Did the recent U.S. stock-market dip make you worried about the future of your freelance work? If so, you’re not alone.
I’ve been getting anxious emails from freelance writers ever since stocks suddenly ended their long upward climb earlier this month, and took a big dip.
Good news: Freelancers can thrive during recessions.
I know this because I steadily built my own freelance writing business up during the last recession, hitting six figures in the final year of the downturn, 2011. You can recession-proof your freelance business now, so that you thrive even when the economy falters.
Let me walk you through what’s happening now, and give you concrete steps to take right now to help you sail through a recession with a solid freelance income.
Economics 101 for freelancers
Why do freelance writers need to worry about what the stock market is doing right now?
Short version: The stock market’s overall value recently plunged. Experts think it will probably continue to sink. And that means companies will be worth less, start hoarding cash, be able to borrow less, sales will decline…and some will spend less on hiring writers for freelance work.
Details: After rising steadily from under 11,000 in 2011 to a record-high 26,600, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dipped under 24,000 in early February before stabilizing lower, as you can see here.
Many economists believe this big dip signals the onset of a coming major recession. Just check out this market sentiment gauge from CNN Money, to take the pulse of investors:
Global instability and terrorism is on the rise. President Trump is looking to tear up longstanding international trade contracts.
It all adds up to uncertainty. People don’t buy when they’re scared. That goes for everything from stocks to designer purses.
Once big stock investors start selling, others panic and also sell. Stock prices spiral down. Retail sales start to shrink, too. Companies start doing big layoffs. Unemployment goes up.
Add it all up, and it means the go-go days for freelance work come to a sudden end.
Our shrinking safety net
Final important thing to know, American writers: Trump is gutting the safety net for unemployed workers.
Where President Obama extended unemployment to a record 99 weeks during the previous downturn, expect few benefits to help you over the hump this time. We’ve got an administration that believes federal aid makes you unmotivated and weak, so it’s all being cut.
In other words, there’s little advantage to staying in a day-job now. There’s never been a better time to get serious about your freelance work, and build a recession-proof business of your own.
Having seen writers end up living in their cars around 2010, I think it’s critical that freelancers understand how to prosper during hard times.
Here are seven steps to take now:
1. Spread your risk
If you’re a freelancer who only has one client, or only works in a single industry, you’re at high risk in a recession.
Companies have a way of suddenly shutting their doors in downturns — and that includes mass online job platforms (remember oDesk?). You want a fairly large, varied client base to spread your risk when the economy gets wobbly.
Imagine being a real-estate writer in 2010, for instance. Poof! Overnight, there was no work.
Branch out now and build your client list. Your top job is to be cranking a lot of marketing out the door, every week.
My story: In the last downturn, I lost every single one of my clients, one at a time, over a period of two years. Publications closed. Content marketing suddenly ceased. Rates were slashed, and I dropped clients.
But it was all OK. Because I was constantly marketing, I was able to quickly replace them all — in some cases, with better-paying gigs.
2. Ask for more
If you have ongoing clients and haven’t asked for a raise in the past 6 months – 1 year, ask now. Make your case about what you’ve learned about the company, the results you’ve seen, and how your value has grown.
Don’t put off raise requests! The stock crash seems to have stabilized as I write this, and raises are still doable. A month or three from now, who knows if they’ll still be viable.
My story: I asked for a raise and got $10 an hour more from a large, ongoing business-consultancy client. Within 60 days, the economy was tanking, and I wouldn’t have had the guts to ask.
The difference added up to thousands of dollars over the next couple of years.
3. Make your pitch
If you’ve been wanting to up-sell a client to do a more sophisticated type of writing, that’s another pitch to make right now.
Get locked in for better projects that improve your samples and command better rates, especially if you’re doing cheap web content or low-paid blog posts right now.
My story: I was doing a lot of business blogging back in 2009. Just before the crash, I pitched one of them a new free product for their subscribers — a special report that paid $2,000. That provided a nice chunk of change, at a time when other clients were scaling back.
4. Improve your looks
Know what really gets you hired? Testimonials. If you’ve slacked off on collecting them, send out those requests now.
If your clients are busy, offer to compose something they can sign off on. Seriously, they won’t mind!
My story: I sprinkled every page of my writer website with testimonials, and kept snagging quality clients in bad times.
5. Get networked
We live in a magical age for networking. Used to be, if your favorite editor or marketing manager suddenly got sacked, you lost touch. Your only contact info for them was at the company they’d just left!
Now, we have LinkedIn. Hop on there now and make sure you’re connected to all your client contacts. That way, if they end up moving on when times get hard, you’ll be able to see where they pop up next. Don’t forget to build relationships with as many people as you can at your existing client companies — that’ll help you preserve this relationship as staffing changes.
My story: When my editors got laid off, I sent them job leads. I don’t know that any of them panned out, but it showed I cared. The result is that I have editors I’ve worked with at three different magazines, over the years.
6. Follow the money
Who pays even better and markets harder during downturns? Profitable, successful companies in highly competitive spaces. These are your target markets, headed into a recession.
- If your clients are solopreneurs with no employees, they’re not succeeding at marketing. That means they won’t see the value and will cut back on sales copy if they get nervous.
- By contrast fast-growing or market-leading companies tend to double down on marketing when things get tough, to make sure they keep growing. They know a downturn is an opportunity to steal business from weaker competitors who scale back. These are your prime targets as the economy weakens.
- The other reason to target great clients that pay pro rates? As more aspiring writers are laid off, they’ll flood into the bottom of the marketplace. Competition for those $25 blog post gigs will get stiffer, while those who’ve targeted better clients won’t see those problems. You can’t acquire the seasoning to deal with top-drawer clients overnight, so the newbies don’t tend to be a problem if you’re writing $5,000 case studies and the like.
My story: I worked for Fortune 500 companies and global private firms during the downturn. One space that paid off well for me is high-priced business consulting. While other writers were scrambling for cheap gigs, I was writing a $13,000 project of two annual reports.
7. Write on target
To keep earning in a downturn, you have to write the things your clients need most. Less essential topics or types of writing may get cut from their schedule.
- For business clients, that means learning to write persuasive copy. Sales pages will never go out of style, but companies might stop doing tons of, say, soft-sell content marketing — where the payoff in sales growth may be slower and less directly obvious.
- If you’re writing for publications, figure out what the bread-and-butter stories are that magazine has to deliver. Focus on those, as more tangential topics may get trimmed if pages shrink. Develop hot exclusives the pub simply must publish.
My story: In publications, I focused on having a ton of story ideas and being the go-to writer who made editors’ lives easy. While other writers were scrabbling for their next assignment, I was writing regular weekly columns for Entrepreneur.com, straight through the downturn, and also scored sponsored content assignments at $600 apiece — because I had the article ideas.
Keep calm and find freelance work
I get it — if you’ve launched your freelancing career in the past 6 years or so, you may never have dealt with a recession as a business owner before. And the first time you see the economy hit the skids, it can feel scary.
If you’re freaking out that the economy may crash, I’d say my big message is: Relax. Economies wax and wane in fairly predictable cycles. Sooner or later, what goes up comes down.
Now that you know what to do, you can take action immediately. Lay the groundwork now to make sure you don’t starve if a recession arrives.