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Growing your list of active clients is much like growing a garden. Some plants shoot up quick and are gone before you know it. Others give out their fruits again and again over a long period of time. Some require little maintenance and others a lot. Getting the right balance of clients is crucial for long-term success. So what does a successful mix of clients look like?
Long-term clients are clients that provide steady income over a long period of time. Usually, these will be other businesses that can afford long-term freelancers. They are the bedrock of your business.
Serious clients are clients that could potentially become long-term clients but aren’t yet. These are the kind of clients you get from referrals, networking meetings, other freelancers, and the like. They could end up being a one-shot client, or they could end up being a long-term client.
One-shot clients are just that. They just need a freelancer for a quick few things and that’s it. Rarely, a one-shot client might turn into a serious client or a long-term client. Your average listing on Craigslist or Upwork is a one-shot client.
Finally, you also need to make time for yourself as a client. Developing your portfolio, learning new skills, and stretching your capabilities in new ways all falls under this. That time you spend learning technical writing or fiddling with that new piece of art software is important. It keeps your skills from stagnating.
So how should you balance your efforts between these groups? Here’s how I like to look at it. First, I start off with my basic income goal. I know I have to make X amount of money every month to keep a roof over my head. Since I must have that amount every month, I need to ensure it comes from clients that will regularly pay (long-term) or that I can pull enough one-shot clients to cover any gap.
Second, I have my target salary goal. This is where my serious clients come into play. They are the growth generators for the business. If I’m lucky and I do a good job, they can convert into long-term clients. If not, I’ll usually get more out of them than a normal one-shot client. Your best serious clients aren’t going to be found on job boards but through referrals and networking.
If I need to fill in gaps in either of these, that’s when I turn to one-shot clients. Just about anyone who is decent at their profession can find someone on a site like Upwork that will pay them, but the pay isn’t going to be as good. And if it is good pay, Upwork will take their nice big chunk out too!
The last goal is your quality-of-work goal. Every client is going to take up a certain amount of time and require a certain amount of your effort. The amount of time and effort has to be balanced with the money. It’s equally bad to work your tail off for lousy money (or even good money) as it is to have awesome low-stress clients that don’t pay for beans.
Quality-of-work is also where being your own client comes in. Perhaps you discover that you don’t like doing a particular kind of work and need to try something different. Or perhaps your clients are going dry because the market is down. You need to plan for these in advance by leaving enough space in your schedule to experiment with new things. This is one place where a one-shot client can work great. If it doesn’t pan out well, it doesn’t threaten your income stream. You’ll have freedom to fail.
My first priority is to have enough long-term clients such that if two were to suddenly disappear, I’d make enough with the remainder to maintain my basic expenses. It is all-too-easy to get complacent when you get one or two long-term clients in your corner. It can feel like you’re employed once again and you won’t have to worry about your job disappearing. But it can, and it will. Cover your bases by having enough long-term clients. At the same time, your long-term clients can’t suck up all of your time. You need to have some free time to go after other clients and handle the other parts of your business.
After this is in place, then I start hunting for high-dollar clients without worrying too much about how long they will last. A client I work with for two weeks that pays well could come back six months later with a long-term contract. When you’re hunting for serious clients, keep your rates high enough so that you can meet your target salary goal with the time you have left over after working your long-term clients. If your client portfolio is really healthy, your long-term clients may bring in enough money to cover basics and your salary goals. Go you, you awesome negotiator you!
If I’m sitting pretty on my financial goals and I still have some time to spare, then I will work on myself and try experimental one-shot jobs. If an emergency happens and I lose a lot of clients, then I’ll pour my efforts into one-shot jobs to cover the basic expenses until I get enough breathing room to cultivate a serious client.
There may be times you’ll have to take a job for low pay in an emergency. That’s fine, but make sure that low-paying job doesn’t cost you too much in time as well. The business down the street that needs two pages of web copy is fine. The marketing company that’s trying to churn thousands of pages for pennies is not.
What do you look for in a client mix? Do you use a different set of criteria? We’d like to hear your thoughts on the matter. Comment on our blog or on our Facebook page and let us know what you think.
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