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Here’s how to build a balanced freelance portfolioStijn Schutyser
Freelancers typically can’t count on steady paychecks in the same way regular employees can. And while freelancing is flexible and full of opportunities, most freelancers will agree a variable income in a world of regular expenses is a large stressor. The solution? A steady and balanced freelance portfolio that has enough clients of the right kind, brings in enough steady income and meets your total income goals. This blog post explains what a balanced freelance portfolio is, what it looks like and gives you some handy insights and tips to achieve it.
What does a balanced freelance portfolio look like?
A freelance portfolio is similar to a financial portfolio, in the way that it adheres to the basic principle of not putting all your eggs in the same basket. A financial portfolio spreads your money across multiple investments to diversify your holdings and to provide maximum income while protecting you from the market’s volatility. Similarly, your freelance portfolio helps you balance the risks and rewards of your freelance life. It helps you determine how much time and energy you invest in projects and change the mix of work depending on the market and your income needs. Simply put, a freelance portfolio lets you decide how work fits into your plans, not the other way around.
It should already be obvious why you’d want to build a steady freelance portfolio, but here’s a list of some of the benefits:
- no more living project-to-project,
- the ability to mix up your pipeline however you like,
- and less anxiety because you didn’t network enough at that one event you attended.
A balanced freelance portfolio has clients on four levels:
- major clients that provide a regular source of income,
- new prospects a.k.a. growth investments for your business,
- opportunistic gigs that fill time or income gaps,
- and new ventures and growth for long-term future income.
Let’s dive into each level in detail below.
Level 1: the major clients
Your major clients form the core of your freelance portfolio. You carefully maintain and monitor these clients (large or small in size) as sources of regular income. This type of client is awesome: they provide some shielding from a volatile market, allow you to build rich relationships and may act as referrals for you.
But as with any client, there are some challenges as well. You might be at the mercy of corporate bureaucracy and politics: glacial payment schedules and protocols, projects scrapped or delayed at the whim of the suits. If they’re small companies, you may be buffeted by their fitful cash flow or changing strategies in their struggle for market traction. Additionally, the project may be great, but the people you need to work with are awful. Or the people are great and the project is awful. You may have to suck it up until you can groom another major client.
3 tips to balance major clients in your freelance portfolio
- Have more than one major client. If you lose one, you’ve got at least one other.
- Don’t get too comfortable. You can get lulled into a comfortable place with major clients. Cultivating prospects keeps you nimble.
- Remember your boundaries. Sometimes you’ll go the extra mile for a major client, letting a project bulge out of scope. Be friendly but clear that this is a one-off thing, so everyone’s expectations stay in line.
Level 2: the growth investments
Level 2 is the growing edge of your business and your incubator for major clients. The gigs for growth investments turn over faster than those for your major clients and generate income by their volume while enriching your client base. The more you nurture these investments, the more they can stabilize your career. You’ll get level 2s from client referrals, other freelancers, and your own prospecting, so networking is pretty important (we’ve written some tips for you here). While not every lead pans out, as you expand and refine your strategy over time and bring in more and more projects, your net return will be positive.
Growth investment projects are cool because you’re in control. You decide what prospects to pursue and how you want to be viewed. Way more powerful than just asking clients what needs to be done and then doing it! The business world not only expects people to communicate their value clearly, but rewards it. Speaking of rewards, level 2 is where a lot of profitable opportunities are born.
3 tips to balance growth investments in your freelance portfolio
- Price to compete. For growth investments, you want to price yourself high enough to weed out low-paying, time-sucking gigs. Be careful not to price yourself so high that good prospects assume they can’t afford you (such as a promising start-up that could become a major client, or a high-visibility, lower-budget nonprofit). It might help to itemize pricing on some components of your work. An à la carte approach might make you affordable to a wider market without lowering your price.
- Persist. Put yourself out there. Not once, not twice, but continuously. Keep knocking on doors and eventually, some will open.
- … but be selective. Trust your gut. If you sense a prospect will cost more to keep than lose (haggling over nothing, making constant changes, expecting way more than they’re paying for, …) find other prospects worth working hard for. You’ll be happier, more productive, and in the long run probably no worse off in the pocketbook.
Level 3: opportunistic gigs
The opportunistic gigs are the one-shots and long shots that fill time or income gaps. Everybody’s on the lookout for gigs like these, so check places like online job boards and professional association job boards listings often enough to stay current. Grab a good gig, or mobilize fast for cash, but don’t spend too much time patrolling these über-competitive spaces.
So what’s to like about one-shots and longshots? Well, these sources aggregate leads for quick scanning and comparison shopping. Additionally, no need for cold calls or networking: prospects are looking to hear from you. And if you use work exchange sites, no need to chase payment either! These sites advertise project approval, systems to ensure payment if you meet the work provider’s benchmarks and protocols for disputes. And lastly, you never know if you’ll find a gig that ends up being a major client in the end.
3 tips to balance opportunistic gigs in your freelance portfolio
- See level 3s for what they are: ways to get short-term gigs, work experience, or quick/incremental/supplemental income, not as your primary source of income.
- Look for the three Ps: price, projects, and people. Focus on higher-paying, higher-quality projects that will boost your skills or credits, and for clients you feel you’ll work well with. Their positive testimonials will boost your earning potential, and they may become level 2s or 1s.
- Be clear on payment procedures, oversight, and dispute policies. Are you paid by the hour or getting a fixed price? How are payments triggered? Exactly how do the oversight and dispute policies work? Additionally, make sure the project description, directions, and deliverables are well defined. If not, ask. A good outcome is in everyone’s interest. Showing you want to get it right impresses clients, too.
Level 4: new ventures and growth
Level 4 is the most speculative part of your freelance portfolio, but it’s also the most exciting. Here, you’re building the services, products, and alliances that will bring income in the long-term future, like developing a seminar/webinar, writing a book or maintaining a blog. Level 4 ventures need to be phased and planned so they stay on your radar but don’t take over and cut into the time you need to make your living.
3 tips to balance new ventures in your freelance portfolio
- Don’t set yearly goals. At least, not the ‘set and forget’ way most people do. Instead, set yearly goals and then make a monthly, even weekly, breakdown of small, achievable steps to get there.
- In the same spirit: take steps, not leaps. Shuffle if necessary. One goal achieved is better than many that are unmet. Very small steps make for steady progress, which motivates you and helps you correct your course as you go.
- Treat yourself like a client. Treat level 4 projects as you’d treat any other project: break it down, identify trouble spots, set up a schedule, manage and execute it.
In this blog post, we’ve outlined what a balanced freelance portfolio is, what it looks like and some handy insights and tips for every level of client. A balanced freelance portfolio unites the two sides of freelancing: the freedom of it, and the responsibility of it. Your freelance portfolio gives you the freedom to live the life you love while fulfilling your professional and personal responsibility to make a living and do it well. It keeps you connected with your larger life plan. It enables you to change that plan when your life goals change. And a balanced freelance portfolio reminds you that all work is noble when you’re working for something you believe in: yourself.