When freelance work dries up

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 12:50 Erika Baker

Freelance Work

The perennial fear of freelancers and owners of small businesses

We all know that freelance work comes in peaks and troughs, and the cheerful advice to people experiencing an extended period of low or no enquiries is to enjoy the unexpected free time as a bonus. Translators are asked to improve their skills, engage in some CPD, do some marketing to find new clients, or even start to learn a new language! Alternatively, they could just enjoy long dog walks or that extra time to start decorating.

Talking to a number of people who have recently been through an extended period of little or no work, ranging from 2 weeks to 3 months, the reality is quite different.

Financial worries

The reality is that while a few unexpected days of no work can be a real joy, an extended and unspecified period is first and foremost a worry. Not many freelancers have financial reserves to cover months of no income. Most are lucky if they can find enough money to cover one or two months’ worth of bills.

The knock-on effect can be substantial. Losing several thousand pounds can be evened out over a whole year, but it is clear that not everything is right again as soon as work returns. Depending on the client, invoices can have due dates ranging from “now” to “90 days net”, so cash flow will be affected for months to come.

A big headache for many freelancers and micro businesses are the January and July tax bills. Most put a regular sum aside every month to make sure they have the whole bill covered by the time the tax is due.

If a dearth of work means strained finances, it may not be possible to save the required amount, and the amount owed to the tax account increases. Worse, when other bills are more immediately due, it is tempting to “borrow” money from tax savings to plug the gaps. Children need new shoes and school uniforms and tax date is a long way off, after all.

Any holiday plans may have to be cancelled. It’s impossible to take off even more time after an enforced break. Lost income has to be made up for and adding another week or two of not being available to take on work can be financial suicide.

Avoid panic reactions

Far from enjoying the unexpected time off, most translators and small business owners sit in the office quietly panicking, checking emails every half hour and staring at the phone.

Fears mount – will work ever return? Have my best clients deserted me?

The temptation is to go on a quick hunt for new clients, to offer work at reduced prices and even to add another service to your portfolio to get income. Translators diversifying into offering voice‑overs, coaching or online teaching can be part of a long-term business and career development plan, but is not a good panic response to no work coming in.

Reducing prices is particularly tempting and damaging. There is already an enormous pressure on prices and for many translators, CAT tools, machine translation and cheap competition from abroad have resulted in much lower prices over the las ten years. Once you enter the lower price range market, it is very very hard to get out of it again.

It’s never wrong to develop new clients, especially well-paying and long-term ones. It’s good to have a broad client base so that work continues to come in when one or two big clients fall away for a variety of reasons.

But client acquisition should be a part of planned and structured marketing, not a sudden panic move. The danger is that when work returns to normal, it will be impossible to keep up with existing and new clients and having to turn down too much work. That can be quite damaging to a company’s reputation – just think of all the gardeners and handy-men leaflet dropping in a new area only to be overwhelmed by the level of enquiries not being able to respond to everyone. Their reputation as “steady and reliable” is in shreds before they’ve even started.

What to do - Freelance work

  1. Engage in some targeted marketing but to the right clients.
  2. Send a note to all your existing customers telling them that you are available for work. If you have had to turn down work in the past, they may assume you are too busy and will not think of contacting you. Make sure you don’t sound desperate but just friendly!
  3. Use the time for networking, for improving your website, for CDP and for getting to grip with that new software,  but focus on activities that can be stopped at short notice when work returns.
  4. Take a good look at your industry. Is your lack of work a sign of lasting change that you have missed? Do you need to think of specialising more or exploring a different niche market? Periods of low work are a good opportunity to take a step back and get an overall view of your business and the market you’re operating in.
  5. Do take a look at your prices – but not in order to lower them. When have you last increased your rates for your existing clients? It’s counterintuitive, but this is the time to consider writing to them all announcing a price rise from next January. It’s surprising how many accept this without a problem, despite the generally perceived downward pressure on prices.
  6. If you’re not a natural networker, try to get to grips with social media. Plenty of work now comes through networking on Facebook and Twitter. And it doesn’t take too long to feel comfortable in that environment. It also helps to ease the loneliness of sitting in the office worrying.
  7. Breathe…. It will all come right again in the end.