How a Dead Client Changed My Freelance Career

By Shane Snow June 20th, 2014

It was fall 2008 when I got the phone call. It was a teary man named Pete I’d never met. “I’m Joann’s husband,” he choked out. And then: “She’s dead.”

Joann was my biggest client. Actually, my only client.

I’d been surviving month-to-month as a freelance graphic designer for almost a year after moving to O’ahu, a place I’d figured was as good as any to be working online. My rent had tripled with my move from the mainland, but fortunately, Honolulu had recently built a Sam’s Club, so my wife and I were able to survive on gigantic bags of white rice and cheap local fruit. Her minimum wage from selling vegan soaps at Ala Moana mall paid for the rice. And each month, we managed cash flow by floating rent on a credit card and then paying the card down when a client paid me.

For the last few months before I got the call, I’d spent most of my time making an e-commerce website for Joann’s educational Game Boy game. After major scope creep and far too many revisions, my effective hourly rate on the project was abysmal, but I still needed the money. And the longer the project dragged on, the more I needed it. Spending so much time on Joann’s project had prevented me from finding other clients, and as a result, I had counted this financial chicken before it hatched.

It’s hard to know what to say to someone who’s just announced his wife died. I can’t imagine how wrecked I’d be in his shoes. But while Pete sobbed about Joann’s lung problems and how he didn’t know what to do next, all I could think about was the $1,600 she owed me.

I told myself I should have seen it coming. At the start of the project, when I opened the envelope containing the video game Joann mailed, a cloud of tobacco smoke belched into my living room. But it wasn’t really my fault for taking on a chainsmoking client; the real freelancer faux pas was, to use another chicken metaphor, putting all my eggs in the chainsmoker’s basket.

Once the shock subsided, I had to climb out of the hole. So I started taking on more clients—and vowed to work with larger companies rather than individuals or small business. Diversifying my client roster as a freelancer yielded more than financial security: I received more referrals by doing smaller projects with lots of clients than bigger projects with fewer clients. Simply raising my rates helped me sell larger clients as easily as I’d sold smaller ones. And oddly, I found that larger companies were less demanding than smaller ones.

I had been selling myself short. Sure, I’d needed to start at the bottom with small clients and low rates to establish a portfolio and credibility, but I didn’t need to linger at the bottom any longer than it took me to perfect a single project. So I started chasing bigger clients as soon as I finished a project with a smaller client—until I was working with Samsung and the United Nations. Think of it as the freelancing ladder.

After all that, I decided to become a journalist. Presently, I help run Contently, a tech company that helps freelancers help themselves and occasionally gets them work with brand publishers who need software and talent scouting. But I still freelance on the side, mostly because I love it. But perhaps there’s a part of me that subconsciously knows when you’re building your own career, anything can happen—or more importantly, that diversifying your workload can make you more creative and successful.

And when possible, I make my clients pay up front.

Image by Olly
Tags: , ,