I run a 6-figure freelance graphic design agency, and even during the pandemic we're on track to hit our $300,000 yearly goal. Here are 4 key things that have helped me retain clients and keep revenue strong.
- Morgan Overholt is the founder and owner of Morgan Media LLC, a graphic design agency.
- Despite the unforeseen circumstances of the pandemic, her small business was ready to continue operating and functioning at full force.
- Her employees and clients were already accustomed to remote work, so shelter-in-place policies haven't greatly affected her, and she relies on other freelancers for work so she can scale her team to fit business needs.
- She advises other small businesses looking to pandemic-proof their companies lean on remote tools, get good at finding clients online, diversify their income streams, and keep their operations agile and lean.
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Of the many challenges I expected to face when I quit my normal 9-to-5 job to launch a freelance graphic design agency three years ago, a pandemic was not one of them.
I currently live and work in Miami, which received orders to shut down all nonessential businesses on March 18, followed by a shelter-in-place order just six days later.
I remember walking home from my office the night before the city-mandated emergency orders were going to take effect and seeing my once-bustling downtown neighborhood already showing signs of desertion.
Previously busy sidewalks and streets were empty and businesses, shops, and restaurants were hurriedly making preparations to lock up shop for an indeterminate amount of time. Closure notices were posted on every door, and a general sense of uncertainty and fear filled the air in a palpable way.
It hadn't felt real to me until that moment. And in addition to the general fear and anxiety of the virus itself, I couldn't help but also selfishly wonder what the future held for my small business.
I've spent the past three years growing my freelance company from a solo venture - making barely $5,000 in the first month - into a small agency model that generates nearly $300,000 in annual revenue. I couldn't be any more proud of myself and my team and what we've accomplished over the course of the past few years - but could we really survive a global pandemic?
How freelancers are doing during the crisis
Fast forward three weeks to today, a.k.a., day 20-something of self-quarantine. While it still feels like the world is crumbling around me, my business (knock on wood) seems to be largely unaffected. In fact, we are currently right on target to have another $300,000 gross revenue year.
Which left me wondering: Is my stability in these uncertain times simply a fluke, or is this a breakout moment for freelancers? And specifically, freelancers who can work remotely from the comfort of their own homes and tend to thrive in an online setting?
Executives from a variety of gig-based organizations that help freelancers find work, including TopTal, Fiverr, and We Are Rosie, largely reporting positive trends, according to a recent Forbes article. And in some cases, the organizations saw an uptick in business as furloughed workers look for an alternate source of income and businesses turn to freelancers to keep their workforce as lean as possible in these uncertain times.
"We're in an unprecedented moment in time, and it's still too soon to say what the full, lasting effects of COVID-19 will be on the workforce," Nancy Van Brunt, head of talent success for Upwork, one of the world's largest freelance marketplaces, told Business Insider. "Right now, we're seeing an influx of professionals joining Upwork who are seeking quality, reliable work opportunities."
While these trends may change, these are a few tricks that I have used to achieve stability as a freelancer in a time when job prospects for many are uncertain.
1. Lean on remote processes and applications from the get-go
Even on a normal week, the vast majority of my business relies on the ability to work remotely. Most of my clients live and work out of state, and most of my staff and subcontractors work from home already. So while I maintain an office, we have never relied on having a physical space to get work done.
So when the shelter-in-place order was issued, I simply picked up my laptop and went home.
Side note: The main reason I opted to upgrade to an office in the first place was to give my husband, who is also a self-employed contractor, a little breathing room. (That's a little marital bonus pro tip for any freelancing couples out there. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. You can thank me later.)
My team and I use Slack for daily communications, Dropbox for storing files, and Trello for project management. And because we were all used to working remotely already - unlike so many other workplaces which had to scramble to find the right equipment, software, and workflows - we experienced no downtime.
In fact, we didn't have any discussions about what the future of work would entail. There were no company memos; we just all woke up the next morning and got to work like it was any other day.
Our ability as a team to pick up and work from anywhere with virtually zero notice has been crucial to the stability of our daily operations.
2. Get good at finding clients online
I meet the majority of my clients online via word of mouth and marketplaces like Upwork. I've always found these mediums to be more fruitful than in-person networking events which, at least in Miami, seem to mostly be filled with attendees who are looking for work, instead of looking to hire.
So once again when the quarantine began, I knew it wouldn't affect my ability to find new work or clients. I can use the same mediums I've always used.
Even during a crisis, there are new jobs being posted to my "find work" feed on Upwork every 10 to 15 minutes, and I'm regularly receiving invitations to submit proposals. Toptal, Freelancer.com, and Fiverr are also great resources for finding work online.
It's also crucial at times like these to reach out to your current and former clients letting them know you're available for work - and ask for referrals. You'll be surprised what kind of business you can drum up just by simply utilizing the professional connections you already have.
It doesn't have to be anything formal or complex. Here's an example of a referral request I sent just this morning after wrapping up a booklet project:
It's been a pleasure working with you - I always appreciate great reviews and referrals!
Ask and you shall receive.
3. Maintain a variety of clients and income sources
Freelancers have always had the upper hand when it comes to diversifying their income, especially compared to their 9-to-5 peers.
According to Upwork's Freelancing in America 2019 study, most independent professionals had at least five clients, and 65% felt that having a diversified portfolio made their income more secure than having a single traditional employer.
My team works with a wide range of clientele in a wide variety of industries on a regular basis - including government subcontractors, for-profits, nonprofits, life coaches, financial advisors, tech startups, authors, retailers, and even cat-litter manufacturers, to name a few. So even if a handful of my clients take a hit, I have several more that I can lean on.
In fact, some of my clients are even working directly with the government to help deploy emergency management services as we speak, which has led to an increase in my coronavirus-related projects, which have been keeping me quite busy lately.
I also collect my income from multiple sources to further insulate myself from the fall of any single industry or service, including freelancing on and offline, writing for publications, and leasing out part of my office space.
And yes, my office rental took a hit this month, but with the other sources of income, the financial impact has been minimal so far.
4. Keep your operations agile and lean
As a freelancer, I've always had a unique appreciation for the versatility gig workers bring to the table and not been afraid to utilize that versatility when scaling my own business up or down as needed.
While I have a regular crew that work with me on a daily basis, when I find myself in need of someone with a special skill - like custom Wordpress coding, a technical illustration, video work, or even HR services - I don't immediately start looking for a regular part-time or full-time employee. I hire a freelancer to get it done.
This requires no long-term commitment. I don't have to worry about whether or not I can afford to employ that person on a regular basis or go through the days-long process of filing employment paperwork. Working with other freelancers allows me to get the job done quickly, and then move on when I'm ready.
When my workload is at its busiest, my team has been as large as seven or eight people working simultaneously to get the job done. When work slows down, we can shrink back down our small team of three regular staffers.
I've also been on the receiving side of this phenomenon. It isn't at all uncommon for a client to reach out to me to temporarily fill in for someone on maternity leave, or for someone who recently quit until they are able to fill the position.
Do you have a personal experience with the coronavirus you'd like to share? Or a tip on how your town or community is handling the pandemic? Please email email@example.com and tell us your story.
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