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Lessons in Freelancing: Diversify Your Client Base!

Relying on one or two regular (and otherwise fantastic) clients can be seductive, but it’s much safer to build a business that won’t go under if that client decides to walk away.


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Building a business is all about making a series of mistakes… and then, hopefully, learning from them. Unfortunately, some mistakes must be made many times before the lesson becomes clear. This is how it was with me and that old adage: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. I stubbornly put my eggs in one basket over and over again. Each time, I ended up with egg on my face.

The first time was in 2007, when I jumped ship from my full-time book publishing job and started a solo business providing writing, editing, and publicity services. I received a steady stream of small publicity projects from my former employer, but most of my income came from copyediting for a daily newspaper and managing a blog for an online magazine. I matched my previous income within only six months but in late 2008, when the economy collapsed, the newspaper folded, the online magazine scaled back, and I was screwed.

It took me a year to replace this income and, again, I ended up relying on one regular client. Pro: They were consistent. Con: They were underpaying me, and had a tendency toward major scope creep. As a result, I was spending all my billable hours working for them to the exclusion of clients who might have paid me more.

After about a year and a half of struggling to pay my bills, I decided it was time to learn from my mistakes and cut the safety net loose.

First, I looked for ways to diversify. I felt it was wrongheaded to continue focusing on work that was in such low demand due to shrinking budgets, so I brainstormed ways I could use my skills to provide additional services on one, cohesive platform.

For example, I began ghostwriting for non-writerly experts within the sexual health arena — clients who had larger budgets than my beloved but struggling magazines and newspapers.

I also entered a career coaching certification program so I could provide coaching and consulting services to those just starting out in the publishing industry. I helped beginning freelancers with their query letters (my forté) and used my experience in book publishing to help aspiring authors develop their book proposals. Being able to offer a variety of services made me feel more secure.

Next, I began aggressively marketing myself as a way to expand my client base. This was accomplished in a number of ways:

     

  • I networked like hell. I maintained the connections I had made at previous jobs, and kept in touch with former editors. I attended industry-specific happy hours. I became active on social media sites like Twitter, Brazen Careerist, and LinkedIn. I joined professional organizations, like Freelance Success and the Young Entrepreneur Council. I made the effort to convert these online connections to IRL contacts. I sought out opportunities to collaborate. And before long, the work was coming to me.
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  • I sought out new ways to bring value to client leads and build my mailing list. I got serious about maintaining my freelance blog, and also launched a monthly newsletter.
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  • I launched an info-product that allowed me to triple my subscriber base in only a few weeks. I did this by developing a product I knew my readers could use to get results immediately as it simultaneously showed them the value I had to offer.
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  • I concocted a list of offbeat marketing ideas that would differentiate me from the competition. My favorite was the Word Nerd Networking event that attracted 75 writers, editors, and other publishing professionals.

In all of these ways, I slowly built up a business that wouldn’t up and collapse with the next strong breeze. And I learned that while relying on one or two regular (and otherwise fantastic) clients can be seductive, it’s much safer to build a business that won’t go under if that client decides to walk away.

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