The vast majority of my client work is ad hoc.
When I tell this to other freelancers, they’re usually surprised. After all, a healthy retainer is gold for freelancers, right?
In full transparency, I didn’t set out to have so much client work be ad hoc. When I became a full-time freelance writer in late 2022, I wanted retainers as much as the next freelancer. I pitched them to clients, offering a slight discount for a longer commitment. But I also needed money, so I was willing to take one-off projects.
I’ve heard a lot of freelancers say that the market has been rough lately.
I’ve found the opposite to be true: I consistently have a full roster of clients and am booked out for several weeks. And I truly believe that my unique business model has contributed to that success.
It’s easy for clients to say yes
It’s no secret that marketing budgets are tight for a lot of companies. I think this favors freelancers, as companies may freeze internal hiring and turn to a freelancer to help meet their content needs.
Yet I’ve heard from many freelancers that it’s a tough market right now.
The same reason that companies are reducing their expenses internally is also what makes retainers less attractive.
Retainers are a commitment at a time when budgets might be really volatile. As a result, long-time clients may suddenly end a retainer and new freelancers have had trouble signing retainers with new clients.
By contrast, ad hoc work is a much easier “yes” for a client.
There’s no commitment, either to the freelancer or to a specific amount of work per month. I’ve had some clients send me three articles in one month and one the next month: they can use me however they want to fit their needs.
I will always take a meeting with a prospective client because there’s no such thing as “too many clients” in my world. When they ask me if I’m taking on new clients, it’s always a “yes” from my side as well. As long as they meet the profile for the type of client I’d like to work with, I’ll enter into an agreement with the client.
My agreements are structured to reflect the ad hoc work: if they send me an assignment, they’ll be billed for it, with pricing that’s reflective of any project type.
An additional perk is that I’m not on the hook either.
If the client ends up being terrible (difficult to work with, pays late, etc), I’m under no obligation either. I can end the agreement at any time. I’ll wrap up whatever deliverable I’m currently working on and then find a nice way to break up with the client.
Ad hoc work can protect your income
I had one very large retainer throughout the first half of 2022. Then the client had some serious internal reorganization and gave me the required notice period (30 days) to end the agreement.
I was slightly panicked. Even though I was doing ad hoc work for many other clients, I’d come to rely on that nice, consistent income every month.
But that situation kicked me into high gear. I reached out to existing clients who hadn’t sent me any assignments for a while and asked if they had additional work. I posted on LinkedIn that I was open to taking on new clients. I did some outreach to other companies. Within a few weeks, I was back up to a full roster of clients, all ad hoc work.
I feel much more confident about my financial situation now. If a client drops me for any reason, it’s not a significant portion of my income. And because clients can so easily say “yes” it doesn’t take much effort to find a replacement.
You need some serious project management skills
At any given time, I have around a dozen active clients. Some send me work fairly regularly. Others show up every few weeks (or even months).
Because the work is unpredictable, I have to be very organized. I keeping track of far more clients than a few on retainer.
I have to keep track of assignments coming at me in various formats. Sometimes clients email me; sometimes I get a ping in their Slack channel. Each client has their own brief format and sometimes it’s nothing more than a few sentences in an email.
I also have to keep track of different payment terms (Net 15, Net 30, etc.), who I email invoices to, and whether I invoice upon deliverable or monthly.
I use Trello to track my assignments, adding them as soon as they’re assigned. I use Airtable to keep track of clients and how much I’m billing for each assignment. I also have an old-fashioned paper calendar that I use to track anticipated assignments.
I work a certain number of “slots” per week, so when a new assignment comes in, the client gets my next available slot.
They’re not giving me due dates: I’m giving them due dates. When I take on new clients, I am very clear that this is the trade-off of not having a retainer. Sometimes I’m booked out for two weeks (or more) and they’ll have to wait. Or, they can opt to send me several assignments at one time, and I’ll spread them out over the next few weeks.
Because some clients send me work fairly regularly, I like to be able to accommodate their requests.
Yet, I won’t hold a spot on my calendar until I have a brief in hand because if the client flakes for whatever reason (which has happened), then I’ve essentially lost my planned income by not putting another client in that slot.
Prepare for ups and downs
Is income from ad hoc work unpredictable?
A bit. No two months are ever exactly the same, which is far different than working on retainers.
But my income usually falls within a range. Even my worst months are still plenty of money. I “pay myself” a salary that’s far less than I earn and set the rest aside.
Losing that big retainer? That was a large gap, and since I couldn’t fill it with other clients immediately, I had to dig into my freelance rainy day fund. With most of my work now being ad hoc, I don’t expect that will happen again.
Instead, I plan and budget based on probabilities. Probably these three clients will send me work, because they have for the past few months. Other clients might send me work, but it’s less of a guarantee. I’ll plan on a few articles like that. And others will be a complete surprise — almost like a bonus for the month.
And if I have a week with less than a full plate of client work, I’m able to spend time on other parts of my business. I have a running list of “someday” projects. Sometimes I’ll update my website copy or write an eBook for Gumroad.
Or I’ll just relax.
Enjoy the time off.
Even if my work isn’t booked out for more than a few weeks, I’ve stopped worrying about it. With a steady stream of work coming from both new and existing clients, it always works out.