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Freelance Writers Need To Avoid The One Client Syndrome

You need more than 1 writing clientI realized I hadn’t heard from a freelance writer acquaintance of mine in a while. Part of the fault was mine.

I hadn’t checked in either, partly because I was  a bit jealous of the large, well paying client he had landed.  He essentially had contracted for a more than full-time job even though he was able to do it at home and, in theory, have additional clients.

When I finally called this is what I found out:

In the first 90 days, he quit marketing his writing business because the new gig was pretty intense.

By the time 120 days had passed all his smaller clients had drifted off. In truth, he told me, he was relieved because The Big Client was taking so much time, but the pay was excellent.

I’d been vaguely aware of these happenings and it was, I’m ashamed to admit, a full 6 months later that I finally called.

You can guess what had happened. At around eight months the Big Client let him go, siting business problems.  He’d fallen victim to what I sometimes call the One Client Syndrome. Essentially he’d given the one client exclusive call on his time.

He hadn’t called me for all the reasons we don’t when things fall apart and he’s been scrambling to put his business back together again.

How to avoid the one-client syndrome

I pretty run a 75 percent or less rule. That is, I won’t let any single client use more than 75 percent of my time, at least not for more than 60 or at the very most, 90 days.

I charge flat fees rather than by the hour or some other periodic measurement. That flat fee may come in monthly payments, but it’s fixed.

I’ve always thought a flat fee is fairer to both parties. I don’t get penalized for getting faster as I learn the client’s business, and the client knows exactly what to expect. While my contracts will often spell out some sort of time commitment, I don’t guarantee a number of hours or days. I’m a freelancer and how I get the work done really isn’t any of the clients business, at least not in specific detail.

Flat fees allow me to have more than one client. Having multiple clients protects my income because they won’t all quit at once. Or the projects won’t all end at the same time.

Having control of my time also allows me to continue marketing my business. Lori Widmer is absolutely right – some kind of marketing must be done every single business day. (She’s written a great book on this subject, Marketing 365: Daily Strategies. If you don’t have it yet, buy it now. And no, that’s NOT an affiliate link.)

The big paying client is so tempting!

Look, I learned this lesson in much the way my writer friend is learning it. Way back when a lucrative contract canceled after a while and I was scrambling. You can learn from our mistakes.

What I’ve discovered is I can often turn the proposed high pay into a situation that works for both of us. Sometimes that will be a flat fee paid monthly; sometimes it will be a frank discussion about my unwillingness to give any client an exclusive on my time.

I’ve even learned to turn clients down who won’t hire me in a way that works for both of us.

Sure, it’s scary to turn down high pay, but the few times I’ve had to do that to maintain my own standards I’ve been glad I did.

Most clients are pretty reasonable if you tell them, gently, what you need. Those that aren’t can find someone else.

How do you keep a good mix of clients going?


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Mrs Logic


{ 30 comments… add one }
  • GH

    I’m struggling with this dilemma right now and would like to hear others’ thoughts. I’ve supported a busy ad agency for the last year on a 4 hr/day 1099 retainer basis at 80% of my normal hourly project rate. They offer an interesting range of clients/projects and are flexible re: scheduling – meaning I can work on their stuff in the am, pm or a mix of the two, depending upon what other client calls/work I have that day. If I take a day off or need to reserve a full day for other projects and don’t want to lose the hours, I can just make up the time on other days if I want, but as they do depend upon me, I always notify them in advance whenever I take a day off. I do all their work remotely from my own office and every moment I spend is billed: every call, email discussion, time tracking task, revisions, etc. w/o invoicing or estimating. With remaining hrs, I support other clients on flat rate project basis. I have healthy savings built up: so it wouldn’t be a big deal if they abruptly cut the relationship and I had to deal with a dry spell to fill those hours. I think what I like best about this steady part-time gig is that it allows me to be much pickier about the other clients/projects I accept. But do you feel the drawbacks outweigh the benefits? Not sure if this impacts anyone’s answer, but I’ve been in the profession for 25 years, at times as a staff writer; other times as a freelancer.

    • GH, since you also do other gigs the 1099 client isn’t your only one… and sounds darn close to ideal. Remember, however, that this gig, like all will eventually end… you might even want a special savings account for just that contingency. Steady part-time can be ideal, particularly when you have a few other clients.

      • GH

        Thanks Anne: appreciate your thoughts. I’m very thankful of the gig while it lasts. The other clients are all ad hoc projects – this is really closer to a part-time job and an uncomfortably big chunk of total revenue. I know a more ambitious freelancer would leave the security blanket behind at some point and fill the spot with 3-4 clients at higher rates vs this one at discounted rates. But it did ease my mind somewhat to hear your follow up comment. Thanks again for the article.

  • This reminds me of two things. Once when I was still doing the dreaded content mill work, I found a very nice gig working with a website owner that lasted for well over a year. In time I stopped working for the content mills; but within a months time, the website with the very nice gig got sold to another company and “oops”, no more gig. You not only loose the good income, but you can also find yourself back working with jobs you hate rather quickly to pay rent.

    The other example is a factory that made lamps. They were a small two man operation that expanded quickly over three years to near 100 people. Their only customer was the Ames Department Store chain. For those who don’t remember, Ames went belly up some years ago, taking many suppliers (including this once active factory) down with it overnight.
    Bill Swan recently posted..A Unique Way to Deal With Holiday Credit Card Bills in the New YearMy Profile

  • I heard a rule to never let any client use 25% of my time or greater, and personally, I like that one well. I don’t do other big projects that other freelancers might take on – like books. I tend to take on smaller things – copywriting projects, blogs, web pages, websites, that kind of thing. I’ve still run into trouble because multiple clients had things get out of control and left, but I still had decent income left to make it through.
    Dan Stelter recently posted..6 Copywriting Techniques Guaranteed to Skyrocket Your ConversionsMy Profile

  • Thanks for the link love, Anne. I appreciate it.

    You know me — I’m not content with one or even three clients. If I have four, I think “Well maybe five is better.” 😉

    I market every day in some fashion, and right now I’m juggling six projects. I have no idea where the time is coming from to finish them all, but what a damn nice dilemma! And yes, I’m STILL marketing. 🙂
    Lori recently posted..The Push Your Writing Career Forward TestMy Profile

  • building insurance quotes

    First of all I would like to say great blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your head before writing.
    I’ve had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out. I do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or hints? Thank you!

  • Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it was
    super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips for inexperienced blog writers? I’d really appreciate it.
    http://www.tblog.com recently posted..http://www.tblog.comMy Profile

    • Read the blog – look at the categories… much of what I write is for newbiees.

  • A fellow freelancer lost her anchor client last year and is still trying to recover, robbing Peter to Paul to stay afloat. It’s a scary prospect.
    Stacey recently posted..Increase Your Chance of Being Re-Hired as an Online Freelance CopywriterMy Profile

  • Hello Anne,

    I could not be more agree with you. And this applies for every business. It is never recommended relaying in just a single source of income no matter how good they pay. This is logic because, if they suddenly decide just to terminate their relation with you…well, you will have not job whatsoever. I’ve experienced this and it is really a nightmare. Thanks for sharing Anne.
    Have a good day.
    Daniel recently posted..Segment your market, target your audience and have successMy Profile

    • That’s right, this does apply to most businesses. Thanks.

  • Ali

    Wow, I have never thought of it, Anne. How about if there are two clients? And one of them intends to keep me occupied for next 8 months (I’ve been writing for him for the last 7 months) and, just like you, I also charge a flat fee. But I have to give them 90% of my time, the remaining 10% goes to my blog. Would love your thoughts on it.

    And by the way, I’m really impressed by Kristi, 20 clients at a time… Is she a robot or something?
    Ali recently posted..10 Deadly Mistakes Almost Every New Blogger MakesMy Profile

    • Ali, unless they are actually tracking your time, you may find as time passes you’re able to do their work in less time because you’ve gotten familiar with what they need and want.

      Make sure you keep marketing yourself no matter what and consider if you’re being paid enough for 90% of your time.

  • Great information here. It’s easy to get sucked up into this as a freelancer writer because we are just so darn excited about getting that “Big Fish.” When I am on large assignments, I continue to market and meet with prospects to make sure I keep a constant flow of work. I set realistic timelines – if I’m working on a large project or two, then I set an appropriate turnaround time for newer clients. Being honesty straightforward about schedules and timelines has always been well received.

  • This is why I’m so scared to do this. I’m still so new at it, and handling the money part of it is difficult for me because I have issues with numbers. Last year, I had a content job, but it went away at the end of the year. It was just as well, because I was working full time and couldn’t take on any other projects, but when I lost my full-time job, I missed it. They did ask me to test for another role, but it was more work and less money, so I turned it down.

    The worst thing was that I hadn’t been doing any of my own work during that time. I’m still looking for a day job, but my current novel has priority. I’m trying to finish it via NaNoWriMo.
    Elizabeth West recently posted..NaNoWriMo Day 10 – Lots of WordsMy Profile

  • Big clients ARE tempting, but unless they’re willing to put you on a W2 and give you benefits, they can disappear in a heartbeat. I learned that lesson when two clients disappeared within a week of each other. I felt it coming for the one, but not for the other.

    I don’t even allow them 75 percent. I saw a new, thriving business close shop overnight because a client that made up 33 percent of their business left them. Watching that happen was eye-opening to me. Now, each client I have takes up time here and there, but I make sure I have at least four clients each month should one bow out. One client right now is a huge one, but I have no illusions of the contract, which ends in December, extending beyond that. It may, but I can’t bank on that.
    Lori recently posted..In HonorMy Profile

    • Yeah, for the kind of writing you do, 75% might be too much. I can handle two books at one time, with two or three smaller clients in the cracks.

  • I’ve always avoided working with just one client, and some people have said I was nuts for that. That I should find one awesome, high-paying gig and stick with that. But I feared that if they dropped me, I would have to start from scratch which isn’t a pretty prospect. Now I juggle anywhere from 10 – 20 clients and if one or two disappear, I don’t sweat it. There are bound to be a few more coming in to make up for it and I still have plenty to work with in the meantime.
    Kristi Hines recently posted..50 Essential Tools I Use For Blogging and Freelance WritingMy Profile

    • Exactly, Kristi, although I’m not sure I could handle 20!

  • Hey Anne: My 1st morning in San Diego – and it’s raining. Oh well-please no rain next weekend!

    I agree from the financial aspect, but there is another way to look at it. My thought is for those of us who left a corporate job behind, why put all your eggs in one basket? You might as well be still working for a single employer.
    Cathy Miller recently posted..Ignoring LinkedIn Answers is Not SmartMy Profile

    • Welcome! Raining today, but forecast is for clear skies on the weekend!


  • Ouch. Been there done that. Won’t do it again. You and Sharon have both alluded to something so important; something that many freelancers don’t consider: the best client projects/relationships are those that work within your parameters. I think sometimes we’re so happy to get a paying client, or blinded by the potential profit of working with a certain client that we are willing to bend and do whatever’s necessary to make it work; but if the set up doesn’t work well for you, it’s not going to work out anyway.

    I took on a client that paid me very well in exchange for expectations not unlike that of a hired employee: prioritize their projects over any other clients, be constantly available for phone calls and respond to emails immediately. As the project workload increased, so did my income and my misery. I I hated checking my email Monday morning because I dreaded seeing those messages in my inbox. Eventually I walked away. I hadn’t been marketing much while working with the client, so there was nothing in the pipeline. I had hustle and jumped back into marketing non-stop and eventually rebuilt my client base.

    Now I will quickly decline a project if I can’t fulfill the client’s expectations. Why waste their time or mine if it’s not a good fit? I feel much more financially secure working with five clients. As Sharon wisely said, if one client drops off, you just need to increase marketing to make up for it – it’s not like starting from scratch.
    Kimberly recently posted..How to Move Your Freelance Writing Business to Another StateMy Profile

    • Kimberly, good for you for turning those folks down… and remember, they are saving money by hiring you as an independent contractor… they don’t have to pay benefits!

  • Totally agree, Anne. At one stage I realized that two clients were monopolizing most of my time so I took steps to get some smaller client to fill the gaps and set limits on how much time I would spend on the original clients. It’s just as well, because one of those big clients evaporated overnight, taking 25% of my income with her. Luckily, I was able to ramp up some of the other work to make up for it. In an ideal world, I’d have 3 big clients taking 20% of my time each, with 20% left for incidental clients and 20% for my own stuff – still working on that one.
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..10 Reasons Why I Spend Zero Time Thinking About A-ListersMy Profile

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