Freelancers: Why you shouldn’t put all your eggs in the one basket

by Steve Colquhoun
15 December 2023

Successful freelancers tend to be fast learners who are quick to pivot. But even the best of us can still miss, or wilfully overlook, a critical weakness in our business structure.

I’m talking about how many of your precious freelance eggs to put in one basket. In other words, how much of your time and income are you prepared to let any single client soak up?

Having a roster of clients, each with their own requirements and ways of doing things, keeps things fresh and challenging.  But more than that, diversifying helps to mitigate financial risk.

I was told early on that as a rule of thumb, no single client should account for more than one-third of your total income. That way, if a client goes bust, or announces a dreaded ‘restructure’, you only lose a small portion of income, rather than a more sizable chunk that might throw into jeopardy the perfect operation that you worked hard to shape around your lifestyle, family or health needs.

Rules, schmules …

It’s a pretty sound theory. But once in a blue moon may come a client that tempts you to break the rule. A strong pipeline of ongoing work. Excellent remuneration. Maybe even a contract or a retainer, offering the one thing sorely missing from your freelance existence. An itch that usually only full-time work can scratch. Certainty.

For jobbing freelancers, there’s a lot to be said for having a decent proportion of your income goal – that number we all have in our heads representing what’s needed to keep the lights on and a roof overhead – locked away. You definitely sleep a little more soundly.

I was incredibly fortunate to have such a client wander into my life pretty much the day I hung out my freelance shingle. For the past seven years, I’ve enjoyed rolling 12-month contracts with generous monthly payments and perks you frankly wouldn’t believe (buy me a drink one day, and I’ll tell you).

In return, I set aside 2-3 days a week for their work, which I enjoyed doing. I was free to fill the rest of my week with any other client work I chose – as long as it was non-competitive with my key client’s business.

I mean, who wouldn’t jump at that? A golden goose client whose regular-as-clockwork payments accounted for around 60 percent of my total income, with whom I had an excellent relationship.

A voice in the back of my brain periodically whispered caution. ‘Maybe we should prepare a Plan B?’ In theory, I knew I should.

Ignore that cautious voice at your peril

And now, here we are … wrapping my brain around the sobering news that my contract won’t be renewed next year, and there’s a hole in my income generation that you could drive a bus through.

Look, it was most definitely not the wrong thing to do, putting so many freelance eggs in one basket. My family benefitted from a cumulative income better than most genuinely jobbing freelancers could hope for. And I’ve enjoyed greater peace of mind than any freelancer ever expects.

But in the cold light of a difficult day that now seems to have been inevitable (ain’t hindsight grand?), a few harsh truths stand out. Maybe I should have squirrelled away some of the proceeds of this generous arrangement to help with the transition to whatever comes next. Certainly, I ought to have planned better, maybe including working up a few decent ready-to-roll business plans or side hustles. I might easily have spent more time networking, or marketing myself to potential new clients. I should have kept my website more evergreen, and my CV fresh. And I definitely, absolutely could have been a lot less complacent about my fortunate situation.

So – if you’re ever lucky enough to land one of those golden goose clients, make hay while the sun shines, and good luck to you.

But freelancing is a fickle biz at the best of times; and the best of times will come to an end at some point. So to keep your freelance dream humming along, my advice is to make sure you’re spreading your freelance eggs into many different baskets. Or, if not, that you at least always have your Plan B ready to go.

Consider:

  • Setting aside income to help bridge you into a new arrangement
  • Working up plans for a new business idea or side hustle to fill a gap
  • Networking and marketing yourself. Even if you don’t think you need it, you probably do
  • Keeping your website, social media profiles and CV up to date
  • Wargaming ‘what ifs’ that could threaten your viability.

Have you put all your eggs in the one basket while freelancing – letting one client dominate your time and income? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments

Steve Colquhoun

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