3 tips to protect your freelance business during the COVID-19 pandemic

I can only assume that the current COVID-19 pandemic has freelancers rethinking their business. For some writers I’ve spoken to, the question has become more, “Is writing from home worth the consequences?” With the job market in a slump, many people are out of work, however, what many people don’t realize is that freelancers typically aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits. That has changed to a degree in that during the COVID-19 outbreak, freelancers and small business owners have been given access to some of these benefits. However, the challenge for freelancers is to prove that they have actually lost work. While someone who works for a company receives a regular paycheck, a freelancers’s work is commonly a roller coaster throughout the year. Without proper pay documentation freelancers can be out of luck. Luckily, there are also additional benefits, grants, and organizations that can help out.

While some steps have been taken to help protect freelancers and small businesses, many are not aware of these changes since they are not often available, and additionally, many freelancers have found that just because you are told benefits exist, the reality is, they are often challenging, if not impossible to realize. In my years of writing, I have had more than my share of family, friends, and strangers tell me I am eligible for something that lawyers and tax professionals reiterate I am not. In fact, as I write this, congress is having a hard time trying to compromise on a future stimulus package. That means a lot of people dependent on stimulus payments, additional unemployment benefits, and even protection from foreclosure and eviction are currently susceptible to a lack of protection. So, while benefits have been made available, freelancers and small businesses cannot depend on the government to provide these benefits every time a disaster, pandemic, or economic crisis hits. While I do give props to the government for stepping in months ago, freelancers and small business owners everywhere are questioning how to move forward, if they should at all.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts on working from home you’ll remember me mentioning how the two previous tariff increases with China affected my writing business. Trade concerns regarding NAFTA negatively impacted my business, and the events of the past year have affected my clients negatively. Clinging on during these times has been difficult as I’ve seen clients’ businesses go into bankruptcy and I’ve seen clients lose their homes. In that regard, clinging on, has saved my business in a lot of ways. Besides, there weren’t any jobs to go to if I wanted to.

In previous years, losing clients nearly drove me out of business. But, as the pandemic hit us around April I realized that even though I would likely lose clients, I was in a better position to handle what would become some of the worst professional consequences most small businesses and freelancers would face to date. So, what changed? Why was I able to manage my business better than I had previously?

It comes down to learning from mistakes. Here are three tips I used to protect my freelance writing business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pay myself a salary

The problem: No work, no money.

The solution: Pay yourself a salary

The Challenge: Paying yourself a salary has a lot of challenges. For many freelancers who live payment to payment it is even more so. I am able to now, put nearly half of what I earn aside for taxes, business expenses, and future salary. However, this was not always the case. While you may have a longterm goal of putting aside X-amount each time a client pays you, starting with something – anything – will help. When I started putting money aside to cover economic downturns and my self-contributed form of unemployment, I was only putting aside 5% of what I earned. At the time, if I made $100,000 a year, the end result wouldn’t have even paid our home and utilities. But, in time, as business grows you can slowly grow your safety net. Even a little over time will help in the long run. The important part about this tip is to start.

When you work for another company you become used to receiving a regular paycheck. Some people are good at putting money aside while others use what they get during their pay cycle. When a person transitions from working for a company to working for theirself, a common difficulty is differentiaiting that not all of the money you receive is for your pocket. Over the years I have turned to paying myself a paycheck. Some years are easier than others, and after three years of growing my business, clinging, growing, clinging it became difficult to pay myself a liveable salary. However, by the end of 2019, I had again started to pay myself a liveable wage. The remainder of the money sat snugly in my business checking.

So, how did this help? When the pandemic began to hit, I didn’t lose the clients I had in previous downturns. The two things that did affect the business were that schools shut down and our kids were home all day and I needed to homeschool. Even when homeschooling is done it is not like a three and six year old care that mom and dad need to work. They need attention, a lot of it. I tried working nights while they slept, I tried working late, and getting up at 3:00 AM, but, reality check, I am not in my twenties – or even thirties – anymore.

The first couple weeks of the kids being out of school I notified clients that I want to keep working with them, but my time would be greatly reduced. This means that I wouldn’t be generating income. However, due to several months of paying myself a limited salary I was able to still have a paycheck coming in. As it became obvious that the shutdown would last longer, I reduced my salary further to pay bills and living expenses, but not much more. Luckily, things began to open up by us, and before my money ran out we were able to send the kids to their summer academy, which I am greatful they put so much effort into staying in-tune with CDC guidelines. Otherwise, I don’t think we would have sent the kids.

Work with the best, not just whoever is willing to pay

The problem: When you need money, you take any job, even with challenging clients.

The solution: Be patient until you find clients who value you. Challenging clients will not be there for you when you need them.

The challenge: Finding the right longterm clients takes patience, and a lot of willpower. This is especially so when you are desperate for money. Yes, you may need to take on difficult projects and people if desperate, but as you grow your business keep a special eye out for clients who value you and are willing to go through global challenges to continue to support you and you them. This is a time-building exercise, but well worth it.

I am writing about freelance writing, but small businesses and freelancers everywhere understand what it is like to work with a difficult customer. With writers, it is inevitable that you get caught in the content mill cycle for a period of time. In this cycle you can find good clients, however, more often than not you will find verbally abusive, unrealistically demanding, and low paying clients. And it’s not as easy to escape as you’d think. I’ve written extensively on content mills, the good and the bad. They are not all that bad, but you need to spend a lot more time vetting potential clients than you do normally.

The ability to choose your clients takes two things. One, is the abiity to say no when money is dangled in front of you and you know that the client will be challenging. Two, time. I am fortunate to have very good clients right now, and three are long term. You can read about good clients in my blog post, “Great Writing Clients and the Traits they Share.”

One of the best traits I find in a good client is that they value me. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this is something I found in all of my current clients, especially my long-term clients. I can’t say enough about how fortunate I feel that I was able to maintain my business with such a great group of people.

When building a value-based client list it is important that you stay true to your own ideals. Anytime your business is suffering you will receive the advice that you should, “take every project that comes to you regardless of who they are or what they pay.” I have received that advice so many times and the times I took that advice, I ended up with financial challenges. The reason is because if you take a lesser paying job, that job doesn’t go away when you find a better paying one. In fact, you may end up turning those better paying jobs down to keep the lesser paying one. I currently have one client who owns six businesses. Prior to him hiring me, I had been turning down challenging clients for two months. It was difficult, but I eventually found the long term client I was looking for, and we are into our second year, and moving forward with more work and his growing businesses. The second long term client I had was similar. I had been turning book projects down for one reason or another. But, from the moment I spoke to this client I knew I wanted to work with her. Her stand-alone novel, has now become four novels with two more planned out and several short stories in between. I also work with several past clients who come back to write books, scripts, and other manuscripts. The one thing I share with all of them and they with me is that we value each other – it’s important.

Get Connected

The problem: Whether you start a new business or have been running on your own for a long time, if you don’t have a connection to your industry you will find yourself behind.

The solution: Become a part of your community, but only where you are comfortable.

The challenge: Staying connected can become time consuming if you follow social media advice. But, you don’t need social media to be connected.

I need to say that I maintain a pretty low profile when it comes to staying connected to my industry. I have my blog. I have my clients. I participate mildly with social media. But, I detest the social marketing that some of my colleagues put theirselves through in an effort to become a social media influencer. Everything from the need to put your life out there, find ways to public shame people, and the change in titles (ghostwriter, angel writer, biographer, personal historian, etc.). So, I don’t want you to think that when I say you need to be connected, what I am saying is you need to put yourself out there and spend ten hours a day on social media. What I am saying is that you should be a part of a group that can offer you good industry insight.

Good examples of places that can help freelancers and small businesses are local or national associations and groups. A list of writing organizations can be found here. Local writing groups play a critical role in the development of business. Starting a writing group is also a good way to develop the group into what you are looking for. The best group I ever belonged to was myself and ten women in Bloomington, MN. They got together every couple weeks and everyone brought a sample of writing which we would spend time quietly reading each sample, commenting in text and then discussing each piece as a group afterward. It was a positive and critical group made up of writers from beginning to well-published. It was organized and as far as I know still moving forward.

The reason that staying connected in a writing group or organization is critical to life in COVID-19 and other economic and health challenges is that these groups can provide you with resources such as how to apply for new, unique, or uncommon government benefits. They can help you find new clients, spread the word about your business, and be a support when you need information or just a listening ear. People in these groups have been through the same struggles as you and faced the same challenges. They can help you realize the importance of your work and likely offer you good advice to improve.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for most households and millions of businesses. It is not the first challenge you’ve faced in life and it will not be the last. However, few of us prepare ourselves for the oncoming challenges. These three tips are simple enough to implement into your small business without holding you back and when the time arises you will find their value.

#Shamelessplug

I am a full-time freelance writer specializing in books, though I also write blogs, web-content, and handle several other types of projects. To see what I offer visit my rates page or contact me with specific queries and questions. I’m also available to help mentor you through your first book. I’d love to work with you, and if you know anyone else looking for a writer I offer a generous referral fee.

If you would like to leave a donation for people interested in writing a book about their life and challenges, but lack the budget, you can contribute here.

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