Freelance life: what to do when the work dries up

Shit, meet fan. Now what?

I’ve been supremely blessed for most of my freelance life. By dint of a wide professional network (I’m old, OK?), some lucky breaks and — I’ll own it — being pretty good at what I do, I’ve never had to work all that hard at selling my services as a copywriter and content marketing consultant. Repeat work and referrals have always been plentiful; proposals to new prospects had a seriously good conversion rate. The part of freelancing that most people find the biggest drag of all was, for me, easy.

Until it wasn’t.

Around six months ago, I noticed that my pipeline was looking a little lacklustre to say the least. No problem, I thought, the summer’s almost upon us and that’s always quiet. I’ll fix it after the summer. The summer happened. I went on holiday, devoted some time to household projects and completed a few client engagements. But when September rolled around, it dawned on me: technically, I had no clients. No active contracts, projects or retainers. No live prospects, even.

Nothing. Nada. Crickets.

The Crunch

I knew why. Last year, I was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. I took six months off work — more-or-less the freelance equivalent of throwing yourself off a cliff. I remember the week I was diagnosed, I had to tell a brand new client I couldn’t continue to work on his project. It was literally painful to say the words; I hated cutting an interesting and top-dollar project short. Plus it was counter-intuitive. Part of my success until then had been down to never saying no, always finding a way. This time, there was simply no way.

My clients were great. They were shocked (OK, I’m not that old; cancer at 39 sucks) but they understood. My biggest client told me they’d wait for me, that there would always be plenty of work for me and that my health was the priority. That was a huge comfort as I waited to get better, even though the very un-act of not working felt, to me, terrifyingly submissive. The truth was, though, as I retreated to the background to deal with my health, I dropped off the radar.

And a year later, I was feeling the after-effects of that hiatus where it hurt the most. Because of course, the thing about freelance business and pipelines is momentum. Sales bring more sales. Great projects attract more projects. Take the momentum away and you’re back to square one.

This had never happened to me before — even when I was starting out, things just seemed to fall into place — and there was no blueprint for recovery. But when you reach a point like this in your business, it’s pivotal. Make or break.

Essentially, you have two choices: do what you’ve always done, probably with more intensity and urgency — or radically re-think everything.

And the one thing I knew for sure was this: you don’t survive cancer, only to keep living the way you were. It was time to kick up some mud.

The Pivot

I was swimming in an empty pool, late at night, when I finally felt it. A sensation I’d been missing, ever since I fell ill. Excitement. It was swiftly followed by ambition, another old friend gone AWOL. The thing that sparked it was a simple thought along the lines of I want to remind people what I’m good at. My next thought was, so I’ll demonstrate it. By the end of my swim, the concept for The State of Content was born.

I’d decided to design and author an industry report about content — exactly my business area — in which I’d interview great brands, offer my opinions and insights about the state of content and prove my creds at actually creating awesome content. The old me would have gone it alone, but I instinctively knew that I would get 100X more out of the experience if I were to collaborate on it. So I approached two people I admire and told them my idea. They loved it, and it’s happening.

Collaboration was a major element of the pivot for me, because up until now, it just hasn’t been my way of working. This whole new dynamic of three smart, raring-to-go personalities is challenging, enlightening and exciting in equal measure. Collaborating pushes me to be better, partly because I don’t want to let anyone down and partly because I don’t want there to be a weakest link. It’s working, I think, because together, we are definitely far more than the sum of our parts.

The second part of the pivot was even bigger. Because I believe so deeply in The State of Content and using it as a way to look more strategically at how brands create and use content, I realised that this is the kind of work I want to do more of. Fewer piecemeal projects, less transactional copywriter work. More content strategy, more thought leadership and content programmes, more teaching brands how to plan and create content for themselves.

This is where I come alive and get excited. This is work that means something to me.

Only problem was, my existing business brand didn’t reflect this — it was far more geared to fast-and-furious content creation. Hello, new business name, comprehensive business plan and full re-brand on a shoestring. My new website launches in the shout-about-it sense this week, but you can see it here. Wisdom & True is all about unlocking brand wisdom and making it into content that has purpose and power. It feels so much more authentic for this version of me, and I’m excited to tell my clients and network about it.

But that’s not all.

The Upshot

A business dry spell, it turns out, is a god-given opportunity to rethink everything. I know for certain that my dry spell happened for reasons other than my health; if I had been truly happy and fulfilled in my work, I’d have made sure nothing dried up once I returned to the fray. I’d have had the energy to drive up more of the same work.

Instead, the hiatus gave me the time and opportunity to feel dissatisfied and uninspired. The crisis motivated me to change things. The upshot is that I’ve learned that my energy, in the sense of what fuels me and recharges me, is a pretty good barometer of what I should be doing — if it fires me up, that’s where I need to be.

And that leads me to another thing. Back in the summer, I challenged myself to start a side hustle in a maximum of 5 hours per week. Low-cost, low-commitment, low-risk, invent a new business that’s nothing to do with content and marketing. My concept gives me immense energy because it’s something totally different — a gutsy brand selling products online, with a social good focus — but I never took it too seriously. It was a side hustle, after all.

Until I did.

You see, the more I told people about it, the more great feedback I got and the more excited I became. And then I felt that thing again: ambition. My gut told me to think big and my side hustle is now a 50% project rather than a 10% project. It’s still in its early stages, but I’m using what I’ve learned with The State of Content and making sure I ask for (and accept) help and support. You know what? I’m starting to quite like this collaboration thing.

I’ll be straight: work is only just starting to trickle back in, but I’m optimistic. Some kind of momentum is back, along with vision and genuine excitement about how I spend my days. I’m focussing on work that I find meaningful, rather than just accepting anything that comes my way.

From passive to active.

But the biggest lesson of all, I’ve learned, is that when a dry spell hits, the message life is trying to send you isn’t, hey keep doing more of what you’ve always been doing. Nope. This professional record scratch moment is an invitation to evolve.

A freelance dry spell feels deeply uncomfortable. But if you’re willing to sit that discomfort out, look at it from all angles and be open to the opportunities it hints at, that dry spell can be the biggest gift of all to your freelance life.

19 things to do when you have a business dry spell:

  • Don’t panic, obviously, but also don’t ignore it
  • Look back through previous years’ sales to understand if this is part of a trend — and if you don’t have a pipeline tracker to help you do that, now’s the time to start one. An Excel sheet will do.
  • Revisit your business plan: is it on track? Is it still relevant or do you need to re-think aspects of it?
  • Dream up your ideal project, one that makes you tingle. When was the last time you did a project like that? Who might engage you to do a project like that? Envision it, design it, try and sell it. Why the hell not?
  • Ask past clients for testimonials to a) remind yourself how great you are and b) remind them how great you are
  • Spruce up or redesign your website, especially if you’ve de-hashed your business plan or re-thought the services you could offer
  • Create some content that you find interesting and that your clients may like — an ebook, blog post series, video or how-to guide
  • Revisit your business processes and look for ways to improve — is your bookkeeping service doing a good job or is now the time to look further afield? What about subscriptions you don’t need? Or your mobile plan — could it be cheaper?
  • Get your admin in order: filing, accounts, inbox discipline, all that jazz that goes to shit when you’re busy
  • Invite your clients to a short planning and ideas session for the year/quarter ahead to chat about their plans and hash out potential requirements for your services
  • Make a list of every contact you have and plan to make a meaningful interaction with them in a set period of time — this could be announcing a new website, telling people about a new service, sharing a blog post or relevant article, or just planning a social catch-up
  • If you’re not usually active there, get back on LinkedIn and join in the conversation. Update your profile, recommend some people and hopefully they’ll recommend you back. But the main thing is, it reminds people you’re there and you care
  • Consider seeking out some collaboration opportunities with other freelancers who have clients, but need skills like yours
  • Learn something new that’ll help you do what you do better, or in a different way — podcasts and books for the time-poor, an online course or training event if you’ve more time and budget
  • Talk it through with someone you respect and trust
  • Make some financial cuts if you need to, but don’t slip into a scarcity mindset—there’s enough work and cash to go round, seriously
  • Be kind to yourself and have faith—this is an opportunity
  • For the love of all that is holy, do not start comparing yourself to the perceived success of your peers — be humble enough to accept that this is a rough patch and committed enough to know that you’ll prevail