Resisting the Urge to Panic

One of the things about freelancing that people complain about is the “feast or famine cycle.” It seems like you’re either covered in work, getting up early and staying up late, struggling to meet all the deadlines or you’ve only got an hour or two of work to fill each day. There are plenty of strategies to beat the feast or famine cycle, but it’s still likely to happen now and again to everyone.

This morning, I got up, did a short yoga practice and came to my desk ready to get the work done. But there wasn’t really any work to do! Even after a dozen years of running this business, I encounter hills and valleys. Mostly, I don’t fret about them anymore. In this post, I discuss why I don’t fret and what I do instead.

Keep a list of tasks for slow times

Slow times can be scary

There are always going to be things that you put to the side when it’s busy. Slow times are great for working on projects. Maybe you have a course you want to develop, or you’re building a database for marketing. Perhaps you have a personal project you often neglect. Have you always wanted to publish a series of e-books? Maybe you’re working on a novel.

I’ve started keeping a list of things to do when it’s slow. They are all things I want to get done, but usually feel like I don’t have time to do. Some of them are work-related, many are not. This week, I plan to do some business planning, research a couple of potential niche areas, and maybe start building my marketing spreadsheet for this year (yeah, I’m behind on that!). I also plan on doing some big work in my garden, making some progress on a decluttering project, and deep cleaning my bathroom.

Plans and lists keep me steady



Reach out to past clients

I’ve worked with hundreds of clients in the last few years, and am guilty of not staying in touch when my work-focus changes or I find new, higher-paying clients. That’s not good business for several reasons.

Editors change positions and staying in touch can mean better work from folks who know you and like you. Staying top-of-mind is important when people are busy or stressed, and really, who isn’t busy or stressed right now? Ultimately, marketing is about building solid relationships and staying in touch is how you build a relationship.

Work on administrative tasks

This year, I’m focusing on tracking my time and projects so that I can get a clear idea of how much I earn per hour on different projects and from different clients. I enlisted the help of the wonderful professional organizer Julie Bestry in building a spreadsheet to help with this, and am finding there are endless ways to use the information. But, the spreadsheet always needs tweaking and analyzing the data I collect takes time. I spent quite a bit of time on that today.

Email cleanup and filing is a never-ending task, and I tend to do it when I’m tired or when there’s not a ton of work. It usually doesn’t make my list of things to do when it’s slow, but probably should.

My colleague Jen Phillips uses scripts and pre-written forms in her business and that seems like an excellent approach. Slow times are great for putting things like that together.

Taming the Famine Anxiety

There’s feast anxiety—how am I going to get all of this done? why did I say yes to this? my work is going to suck and no one will ever hire me again! And there’s famine anxiety—I will never get more work, and my family will starve! this is the beginning of the end of my business! I’m going to have to start from scratch and rebuild my client roster. And the one that tends to get me: If I relax and enjoy this, I’ll be doomed! I didn’t plan this slow time so it’s most certainly a harbinger of disaster.

All of this seems a tad dramatic, doesn’t it? Always, looking back at either a time of feasting or a time of famine, I realize my fears were quite out of proportion to the situation. As soon as I recognize either thing is happening, I start taking steps to avert the worst mental drama.

What’s the money situation?
One of the first things I did this morning was check to see how many invoices I have outstanding. It is enough to pay my bills for two months. Not exactly the best savings plan, but good enough to help me feel calmer. I can pay my mortgage, and two months is plenty of time to hustle up more work.

The next thing I did was make a list of my current anchor clients and how much I earn from them on average each month. Right now, I have two very solid anchor clients and between them I earn enough to pay our bills. So, I’m not only counting on outstanding invoices.

Life wouldn’t be super comfortable if I was only working with my two anchors, though, and I wouldn’t be hitting my target for the year.

Is there work on the horizon?
The second thing I did this morning was take a look at potential work. I have two projects that editors have contacted me about but not yet assigned anything. I’ll email them both this week. Then there’s a much longer list of people I consider “warm” — we’ve talked, but not established anything definite or discussed specific projects. I’ll also be contacting them to say hi and ask how things are going.

Looking out to the horizon can be calming



Simply having those three items—outstanding invoices, anchor clients who assign regular work, and a list of prospects—usually eases the fears associated with famine. There are other things you can do, too:

Build an actual savings
I’m aiming to save enough to pay bills for 3 months, then 6, and hopefully eventually a year. I’m not there yet, but that’s the goal.

Do a marketing challenge
Set yourself a goal to send out a certain number of letters of introduction, or attend a certain number of in-person events. Jennifer Goforth Gregory has a fantastic list of marketing activities for January that work any time of the year. If you think your slow time is extended (it happens!) spend a couple of weeks or a month completing a marketing challenge.

Actually enjoy your time
This is going to be my approach for this week. Since I’ve already realized I’m not facing eviction or actual famine, I’m going to try to relax, enjoy the fact it’s spring time and my flowers are blooming, take extra walks with my pups, try a couple of new recipes, and maybe even find a shady spot to read.


If, next week, things are still slow, I’ll start actively searching for new work.


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My Plan Is My Map

Do you participate in business planning? Does your plan sit in an ignored folder all year? This post details my planning process and it’s long. I’d love to know if you have a similar planning process!

I’ve always been a planner. Usually, the urge to start making lists and considering goals and looking at the previous year starts in December, but this year it came a little early, and deserves a bit more thought. In 2020, I tossed the plan out in March and decided to simply concentrate on survival and self-care. At the end of 2020, I decided to carry through with the same in 2021. Like many others, I wanted some time to recover from living in the middle of a pandemic.

This year, though, I’m ready to return to my plan because without it, I feel a bit lost. I still have goals, but I don’t have a clearly mapped path to reaching them because my plan has always served as my map.

It came to my attention recently, during an excellent Thursday session of #FreelanceChat on Twitter, that not everyone plans in quite as much detail as I do. I’m sharing my planning process in case others may find it a useful jumping-off point for their own planning.

The basics

Everyone I’ve ever talked to about planning, calendaring, or tracking goals has a different set up, so what I’m describing is the mishmash of tools that works for me. There are several elements:

  1. My notebook – I use a half-size, 3-ring binder with some dotted paper and some plain paper for the different sections, which include my daily task lists, my home-related goals, an area for jotting and journaling, and a budget area.
  2. A Google Drive file – it’s officially called Notes, but within the folder, there’s a document titled “Marketing 2021” and that’s where I pretty much free-write what I want, how the previous year went, what I’m planning, and anything else remotely related to my business.
  3. Wave Accounting – Although it may not seem like a planning tool, my accounting software is also my client list, and it shows how much I earned from each client, my monthly earnings, my previous years’ earnings, and any weird dips or spikes in my income.
  4. Google Calendar/Calendly – These tools are for the day-to-day, nitty gritty but are also useful in planning my marketing efforts across the year.
  5. A Google spreadsheet – I track potential clients using a spreadsheet. I note their name, title, company, LinkedIn profile, email address, date contacted, and the result. If I’m actively seeking work from them, I try to get in touch every three months either by email or through LinkedIn.

I told you it was a mishmash! It works for me though. Now, I’ll explain how I use the tools and end up with a clear map for running my business.

Using the tools to plan

When I begin planning, the first step is to dig into the plan from the year before. I can’t do that this year, but I can look at my statistics from the last few years. Did my earnings increase? (they did!) Did I have a more balanced client list? (in some ways) Were my earnings spread evenly across my client list? (more than in years past, but there’s room for improvement) Did I keep up with my marketing plan? (no plan meant nothing to keep up with) How many hours did I work, on average? (this number is ALWAYS lower than I expect it to be, which isn’t a bad thing)

And, because I can’t separate my professional life from my personal life, I also look at my household goals (like budgeting or saving, home improvements, and vacations) and my self-care goals (fitness, nutrition, health concerns, craft projects, books, and on and on – this is often the longest list!)



Once I’ve taken a hard look at what happened the previous year, I start thinking about what I want for the next year. I figure out how much money I want to make, then break that number down into quarterly, monthly, and weekly amounts. I decide if I want to actively seek new clients, and if so, how should I find them? I think about the industries I write for, and whether or not I’d like to add to that list and if so, what do I want to add? I consider personal projects that are related to work, like writing this blog, or working on a fiction project. I jot down pretty much all of my wildest dreams — for the next year — in this phase. This part is pretty fun.

I do the same kind of thing for household and self-care.

Next, I try to be realistic, and decide if anything on the “wildest dreams list” should be pushed out into a 5- or 10-year plan. I look at the gains made in the last few years and try to aim for similar improvements in my goals and also try to figure out what the “stretch” goal would look like. Then, I break it all down again into quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals.

The big plan is useless if that’s where it ends. I review it all each quarter, and make adjustments to the monthly goals if necessary. Each week, when I lay out the two-page daily task spread, I look back at the monthly plan and fill out a section titled “this week.” That section also includes things like due dates, bills to pay, and anything else important to remember.

(A note about the weekly and daily lists)
This is super nerdy, but I write the day/date in a different color pen. Monday might be blue, Tuesday, pink, and so on. I write the list itself in black, and cross items off in the color pen for that day. This helps me to see exactly what day I did the tasks on the “this week” list. It also gives me a decent overview of my productivity. I’m almost always most productive on Monday and it declines as the week goes on.

New additions

Another element of how I plan has to do with adding or taking away parts of the process. I used to treat my 3-ring binder like a bullet journal, with all the pretty spreads and such. Now I simply use my color-coding system and create the sections. I don’t find a lot of creative fulfillment in drawing pretty headers for each week or graphs for progress toward goals. I’d rather spend my time working on a quilt or reading or taking a walk.

One area that I’ve included in my plan each year and struggled with is that of professional development. One year I planned to read one business book per month and only finished one or two. Another year, I planned to do a couple of courses but didn’t. I want to give this area more thought, figure out exactly what the specific barriers are, and try again to get better at what I do.



I’m thinking more about the number of direct clients versus agency clients that I work with, which is another fairly new element to my planning process. I tend to prefer agency clients, but with worries about the PRO Act, I think it’s wise to balance things out a bit and add more direct clients to my roster. I’m also spending much more time analyzing how I found the best clients on my list. I’m hoping that can inform my marketing efforts. Sadly, I think most of the best ones came from sending LOIs (letters of introduction). LOI campaigns are an enormous amount of work.


(A note about LOI campaigns)
My ratio is usually somewhere around 1 good client for every 100 or so LOIs sent. Finding the companies, the correct contacts, their email addresses, sending the emails, following up, and tracking it all takes a ton of time and effort. Usually, if I’m doing an LOI campaign in a given year, I pay for LinkedIn Premium for a month or two, along with an email finder (it’s been Hunter.io in the past) then spend a set amount of time each day building a database. Once I have 200-500 potential contacts, I cancel the paid subscriptions and start working the list, sending LOIs, followups, following the people on LinkedIn and Twitter, and commenting on their stuff.

Accountability

I have several friends and colleagues who are my accountability partners. One exchanges emails with me at the end of each month, saying what we did and didn’t do and what we want to do in the next month. Another has become something of a planning partner and we’ve been doing Zoom calls where we discuss our client lists, our niches, our incomes, and so on. We’re doing a series of calls to help each other work through the planning process this year. I’m also part of a group of technology writers who casually chat and discuss issues we might be having or brag on ourselves, or whatever.

Each of my accountability partners has been crucial to my business journey. If you’re going to plan, it’s enormously helpful to have someone help you pay attention to whether or not you’re following it.

My Plan Is My Map

You can probably see why I felt a little bit lost the last year or so. Without the detailed plan to refer back to, I didn’t always feel like I was on the right track. Instead of following a defined and clear path through the forest of running a business, I was taking a leisurely stroll whichever way the wind blew me. For some people, strolling is the better way because there’s less pressure. But for me, the map can serve another purpose, and that is confirmation that I’m actually getting somewhere.



Plenty of times, I’ve gotten out my quarterly plan, and been able to see that I did exactly what I set out to do. Maybe minor adjustments are in order, but often, I’m trekking along the path I charted at the beginning of the year. That is as motivational as anything else I can think of.

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It’s Most Difficult at the Beginning

I am back to square one, maybe even square negative five, regarding my fitness level. Similarly, but much less drastically, I’m at a low point in client numbers. Fitness and business have always swung along the same pendulum in my life, likely because they both depend solely on my own motivation and willingness to do the work. At this particular moment in time, I’m working on the basics for good health and for a prosperous business. You know, paying attention to what and how much I eat, making a point of doing some form of exercise everyday, making marketing calls, sending out queries, referring back to my business plan.

And it’s freaking hard.

Easing myself into things, as I do, I started counting calories two weeks ago, and have kept it up. Now it’s time to add in exercise, and that is tougher. I’m trying to follow a fun, slightly silly workout plan, that uses the language of RPG (roll playing games). It’s called The Hero’s Journey, and it looks pretty simple. Except, on the first day, I am supposed to do 100 reps of four bodyweight exercises. I’m going to try, but don’t have much faith that I’ll be able to do it. The first set of 25 almost killed me.

Similarly, I started sending out marketing emails a week or two ago, but I know that to see real results, I’m going to have to do much more. Like make 10 calls a day, every day, for a month or two, and continue to send out several emails per day. That’s just how it works. For someone like me, who feels weird and awkward on the phone, and who struggles with any kind of social interaction, this stuff is hard. Probably not as hard as getting back in shape, but still not exactly as easy as writing a blog post.

The important thing to remember at times like this is that it’s only hard for a little while. It won’t take long before I’m looking forward to working out, or before the marketing has done what it always does and I only need to send out 2-3 queries each week to stay busy. Everything in life is that way. When I first built my flower garden, it took a lot of work to break up the grass and fluff up the dirt. But the next spring was easier, and every one after has been too. Any BIG THING is that way. You have to approach it a bit at a time and know that it will get easier.

A friend learned to play guitar as a teenager. Then she got a job, raised some children, and didn’t play. Recently she picked it back up and says the same thing about her practice sessions. They are tough, but she knows they will get easier.

Have you ever started over with something? How did it go for you?

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“I’ll Take a Look at It on Spec”

The majority of my writing clients are regular clients, and most of them are people I’ve met. I work with several local business owners, and a few folks I met or found online. In any case, my invoices go to pretty much the same group of people month after month. Sometimes there will be additions, and sometimes clients will drop off. Now and then, I like to look for new work — either because I’m ready to boost my income, or I want to learn about a new industry, or I have a good story idea.

Recently, I decided to look for publications within a particular industry. I had some ideas for stories and wanted to see what the market was like. I identified a couple, called

It's nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

It’s nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

one, and learned they preferred to receive queries. I read several past publications then pitched three articles. The editor liked one of them and emailed me to say that she would “take a look at it on spec.”

If we were talking about a publication I’d dreamed of seeing my name in for years, maybe I’d feel differently, but my first reaction (in my mind only) was “I don’t work on spec.” But then I thought about the fact that this editor doesn’t know me. She would be taking a risk by assigning an article to an unknown. I offered to send clips in my introductory letter, but maybe she doesn’t have time for that. Even if she does have time to look at my clips, she has no assurances that I will turn in clean copy; there’s always the chance that my clips were cleaned up by some other editor.

However, I would be taking a risk by spending the time to write a good article on spec. It would, of course, be tailored to fit the tone and voice of this particular publication. There would be several interviews involved. It would take time and effort to do it right — time and effort that I could be spending on doing work for clients who know (and regularly pay) me, or looking for clients willing to take the risk of getting to know me. There are definitely two sides to this spec coin!

Ideally, I could offer this editor some kind of compromise, but I’m having trouble coming up with one. The publication is lovely, and one of the best in this particular niche. The pay is what I’d call average to low in the wider lens of magazine writing, but high for the industry. I’m opposed to working on spec — on principal, and because this is what I do for a living. It’s not a hobby. Getting paid matters. There’s the possibility of pitching the same story to several publications in case the editor doesn’t want it, but that doesn’t feel quite right either.

Have you dealt with this situation? What was your response? 

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There Is No Perfect Job

Yesterday, I wrote about my personal narrative – the story I tell myself and others. Contemplating work and life choices led me to think about Jon Morrow’s recent post How To Be Smart in a World of Dumb Bloggers. I’ve been pondering what my so-called ideal day would look like (there are actually several versions of it) and whether or not the activities I do on a daily basis are going to get me any closer to any of those versions of an ideal day.

Jon’s post is about getting smarter in order to become a popular blogger. He shares his own daily routine, including the deliberate steps he takes to get smarter. Those steps cover everything from reading nonfiction books daily to finding friends who stretch his mind. He is talking about the day to day activities required if your dream is to be a popular (or successful, or money-making, whatever you want to call it) blogger.

Jon does a great job of explaining the work that is involved in being a great blogger – great posts don’t just flow from a fountain of inspiration. There’s research, writing, rewriting, learning, and thinking involved. There are a whole lot of experts and studies that offer inspiration for people who are looking for something different, an alternative to a gray cubicle. You can find all kinds of advice on starting and running a small business. While that kind of inspiration abounds, posts like Jon’s are a different sort of inspiration.

Even the most perfect job involves, well, work. Some part of the day to day stuff will probably always feel like a grind. Calling it an “ideal day” is a

A literal grind! (image from Creative Commons on flickr.)

A literal grind! (image from Creative Commons on flickr.)

little misleading – wouldn’t most of us think of a vacation day as the ultimate ideal day?

When I am writing, I can get lost. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post, a research article, marketing copy, or fiction – if I’m playing with words, I am having fun. (Unfortunately my dogs or the phone or some other minor interruption usually limits the time I’m lost in the fun part of my work.) But, sending out emails marketing my services? Ugh! That, for me, is a grind. A slog. The part of this job I’d like to skip. (And, I don’t mind the minor daily interruptions during this part of my work!)

My writing accountability partner is the opposite. She LOVES marketing. If you also have a passion for marketing then it might be wise to read these king kong marketing reviews before jumping headfirst into a job in this industry. She also likes doing interviews, creating outlines, and so on. The writing? She can’t stand it. She gets all tangled up in figuring out where in the outline bits of information fit best, and in writing active versus passive sentences.

There’s always going to be a part of the job that isn’t fun. What part of your job do you love? What part could you do without?

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Marketing Seeds

Since I started freelancing, I have liked the idea of marketing as “sowing seeds.” One the most lucrative clients I’ve had called me almost exactly one year after I originally contacted him. The same has been true for many of my clients – I contact them, either by phone or email, chat for a few minutes and explain what I do, then hear from them months later. It happened again last week, and I wanted to share the story here, in case anyone reading this feels discouraged or as if their marketing efforts are not paying off.

I am an avid gardener. (Note the use of the word “avid” rather than “accomplished” or “successful.”) Every spring, I spend more money than I should on seeds and plants. Last

The clerk gave me coneflower seeds that day.

The clerk gave me coneflower seeds that day.

spring, I read about a hydroponics store in Chattanooga, and then found out they were having a plant sale. Going to commercial hydroponics stores can help the avid plant lover with choosing the best way to grow their own plants without access to soil. Anyway, I went, bought some seeds, asked a thousand questions and chatted with the clerk. We had a discussion about some professional and commercial hydroponic grow equipment like what’s found on agron.io. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned being a writer and ended up leaving a couple of cards. “Here are a couple; one for you and one to give away,” is my standard line when giving out my business cards.

The hydroponics store never called, even though I sent a few follow up emails, with high hopes of writing for them. It would be fascinating to research articles that would appeal to customers who grow things without dirt. But, then, last week my phone rang.

The person who contacted me was a prospective customer who is part owner of an aquaponics farm – they maintain fish, filter the water to collect the fish waste, which they use for fertilizer to grow delicious produce in large commercial greenhouses. They need some help marketing. He had gotten my card from the clerk at the hydroponics store, who told him in the course of their conversation, “I’ve been looking for someone to give this card to for awhile.”

I don’t know yet if this farm will become a client. But here are some things that I do know:

  • Writing about farming, food, and agriculture in general is an increasingly interesting niche for me.
  • Pleasant conversation combined with handing out business cards works.
  • It’s an amazing feeling when prospects call me instead of the other way around.

There is one step left in this marketing loop: a thank you note to the clerk at the hydroponics store. Partly, I want to keep my business in his mind, and also I’m genuinely grateful for his referral.

Have you ever gotten results from this sort of “marketing”? It has always been both the slowest way to find business, but also the most profitable way. I’d love to hear what works best for you, or what you find most comfortable when it comes to telling people about your business.

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