Let me guess.
(Only because we have all been there.)
Not enough work coming in.
Hence, not enough money coming in.
But the bills, those damn things are coming in just dandy. (And the car is making a noise that sounds expensive.)
The phone refuses ring. The pain and angst start to ratchet up.
At 3:14 in the morning, you lie there with the fear weighing on you like a pile of X-ray aprons.
First, cut it out
I know it doesn’t help one bit to hear this, but every freelancer I know (especially me) has hit quicksand once or twice, or eleven times. Even famous ones. (Especially the famous ones.)
Sometimes things grind to a halt because you screwed up somewhere. Other times it’s because the universe messed you up.
Doesn’t matter, the way out is the same.
First, you do not want to work scared. It is a lousy business model.
Besides the pure misery of it, all that anxiety and fear makes you flail around uselessly. Maybe you start spamming clients, fiddling endlessly with your profile on LinkedIn, calling people you haven’t seen since eighth grade. Or sipping beer and surfing the web in search of miracles.
When you’re in panic mode, you send out all the wrong vibes. Clients can hear a tightness in your voice. You talk too fast, you quote too high, you quote too low. They wonder, “Why is this guy so hard up? Is he a stoner? A foul-up?”
A UX designer told me that, after a long dry spell, he would sit through every interview with sweating running into his shirt collar. He swore that the guy across the desk could see the desperation rising from him like steam from a manure pile.
So first, toggle the switch from defense to offense.
No more waiting by the inbox.
Widen your radius
Every time I have hit the doldrums, it was because my circle of clients was too small. I was at the mercy of random ebbs and flows. One clients goes on maternity leave, while another moves to another job. A company goes through a reorg.
And my hull starts dragging in the sand.
What you need is ten true fans or more. You won’t find them all overnight, but you can start today. (Because you have the time now, right?)
Maybe it won’t cure this slump. But it will surely soften the next one.
And it will give you good practice, sharpen your discipline and give you something to do. Me, I always considered this penance for not doing what I should have been doing all along.
(And you may get lucky right away.)
Study the websites of other designers/writers/developers. See who they are working for. What types of clients, companies, what type of work.
Go find companies like that. Start dropping them notes. Start a conversation. Don’t ask for work. Many won’t respond. Doesn’t matter, you have thousands of them.
Contact your competitors. Other people whose work you admire. Or who have high visibility. Or the guy who designed your free WordPress theme. Even someone famous. “Really enjoy your work, especially the XXX.” Be known in the business.
Maybe ask them a question or two. Don’t ask for work. Start a conversation. Make a friend. Do this 32 times in one week. If you’re a designer, contact photographers. You’re an illustrator, contact writers, vice versa. Compliment somebody. Comment on their blogs. They know people.
Chase companies you like. What apps and software do you use? Which online services? Which shoes are you fanatic about, which potato chips? Quirky little brands? Try to email or call them. Say you’ve been using their stuff for ages, you’re a big fan. If they ever need a freelancer, you’d kill to work with them. Call the customer support number, ask for a name to write to.
Chase your interests. You’re into cheesemaking, paleolithic diets, health, 40′s swing bands, lacrosse, triathlons, harpsichords? Find the biggest, most famous purveyors, publishers, suppliers, advocates, manufacturers. Contact them as a fan and fellow aficionado, someone who gets it. You may have a leg up on another freelancer who doesn’t particularly care. They may not turn out to be good clients, after all. But that’s okay. You have a million of them. And you’re widening the circle a bit.
Give stuff away
Sound stupid? Working for nothing when the VISA bill is past due? No, you’re not exactly working to order. You’re making your art, and sending it out into the world. (You have time now, right?)
There’s a karmic thing at work here. Plus maybe exposure. More practice at your craft. And at least you have a mission.
Photographer Trey Ratcliffe gives away his best shots, posts tutorials, gives away all his secrets. He claims that the more he gives away, the more good things happen, including paying gigs.
Find a struggling non-profit in your town. A fledgling movement. Offer to do their website, a speech, an identity, a presentation, just to contribute.
Is there a street fair, bazaar, festival coming up? Buy a small booth. Writer Natalie Goldberg used to set up shop at local events and offer ‘instant personalized poems’ for a dollar each. One side of a sheet of paper, composed on the spot. Once, she got a letter from a guy who had been carrying his ‘poem’ in his wallet for years. It had comforted him during some tough times, he said.
Design, code, write, shoot your way out
Me, I can tolerate handshaking and making calls only so long. But I can write all damn day. So when I’m on the hunt, I gravitate toward emails, hand-written notes and blog posts. If you’re a designer, you should be designing your way into more business. Go with what you do.
If you’re an illustrator, you should be illustrating all day. Illustrate something that would catch the eye of your top markets. Post it that day. Twitter it. Pass it around free. If you’re a photographer, shoot pictures all day. Make product shots of the junk in your drawer. Send them to every creative director you can find. Don’t ask for work. Shoot pictures. Send.
Do mash-ups, makeovers, outlandish takes on common icons. Post videos on YouTube, explaining some arcane facet of your art.
Just because you’re in a slump doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be making things all day. Make things you can give away. Make things you can sell later.
Or, now that you have the time (and you’re working a little scared) try something remarkable.
In the early 1730′s, the market for big Italian operas in England dried up. No funding, no audiences. Handel couldn’t get a commission to save his ass. So he switched to oratorios. Cheaper to produce and stage, and the public liked them. He holed up and wrote his iconic “Messiah” in about 21 days.
Dostoyevsky wrote his famous Crime and Punishment in a big hurry because he was neck-deep in debt. The advance saved him. People still read that book.
Writer Mario Puzo had scratched around for years writing for cheap magazines. He had been borrowing from his family to make ends meet. He got sick of that, and decided to write The Godfather for money. Millions.
When jillionaire writer Stephen King sold his first novel Carrie, he was too broke to buy medicine for a sick son. His wife had to work in a donut shop.
J.K. Rowling was on welfare and having trouble feeding her young child. She sat in cafes and wrote, in long hand, Harry Potter.
Here’s what I guarantee: start building your app, your photo essay, designing your magnum opus. Sure as shit, you’ll either have a magnum opus to sell, or, some client will interrupt you with a wholly mundane, but well paying assignment that he needs by next Tuesday.
Go, work. Now. The slump will end.