It seems a common challenge for smaller service industry software shops & agencies is scheduling. If you are spending too much of your resources attempting to get new work, you may be neglecting your current customers’. If you spend no resources on getting new work, you’ll have some down time with no money coming in. Obviously the ideal is to end one job on Friday and start the next on Monday.
This is even harder if you’re an independent. July this year was particularly dry for work, but August quickly made up for the dry spell and then, before I knew it, I was quadruple booked. Then, a wave of work came, and I basically had to say no to all of it because no one could schedule February of next year in advance. Two big projects and two smaller projects all at the same time. I’ve had two happen all the time; you typically over lap jobs because even when you’re done, you’ll have later support needed or perhaps just a few follow up phone calls post delivery. I’ve also had two happen on purpose when I’d full-time by day and do tincy freelance gigs on the weekend.
I’m at a loss on how to remedy the situation. The main cause for challenges is no show’s, aka job’s that sound good but never come through. You’ll get an opportunity, send an email response, and never hear anything back, even if you do a follow up email. You’ll have phone calls for weeks discussing the potential gig, but you never actually get a work order. You’ll get traditionally dependable people who offer bigger gigs make big promises even though no physical contract has been signed, putting you in the unfortunate position of possibly turning other lucrative, yet shorter term gigs, down. Later, when the big gig doesn’t come through, you feel like a moron asking the client if the job is still available.
There are other challenges, but they are minor, such as scheduling of resources, stakeholder is on a short vacation, requirements take longer than anticipated to get completed, main client that you’re employer is sub-contracting you out to help on takes longer to sign the massive contract, client has non-negotiable deadline, etc.
These no shows make it impossible to schedule with confidence leading to either a prolonged dry spell or situations where I’m at now and overbooked. I feel like I’ve gotten really good at detecting if a client is bad news. On the flip side, I still am a n00b at detecting no shows and not really sure how to get better.
13 Replies to “Scheduling Gig Challenges”
hey jesse, would you say the majority of your work comes from word of mouth? And when you say ‘attempting to get new work’, do you mean approaching potential clients with ideas?
Here are my “tips” (but, naturally, they don’t work for everyone including me… and, they’re from the perspective of an independent):
–say yes to every opportunity until it’s very obvious it won’t work (like if it’s not a match or you really are too busy).
–be fair about prioritizing clients but don’t freak out if someone’s unrealistic deadline isn’t going to happen… learn the word “triage”. Unless you’re working on medical or aircraft projects no one will die if it’s late. Having said this, I’ve very rarely caused a project to be late. Sure, we cut features where necessary but that’s what the triage thing is all about.
–never get 100% booked. If you do, you won’t have time to prospect for that next gig. And not having stuff lined up or backlogged is how you get those dead times. Also, it gives you a chance to: research, play, live your life, make satire videos.
–really learn what makes a good or bad client. It’s mostly about making a good match, but be fair to everyone involved and learn to say no when the match isn’t right.
–don’t do fixed bids without a solid spec. That seems so easy, but I run into issues all the time. I just let clients without specs specify a “not to exceed” but still do hourly and then revert to that triage concept when the time comes.
Don’t let these tips sound like some know-it-all… I sure don’t always follow them perfectly and they don’t always work. But, I do think I have a good skill at not getting way over booked.
There is no single source. It’s either consulting firms, people who find me on Google, or referrels (word of mouth); those 3 are the primary sources.
When I’m getting new work, it doesn’t just happen instantaneously. I first have to see if there are any potential gigs in my archived email, past clients, or new emails for the day. Do I have time to go through these emails or is a more pressing deadline imminent? Reading through emails, and sending professional responses is a time consuming affair. I don’t make money sending emails, I make money writing software.
…however, if I don’t send the emails and initiate the dialogue, the ball gets rolling later, and I may end up with a lull where I’m not actually getting any billable hours for a series of days or weeks. Sometimes I like that because I want (or need) a break. Majority of the time, though, I’d prefer to have something queued up.
So yeah, either approaching clients, or responding to the clients who approached me, and engaging them in conversation. Determining if I am actually the appropriate person they should be talking to, and if not, referring them to the correct person. Gathering information to determine the scope of their project, the schedule, and if it’s compatible with mine. Starting long email chains, having formal phone calls to discuss specifics, doing time estimations and formal proposals. Again, all of this is necessary, yet time consuming and not billable time. I need to do it to ensure I have at least potential work queued up, but I cannot do it while under a deadline crunch (which is 24/7…).
Dude…I don’t think anyone can detect a no-show, beyond the blatant one’s. I’ve been at it full time (minus 6 months) for 5 years and I still get blind-sided at times.
Another big issue is project delays. #1 gets delayed so it overlaps with #2 then #3 starts and #4 is about to start. :-( You then have 3 running and 4 beginning. :-( :-( lol.
I feel you though man. I’m rowing in a boat right next to you down the river of NoSleep. ;-)
I think one of the biggest advantages of being a freelancer is being able to say, “no thank you” to a potential client/project.
I’m fortunate that I only aim to average around 15-ish hours of billable time a week. So I can be picky and rarely end up overbooked. And at the same time I can accidentally work 10ish hours a week just tweaking things for old clients. I don’t think I could handle the stress of freelancing if I had to put in fulltime hours.
Not sure there’s any usable advise in there other than try and be more of a slacker. Hey, there’s a new term in there: I’m a slack-a-lancer. :-)
I can’t echo Phillip’s comment enough about saying yes on everything until the client starts to put deadlines down (of course I won’t take money or sign a contract to this point either).
I’ve found that my clients’ schedules are more flexible than the pressure I put on myself to begin them, so long as once you can get started you actually can start.
I suffer with you regarding dry spells, also in accepting work that is below a minimum $ because I underestimate the effort. Once the deal is signed, I kick myself because for small amounts, most of the $ is eaten up just in the back-and-forth. So I’ve been looking to raise my minimum ceiling, or bundle projects — sign up a client for 2-3 projects so I can focus the time, rather than hunt after each small piece.
My biggest problem at this point is time for advancing my knowledge — I’m so consumed with getting project work that often advancing my skills just is not happening. But one has to put food on the table first…
I have been working 10~12 hrs everyday for the past 2~3 weeks for 4 different projects as they all end up at same time… (one suppose to start back in June) and deadlines are almost the same time too~! It has been crazy days and I think it is the way freelance always going to be… but I like the freedom to work at home:)
I’ve had some success by cycling jobs. Any time we do a big job, we try to follow that with a very small job (like a banner build), then a medium job, then a microsite, finally another big job. This lets you keep the operating capital moving because of the staggered delivery times. Sounds dumb, but sometimes proffit margins are higher on a small job than a big one, due to the shorter turnaround time. If your clients have net 30-60 payment terms and you work on a gig for a month or more, you’ll want to have some income from smaller gigs coming through.
A few things I have done that had helped when i was doing more consultation:
1) temp agencies almost 98% of the time fall through
2) stable work only came from people I knew or had worked with in the past on other gigs
3) if it sounds to good to be true . . .
4) get a company to market yourself and find you work for a fee (so worth it)
I actually haven’t run into a dry spell since I went freelance last year, but I know that’s just because the market is so hot right now for AS developers. My main problem is continual overbooking- mainly because everything sounds like so much fun. When a client calls me and wants an app that will do all these awesome things, I often find myself getting extremely optimistic about what I can accomplish during the timeframe given. And then of course I end up killing myself with multiple simultaneous projects.
So I guess the skill of saying no is just as important as the skill of finding work.
I can’t purport to be an expert at balancing steady freelance work, but I’ve learned a few things that seem to have worked well for me in the last few years.
1) Pay yourself first. I learned this from a good friend of mine David Stiller, and it works like a charm. When I get a cheque, I take off what I need to live, and bank the rest into an “income account.” During the lean weeks I pay myself from the account as if I’m getting paid for client work. The ups and downs of freelancing income level out, and I can concentrate on getting steady work not to afford rent this month, but to boost the median average of my “pay”.
2) Most of my work comes from clients emailing me, either through google, lists or word of mouth, fortunately. If I’m on a gig, I don’t tell prospective clients yes or no; I give them a “conditional yes.” Ideally this will result in a few potentials in the queue by the time one contract ends, so a few weeks before that contract is over, I contact the potentials I’ve been in conversation with and ask them to get serious: whichever one signs on the dotted line first wins. Using this strategy (and due to the prosperity of the market, no doubt) I find I actually have to schedule down time.
3) I don’t take on contracts less than one month, preferably not less than three months. So I don’t have to play the game “should I take longer or the shorter project?” It also means I don’t take on much creative agency or Flash work like I used to (higher pressure, shorter deadlines) — it pre-qualifies the more serious clients, and allows me to do more Flex app dev projects.
4) I never quote a flat rate. Been burned too many times, so I don’t do it. Flat rates can get you into bidding wars and crap like that, and I don’t need the hassle. But getting paid by the hour comes with a commitment to the client for regular communication, status reports, spec implementation timelines, and the like, so the client knows I won’t build their app like a highway construction crew ;) I also indicate a weekly range, like 30-40 hours per week, which gives their bean counters a chance to do the math.
5) If I have down time I write articles or tutorials for which I get paid, and I also use this as learning time. So it’s good filler and allows me to keep an income flow during lulls. (Books are another story ;)
Anyone in the Seattle area with strong Flash/AS3 skills interested in a 6 month contract? firstname.lastname@example.org
Jesse, in my humble experience, it comes down to the quality of the leads. Because it’s always a struggle to balance between getting the work and doing the work, I have been trying different systems for the “getting” part. Right now, I’ve been successful developing relationships through oDesk. There’s no upfront cost (only a % for managing the process), and I’ve personally experienced a greater than 70% follow-through on the bids I put out there (I was tired of spending tons of time bidding just for people who are “shopping prices” and wasting my time…but so far, I haven’t had seen that here). I want to be upfront in that I work with oDesk, and you are welcome to check out my profile there (same name). It’s definitely helped me to even out my freelance workload.
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