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GROWING YOUR FREELANCE CAREER DOESN’T MEAN SAYING “YES” TO EVERY CLIENT. IT MEANS SAYING “YES” TO THE RIGHT ONES.

I used to think I craved change, but it turns out I am actually pretty averse to it, at least in my professional life.

Ever since I started freelancing about five years ago, my biggest motto—and one that I attribute to my successes to this day—was to never say “no”. At times, this motto made my life good. Or bad. Or ugly. It depended on the client and the task.

I didn’t say “no” to the client I had to sue for payment—and only recouped 60% of what I was owed. I didn’t say “no” to the client that treated me like her personal assistant, asking me to write preschool applications for her son and look up old friends on LinkedIn. And I didn’t say “no” to the client that took a real chance on me, where together, we created an acquisition strategy that drove 18k sign ups in six months, with a 60% engagement rate.

For the past half decade, regardless of the client, I have continued to say “yes” and have spent most of my time in that excited exhaustive state one gets from learning by experience.

For the past half decade, regardless of the client, I have continued to say “yes” and have spent most of my time in that excited exhaustive state one gets from learning by experience.

But recently, never saying no has become increasingly challenging, and not because of bizarre or random requests. (I charge too much to be a personal assistant nowadays, thank goodness!)

Instead, my client load has expanded to the point that I either need to hire more hands or start thinking strategically about the projects I want to be involved with.

On the one hand, saying “no” looks like a light at the end of a very crowded tunnel. I’ve worked my way from writing articles for $10-15 for extra cash to creating research-based communications and marketing strategies and implementation plans. I’ve met my goals and need a little relief from the constant onslaught of very complicated, demanding work.

On the other hand, saying “no” means reducing my income, which is never guaranteed, and shattering the little stability I have found as a freelancer. It also means changing the one thing about myself that I thought made me stand out as a freelancer: being the “I never say no” girl.

So what to do?

While being in a place to pick and choose clients is a dream many of us who freelance have, we also know that times can get lean and it’s very possible that we won’t always be in such a position. That’s where I am now. I have to say “no”, and I need to be strategic about it, but deciding where to cut corners is scary.

However, if there’s one thing scarier than making a big decision, it’s being debilitated by fear of the unknown and not acting at all. At some point, every freelancer has to start thinking about when to cut the umbilical cord and start getting strategic about the projects they take on and the work they want to do.

It’s strategically working with the right clients and on the right projects—and not just saying “yes” to everything—that will truly help you grow your freelance career.

It’s strategically working with the right clients and on the right projects—and not just saying “yes” to everything—that will truly help you grow your freelance career.

I started my strategic review by making an excel sheet of all of my clients, including my hourly wage, the number of hours I work for them each month, and my monthly income.

(I’ve obviously changed rates and client names for confidentiality here.)

You’ll notice that sometimes my monthly income isn’t actually a product of my hours worked and hourly wage. I prefer working on retainer—this often means that I work longer hours and effectively undercut my hourly rate, but the trade off is that I have a steady income from a few clients that I know is coming in each month.

I then determined which client projects I actually lost money on, from a perspective of the traditional hourly rates I charge and the retainer I receive from a few clients. You’ll see that with a few clients, I make considerably less than I would if I charged hourly rather than monthly.

Next, I added a column about contracts. I learned the hard way that you should always try to sign clients on a quarterly or bi-annual basis, and to stagger the types of contract terms you have. For instance, renew two clients every quarter and stagger that by renewing another two clients bi-annually, but on the other two quarters of the year—so you’re essentially renewing clients every quarter, but not all of your clients).

Given all this information, I was able to ask myself even more in-depth questions, such as:

1. Which clients paid the most for the amount of time worked?

2. Which clients were the most steady sources of income?

3. Which clients did I lose money on, both from a time and income perspective?

Once I was clear on those answers, I asked myself:

1. Do I enjoy the work that I do on each project?

2. Which clients/companies do I believe in and really WANT to work on?

3. What am I learning on each project, and is it valuable to my overall career goals and objectives?

I asked myself these questions, of course, to determine the most valuable clients—not just from a monetary perspective, but by gauging my enjoyment and the overall learning experience. Because working 180 hours a month is exhausting—and that doesn’t include the non-billable administrative tasks like invoicing and prospecting for work. It’s important not just to get paid well, but to like and learn from what you do!

In the end, I cut client 3. I wasn’t feeling challenged, the income was monthly, and, for the amount of time I was putting in to the project, I was actually losing money. I figured out that I could take on two more clients for about 30 monthly hours each and charge my full hourly rate—and earn more while working slightly less, freeing up time for those administrative tasks I was currently doing at 1am.

Money and time are important, but as you can see, enjoying the work and being challenged are just as important. I’ve taken a bit of a cut in income, but tightening my belt and living with the knowledge that I have more secure sources of income is worth it to me—not to mention the added advantages of having some time to prospect for new exciting projects and enjoy a little free time!

Are you starting to get strategic about your freelance work? Let us know your strategy tips in the comments below!

Photos: Joe Kathrina

This post originally appeared on Career Contessa (www.careercontessa.com/conversations/how-to-grow-your-freelance-career) and was written by Author Khaleelah Jones .

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