One of the many things I’ve learned from years of watching zombie movies: it’s not a true apocalypse until a character steps out of isolation into a world they don’t recognize.
Thanks for bringing this one to reality for us, Jared.
In all seriousness, enduring a global crisis is scary. For myself and many fellow freelancers, it’s easy to cringe and wonder if this will be the final days of freelancing.
We’re in a volatile business during a volatile market. As we ride out the epidemiological rollercoaster known as coronavirus, freelancers face countless unknowns.
In this article, I’m going to walk you through the steps I believe every freelancer should take to not only survive, but actually grow your business amidst all this global uncertainty.
Why your freelance business might do better during a downturn
Freelancers are incredible during normal market conditions. But we can be total lifesavers during a crisis. Here are several reasons to maintain hope and optimism for your freelance business during a market downturn:
- When there’s uncertainty, companies need flexible working relationships.
- Hiring a freelancer is often more cost-effective than hiring a full-time employee.
- Freelancers are self-starters. Companies don’t have to worry about micro-managing projects.
- Freelancers know how to be productive wile working remotely. (Just learned that my normal week is called “social distancing” now.)
- When times are tough, experts are still needed to keep businesses in motion — maybe even more than before.
- Many businesses want to take advantage of new opportunities during a downturn. Freelancers provide on-demand productivity, so these businesses can move and build faster.
- In a world bombarded by problems on every side, freelancers are natural problem solvers. We were born for this.
But just because there’s opportunity for you during a downturn doesn’t mean it’ll be smooth sailing. You’ll have to seek out opportunities, find people and businesses to help, and carefully watch your bottom line.
How to freelance during a recession
1. Prioritize your health
Freelancers earn a living with their time, talent, and attention.
When we’re sick or mentally drained, there’s no one to take up our responsibilities or jumpstart our productivity. Staying healthy should be your business’s highest priority.
By now, we all should know the drill about coronavirus:
- Regularly wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds
- Stay away from crowds
- Remain 6+ feet away from people when you have to go out
- Call your mom (Okay, okay, maybe this isn’t a CDC command, but she misses you)
- Avoid touching your face
- Clean and disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched (door handles, cell phones, counters, etc.)
But freelancers should also do a little extra:
- Make time to exercise
- Step outside throughout the day (while avoiding the crowds) to get some healthy sun and fresh air
- Eat your veggies
- Talk to a friend or therapist on the phone — these are tough times
- Read things other than the news
In summary: Keep your mind and body healthy so you can do your best work.
2. Create stability during volatility
When the market is volatile, many businesses cut costs to brace against potential drops in sales. That means your favorite clients might have to pause a project with you. They may cut their marketing budget or ghost you because they have too many internal problems to juggle.
What can you do?
FIND THE EXCEPTIONS
This is going to sound very Wolf of Wall Street for a second. But bear with me.
Freelancers are productivity machines. We partner with companies that need to outsource excess work to meet demand. Even if it feels like all businesses are hurting, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that some businesses are actually having their best weeks ever.
While we’re all quarantined, Amazon is hiring 100,000 employees just to keep up with skyrocketing demand. As of the writing of this article, Marriott’s stock price has dropped -54% since the beginning of 2020.
Meanwhile, Zoom’s stock is up 84% YTD.
Even in times of crisis, you can almost always find companies whose biggest problem is keeping up with exploding demand. Every volatile market has exceptions that are having their best year ever.
Find these companies and take some projects off their hands.
LOOK FOR RETAINERS
What you need is consistency.
Many freelancers work project to project. We place a bid, do the work, and then move on to the next gig. The flexibility is nice—until it’s terrifying.
Retainers can raise your economic floor, making it easier to have predictable income every month. Obviously retainers can also be dropped, but they require more intention to stop. On the other hand, a non-retainer client simply has to finish the current project with you and then choose not to start another one.
In the retainer scenario, the passive response is to keep giving you work. In the one-off gig scenario, the passive response is to stop giving you work.
In my opinion, it’s always best to have a mix of retainer and one-off contracts, as opposed to simply choosing one over the other.
EXPAND YOUR SERVICES
If you’re used to only offering a handful of specific services, consider temporarily expanding your offerings to attract more clients and experiment across multiple business structures.
Journalists can help companies with copywriting, social media content, or content marketing. Designers with a specific niche can offer broader designer services.
Freelancers of any stripe can take on consulting and project management roles.
If you need inspiration, I’d recommend jumping over to the AppSumo store and exploring the lifetime deals they have on software tools for freelancers like us. You might find yourself with a $39 software investment that could give you $1,000s in return—in new client work.
Remember: your skills are often relevant and in-demand outside of your niche. If you’re struggling to find work, pivot to find new ways to use your skills.
3. Practice deep work
Getting to deep work is a two-step process:
- Cut out common distractions like social media, news sites, Netflix, and sock skating through the kitchen a la Risky Business
- Do your deep work
“Deep work,” according to author Cal Newport, “is like a superpower in our current economy: it enables you to quickly (and deliberately) learn complicated new skills and produce high-value output at a high rate.”
For most freelancers, deep work is where we actually earn our money. For writers like me, deep work is the time I spend writing articles like this one. For developers, it’s the time you spend writing or editing code. For designers, it’s the time you spend pushing shapes around an artboard.
This pandemic has simultaneously made it easier and more challenging to conduct deep work. On one hand, everyone is stuck at home. There are no parties to distract you or errands to run. You’ve got nothing better to do than work, right?
Oh, but the distractions are through the roof. News and social media are more distracting than ever before. You can decide to keep clicking refresh on the NYTimes front page, or you can decide to do the work that will pay your bills.
While the world is in panic, put your head down and create your best work.
4. This is your opportunity
Warren Buffett has famously said, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”
If big opportunities were obvious and easy, everyone would take them. That’s why, when the world is in chaos, opportunities are everywhere. You just have to push past the pervasive fear to uncover them.
Freelancers are problem solvers. Go find the people and businesses who need more productivity than they can keep up with. Your skills can literally bring hope and help when the world needs it most.
Superheroes are just freelancers with peculiar powers, right?
Put yourself out there. Go save the world one article, logo, or website at a time.
5. Take financial initiative
Yep, I’m whipping out the F-word.
Wait — not that F-word. This one: Finance.
It’s time to fix your freelance finances with flawless finesse. #AlliterationOnFleek
Here are some best practices to keep your bank account in the positive:
- Spend conservatively: Eat at home. Cancel your paid YouTube account (why the heck are you paying for YouTube in the first place?).
- Save first: Many people view saving money as something you do after you see what money is left over from a spent paycheck. Learn to turn that around. Before you spend anything from your next paycheck, drop a portion into an emergency fund. Saving money is literally paying yourself.
- Market your business like crazy: You don’t know what the market will be like in a month—no one does. It’s better to overload your calendar with work now, so that you can save up in case work dries up in the near future. Prepare for the worst by working hard now.
- Invest: Once you’ve built a comfortable emergency fund (3-6 months of regular expenses), consider putting money into the market. Think of it as buying stocks on discount. But instead of buying stocks, just invest in a low-cost index fund. (Personally, I recommend investing through Vanguard–they’re the best.)
- Spend intentionally: Okay, okay. I know I told you to cut back on spending, but that doesn’t have to negate this point. Other businesses are scared right now too. When people stop spending completely, the market dives because companies stop making money. So, more than ever, spend at your favorite small businesses. If you’re going to buy books, buy them online from your favorite local bookstore. They’ll feel the benefit more than Amazon.
Where to find freelance jobs during a recession
I’m in my fifth year as a freelance copywriter. Here’s where I think you should go to find freelance work.
- Tap into your personal network: Always start here. Post on social media that you’re accepting freelance gigs. Be specific about your experience and what services you offer. You can even contact people directly if you know people who you suspect might need your skills.
- Look on job boards: Create a profile on sites like Upwork, Thumbtack, Freelancer.com, LinkedIn Profinder, and Fiverr. Sure, you won’t be able to command your highest fees on these sites (because there is so much competition), but when times are tough, work is work.
- Cold pitch: Many businesses are going through a hard time right now. Be considerate about how you pitch. Be kind and offer your services with cordiality and respect. If a business needs your services, you may be a saving grace.
- Respond to requests: Use the search bars on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook to find requests for freelancers. Many people look for freelancers by posting requests on social media.
- Join relevant Facebook groups: Which Facebook groups are your ideal customers spending time in? Join these groups. Often people in industry Facebook groups will make posts looking for recommended service providers. That’s your chance to pitch new clients.
- Create relevant resources (content marketing): Create helpful resources for potential clients. What problems are they facing right now? Can you create a resource that helps them? Do it, and then give it away for free online. You never know who will find it and hire you to implement the solution.
- Build authority in your field: Host topical webinars, write for industry publications and blogs, or take all this alone time (otherwise known as social distancing) to write a book that grows your authority.
At the end of every financial downturn, when the dust starts to clear and things revert back to normal, we all hear stories of the people and businesses who kicked ass while everyone else floundered.
Now is the time to search out opportunities to level up your freelance business. Freelancers are helpers at their core. We partner with businesses and people to help them achieve their goals.
Look around you. How can your skills help people during this downturn to achieve their goals or overcome their fears? It’s time to log out of social media and start being productive.
Do the hard work. For some businesses right now, their biggest problem is keeping up with exponential demand. Find these industries and businesses—and put your skills to work.
For other businesses, they’re facing some of the hardest decisions and facing hard times in the days ahead. How can you take some of that load off their backs?
For a business to survive a downturn, it requires proactivity. Now is not the time to sit back and wait. Be intentional. Find where your skills are most in demand.
Be helpful. Oh, and wash your hands.