples and information on an industry professionals site. Make a brochure or rack card that you can hand out when you meet people at a party or the park. Build a simple website, and learn the basics of SEO so you can incorporate a few high-rating words and be more findable. If you live to serve others, make yourself and your services available to them and don’t hide.
- Hibernating with no community intact—On the note of hiding, no man is an island. You cannot run your business without clients in some form. But also, your work can benefit from having people in your circle to relate to, your “community”: people to bounce ideas off, people in the same business but further along, people in connecting industries.
How do you build this community? In the same ways you might also naturally find new clients: participate. If you are a hermit and need to take it slow, start with joining an online forum and get involved. Or build it in to your calendar to attend at least one professional marketing event a month. Take a wing man if you are introverted, and find one group you really relate to and get to know them. Or rotate through different groups if you are more extroverted and want to spread your message all over the place.
- Failing to be interesting or relevant—This applies to your online representation as well as your IRL persona. And it boils down to tricks you learned as a kid to make friends. Be brave and approach others. Share. Ask questions and listen to others. Have opinions and don’t just agree like a zombie. Keep up with what is going on around you. Don’t be so private that no one feels like they know anything about you. Keep up with the people who are interested in pursuing a relationship with you.
What does this translate to, as an adult?
- Offer your experience-based opinions on forums to answer other’s questions.
- Ask people you met at networking events questions about their interests or opinions on the industry they work in.
- Share on social media samples of what you are working on or updates on your career and hobbies.
- Offer to take a mentor out to coffee so you can learn more from them.
Now that we have looked at some of the causes for the slow season, and aids to rebuild your business stability in the future, let’s talk about your summer homework. Rebuilding what currently feels broken in your business is a slow fix just like it was a slow break. It won’t happen overnight even if you spend 24 solid hours on it, and it will require your regular attention and returning commitment. But what will you fill the rest of your summer or slow season with?
As an artist, designer, developer, or other freelancer, you probably have a list a mile long of projects that you want to get to someday. You may have projects already started sitting in a proverbial box somewhere even. Pick one—maybe it’s cooking your way through the alphabet or drawing the collection of leaves you found on vacation with the kids last summer. Maybe it’s even developing a plan for the business you want to start when you are ready to retire from your current career. What you choose doesn’t really matter.
Don’t worry about who will see it or what they will think. This isn’t for clients. This isn’t for customers. It is for keeping your own brain sharp. It’s for taking your mind off of the frustration of boredom and slowness, and employing it to accomplish something so that it does not become atrophied.
Choose something that interests or, dare I say, excites you enough to make a commitment to. Treat the project like it IS for a client and take it serious. Someday you could turn this project into something more like a product for your shop or a new service you offer your public. It could even be in a museum or spoken about by your peers. Maybe it will even go down in family history books.
But for now, your summer project is going to help you grow into a more interesting person with a sharp mind and new motivation.