Free Agents Beware! 3 Traps Which Lure You to the Dark Side
One of the main appeals of being an independent creative is that you never get unduly tied down to a project or an organization. When it makes sense to work on a project—the pay is good, the client is happy, the work is rewarding—you do so. When it comes time to move on, for whatever reason, you have the freedom to walk away (hopefully on good terms).
However, there are a few reasons why this isn’t always the case. Even free agents can fall into traps that will cause major problems down the road. Here are a few I’ve encountered along the way:
Trap #1: “Join Us as a Founder!”
If you routinely work with other startups and solopreneurs, sooner or later this is going to happen to you. Instead of merely being content to remain your client, the company will try to recruit you to join them as a fellow founder. They’ll try to persuade you with elaborate stories of how they’re going to make it big and everyone in on the ground floor will get rich and famous.
Even if you refuse their offer and maintain your independent status as a consultant, they might offer you some amount of equity—in fact, if they try to talk down your standard consulting rate due to the equity you’ll receive, that’s a huge red flag. Always work for cold, hard cash. Always.
My firm conviction is that the only startup which should be able to recruit you as a founder and get you to leave your consulting practice is your own. You are the master of your own destiny. Don’t get mixed up in someone else’s dream.
Trap #2: “But We Need You!”
Otherwise known as the Guilt Trip…you have a client you’ve worked with for a long time, but you feel like things with them have run their course. Maybe the kind of work you normally do has shifted, and they’re the only client left which requires the old approach. Maybe they have a limited budget and can’t afford your modern rates. Maybe working with them requires a lot of handholding, and you’re so busy on other critical projects it’d be easier just to drop them.
Whatever the reason, you know you really need to bid farewell and let them go, but you fail to do so out of guilt. Perhaps they’ve overtly said things to make you feel guilty, or perhaps that’s just how you feel because you’re nice like that. What you need to keep in mind is that a big reason why you went independent in the first place is so you could control your own work! If you find yourself feeling beholden to ill-fitting clients out of a sense of obligation (and not some sort of iron-clad contract), then you need to take a step back and reevaluate how you run your business. Ultimately you’re in this to make money and do work that you love, not to please everyone else but yourself.
Trap #3: The Siren Song of Steady Income
This one’s a doozy. When you’re a consultant, it’s often a wise idea to try to find one or two “big clients” to provide the bulk of your income and supplement that with a bunch of smaller clients. If you only have a smattering of small clients and are constantly scrambling to find new ones just to make ends meet, that’s not a sustainable pace.
However, Trap #3 appears when you end up in a position where you have a single big client that takes up an inordinate amount of your time and owns an overwhelming share of your gross receipts. In addition, you may find that the style of work you provide for them is more along the lines of taking marching orders like any employee, rather than providing unique value as a consultant and a partner company.
It’s very tempting to maintain this type of client relationship if the pay is steady. After all, one of the big fears of going independent is that you’ll run into times when you hardly make any money, so if you can find a client that pays you good money frequently and regularly, that’s awesome, right?
Again, this requires a careful reevaluation of how you run your business. Any business with an unwholesome dependency on a single customer or a single supplier places the future health of that business in the hands of an outside entity. The top goal of running your own business is to find a solid place of self-sufficiency and income diversity. If your biggest client were to call you up tomorrow and tell you they’re dropping your contract, which of the following reactions would be yours?
Reaction #1: “Ah, bummer! I got a lot else going on though, so I’ll be fine,”
Reaction #2: “Oh my god, this is terrible! I’m doomed! DOOMED!!!”
If that second reaction hits home for you, then that’s proof you need to take major steps to restructure your client base and your work schedule.
In order to maintain your status as an independent creative, you need to have a healthy mix of income from client work and side-projects. Never get caught flat-footed. I must admit I’ve fallen into each one of these traps several times in the past. The good news is, if you recognize the trap you’re in early enough, you have the power to make the necessary changes to get back on track.