How to Claw Your Way out of the Feast or Famine Cycle

If you’ve been running your own business for more than a short while, I bet you’re familiar with  the feast or famine cycle of freelance & solo work. You dedicate your time to a client’s project – working diligently to overdeliver and impress. Once you knock that project out though, you have to quickly scramble to find your next project.

It’s hard to keep a steady amount of work in a pipeline. But if you don’t, you’ll have times when you’re not working, you’re not getting paid, and you can’t effectively plan your time. It can feel like a trap.

Nearly every one of us seems to start out that way. I think it’s because you hear all over the place how you’d better hustle your way to success. Hustling is put out there as the Only True Way. Entrepreneurship is a lot of work certainly, but the way I see the word hustle being used is that if you’re not appearing to be “up-all-night-caffeine-crazed” busy, then you’re not hustling. It’s used to shame people who don’t have 17 hours a day to work.

The secret is, a lot of folks’ hustle is really just busy work.

Once you recognize that though, you’re free to change it, and I have some hints on how to do that.

The Real Problem with Feast or Famine Cycles

The real problem is that you’re not filling up your pipeline of leads while you’re working on a client project. You can’t just disappear from the world, hide in a closet of an office, head down, and crank out work for your client. Goodness knows, I’ve tried that method over and over, and it never did work.

When your project is over, unless you have someone lined up, you won’t be getting paid for a while, not until you get a deposit on your next project. You’ll be forced to scramble and you’ll stay stressed until you’re hired again. You don’t have a definite end to your day or end to your work. You’ll be tempted to continually work through family time like dinner and t-ball games.

It’s Not All About the Hustle

I don’t like the word hustle, could you guess? It brings to mind the yell-in-your-face, tacky-McMansion, brag-about-his-Lambo sales guy for me. It has a pretty scam-y connotation. Being busy isn’t going to build your business. Only the right work will build your business, and you can plan ahead for that.

It’s so tempting to think that if you just keep going and work a little harder, it will all come together. Soon you’ll have enough $$ to hire someone, and this problem will all go away.

What’s Changing

More and more cheap freelancers enter the market every day. They offer everything from iffy Squarespace skills to high-end design services at rock bottom prices. Sometimes it’s because their cost of living is low, sometimes it’s because they don’t know any better. Much of the time, it’s because they think they have to be cheap to compete, so they are. They will make it harder and harder to win the kinds of clients that require scrambling.

Give those clients up. There are others, I promise. I didn’t really believe this though until I accidentally landed one of them.

But Hustling Feels Like Work

You feel like you have to hustle. Hustling makes you feel like you’re doing real work that’s going to get you ahead. I get that – it’s usually the kind of work though, that if i you didn’t do it, nothing bad would happen. It’s not important work.

It feels like “feast” but sets you up for “famine.”

Because you’re stuck on this though, you miss family events or sports or even dinner because you can’t say no to incoming work. You’re not sure there will be more after that.

The real solution might be lots of hard work, but it’s not a scramble, clawing and scraping. It’s diligently and systematically working through your plan that you know will work.

3 Key Ways to Set Yourself Up to Avoid the Famine

Automate your lead generation as much as possible

If you’re running a business and a family, you just don’t have the time available to do everything yourself. Yes, you can outsource, but you can also automate. Personally, I love the idea, but have had some resistance putting it into practice. In case you do too, here are some tips:

Present an enticing offer. I don’t know what that is for your target audience. Remember that an email address may not be money, but it’s still payment. And exchange. If you offer something that will actually help someone out, and they recognize they need it, your audience will be happy to pay with an email address.

Make sure to place your offer in areas that make sense to the target audience. I’m mostly talking about on websites here on this blog, but this rule applies out in the world as well.

Have you ever gone to the mall to shop for shoes and had a kiosk attendant come after you with a flat iron and try to straighten your hair to sell their products? You know the folks I’m talking about – they’re literally in your face and you really don’t even want to look them in the eye. You certainly don’t want that cheap flat iron in your hair. And now you’re upset and forgot what you were shopping for. Or is that just me?

In my mind, that’s what a giant pop-up asking for my email address is like. Especially when I’m reading articles on how to train my crazy puppy and the site pops up an offer for germ-free stainless steel dog bowls, covering all the article. Annoying. And I wasn’t even shopping for dog bowls at all.

So, if you have a great offer, in the right places, make sure that when you collect up those email addresses, you do something with them! Use an email autoresponder like MailChimp or ActiveCampaign to send out a series of emails welcoming your visitor.

In your series, give more value in the form of tips, links to helpful articles, discounts, and even downloadable resources. You can start building up trust and goodwill. These folks will become your warm leads.

Focus on the relationship building

Not everything can be automated. Once you’ve started nurturing your leads with your automated email sequences, try reaching out in person. Send an email and see if you can talk on the phone. While this is really time consuming, you can bet that the folks that take you up on the call are going to be the ones that really get what you’re doing. You can try this with social media followers too.

For your actual customers, you can keep following up with them through a combination of automated emails and live reaching out. Approach projects as long-term relationships even if they appear at first glance to be one-off projects. Get permission, but try to get your current customers on  your newsletter email list. Also make sure that you have regular touch-points during your project, even if they’re quick status calls or emails. After the project, have an automated follow up email sequence. And, add to your calendar times to reach out and call these folks on the phone.

Don’t forget colleagues too. I’ve had some great referral work from people I’ve met at WordCamp and local meetups. Online there are groups to join that can really help you up your game and stay sane.

Document your processes

Documenting what you do will do three things for you – standardize what you deliver, identify area where you could improve, and hand off work to others.

Standardizing what you deliver is important because if you’re starting every client project from scratch, you’ll never gain an expertise or achieve any sort of economy of scale. A completely bespoke project had better be ludicrously expensive. Even if solutions that you deliver are unique per client, you can use the same process each time to get to those results.

Standardization will save you time because you don’t have to decide moment to moment what has to happen next. You won’t have recreate workbooks or web pages every project. You can have deliverables ready to go, needing only a small amount of tweaking to customize to your client.

Once you document your processes, follow them each time you perform your task. You’ll start to notice where you could group some activities and eliminate others. Each time you run through the same way, you will see ways to become more efficient at the task. If you can save a bit of time with each of your daily tasks as well as with client work, you can reduce your actual work time.

Going one step further, now that you have efficient, clearly documented processes, you can call that documentation a manual. You can automate some of it, you can hire someone else to automate it, or you can hire someone else to do it. Can you imaging your business if you had others follow your process to deliver work to your clients?

Bring it All Together

Okay, you ask, if I’m working on all this documenting and relationship building, then when will I do the work? This is MORE not less!

Well, eventually, this is going to be the core of what you work on each day. As you implement more automation and hand off more and more to contractors and employees, you will free up more time to nurture leads and make sales.  

Having clear processes for generating leads, making sales, and delivering products and services will even out your customer/client pipeline. You’ll have time to nurture relationships with potential clients and line up that next project because leads will be automated and your project work will be efficient, automated where possible, and delegated.

The goal is to eliminate that “famine” dip in the feast or famine cycle. Evening out that client pipeline will create a steady stream of work that you can count on.

Next Steps

I think my favorite part of this is automating the lead generation. It feels like a weight lifted off my shoulders. And that’s nothing to dismiss. I know I work so much better when I’m not stressed.

But I think the action that’s really going to give you the biggest “bang for your buck” is documentation. I can’t image that many people want to do it. I never seem to. But really, I’ve shaved hours off of some of my web projects just by seeing some inefficiencies once I wrote out my process on paper.

If you really don’t think you have time to document, you’re probably right. Instead, record yourself! You can use a screen recording software, a voice recorder and narrate what you’re doing, or just video yourself with your phone. That’s enough to get you started.

Start with a small, simple process and go record it.

Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

Leave a Comment