The optimal number of clients to have at once

My freelancing boom-and-bust cycle used to look like this: I would get a client, usually one who wanted 40 hours a week, and work with that client for some number of months. During the time we were working together I would be too busy with client work to market myself, so when the client engagement inevitably ended, I would have to scramble to find my next gig. Since I would be desperate, I would often compromise on things like rate, payment terms, weekly workload, “coolness” of the client and other things. So I would end up with a client who was in one or more ways not a very good fit, but I had painted myself into such a corner that I didn’t have much of a choice. The worst compromise is for me to work with a shitty client who I want to get away from as fast as possible, meaning that the client engagement doesn’t result in a permanent relationship (meaning referrals), but that it ends in a “thanks for the business, have a nice life” kind of way.

I used to think that a good way to smooth out this boom-and-bust cycle might be to work for more than one client at a time. Working 20 hours a week for two clients is better than working 40 hours a week for one, right? If one goes away, it’s not the end of the world. I did in fact try out this way of working. At one point I found myself working for eight different clients at once! That was a nightmare.

What I found in practice was that two 20-hour clients adds up to more total work than one 40-hour client. Each client has a certain amount of overhead in terms of both time and in terms of space in your brain. If I juggle multiple clients, I have to make weird decisions about whose work I work on when. I rob Peter to pay Paul. I usually have a “favorite” or a “main” client, with the other client being more of an obligation than a privilege.

What I’ve come to believe is that working for multiple clients at once is not the solution to the boom-and-bust cycle.

What I think is the solution to the boom-and-bust cycle is having what Alan Weiss calls market gravity. I’ve spent the last few years building up a healthy professional network of ever higher quality. Because of this, the last time I wanted to find a new gig (and this time it was not a need but a want, which is of course always preferable), all I had to do was ping my network and I suddenly had a bunch of leads available to me.

So my strategy for security now is not to try to have multiple client engagements in parallel, but to always be forming more and more relationships with people of higher and higher caliber. If a person has enough strong relationships with the right kind of people, I think it’s unlikely that that person will find him- or herself short of work for very long.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to form more and better relationships, you can sign up to get notified of the release of my new book, Business Networking for Freelance Programmers.

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