If you stay in the freelance game long enough, you will experience a downturn.
This is an inescapable fact.
But all downturns are not created equal. Some are national or global, and some are self-created. Some are part of the natural rhythm of freelancing or consulting, and some can put you out of business.
In 26 years of self-employment, I’ve survived at least three major economic contractions (the dot-com bust of the late ‘90s, the ’07-’08 recession, and the pandemic). I’ve also navigated a few valleys of my own creation.
Here’s what I’ve learned – six things to do, and three things not to do, in a downturn.
What to Do in a Downturn
 Get some perspective.
Most of us overreact to an economic downturn, or even the prospect of one.
Most media love to fan these flames, because fear gets more clicks than calm. “Experts” will loudly announce that a recession is just around the corner, knowing that few people will hold them to account.
My advice: Don’t opt in.
A recession is a macro thing. Your business, like mine, is a micro thing – a tiny, tiny, tiny part of the whole.
And downturns aren’t distributed evenly. It’s not like every single marketing budget immediately shrinks in direct proportion to the downturn. Even in a full-on crash, there are always pockets of opportunity.
At the level that you and I work, most economic downturns don’t matter much. So just opt out.
 Assume a downturn is coming.
Because a downturn is always coming. The only question is when.
“Hey, Matthew,” you might reasonably say. “You just said to opt out. And now you’re telling me to assume a downturn is around the bend? What gives?”
The difference is in the type of downturn. Having decided to opt out of a macro recession, we must recognize that we’ll still experience downturns on the micro level.
The conservative assumption: Strong business today is no guarantee of strong business tomorrow. So we must be proactive about filling our pipelines and earning future work.
The goal: “I have more good leads than I need, which means I have my pick of gigs.”
The implication: Never stop marketing. Even when you’re busy. Do something every week to drive good gigs 30, 90, or 180 days from now.
Every time I’ve experienced a downturn in my biz, it’s because I didn’t do the right things to prevent it from happening.
 Go first-degree.
If someone I know needs to drum up business in a hurry, the first question I ask them is:
“Who in your network can hire you today, or can refer you to someone who can?”
If your answer to that question is “Not that many people,” allow me to suggest that you make network-building one of your top priorities.
The people who are most likely to hire you are those who are already familiar with your body of work, and who know, like and trust you. Start there. It’s the lowest-friction sale you’ll ever make.
 Double down on what works.
Another truism: If you want more work, you’ll need to do more marketing.
No need to reinvent the wheel. If something’s worked well for you in the past, re-commit to it.
To the degree that things haven’t been working, you have license to try something new. If in doubt, choose tactics that are likely to have a quick payout.
 Explore partnerships.
Find someone with complementary skills, and the two of you can often win work that you couldn’t win on your own. Plus you’ll enjoy the added benefit of your combined networks.
This is generally a better path than changing what you do, as we’ll see in the “don’ts.”
 Embrace it.
One of the joys of this path we’ve chosen is learning to embrace its natural rhythms.
And let’s be honest – sometimes a lull in work is exactly what we need.
So take more walks. Learn something new. Read for pleasure. Enjoy a staycation or a vacation. Shut the laptop off for a week. You’ll come back refreshed and positive.
What Not to Do in a Downturn
And here are three things not to do:
 Don’t freak out.
Clients can smell your fear.
 Don’t drop your prices.
If a client won’t hire you at $10k, they probably won’t hire you at $8k.
And if you drop price, you’re teaching your clients that your services are worth less than they really are.
As always, focus the sales conversation on long-term delivered value, not the one-time fee. Make a convincing case that they will come out ahead by hiring you.
 Don’t make a knee-jerk change to your services.
When business takes a turn for the worse, we may think the answer is to change or expand our services. But quite often, we simply need to improve the marketing of our current services.
There are good reasons to evolve your services. But make sure those reasons are strategic and proactive, not impulsive and reactive.
The quick summary:
- Don’t worry about macro downturns. Your job is to minimize the micro downturns. That work never stops.
- Don’t make a knee-jerk change to your services or pricing. Instead, double-down on what’s worked for you and lean on your network.
- If you have the luxury of doing so, enjoy the slow period, with the knowledge that busier times are coming.
Your time is valuable, and I hope I’ve rewarded it. If so, your shares are greatly appreciated, as I try to spread the gospel to as many freelancers as possible.
I have a limited number of slots available for 1-1 coaching. I’m not some guy who’s been freelancing for a minute – I’ve been doing it since 1997, with brands you’ve actually heard of. Click here to find out more about how my coaching services can help you level up.
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