For most freelancers, contractors, indie creatives, and entrepreneurs, not having enough work is our greatest fear. Worrying about where our next clients and projects will come from is an unending source of stress.
I was like that for years. But now I have another kind of stress: I have too much work. I’m in high-demand, and I find it difficult to choose which projects to take on and which to decline. Yep, that sounds like a pretty privileged, first-world type of business problem to have, but it’s real. Let me explain.
I’ve spent years giving my best effort day-to-day, keeping my head down and enjoying exceeding my client’s expectations at every turn with extreme professionalism. I’ve grown my design skills, reputation, portfolio, and network of connections to a point where I very rarely have to go looking for work. Plenty of if comes to me through long-term repeat clients, word-of-mouth referrals, organic search results, or even people stumbling across my modest Dribbble account. After 17 years of building this business, it sounds like freelance perfection, and for the most part it is. But it’s not without its own problems.
You can’t please everyone, sometimes not even old friends.
I’ve been working with some of my current clients for 9–10 years or longer. When a long-term client like that comes knocking at your door with some more work, you want to help them out. You’ve already established an awesome relationship of trust, maybe even friendship, and you want that to continue for as long as the relationship is still enjoyable and valuable to your business. You shift around your schedule to accommodate them as best as you can, right? That’s bread & butter work. Other people will kill for that, so you can’t pass it up, can you?
What happens when two or three of those long terms clients all come to you at the same time, and you want to please them all? What happens if, simultaneously, you have two exciting new potential clients that you want to engage with, but all of their projects overlap the same slot of availability in your schedule. Suddenly in you’re in a position where you have to decline at least half that work, even if all of it is interesting stuff that you don’t want to pass up. You have to say no, even to some of those valued long-term clients who you’ve never let down before.
It becomes a constant balancing act of accepting ongoing, repeat-client work, while leaving enough room to be available for exciting, new, creatively diverse work that comes along.
That’s tough. It’s not financially rough, in the way that being short on work can be. I’m making good money each month on a regular basis.
However, it’s emotionally rough, it’s mentally draining, and it’s a potential professional dilemma. When you’ve worked so hard for so many years to establish trust and reputation, the last thing you want to do is tarnish that by letting a good client down. But as you become more successful and in-demand, these situations are inevitable.
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Four days ago I got back from my summer family holiday, and did the customary post-vacation dive into accumulated emails and new projects leads. I usually get through that backlog in the first day, and start focusing on creative work for the rest of the week.
This time it’s taken almost the entire week working on scheduling, client meetings, and coordinating new project leads. I’m writing this on Friday and I’ve still yet to do a significant amount of creative client work all week. Instead, I’ve been stressing out about my schedule, doing my best to consolidate project briefs and finesse timelines, and dreading which of my great clients I’m going to have to turn down.
Some of these clients may wait. They want to work with me badly enough, that they’ll be flexible until me availability improves. That’s the best-case scenario, and I’m lucky enough to have it happen frequently.
But other won’t wait. They have a legitimate reason for a firm deadline. If I can’t make it work on their schedule, I’m out.
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I don’t compromise on quality
Here’s where it get’s sticky for me. I fear overcommitting just as much as I fear having a lack of work. I pride myself in delivering world-class quality to each and every one of my clients — it’s that reputation that’s attracted them to me in the first place. I very consciously accept only a couple of projects as once, so each one can get adequate attention and commitment. I keep an exacting schedule of project timelines to make sure I’m maximising my time without letting any project slip. So I never overbook myself. I never try to squeeze in that extra project that I know I don’t really have time for. I simply won’t put myself in a position where I have to compromise work quality, or compromise my quality of life.
That leaves me with no choice but to say “no” a lot. I turn down work — good work — all the time. Work I wish I could do. Work I would accept if I could only clone myself to double my output.
It’s a luxury, no doubt, because I have the ability to be choosy about my clients and only accept projects that align with my strengths, interests, and values. But it’s also a curse. It makes scheduling a constant source of stress. It makes me think there must be something I can be doing better.
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Raise your rates, stupid!
I’m failing to take my own advice about pricing, and despite my high demand, I haven’t been raising my rates aggressively.
Most of my new clients are on a fairly high rate already. Probably reaching a plateau of what I can command as a one-person consultant. Some of my older clients are still on lower rates, and I should be doing better at bringing those up inline with my highest-margin clients.
Some of my clients are on weekly retainers, while other are simple billed by the hour. I dislike project-based pricing and have yet to completely crack the challenges of value-based pricing.
If I raised my rates substantially, would it solve my problem? Maybe. But it might cut out some of my cherished older clients who I don’t want to push out the door just yet. It may also steer my pool of potential clients too far into one industry (tech, apps, etc.), cutting out many of the smaller boutique businesses that I love working for.
I’m not convinced that raising my rates is the solution to this problem, but it may be one tool as part of a solution.
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How to grow? Do I even need to grow?
Two days ago I was chatting with a new potential collaborator and the topic of growth came up. I described how I’ve struggled for years with how I should grow my freelance business. My reputation is such a large part of my business, that I find it hard to trust any other person to carry on the same type of work and professionalism. At least I haven’t come across that person yet, so I’ve never seriously considered hiring someone to expand beyond my team of one.
If I did find just the right person I could trust, that would increase my capacity, allowing me to accept more overlapping jobs. It would spare me the pain of turning down valued repeat work or exciting new projects that don’t align with my availability.
But it also means I have to keep that double capacity full ALL THE TIME. I’m definitely not ready for that yet. I’m not keen on becoming a manager instead of a hands-on creative. And I’m not excited about the prospect of having to increase marketing efforts to bring in a regular supply of twice as much work. I like to spend my time creating, with as little admin and marketing as possible.
The whole point of this is to decrease stress and difficult choices. Not add to them.
As I sat there talking to this new contact, we both came to the conclusion that maybe growth isn’t necessary at all. Certainly not just for the sake of growth. But even as a solution to this problem, and as a means to generate more revenue, growth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s perfectly fine to remain a solo consultant forever.
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Where does that leave me?
Perhaps I’m whining about a problem that isn’t really a problem. Maybe I should feel content and blessed that my hard work and luck have led me to a place in my career where the privilege of having too much choice in clients is considered a problem worth stressing about.
One thing I’ve learned in the business of indie creative work is that you must always be learning, improving, and increasing efficiency, otherwise you’ll stagnate and be left in the dust. I can’t help but feel that there’s a good solution to this problem that would take my business to the next level. But I’ve yet to unlock it.
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This story can also be found on solowork.co