One of the hardest parts of freelancing is scheduling projects. Most freelancers learn the meaning of the phrase “feast or famine” the hard way. When there are clients knocking on your door, saying no can plummet you into a month of famine. On the other hand, saying yes too quickly can lead to back-to-back 80 hour work weeks.
Scheduling clients while traveling presents a totally different set of challenges. Not only do you have to keep clients coming your way, you have to do it from the other side of the world. And you may have the additional challenge of reduced work hours.
Here are a few tricks we've learned about scheduling work to keep our clients happy and ourselves sane...
A few weeks ago I wrote an entire article about our work days. Essentially, we pick one or two days a week to stay in the same place and get work done. We tell our clients the days we will be available so they know when we’ll be online and answering emails.
Having one designated day allows us to set expectations with our clients and also to create a timeline for completing projects. One work day can be stretched from 8 hours to 10, but 14 or 16 is nearly impossible. When deadlines start to pile up, we know to schedule an extra work day, or renegotiate due dates with our clients.
Long before we became completely location independent, I started talking with my clients about what they could expect from me while on the road. You’ll have to make arrangements depending on your situation, but I recommended you start discussing it with your clients as early as possible.
In the beginning, scheduling was largely trial an error. I committed to checking email every 48 hours and working two days a week. After four months on the road, and with the help of a prepaid cell phone and USB modem, I realized that it was easy for me to check in every 24 hours. I usually knew at least a few days in advance if we were going to be somewhere without reception so I could alert clients that 24 hour email response wasn’t going to happen.
Additionally, I noticed that my clients wanted quick replies to emails, but there usually wasn't an immediate need to complete the work. In other words, so long as I could send an email saying “I’ll get this done next week” the delay finishing the work wasn’t a problem.
If my clients didn’t know the timeline, there was a problem. Quickly we changed from two work days a week, to one. And in every new country we invest in USB modems so that I can keep on top of emails.
Constantly evaluating your situation and your clients' changing needs will it easier for you to schedule work while traveling.
Since I started my freelance business I have messed around with cancellation fees. They are sometimes helpful and sometimes dangerous. In my business, they have been dangerous for clients I want to keep and helpful for clients I want to fire.
Roughly half of the work I accept is delayed, and half of that is cancelled. All of the clients I have tried to put in line with cancellation fees are no longer clients of mine. Probably for the better.
Moral of the story: be careful. If you sign contracts, include a cancellation fee clause. If not, be prepared for unpaid invoices and irritated customers.
The best way to turn cancellation fees upside down, is to instate rush fees. You’re not going to get back permanently delayed projects, but let’s face it, you aren’t going to get money out of those anyway. However, you can make a bit of cash from delayed projects that are messing up your lifestyle.
For the most part I work as a sub-contractor. The project isn’t delayed because of my immediate client, but their client, or their client’s client. When things get pushed far enough up the chain, the guy paying the bills generally says yes. Especially if he knows the rules in advance.
In other words, if I tell my client, “look if you don’t get it to me by Tuesday, it’s going to cost double,” he’ll usually repeat those exact words to his client, and so on. Eventually the guy at the top of the food chain is either going to get his butt in gear, or he’s going to open his wallet.
It’s a lot easier to get paid double for work you are doing on short notice, than to get paid for work you never did.
Most people who start on a big trip delight in leaving their 9 to 5 job behind. Deciding to take work with you is a delicate task. It is difficult to concentrate on working while trying to enjoy crazy new travel adventures, and its equally as difficult to not make promises for your availability that you can't keep.
When we left Seattle heading for Argentina, we set the maximum work hours to 15 per week.
I'm sure some people reading this think, “You’re damn lucky to have 15 billable hours a week.” And the rest are probably thinking, “How the hell can you run a business on only 15 hours a week?”
This is often the hardest part. I’ve been lucky to have clients that book me for a solid amount of hours every week. I take side projects to supplement, and to keep backup clients on my radar.
Don’t get me wrong, it is constant work to maintain 15 hours a week. I am always keeping projects months away on my radar, sending polite emails to old clients to see what’s new and sending even nicer emails to current clients to see what the future plans are. This little bit of work every couple weeks prevents me from having to spend even more time finding new business.
When you scale down your working hours, you also have to scale the rest of your business accordingly. Find ways to minimize tedious business tasks and expenses. When our trip started we changed business structures from an s-corp to a partnership. This cut the amount of time I spent on taxes and accounting from 10 hours a month to 2. Consider your business and your priorities and that will help you determine where you really need to spend your time.
For me, 15 hours a week is my goal. I do my best to not accept more work than this. You would expect my work weeks over time to look something like this:
In reality 15 hours a week looks a lot more like this:
Sometimes my working hours are stretched, 20 this week, 10 next. And sometimes I pull off favors to clients and all of a sudden I’m at 30. Usually though, when I finish a 30 hour week, I take the next one off. Our travel schedule has to ebb and flow with our clients' demands. Sometimes harmoniously, other times less so. But one thing is for certain, it takes constant attention to maintain a balance.
The key to scheduling is understanding that the concept of “feast or famine” doesn't end when you leave the country. Sometimes you have to take the work when it shows up.