Balancing Too-Much and Not-Enough Work
by Rob Spiegel
What’s more stressful? A workload that requires a long stretch of 10- to 12-hour days? Or a slow and quiet flow of work that forces you to eat up your financial cushion and leaves you borrowing to make your mortgage payment? Both extremes are troubling beyond measure and both are common in the unpredictable world of business ownership. Even the largest companies stretch and contract with the business cycle and with changes in the marketplace.
I go through a couple of these painful gyrations from too-much-work to too-little a couple times each year as I struggle to balance my business as a self-employed journalist. “Self-employed journalist,” by the way, is a respectable-sounding term for your basic work-in-your-bathrobe-and-need-a-shave-freelancer. Recently one of my main clients lost her freelance budget. For her, it was an inconvenience. For me, it was a terror on the level of a massive asteroid headed straight for earth with impact predicted in about 64 hours.
Within 14 second of getting the sickening news, I figured out I had about nine weeks before my checks would start to bounce. Since it takes about 30 days to get paid on my invoices – I’m lucky, I have a pay-quick bunch of clients – and it takes about three weeks to research and deliver an assigned article, that left me about two weeks to either find legitimate and fruitful work, or begin applying for life insurance sales jobs. Within two or three minutes, I started the process of contacting dormant clients and combing the websites listing freelance opportunities – ghostwriting memoirs for aging entrepreneurs.
My fear-based drive to find work paid off. The dormant-client mining worked. So did poking around in the freelance websites. I was on a roll and I kept pushing. Before long I had a handful of regular weekly projects as well as spot projects and a few long-term contracts. But it takes time for this work to kick in, as projects don’t get doled out immediately. So I kept pushing and pushing for more work. You often have to wait two or three months for a prospect to say, “We’re ready to move ahead now – are you still available?”
Three weeks into my push to replace the budget-crunch loss, I had replaced my lost work. But five weeks later, I was still accepting work from prospects who were slow to move. Eight weeks after my prospecting binge, my original client called and announced that her freelance budget had been restored and she was ready to send along a series of article assignments. Still stinging from the fear of not having enough work, I said, “Great.” She asked whether I had the time, and I replied, “Certainly.”
Even as the words left my mouth, I knew I was committing to months without a good night’s sleep. It was back to the wake-at-three-in-the-morning grind. But how can you say no when the work you’re getting is making your dreams of self-employment come true? After all, in another ten weeks it could all dry up and blow away.
The swing between not-enough work to way-too-much work is a common – and normal – challenge for one-person home entrepreneurs. In most small businesses, you simply add employees to manage the work flow. But when you’re a home-based entrepreneur, adding employees my not be an option. I tried it once and didn’t like it. I found myself spending all my time selling and managing others who were doing the work I really wanted to do.
When you want to remain a one-person company, the road to growth is to keep up-leveling your clients. As you build up too much work, you begin to turn down work from your low-paying, high-maintenance clients. Or you simply turn down the work that is less engaging, less fun, less likely to produce additional attractive projects. This churning process allows you to directly improve the nature of your work.
But the road to this idyllic business level is ugly with potholes, sloppy mud and false encouraging signs. In reality, running a home company is marked by swings between too much and work and not enough.