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Freelancing Through a Crisis –  8 Rules for Staying Recession-Proof

Here's how I've made my freelance business untouchable by economic downturn.

Knock on wood and fingers crossed — so far I’ve had no ill-effects on my freelance earnings due to the uncertainty caused by COVID-19. Even if the economic impacts last for months or years, as expected, I’m confident my company of one will weather the recession, just as it did during the GFC of 2008–9.

I don’t plan on taking a government hand-out because my freelance business is going to thrive. Our new reality has caused a lot of self-reflection, and I’ve been pondering what I’ve done (and am doing) to keep my independent design business healthy through turbulent times.

Here’s my advice — backed by direct personal experience of 18 years freelancing — to keep your indie business booming while everyone else hunkers down in survival mode. I will expand on these ideas:

  1. Be an irreplaceable expert (a partner, not a commodity)
  2. Work on critical projects (the kind that don’t get cancelled)
  3. Turn uncertainty into opportunity
  4. Leverage your network (you have one, right?)
  5. Adapt services & diversify income streams
  6. Work on your business (not just in your business)
  7. Adjust your definition of success
  8. The benefit of hustling through a crisis (explosive recovery)

Be an irreplaceable expert

Be a partner, not a commodity.

This isn’t something you simply decide to do and the transformation happens overnight. It’s a reputation and perception that you need to earn and build with every client relationship.

There’s nothing more important. Remaining valuable in a recession relies on standing out from the crowd and being your client’s #1 choice.

An expert is a master of their craft — that’s a given. Whether you’re a designer, developer, writer, strategist, data scientist, or anything else, your self-employed career is going nowhere unless you’re devoted to becoming better than most others at what you do.

What many people underestimate is that freelancers must also be consummate professionals. Expert businessmen and women who can work autonomously and manage their details like a pro. Mastery of your craft is worthless if you can’t also master the processes used to sell and deliver that craft — as meaningful business value — to your clients. Don’t fall short on the soft-skills.

Bringing trust and reliability to each team you join is key, because it earns your client’s confidence, which is needed to land the lucrative projects that will keep you at work.

Companies are trimming workforces to prepare for tougher times and the employees left are handed extra responsibilities to pick up the slack. All while working from home where they may feel less productive than they’re used to. Just this week one such client of mine thanked me for being so self-managed that she could trust me with the details and spend her mental energy on other tasks.

They won’t trust those details to anyone but an expert.

Work on critical projects

The kind that don’t get cancelled.

You’ve heard the stories of projects being cancelled left and right. Businesses scared to pull the trigger (or too quick to pull the plug) in such uncertain times. Having freelance work yanked out from under you is one of the toughest scheduling issues you’ll ever encounter, and it’s happening to countless freelancers right now.

It’s not happening to me.

In fact, the pandemic has only strengthened the resolve of my current clients to double their efforts to deliver faster and better.

Why? Because I’m working on mission-critical projects.

They are projects that have been in planning for months and already budgeted for this quarter. They are flagship, brand-building products that my clients simply can’t live without. They are “pot-committed” as they say in poker — too much already invested to fold now.

There are plenty of WordPress blogs, bootstrapped side-projects, and brochure sites — nice to have’s but not necessities — being cancelled today. What’s not being cancelled are the B2B enterprise cloud software and API projects; the mobile app MVPs from venture-backed tech startups; the design system realignment of critical national infrastructure providers.

To land work that’s too important to cancel — from clients that are too strong to fold — you need the reputation of an expert. You want to be the trusted problem-solver they can’t live without because their projects are too important to fail.

Turn uncertainty into opportunity

When financial uncertainty arises, most businesses pull in their heads and hunker down into survival mode. They become risk-averse and revert back to their safest and smallest position until normalcy returns.

We may never get back to “normal”. Don’t wait for it. It’s time to define your new normal.

While other’s are playing it safe, savvy businesses take advantage and do the opposite. As an agile company of one, you’re in a better position than most to jump on new opportunities and take small short-term risks for long-term gains. Now could be a time to gobble up market share, or innovate when nobody is expecting it.

Look for clients with the same mindset. There are still plenty of businesses out there who aren’t afraid to go big during a recession. They are your ideals partners.

Leverage your network to fill the gaps

Freelancers have always been in a prime position to act as stopgaps for larger agencies whose internal capacity can’t cope with temporary demand spikes.

Now that many of those organizations have downsized to stay lean — or cut junior talent that don’t have the self-management skills to autonomously work from home — there will be more gaps to fill. Put yourself in a position to fill them.

Reach out to your existing contacts to let them know when you’re next available. Even if they don’t have work right now, it will put your name into their awareness for when they need to call on external help. With so much uncertainty in the air, that call could be sooner than you think.

Every time my calendar is looking light one month into the future, I shoot off an email to a select handful of contacts and likely partners — and without fail, more replies and potential jobs come back than I can handle. Your network should work this hard for you too.

If you don’t have a tribe of colleagues and contacts, it’s never too late to start building one. Nurture long-term relationships at every opportunity. Your network is your freelance lifeline. The deeper it goes, the more opportunities it will deliver when you fall on tough times.

Adapt services & diversify income streams

Has the lack of face-to-face interaction stifled some of your most lucrative services? Don’t fret, you’d be surprised at how well you can continue those offerings with a small adjustment to new technologies. Group planning workshops, user testing, collaboration in writing, design, or code — these are all being done effectively online by teams who’ve embraced digital tools.

Take this time to adapt your strongest services into new forms so they stay as efficient as ever no matter how you have to deliver them. “Because we’ve always done it this way” is an excuse you can’t allow to hold you back.

And while you’re restructuring your processes, explore how you can diversify them too. Can your years of experience be turned into online mentoring or training? Can you write a book, build a digital product, or sell a new packaged e-service that’s adjacent to your existing area of expertise?

Start building small complementary income streams as side-hustles. For me, writing on Medium is one of them. Even if they’re very modest at the beginning, it’s a safety net you didn’t have before. It’s an insurance policy or fallback plan that might be the difference between merely surviving and thriving.

Work on your business

Not just in your business.

If work gets slow, don’t mope around like a sad sack, or frantically jump on cheap marketplaces like Upwork or Fiverr to scrap for the first shitty gig that fills the void.

Use your downtime productively to improve your business. Invest in yourself.

Could you be updating your branding or marketing language? Does your website need a refresh? How can you improve your client acquisition pipeline and communication process? Could you adjust your business structure or financial processes? Are there new tools you could learn? New side-projects to start?

Running a freelance business requires wearing 100 hats. When your creative hat is off, play the marketing, strategy, or accounting role. There’s always something valuable you could be doing that will put your company in a stronger position for future growth. Most of us fail to spend enough time on business development because we’re too busy with client work. When the client work slows down, you should already know your next area of business improvement to focus on.

Adjust your definition of success

Be realistic with yourself and your clients.

Times are not normal, and despite how well-prepared we are, it may be unrealistic to assume things can carry on as they have. 80% of your existing income might be good enough — there are plenty of other’s who’ve had no choice but to take a pay cut to keep their jobs, and us freelancers aren’t excluded.

It starts with being honest with yourself. Set new definitions for success that ease the pressure to perform at 100% all the time. If you’re working from home when you’re not used to, allow yourself an adjustment period to find your rhythm. If you’ve got family and kids suffering cabin fever at home too, set aside the extra time away from work needed to keep your household in peace.

A happy and healthy family is more important than squeaking out an extra few percentages of revenue just so you can keep pace with the old normal.

Remember, your clients are likely going through the same struggles themselves, and should understand when you say your turnaround time may be slower than usual. Don’t give a false impression that it’s business as usual if it really isn’t. If they’re not empathetic, they aren’t clients you want to keep anyway. Losing a bad client is a win not a loss, because it opens up your capacity to gain a good one.

The benefit of hustling through a crisis

If these freelance tips help you stay afloat when you would have gone under, that’s fantastic. But even more than that, they have the potential to let you rocket up your post-recession recovery faster than everyone else.

Those who play it safe and are slow to adapt will also be slow to recover. Those who use this opportunity to pivot and transform their companies of one into lean, focused, diverse, and professional business machines will come out the other side being even more resilient than before — a huge head-start on the competition who will only just be peeking their heads out of their shells.

If you manage to keep your projects steady, your income up, and your family well, you may even be able to build some capital for a savvy investment — a growth asset that will propel your recovery even faster. Index funds, gold, property, digital currency — whatever it may be that hits rock bottom in the coming recession — will you be in a position to take advantage?

If your freelance business has the foundation for recession-proof success, imagine how well it will go when the world starts spending again.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.