How to avoid the feast and famine cycle

Many freelancers, coaches and consultants talk about the feast and famine cycle as though it is inevitable.

It’s not.

You might have certain times of the year where your enquiries peak or trough – I’m often a little quieter than usual in August and a little busier around the new year. But these peaks and troughs are manageable.

They aren’t the same as the feast and famine cycle where you are overwhelmed with work one month and then wondering if you’ll be able to pay the mortgage the next.

The good news is these cycles can be broken if you learn how to manage your money, time and marketing.  

Manage your money

Getting control of your money will help you manage the feast and famine cycle more effectively. You won’t get to the point where you have to take on any old project or overload yourself with work just to cover the bills.

Price correctly

If your prices are too low, you will have to take on more work than you should just to earn the money you need to cover your bills.

Let’s say you need £4000 per month to cover your personal and business costs – mortgage, bills, car, food, internet, website costs, accountant, IT etc.

The minimum you need to bill each month is £4000 – that’s the minimum. Ideally, you’d want a bit extra towards unexpected costs and luxuries, so let’s say £5000 is your target amount.

If you are charging the equivalent of £25 per hour, you have to do 200 billable hours of work per month. In a 30-day month, that works out at around 6.5 hours a day. And that’s without a day off and without accounting for non-billable work such as admin and marketing.

If you take a week off or have a month where you don’t get much work, you’ll be playing catch up, working 60, 70, 80 hours or more.

And while it’s fine to work long hours, it should be because you choose to, not because you have to.

Get your pricing right, and you won’t have to take on every single project that comes your way just to pay the bills.

Create a buffer

The temptation when you have a “feast” phase is to pay yourself a bit extra and have a few treats, but this can leave you short two months down the line when things go quiet again. That’s why I leave any extra money in my business.

I pay myself the same amount each month even when I exceed my sales targets.

This helps me build a buffer so I can still pay myself if I have a below-average month, a month with lots of outgoings, or a month where I am on holiday. Once I have a comfortable buffer, I pay myself a “bonus”.

Ideally, you want to get to a position where you have enough of a buffer that you could still cover all your bills if you had no billable work for a month (or even longer).

The chances of you getting no billable work are probably slim, but this is a worst-case scenario.

What it means is you don’t get to the point of desperation. You aren’t so worried about money that you take on low-paying work or start discounting your rates.

The problem with filling your time with discounted work is that you don’t have time to go out and get the clients and work you want.

If you hold a little money back each month, you can stand your ground with your prices. And once you’ve built up a comfortable buffer, you can give yourself a pay rise or treat yourself to a bonus.

Invoice upfront

Unfortunately, not all clients pay their invoices quickly, which can be a real problem if you’re relying on that money to pay your mortgage.

You don’t want to spend hours chasing payments for work you completed months ago, especially if you are only just hitting your sales targets each month.

And what will you do if a client decides they aren’t going to pay?

Getting paid in advance for your work means you know you have cash in the bank to pay next month’s bills. You don’t have to scrape the barrel for work to tide you over or take on extra work to cover unpaid invoices.

Manage your time

If you manage your time effectively, you don’t have to spend your quieter periods chasing work. You can use them to work on side projects or business development.

Create efficient systems

Even something as simple as having proposal templates can save a significant amount of time. Rather than spending hours writing out the same thing, you take the relevant sections of the prewritten template and then fill in the blanks as needed.

But where you can really make a difference is putting processes in place for managing enquiries to filter out timewasters before you end up in a call or meeting with them.

When you’re desperate for work, it can seem like a good idea to “jump on a call” with someone who is interested in your services. While this might occasionally turn into work, it quite often turns into a waste of time. They either want to pump you for free advice or get a quote to compare against all their other quotes.

If you have systems in place to qualify enquiries before you jump on calls, you eliminate this problem. And you can use the time you’re not wasting on pointless calls to focus on attracting better leads in the first place.

Make time for marketing even when you are busy

One of the main contributors to the feast and famine cycle is erratic marketing.

When freelancers hit a famine phase, they usually have a big push on sales and marketing.

They go to networking events, spend more time on social media, write blog posts or make videos. They have more time for calls and meetings, following up on emails, and putting together detailed proposals.

All that effort pays off, and they get an influx of work. But now they have so much work they don’t have time for all that other stuff. Marketing gets neglected. Calls, emails and proposals get missed or rushed.

So then, when the busy period is over, they have no more work lined up. And then what happens? Another mad push on marketing and business development.

And round and round the cycle goes.

You need to break the cycle by making time for marketing even when you’re busy. Whether you schedule an hour a day or half a day a week, put it in your calendar and treat it as you would a client project – make it a priority.

Use quiet periods to work on your business

If you do find yourself in a quiet phase, use it to your advantage, Don’t spend it running around every networking event you can find in the hope you’ll bump into someone who needs your help. Use it to work on your marketing and business development.

Use it to create those templates and put effective systems in place. Research new software and review your existing processes.

Use it to work on your marketing. Pre-write a batch of social media posts so you have content prepared for when you’re busy again. Update your website or social media profiles.

Use it for personal development. Build on your existing skills or learn new skills. Do refresher courses or familiarise yourself with new industry updates. Take business or marketing courses. Get a consultation to help you improve an area of your business.

Don’t go into panic mode if you’re experiencing a lull – be proactive and do stuff to prevent it from happening again.

Manage your marketing

As mentioned above, inconsistent marketing greatly contributes to the feast and famine cycle. Think of it like exercise – if you stop doing it, you stop seeing results.

Be consistent

Bombarding your social media followers or email subscribers with promotional messages when you need sales and then going completely silent for weeks when you’re busy is not a good strategy.

Be visible all the time, not just when you want something.

If you’ve used your quiet time to create social posts and content, you can still continue marketing yourself when you’re busy. You only need a couple of minutes a day to put a post out, or you can even pre-schedule your content.

Set realistic targets for the level of content you can put out all year round, not just at quiet times. Three social media posts a week. One blog post a month. A quarterly newsletter. Whatever is manageable for you as long as you can be consistent.

Stay focused on your ideal client

When freelancers go into panic mode during a famine phase, they often start trying to appeal to anyone and everyone, offering all kinds of products, services and packages.

This dilutes your messaging and makes your marketing feel confused.

Stay focused. Tailor your marketing to your ideal clients. Talk about the problems you solve for them.

If you stay consistent with your messaging, you’ll see a more consistent flow of enquiries. And you’ll see more of the right type of enquiries, so you’ll spend less time dealing with people you can’t help.

Track your results

Which of your marketing activities get you the best results?

If you don’t know the answer, how do you know what to do more of?

Track your results. Look at where your enquiries are coming from. Ask people how they found you.

That way, you’ll know where to focus your time and effort when you are busy.

Get control of your business

The feast and famine cycle is not inevitable – you don’t have to suffer periods of overwhelm and stress followed by periods of anxiety and panic.

If you get your marketing and sales processes right, you attract more of the clients you want and get paid what you’re worth.

My book – The Freelance Fairytale – teaches you how to do exactly that. 

Get your copy here. 

Want something a little more hands-on?

Book one of my 90-minute consultations, and we’ll look at what you can do right now to help you get the feast and famine cycle under control.