I paced nervously in my basement, taking deep breaths while I stared at my phone screen.
What if this is it? I wondered. How will I make my mortgage payment?
I had just hit “send” on a text to a client of mine, and their answer could cost me $5000+ per month.
How did I get myself in this situation?
Getting paid… for no work?
At the end of this summer, I signed on with a new client for a $5,250/month retainer.
They have a ton of copy needs, and they were excited to bring me on and have me take over a bunch of it.
So was I.
For the first month, work was flowing semi-steadily.
Then… they disappeared.
My main contact for the client – the guy who sends me work – didn’t update the Trello board.
He didn’t show up for our planned weekly calls.
He didn’t reply to any of my Slack messages.
Now, I’m no dummy. I’ve been doing this for 15+ years.
I know that, when a client tapers off like this, it ain’t a good sign.
We had reached the beginning of November. Payday with this client was the 25th of every month.
If the client didn’t want to keep me on, that payday wouldn’t come.
But I needed to know, because I needed to replace that client before the end of the month.
To say I was stressed would be an understatement.
I have other clients, but they are smaller right now. And other sources of income have been slow lately.
It happens – it’s the nature of the business.
Yet, it felt like it snuck up on me. Suddenly I’m sweating a $5K paycheck?
Just a few months earlier, I was comfortably covering our budget and paying for home repairs.
How did I get into a situation where I was worried about one client’s payment?
It took a couple days after this experience for me to realize my mistake…
I broke my Cardinal Rule of Freelancing
I was driving around, running errands, when my brain flipped a switch.
You are this stressed because you fell into the One Main Client trap.
If you’ve followed me for any period of time, you know that I am the #1 Evangelist for Holding Multiple Clients.
When you have One Main Client, you have to live and die by that relationship.
If that relationship goes south for any reason, you’re stuck without a large portion of your income.
You have to bend over backwards for that client, constantly try to keep them happy, and worry over every little thing you say so that they don’t break up with you.
Honestly, it reminds me far too much of my dating years.
I didn’t do this purposely. It just sort of happened.
Some clients cut my pay.
Some clients left.
Some clients I broke up with.
Before I realized it, I was wholly reliant on this one client to make sure my budget was sufficiently covered.
If they left me, I’d be up a creek.
Bad place to be.
4 ways to avoid the One Main Client trap
I call it a “trap” because it’s the easiest thing in the world to fall for.
If you have a client that signs you up for a significant amount of money, it’s so tempting to take your foot off the gas.
You think you can worry about other stuff because at least the money is good right now.
You can’t let that happen.
Instead, do this:
- Learn how to manage more clients. The more efficiently you can work, the more clients you can take on. You can never be in a position where you think you can only handle 1-2 clients. Work faster.
- Be vigilant about your cash flow and where it comes from. Every week or month, you should be analyzing where your money is coming from and how it’s spread out. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it’s there.
- Don’t let one client take more than 30% of your income. Ideally, you want to operate on a surplus every month compared to your living expenses. If you spread your income across at least 3-4 clients and you are making extra, then you can probably weather the loss of one client for a short period of time without missing a beat. Then you can go ramp up outreach and get another client to fill the slot.
- Always have a ripcord ready. The second you find yourself in need of a client, you shouldn’t have to think about your next step. It should already be laid out for you. At any point in time, I can be doing client outreach to drum up new business within an hour of learning I lost a client. Having that system set up ahead of time pulls a ton of burden off of your mind – and shoulders.
Always be prepared to lose a client.
If you’re not prepared, you degrade your quality of life tremendously.
So what happened with that client?
I got that client on the phone.
They reassured me that I wasn’t going anywhere.
As I write this, their December paychecks came in today.
But I also used that scare to motivate me to go back to those 4 steps above and make sure that I am in the driver’s seat of my income.
I can’t be stuck with One Main Client anymore.
It’s a rookie move – and one the pros don’t fall for.