Eggs and Baskets: the Freelancer’s Dilemma

basketA freelancing friend of mine has recently focused heavily on one very good client, which has been great. But last week, another smaller client popped up with a short project. He’s one guy, with only so many hours in the day. So should he turn the small client away and focus on the large, reliable client? Or should he avoid putting all his eggs in one basket: should he take on the small client as well, but risk disappointing them both?

This is a dilemma that many of us are facing, especially as the pickings become slimmer. Should we jeopardize a relationship with a great client just so we don’t have all our eggs in one basket? Or should we focus on cultivating the best, most profitable clients, and hope they stick with us?

The one-basket myth

I tend to think it’s no more risky to freelance for a single client than it is to be employed by a single company. You could argue that organizations hold onto their own staff the longest, and contractors are the first ones to go when numbers need cutting. But you can pretty swiftly wind up unemployed in either situation, given the right economy.

Perhaps an equally important consideration is the philosophy behind working for one company: many freelancers go out on their own because they don’t want to rely on one source of income; others do it so they can enjoy the variety that freelancing usually entails. But if these issues don’t bother you, it might be fine for you to continue to focus on your one good, big client.

Cracking multiple eggs

The one thing you can never tell when someone approaches you with a small piece of work is just how far it will lead. From little things big things grow, after all. So passing up on a small piece of work today may see you forfeit much more work in the longer term.

Of course, there’s also the question of spreading your freelancing risk, which isn’t just about having work from multiple sources, so you’ll always have something on — it’s also about having multiple people to seek remittance from, which can be extremely valuable if one of your clients suddenly finds s/he can’t pay. If this sounds like your approach, you might do everything you can to fit in that smaller client. That said, if at the start of the job you’re already worried about how much time you have to give it, you might be heading for disaster by taking it on.

The options

I’ll assume that working 24/7 for a month isn’t an option! What can you do if you’re faced with this dilemma? Here are the options as I see them.

Decline
Politely decline the job, suggesting an alternative contractor if you know one. Yes, you might be passing up on a small job that could lead to much bigger things, but you’re also reducing the chances that you’ll disappoint your clients.

Flex
That’s right: the old timeframe squash. Can you or your clients amend their timeframes so that you can work with them both? If so, you might be willing to put in the hard yards to get both projects completed.

Outsource
Take the small job and farm it out to another contractor. If you haven’t done it before, and you don’t know anyone with the skills you need, this approach may be unlikely to save you time. But if you know someone who’s up to the task, and you know you can rely on them, outsourcing a project to them (or working together on both) might enable you to keep both clients with minimum fuss.

I like the range of jobs freelancing offers, so most often, I find myself flexing: juggling timeframes and client expectations, and using firm diplomacy to get everything done (while dreaming of the next lull). What about you?

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  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    I like the range of jobs freelancing offers, so most often, I find myself flexing: juggling timeframes and client expectations, and using firm diplomacy to get everything done (while dreaming of the next lull). What about you?

    Pretty much exactly that. I do turn down some work but the size of the job is usually not a factor in the decision; it’s usually more about what the job involves and who the client is/what they’re like.

  • Benji+

    I think communication is the key. Telling your clients what’s going on behind the scenes is something that a lot of freelancers hesitate to do. But, when you consider that your clients are business people too (in most cases), communicating to them the kinds of challenges that are facing your business can work out better than you’d expect. If you tell them the timeframe dilemmas and the choice you have to make of whether to take on or turn away more work, it makes them aware of the impact of their project on your business, which builds the relationship. If they say that they’re absolutely firm on their deadline and are relying on you to get the job done, then at least they know that you’re turning away other work to help them. So when it comes time for them to pay the bill, there’s a greater sense of responsibility. The worst thing you could do is to not communicate an adjustment in your workload when it will or could have an impact on your ability to respond to their needs as promised or expected.