Podcast 6: Is Freelance Feast or Famine Avoidable?

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In this podcast, we tackle the controversial subject of freelance “feast or famine.”

Recorded only a week before release, this particular episode drops at an unprecedented time, when millions of people are seeing their working lives changed beyond recognition. It was both surprising and alarming how much changed between recording and release.

The podcast includes a frank discussion of the peaks and troughs of freelancing, and tackles the question of whether there are ways to smooth out these ups and downs. You’ll have to listen (or read) to find out what we think.

A ever, a full transcript is available below.

Included in this podcast:

  • Do WE think freelancing means “feast or famine?” (0:55)
  • Is being an employee just as bad? Or worse? (2:23)
  • How to deal with feast! (3:39)
  • Is feast or famine a choice? (4:54)
  • An example of how the unexpected can happen (11:48)
  • The problem with the “hustle harder” myth (13:45)
  • Does freelancing get easier over time? (16:03)

Supplementary Links and Information

Full Transcription

Certain repeat words or unclear passages have been edited to enhance readability.

ALEX: Welcome to the HomeWorkingClub podcast. I’m Alex.

BEN: And I’m Ben.

ALEX: Hi Ben. How are you doing?

BEN: I’m all right, thank you.

ALEX: Today, we are touching on a very thorny subject. Is freelancing “feast or famine?”

We’re going to go through a little bit of the controversy around this. I think there’s been a lot of discussion online. More importantly, we’re going to talk about some strategies to make sure that you can deal with the worst excesses of the world economy and still keep on smiling.

The most important thing we’re talking about is: How is it different being a freelancer to being full-time employed? Do you have massive peaks and troughs in your income and your career? What are the benefits and disadvantages?

So Ben, freelancing…IS it feast or famine?

BEN: I think it is quite a lot of the time. I’ve been freelancing for a lot of years…more than 15 years. My wife is a freelancer, lots of friends are freelancers..and the thing that comes up over and over again is: why does it have to be really, really busy or really, really quiet?

It comes up so much that I struggle not to sort of generally say there’s a feast or famine element to it. And in one of the previous podcasts, you asked me for the downsides of freelancing, and the first thing I said was, “It’s always feast or famine.” So I obviously believe in it firmly enough to keep mentioning it!

ALEX: So that’s definitely your position!

I suppose you would look at freelancing as opposed to being full-time employed for a large company. You know, if you’ve got a full-time job, particularly if you are going to an office… you know it’s there, bricks and mortar, however you commute there.

Whereas if you’re freelancing… perhaps if you’ve got a couple of clients on the go and one drops, or if you’re actually looking for some more work…Your first job every day is to actually make sure that you’ve still got a job.

BEN: Yes, that’s true. I’m going to be unusually positive here for a moment because, yes, freelancing is feast or famine but if, for example, you’ve got six clients, you have to be pretty unlucky to lose all six of them on one day.

And we’re recording this broadcast at a fairly grim time with all of the scare around the outbreak and all of that kind of thing.

One thing that happened recently here in the UK is one of our, I think, biggest regional airlines, Flybe, went bust overnight, Leaving obviously hundreds, if not thousands, of staff completely without jobs overnight.

And I think of those other airlines announcing profit warnings and saying that they might not survive. Obviously, if you’re an employee, you may be protected in terms of redundancy payments and things like that if you suddenly lose your job. But it would almost be more of a profound shock to just lose an employed position, than for your freelance business to take a bit of a dive.

So, yes, as I say, unusually positive on that. So I don’t think that it’s correct to say that when you’re an employee you’re just completely safe because, as we see, almost everyday people DO lose their jobs very suddenly and unexpectedly.

ALEX: I’ve worked a lot in the advertising and marketing world. There is that point, particularly in certain areas, where you get a client, you lose a client, and actually you’re much more used to that idea of going, “Okay, well, that’s business. We’ve lost that client, we need to replace it with a new one.”

Or, actually, you’ve got that point where there’s loads and loads of work going on at the minute, so we need to make sure that we service all of that. But actually you could end up in the situation we’ve talked about as one of the issues of freelancing: you can have too much work, you can be too busy.

BEN: Yeah, I mean, I have had plenty of times where I am literally turning work away. This is why I say it’s feast or famine… because what tends to happen is that after a lean patch you suddenly end up with too much work.

Then you go through a bit of a phase where you take on too much because you think, “Well, I’ve just had that lean phase, so I’d better make hay while the sun shines and do every bit of work that is coming in my direction.”

So it’s a tricky balance. And I mean, I don’t say feast or famine to be dramatic about it. I think it is just a pattern that I’ve seen over and over again, and one that I don’t believe you have an enormous amount of choice in.

ALEX: Okay, so you’ve been positive. Unusually positive.

BEN: Yes.

ALEX: But maybe you’re not being positive enough.

I used to work with a guy who was a salesman, and I went along to one of his sales meetings. He was brilliant. It was just as the 2008 recession was starting to hit. He said, “There’s a recession hitting, it’s in the news, but I choose not to be part of that recession. I’m not going to be part of that recession.”

I think that’s also happened in the freelancing world. There have been some comments online. People going, “I’ve chosen not to be part of the feast or famine thing.”

Can you choose not to be part of the feast and famine?

BEN: Um, I don’t think so. I think that view is problematic at best. Yeah, I’ll leave it there. Problematic at best.

I spoke to two freelancers last week against the backdrop of everything that’s going on  at the moment. Two different freelancers. One who worked in business travel… well, obviously, that’s not a great industry to be in right now… so famine.

Another one who does IT support and IT consultancy work… rushed off his feet because all of these companies are working out ways for their staff to work remotely, and obviously they need technical help with that…so feast.

I struggle to see how either of those people made a choice. And a different set of circumstances…say some currency change that made everyone want to travel the world and not do more work on their IT systems. Perhaps a slightly loose kind of comparison and not a great comparison! But I struggle to see which of those freelancers really had a choice in the outcome.

ALEX: Yeah, fair enough. We’re talking famine or feast. And you actually said sometimes feast isn’t actually as brilliant as it may sound. You may find yourself massively overstretched. How do you even out those peaks and troughs? Is there a way of dealing with that?

BEN: I think you do hit these wonderful periods where you just seem to have the perfect amount of work, but you never know how long that’s going to last for. The more diversified you are and the more different clients that you’re working for, obviously, the safer you are, because, in theory, you’re not going to lose all of them at once. So that evens it out a bit.

It’s being disciplined. I think that thing of “I’ve got work pouring in. I’m going to do all of it.”… that doesn’t go on forever because you’ll burn yourself out. I think you do have to kind of make a call on when you’ve got enough work. Obviously it depends on the industry you’re in, exactly what you’re doing.

No two jobs are the same. No two freelancers are the same.

ALEX: So I suspect a lot of people, probably over the last few months and years, are looking at the idea of going freelance or working from home more and diversifying the way that they work. And we’ve touched on this a few times. There’s a bit less security from freelancing but you get a lot more flexibility. Is that flexibility a bonus in tough times?

BEN: I think it certainly is. I mean, I’ve got a little list here of things that you could do to sort of avoid feast or famine or smooth it out a little bit.

One thing I’ve written is diversification. I’ve touched on it a bit already and obviously the more sources of income you’ve got, the less likely they are all to dry up at the same time.

I’ve also written down side gigs. I think that’s quite a relevant thing. If you’re working from home and you’re working for yourself and things have gone a bit quiet and you’re finding yourself with two hours at the end of every day… I’d head out into the garage and think, “What rubbish have I got that I need to sell on eBay that’s been piling up?”

When you’ve got computer games, and console games, and abandoned child’s toys, and all that kind of thing. It’s a chore that needs doing but it’s also something that could make a bit of extra money on the side.

I think that the ability to dive into side gigs and other long-term, slow-burn projects is something you do have total freedom to do as a freelancer.

ALEX: That’s an interesting point. I was speaking someone the other week and they were saying that one of the first things they did when they started freelancing was they actually changed all of their energy and utility suppliers because, actually, it’s the sort of thing you can’t really do when you’re sitting at a desk in an office. Saving a few $100 on the household bills is as good as earning a couple of hundred.

BEN: Absolutely. I mean, there’s one I do, which is UserTesting, which is testing new designs of websites and apps. It is actually a site called UserTesting.com. I’ve reviewed it and I’ll write a link in the show notes.

They pay $10+ for a quick test. You go online and they show you a prototype of a new web site, and you literally speak your thoughts out loud about what you think about the site or the app.

ALEX: You must hate that!

BEN: I love it. You can’t get it wrong! That’s the whole thing. I think some people are intimidated by having their voice recorded for it…

ALEX: Says the guy on a podcast!

BEN: Now we’re doing the podcast, I’m slowly getting used to that.

UserTesting is great. Obviously, you don’t get accepted for every single one. A lot of these test take literally two or three minutes. It just builds up: $10, $10, $10.

It’s not masses of money, and obviously you couldn’t call it a job because you couldn’t count on it happening, but at quieter times and leaner times, I’ll just stick UserTesting on. It’s enough to pay for treats, enough to pay for groceries.

You can’t do that in an office. You can’t think, “Well, I need a bit of extra money. So every now and then I’m just gonna drop what I’m doing and give my thoughts on this latest travel website.”

The freedom to be able to think, “All right, things are getting a bit leaner but I can dabble in this, dabble in that.”

ALEX: So we’ve talked about…it’s not a choice. We’ve talked about diversification, so having lots of clients is quite useful. You can get into that situation where, if you’re looking for that steady income, just one client and there’s lots of regular work…you tend to default to that and actually you can find yourself in a bit of a sticky situation. The other thing you said…side gigs and some other things to do.

Now an area we’ve not touched on on the podcast before, but what about talking about money, emergency funds or credit lines?

BEN: I think having an emergency fund is obviously a good thing, whether you’re a freelancer or whatever you are doing. I think people talk about that kind of dream scenario of having three or six month’s income tucked away. Which I think is just a dream scenario for many people.

But yeah, obviously having an emergency fund there, keeping money aside when things are good and not spending every penny of it. Which I’m sure lots of people could work on!

I think having a credit line, like an overdraft…I don’t think it should be seen as this terrible thing of having debt. I mean, I have access to an overdraft on my business account. It doesn’t mean that I use it, but a lot of the time that can see you through a client paying you late. And I mean that’s an epidemic: freelancers not being paid on time.

ALEX: There’s a whole podcast on that one!

BEN: Oh, yes, definitely. But I think just having access, knowing that an unexpected thing happening isn’t going to sink you, is really, really good.

It could be easy to think we’re talking about just the current situation, we’ve touched on recessions and things like that. I mean, at the time of recording this, the global financial situation doesn’t look particularly great either (I’ve got an article on that for the show notes as well).

But it doesn’t have to be something bad going on in the world that could drop your income as a freelancer.

I have an anecdote on this from very early on in my freelance career when I was doing IT consultancy. I had got to the stage where one client had become, not my only client, but a fairly substantial proportion of my income.

It was a client that went from having a couple of people in an office to having, I think, a couple of dozen people spread across a few offices. They ended up being bought out by another company. I was plodding on thinking everything was going fine and was then called into an office one day.

They said, “Well, you’ve done a brilliant job. You’ve obviously helped support our growth and you’ve helped support our growth so well that we’ve been bought out today. And we’ve been bought out by a much bigger company with their own IT team… so we’re really, really sorry but we haven’t got any more work for you.”

ALEX: So that’s feast causing famine…

BEN: Exactly. So it doesn’t have to be some global crisis or that can cause someone’s freelance career to switch suddenly from feast to famine. It can be completely unexpected circumstances.

ALEX: Good stuff. I think that’s the point. You get this positive mental attitude thing and you see this a lot in the world of entrepreneurs going “You know, you have to drive forward. You always have to have that…”

It is very useful to have a positive mindset. Of course it is, but I think the point is… a lot of people who come to the site, they’re not actually looking to become multi-millionaires. They’re not looking for that $100,000 a month income. Actually, part of the reason for being a freelancer, part of the reason for working from home is you want that work-life balance.

BEN: Very much so.

Obviously, I’d love to see readers at the site get rich. But equally, I know that probably the vast majority of people who read the site and who are listening to this would be more than happy to have a kind of job-replacement freelance income.

I think, going back to what you’re saying, you see a huge amount from these people who are just like, “Well, the answer is just to hustle harder.” Sounds a bit like that sales guy that you mentioned earlier in this podcast as well.

I think that’s really quite problematic because I think it creates this impression that if you’re not earning an absolute fortune, you’re doing something wrong. I think it’s very detached from reality.

I don’t think that it is just a question of: you’re guaranteed success if you just hustle harder and harder. We’ve given several examples of why it doesn’t work like that.

I don’t think it’s helpful to freelancers to think that it is a choice of feast or famine, that you can choose to avoid feast or famine. I don’t think that’s right. And I don’t think that’s particularly good for the self-esteem or the mental health of those who who are going through a lean patch.

And I think this kind of focus on the hustle almost discourages freelancers who aren’t doing that well at any given time. It discourages them from chatting to people and saying, “Oh, it’s a bit grim at the moment.” Well, if you say “It’s a bit grim at the moment,” someone might say, “well, I spoke to someone the other day who needs this doing.”

I think it is better to be honest about these things than just… put out there that it’s a choice. And I think, a lot of the time, when people are implying that it’s all about the choice and all about the hustle… you don’t have to go too far away to find there is some course available, that there’s a secret to how you could do away with the choice, or some membership scheme, or something like that.

So I always wonder if people might have ulterior motives as well.

ALEX: The power of positive thinking can prevent you from losing clients…and it just so happens I have a course on the power of positive thinking.

BEN: Yeah!

ALEX: I think that’s the point. I certainly get this from working with you and working with HomeWorkingClub for a while…it’s very much about let’s get some practical advice and let’s work out what’s going on. That’s certainly the case being involved in some of the conversations in the community.

This is about people who want to absolutely be successful and make a success of whatever they’re doing… but you can’t take yourself out of reality.

So, we’ve established that you can’t create a magic forcefield around yourself through positivity. But, on a good note, I’m going to ask you a question and I almost certainly know what your answer is going to be. Does it get easier as time goes on?

BEN: I have said in a previous podcast that the feast or famine thing lessens. A weird recent example: in the last couple of weeks, I’ve had three clients completely randomly come to me with work. Clients I’ve not, in any of the three cases, heard from for years.

What obviously tends to happen is the more work you do, the more people you work with, the more random bits of work tend to come your way. There is a lot of serendipity. I think sometimes those random jobs do seem to just appear right at the moment you really need them.

So, yeah, the longer you’re in the game, the more clients you have, the more people you know and so the peaks and troughs are levelled out slightly. Whether it ever goes away completely, I’m not convinced.

ALEX: You say that serendipity thing… I think it was an old girlfriend said… she bowled a really good shot and the guy went “Oh, that was lucky”, and she goes, “Yeah, the more I practise the luckier I get.”

BEN: I think there’s a lot of truth in that and I think there’s a lot of truth in that you do make your own luck. The harder you work, the less you will have to experience feast or famine. But to say that it’s an actual choice. I don’t think is quite fair.

Yes, there are some jobs that are quite recession-proof. If you’re an accountant, for example, you might be busy with liquidations and bankruptcies.

Even in the midst of a financial crisis, accountants are never going to find themselves short of work to do. But there aren’t that many things that are truly recession-proof and I think… it’s not like we can all choose to do those things. There’s all the other jobs that aren’t recession-proof and many of us are doing those.

ALEX: So accountants and undertakers, death and taxes, that’s the only two certainties in life.

BEN: On a rather grim note, I was watching the news the other day when the financial markets crashed. You’ll probably be listening to this podcast a week after us recording it, so this might not be quite…

ALEX: I’m sure there’ll be another crash.

BEN: Well, quite possibly. But the reporter did say that there was only one firm, I think, on the whole UK markets that had actually gained and that was, very depressingly, a company that arranges funerals. So, obviously the thing with what’s currently going on that it’s unprecedented in scale in terms of the kind of feast or famine freelancers might experience.

I don’t think the advice we’re giving is any different in terms of not spending all your money at once when things are going well, having a diversified income, having some side gigs. All those kind of things and having a credit line if need be.

ALEX: Good stuff. As we’ve said, just to sort of start to wrap it up on a positive note, actually, in terms of global uncertainty, then having a regular paid-job with a 401K can be even worse in times of uncertainty than being a freelancer or working from home.

So slightly mixed review there. But I think in terms of the health globally for freelancers and the industry, we touched on this and a few other things that we’ve done…How do you think it is looking at the minute from a freelancing perspective?

BEN: Well, I think obviously we’re facing so many unknowns. But then, at the same time, there’s… I think the wonderful thing about freelancing is just that you can branch out into all kinds of things.

We posted a new article this week on the best skills for freelancers to learn. I think that if you’re a freelancer, you could look at a list like that, and you can think, “video editing is in demand,” or “python programming is in demand.” “Well, I’m going to do a course and I’m going to learn about that.”

Freelancing you do have that freedom, which is to branch out, to pitch work to new clients, and to always try and do something else. So I’m not downhearted. I think some rocky times are ahead. I think that’s undeniable, but I’m certainly not going to let it get me down, and I hope it won’t get anyone else down either.

ALEX: Excellent. Putting the free in freelancer.

Thank you very much for listening today. Please do like, subscribe, share, and write a review. Or indeed, come back to us with any of your views as well. We’re always happy to hear your views on the world of freelancing, what’s going on, or indeed anything else on the HomeWorkingClub website.

BEN: Yeah, and you can email me directly.

ALEX: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

BEN: Thank you.

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