As clients start to cancel freelance contracts, Sian Meades-Williams explains what to do when you lose a large chunk of your income.
Q: I’ve just lost a couple of big clients due to coronavirus and I’m really worried about what to do next. It was unexpected so I haven’t planned for it and my savings are sparse. I don’t have anything in the pipeline and work is quiet for everyone in my industry at the moment – what can I do?
Sian says: First things first: it is entirely 100% reasonable to have a bit of a cry.
Losing clients, under any circumstances, is scary. As freelancers we have a certain amount of freedom in our work, but the truth is we also quite like it when we’re on familiar ground, when there’s a little bit of stability.
It’s natural to panic when the rug gets pulled out from under us.
It’s also hard not to take it personally, especially if we’ve lost a client we had a good working relationship with. Steve Foland, founder of the Being Freelance podcast, understands how hard this is and says “you have to believe in yourself and your abilities. It’s not your fault.”
Being on shaky ground makes it difficult for us to work at our best. I’m still mortified to admit that I once panicked-pitched an editor seven ideas in one email. I have never looked more desperate.
However, now when I’m low on work, I tackle things with a three-step approach.
1. Practical tasks
Your first job is to outline the tasks that are practical. Take stock of the situation. Look at how much money you’ve got in the bank and determine what’s outstanding. Follow up on unpaid invoices and keep track of work that you’ve still got on your to-do list.
When you know where you stand, you can focus on the most pressing situation: finding more work. Start with your current clients. Don’t assume they’ll have nothing. We’re all juggling seventeen things a second under normal circumstances and if you’ve not popped in their inbox for a while you might not be at the front of their mind. It’s easy to change that.
Next should be tasks that help you get more work quickly: send pitches, apply for new jobs. There are times when this will feel futile, but you are only in control of what you do. Keep going.
“Look at any overheads you have now that you can cut back on to help financially now. Reach out to past clients,” says Steve. “And keep putting yourself out there online so that people see you and think of you for work. And in the background over time, build up a buffer of money so you’re more protected next time it happens. Which sadly, at some point, it likely will.”
When you have done all of the practical things to the best of your ability, stop. You cannot magic jobs up by checking every jobs board or newsletter sixteen times a day. You will go a bit mad if you refresh your inbox every minute. That spiral quickly leads to panic.
2. Helpful tasks
Next up, part two of your plan: tasks that are helpful.
Your tasks here depend on your own circumstances. When was the last time you updated your website? How many recent projects are in your portfolio? Do you have PDFs of your work? Is your LinkedIn current? If there are holes in your CV or online profile, fix them. Now’s the time to send speculative emails to companies you love. You won’t feel like you’re doing the right thing because it’s not immediate money, but these tasks help Future You immeasurably.
When you’ve done all of these things, stop.
3. Aspirational tasks
Now it’s time for tasks that are aspirational. Crack out the dream work – the project you’ve been putting off for ages. My newsletter Freelance Writing Jobs came out of not having enough work. Huge chunks of my novel get written when my to-do list is a little sparse. The aim here is for the dream work to eventually become the actual work. But only when you’ve done the things on your list that keep the wolves from the door.
I cannot tell you how lovely it is to get a commission and not notice immediately because you were busy writing the novel you’ve been planning for over a year or you’re in the middle of sending another pitch. Half of the battle with freelancing is keeping the panic at bay, and keeping busy helps enormously. Losing work is always tough, but it’s part and parcel of freelancing.
One thing that’s true of all freelancers is that we are resilient. However tough things might be, we dust ourselves off and keep going. But don’t forget to stop for chips – that’s crucial, too.