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A freelancer's guide to surviving an economic downturn

April 18

Every freelancer learns that life, personal and business, is full of ups and downs. One day you sign a contract for a big project and you are on top of the world. The next week a long time client lets you know they have decided your services are no longer required. C'est la vie. You figure out what works and what doesn't, you are flexible and resilient. 

What happens when a major event hits that causes the whole economy to slow down and slide into a recession (or worse a depression). Everyone goes into scramble mode. People panic. They buy a lot of toilet paper 🧐. Thankfully you're a freelancer. If you have been at it for very long you probably have some of the tools ready to deal with this. You just may not know it ... yet.

1. Get your finances in order

As a freelancer you are probably accustomed to financial gymnastics. Get ready to start your balance beam routine.

Budget

If you don't have one, do one ... right now. Figure out what your monthly expenses are and what your realistic income for the next few months is. For a freelancer your business and personal budgets might be the same, they may not. You may have ongoing business expenses and financial commitments you need to factor in. Create a basic work budget to figure out what you need to stay afloat. Create a personal budget to figure out how to keep food on the table and a roof over your head. Figure out what is absolutely necessary and what you can get by without. If they are not critical maybe you don't need them. That dessert of the month club membership can probably get put on hold. 

Emergency Fund

Life is full of the unexpected. A global pandemic dragging the economy into a recession falls into that bucket. If you talk to any financial advisor they will all say the same thing, "you need an emergency fund of savings, at least a few months of living expenses". Hopefully you have one. If you do, get ready to dip into it. For myself, January and February tend to be slow months on the freelancer side (PageProofer is steady month to month). That money always comes in handy to make the start of the year a little smoother. This year that little cushion is getting stretched to the breaking point. Thankfully I had it though or things would be much worse.

Research your options

Freelancers are good at digging for information. We have to be. We dig for leads. We dig for contacts. We dig for payments on late invoices. Most governments in industrialized nations are offering some type of support for small and medium sized businesses. Do some digging. For Canadians start here, for Americans start here. There are a lot of options, interest free loans, payroll subsidies, unemployment support. You need to be your own advocate.

Talk to your bank

Banks tend to get a bad rep but they can be very helpful. Talk to your banker, explain your financial situation and see what ideas they have. They are dealing with a lot of people in similar circumstances, they probably have some ideas and options you have not thought of.

Collections

No one likes doing it but now is the time to double down on making sure any outstanding invoices are getting paid. Contact people, be up front about your situation. Nobody wants to see someone bottom out right now. People can be flexible. If the full invoice can't be paid, try to work out some type of partial payment arrangement.

2. Level up

Having free time is a great time to learn a new skill or get better at an existing one. One thing I have learned as a freelance developer, you can never stop learning. Invest in yourself by learning some new skills. You might not like having a wide open calendar but take advantage of that time.

Get better at something

Do you watch other people in your field of expertise and wonder how they are doing something so well and think it would be great to be able to do that? It's probably because they spent a lot of time mastering that skill. Now is your golden opportunity. Do some research, tinker, experiment. Spend your free time investing in your skill sets.

Learn something new

I wanted to learn how to actually use Photoshop to produce something designer'ish instead of only using it to handle UI designs from clients. The daily creative challenge on Behance has been a fantastic learning resource for me. Maybe you have always wanted to learn how to code, get better at marketing, or write better. As a freelancer those are all skills that can be useful when running a business. Those new skills might not fit directly into your typical day to day functions but they will help keep your mind sharp, like exercising a muscle, and come in handy when you unexpectedly need them.

Optimize

Are there tasks in your business that eat up valuable time? Can you automate a process to make your life a little easier? With some free time you can experiment to try and find ways to save yourself time when business picks up. For me, I love short cuts. Anything I can do while hammering away at my keyboard to make something just a little faster, a little easier is a huge win. I use Alfred App to put some power short cuts right at my finger tips.

3. Make a plan

Some people are great at planning, others need a little extra help. Maybe a recession is the kick you need to start making some plans. Sit down, away from distractions and think about your freelancing business. What do you like doing? What do you want to change. What do you want to improve? Where do you want to go?

Set a destination

Have you ever sat down and actually thought about where you want your business to go. Do you want to remain a freelancer? Is there a client or project that is your holy grail? Do you have an end goal? Without a plan (or a map) it's really difficult to get to a destination. A lot of freelancers (myself included) are guilty of hitting the ground running but not really thinking about which direction they are running in. A plan helps to focus and prepare, it gives you something to aim at and something to measure your progress against. Once you have a destination you can figure out how to get there. 

Diversify your income

I used to have all my freelance business eggs in a single basket, consulting. Being a one trick pony is not a bad thing, but it can be a dangerous thing when that one trick can't be used, like during a global recession. This might not work for everyone but are there aspects of your business you can spin off into something that can be turned into a product or service that could be repackaged and resold separate from freelancing? Maybe a tutorial, a step by step guide, or some small service that is easy for you to turn around and valued by a market. Diversifying your income streams gives you flexibility when one stream dries up. For myself that service was PageProofer. It was something I could see a lot of web designers and developers needed, an easier way to handle feedback on websites. It hasn't replaced what I do as an independent web developer but it helps smooth out the slow income months. What can you add to your freelancing business to help diversity your income?

Update your network

With a destination and possibly some diversification ideas in place who do you need to network with to make it happen? Maybe you don't need to add to your network, you just need to reach out to past clients and contacts. Strike up some conversations. Find out how people are doing. Do they need help with anything? That might give you some ideas for diversification 👆. 

Plan for the next one

It happened once, it can happen again. Now is the time to plan for the next downturn. If you didn't have an emergency fund, start with that. It always sounds hard when you are starting with a few pennies in your savings account but it's doable. Every time you make some money put a little aside and forget about it. You will be surprised how quickly it builds up. I try to keep three months worth of money set aside for down times. What have you learned during this time that you could do differently the next time to make it better?

Remember

As Mike Tyson said "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth " 🥊 Don't cast your plans in stone, be flexible. One of the great things about being a freelancer is that it's easy to change directions and pivot quickly. 

4. Be ...

If you have a roof over your head, food in the cupboards, a shirt on your back and your health you have a lot to be thankful for. A lot of people are in much worse circumstances. Be thankful for what you have. Be optimistic for what is coming. Be helpful to those around you. Be ready for when this is over.

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