How do you know when you’ve “made it” as a freelancer? To borrow a sports metaphor: when your bench is as deep as your starting lineup.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked hard to get to the point where I knew clients would ask me for roughly $5,000 worth of work each month. With that benchmark spread out among a number of clients, I hit a level of financial security that is about as good as it gets for freelancers.
But even with that relative security, no client is permanent. I’ve worked for publications that have unexpectedly shut down. Others cut staff—including freelancers—all the time. I’ve also had to deal with clients that reduce the number of freelance stories they publish every month, which takes a toll on my income.
So whenever these situations come up—and they always do—I turn to a second group of clients that are very important to my career. I call them the B Team.
When I was new to freelancing, I couldn’t rank clients into tiers. I was trying to earn enough money to support myself, so at that point, anyone who could pay me was a member of the core team. However, once I started to hit those income goals and be more selective, I began to strategize when and how to fit clients into my schedule.
This type of strategy serves two purposes.
First, it allows you to focus the most on your best clients—the ones who pay well and on time, are easy to work with, and give you an opportunity to focus on the stories you enjoy the most.
Second, it helps you maintain loose relationships with the clients you can team up with for one-off assignments. If you’re always busy with bedrock clients, you can lose contact with the other editors and clients you used to work with, but those are the people who you’ll need to turn to for extra income during any lulls.
I keep a lot of data on my month-to-month progress, which includes each client with whom I have a writing relationship, as well as how much I can expect to earn from each client per month. In August, I’m anticipating roughly $5,300 from my current client roster, assuming I don’t take any vacation days. However, this figure isn’t static. Even if there aren’t any cutbacks, one client could still ask me to hold off on submitting a piece until next month to align with a certain news peg.
So below my list of primary clients, I write out the B Team. Unlike the majority of my A Team clients, I do not have any formal (or informal) agreement to write for them on a regular basis. Instead, I pitch them when I have a good idea, and they usually accept the pitch. No matter how many publishers you work with on a regular basis, odds are you’ll come up with pitches that would fit better elsewhere.
For people who work more traditional jobs, the consensus is to look for your next position while you’re still employed. That way, you’ll have some financial protection during the process in case you can’t find more work right away. For freelancers, it’s much easier to pursue a new client. You don’t have to sneak out of the office to go on an interview and make excuses when you return; all you have to do is send out some emails.
As Brent Weaver of the web professional development site uGurus explains, this strategy also protects freelancers against long-term clients who ask you to work for a reduced rate:
If you have five potential customers waiting in the wings, it becomes ever so easy to say, “Thank you for the opportunity to work with you, but if you aren’t able to afford my services, I need to open up this project time to my next client.”
If one of my main clients disappears for whatever reason, I can ramp up a B Team client to fill in the gap. If you wait until something bad happens to start pursuing new leads, you’re already too late. The structure adds another dimension of control to your career. And when figuring out who to keep on your bench, it’s worth thinking about how easy it would be to turn a temporary client into a permanent replacement. That factor might even be more important than the rate. Because if a client can offer you $300 for one assignment per month versus $250 for one assignment per week, the flat rate doesn’t really mean as much.
So as you plan the remainder of your year, thinking about filling out your roster. Having great players on the field is important, but without a deep bench, they’ll only take you so far.
Nicole Dieker loves both her of teams, just in different ways. If you have a question for Ask A Freelancer, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.