The most tempting thing in a freelance career can also be the deadliest. Working for a single client is appealing because it’s straightforward and because if you enjoy working with them – it’s quite pleasant too.
The trouble is that freelancing with only one client leaves you very vulnerable and a client that you work with for months or years can still walk away at any time. If they do, they can sink your business completely.
So, let’s talk about the perils of working with only one client and how to make sure that your freelance business is always positioned to survive.
What Do We Mean By “Only One Client”?
I would define a “single client” as a client that occupies 80% or more of your paid time for a period in excess of 3 months.
That is the client monopolizes both your attention and your income stream.
It’s important to distinguish this from working on a single project for a short period of time. There are always moments in freelance life where you may be called on to dedicate a month to one project with a couple of others in the background; it’s fine to work like that.
What’s not such a good idea is to give up your life to a single client.
Why “Only One Client” Is Like Swimming In Shark Infested Waters
You became a freelancer, at least in part, to be your own boss. The first risk to your freelance life is this: when you only have one client, they quickly become (for all intents and purposes) your boss.
You can’t say no to their requests because you’d be putting your whole business at risk. If they take their business away – you’ve got nothing.
If you’ve been working for them for months or worse years, you also have no recent marketing experience and If they leave because the relationship soured – you also have no reference. That’s a much worse position to be in than you would have been as an employee.
We know that many freelancers think that selling sucks. That it’s the biggest waste of their time and effort but we beg to differ. We think that selling is the essence of what separates a freelancer from a contractor.
If you don’t maintain your marketing and sales efforts, then you will quickly find your freelance efforts become stale.
You’ll find your pipeline dries up and that you’ve started to lose the experience to open conversations with potential clients and close their business.
My Own Experience Of Having Only One Freelance Client
It is damnably easy to drift into the single freelance client trap without even thinking about it. The first time I made this mistake was in China many, many years ago.
A friend of mine asked me to come and work for his business on a freelance basis and as I had only just started my freelance business this seemed like a stroke of good luck.
He turned out to be abusive, untrustworthy and utterly incompetent and I found myself at the mercy of his money.
I put up with his toxicity and stupidity because of the money. That is until the money stopped coming in too.
He lied to me for 3 months and for 3 months I worked without pay. Then he screwed me over.
It left me completely broke and alone on the other side of the world from home. My marriage went down the pan at the same time, it wasn’t all down to that, but it was, at least in part, one of the reasons that the camel’s back broke.
Fortunately, I would later get my revenge and the money he owed me, but it wouldn’t be for another 6 months or so. I thought I’d learned my lesson, however.
But I hadn’t.
5 years later I found myself in a very long-term partnership with a massive online training provider. We’d worked together very well, and it seemed like a good idea to take on all if their work when they asked – it was fairly paid and there was a lot of it.
The next 2-3 years or so were brilliant. I have a letter from them stating that if I wanted a reference from them, I could write my own.
Then their other manager returned to their business after a long period of absence and our relationship disintegrated in a matter of weeks.
They too then left me high and dry and without money and it would take 3 months of increasingly angry phone calls to get them to pay their substantial outstanding debt.
I had to move into a friend’s home because I couldn’t pay my rent.
I’ve learned my lesson. Never again. Working for just one client is a bad idea.
What To Do If You’ve Drifted Into Having Only One Freelance Client
If you’re in that position of having only one freelance client; you need to get out of it.
Fortunately, it can be done but you need to be decisive and brave to execute the plan:
- Cut your expenses. Money you can stick in the bank to cushion a fall is important. You’re also going to need this while you seek other business – because you’re going to have to cut back, slowly, on the hours you give your “only client”.
- Set aside time for other clients. One day a week minimum to begin with but in the end, you want at least half your time spent with a mixed bag of clients, better still 75% of your time ought to be occupied with a handful of clients. A client that only makes up 10-15% of your workload cannot sink you by leaving you.
- Set aside time to find other clients. You need to put some time into sales and marketing again. I find 30-60 minutes a day to be about ideal for this. It’s long enough to do something useful without being so long that it leaves you demoralized and wishing you could be doing anything else. There are always clients out there. You just need to find them.
- Hit up freelance job sites – Upwork, Craigslist, etc. there are plenty of them out there
- Hit up recruiters – contracting work is as good as freelance work as long it’s mainly part-time
- Hit up past clients – if you’ve made clients happy in the past, ask them for recommendations and referrals
- Hit up your friends – if you have friends in the same industry, talk to them and see if they can get things moving for you
- Talk to your existing “only client” – you need to lay the groundwork for getting out from under their yoke. I’ve found that while you can always just say “I don’t have as much availability” this may be the best time to talk to them about a rate increase – clients will often dial back on the number of hours they give you just because you’re now more expensive – this is a big win-win. It means you get paid the same for less work.
When You Might Consider Having “Only One” Client
Having said all of this, so far, there are circumstances under which you might want to work for a single client at least for a period of time:
- They pay much more than your market rate. If you can find a client that will pay at least 25% more and ideally 50-75% more than the market rate – bank the difference while you work for them. That gives you a safety net if things go wrong. The higher the premium you charge, the more sense a short period (no more than 2 years) of single client working makes.
- They stay below 75% of your time. If you’re getting a premium the other thing you want to ensure is that while they are your main source of income, they don’t take up all of your time. This allows you to keep your hand in the game and win other small projects that way you don’t lose your sales and marketing edge.
- You learn a skill you cannot afford to learn or would not learn any other way. Occasionally, a client’s work will come with training or learning involved that you simply cannot access any other way. I’ve occasionally taken 6-month projects to pick up an additional skill because to learn it myself would have been time consuming and expensive. It’s a trade-off that should lead to higher-paid work in the future.
- You write your contracts in terms of deliverables and not hours. If someone is buying 40 hours of your time, you owe them 40 hours a week. But if they’re buying 10 drawings or 20 articles – then the time it takes for you to do them is your business. In general, if we take on work by deliverables, we’ll get faster and more competent as we move forward – thus reducing the impact on your time of the “single client” over a period of time.
The “single client trap” is not a good one for freelancers and it’s very easy to fall into. Fortunately, it is reasonably easy to get out of too. Try not to learn the hard way as I did.
There are also some fairly specific circumstances under which you might want to consider working for a short(ish) period of time for only one client as a freelancer but only when the client is providing you with additional value.