Recurring revenue: a path to sustainability in your solo freelancing firm

Becoming independent is easy; remaining independent is difficult.

Some of my low years have been so deep that I arguably really should not have continued my solo practice. While the high years generally made up for it, that wasn’t helpful when in the middle of those low points …when I really needed to pay myself a living wage (not to mention my overhead).

There are numerous ways to maintain a baseline of revenue. One way I’ve found sustainable income is retainer arrangements, which work well for the types of clients which benefit from being able to periodically access me for advice and small requests, and which desire priority access to me when something important and urgent arises.

I happen to like recurring revenue because it reduces my ongoing sales and marketing needs (to an extent) and makes my short-term cash flow more predictable. This frees me up to serve my clients, to pursue newer (more risky or less predictable) business opportunities if I so choose, and helps stabilize my income in a way that I haven’t been able to meet through any other technique.

I also personally prefer it because I like to work with the same clients over long periods of time, and retainers focus my energy on those types of clients.

Retainer arrangements are like Membership offerings — Only Better

I view retainer arrangements essentially like a paid membership offering — only better. Membership has its privileges (that is, after all, why someone joins) and in and of itself — with some creative thinking — you can create something valuable to your types of clients.

But even more interesting — each individual arrangement can be customized — one can tune the specific benefits and specify other perks that are appropriate and valued by each individual client in question. Costco can’t do this. You can.

This increases value to the client. This, in turn, increases conversions of proposals into sales, better retention (renewals, which decrease time devoted to sales and marketing and increase your operating profitability), and boosts what you can charge. Win-win!

Payment Terms

My retainer arrangements are typically one of monthly, quarterly, or annual. I automatically invoice at an appropriate point near the end of the current period for renewal. I also require a heads up a reasonable period prior to renewal if the client won’t be renewing.

One difference between retainers and other types of work, is that full payment is always required prior to each period — not during or after. This is important, as it’s helps justify the discount you’re effectively offering in exchange for your receiving prepaid guaranteed income; this goes away if you bill after the period is over.

How to start offering retainers

I got my feet wet with retainers by offering them as an optional add-on to existing client projects at proposal time. I spent time thinking about each project and determining where there was value-add to ongoing follow-up of some sort. Not everyone went for it, and some projects were better fits than others, but enough did… until it donned on me I could make this a central part of my practice not just a small revenue bumper tool.

I suggest this route because it allows one expand their comfort zone in a low risk manner, without scaring off clients or cannibalizing existing business. And, over time, it’ll give you a better idea of which opportunities make the most sense to explore and which clients really see the value in this sort of arrangement (many clients won’t and that’s fine).

What to include in retainers

This is really something that you will know best as you know your specific types of clients best and your market. Here are some suggested places to look for ideas that worked for me:

  • Look at past project proposals and ponder what types of add-on or ongoing value-add offerings might have been appropriate
  • Look at existing projects in progress and do the same
  • Chat with clients about their ongoing non-project needs.
  • Brainstorm ideas, even ones that sound far-fetched and commit to selecting one or more of them to tack on your next few proposals as optional add-on offerings. Ask for feedback after proposal acceptance, from those who did not opt for it.

Should project work ever be included in retainer arrangements?

Should project work ever be completed as part of a retainer arrangement? That depends on your goals. Some of my retainer arrangements have been about establishing predictable income and basically are designed to be cash cows for me, albeit heavily discounted versus if I’d performed the same duties on a project by project basis. I was willing to accept this because my priorities were different at the time. There’s nothing wrong with this, but know why you’re doing it if you do it.

Most of my retainers include a discounted rate for project work, applied either to my hourly rate or to my quoted fee for any future projects we do together during the term of the retainer arrangement. The client will still be paying separately for the project work, but gets a discount in recognition of their membership status.

Final thoughts

I think retainer arrangements are a good component of a well rounded solo practice. They bring additional value to clients, encourage long-term client relations (leading to more project work), often can make project work more successful (by incorporating ongoing maintenance and adjustments), can reduce firefighting (by encouraging reaching out for advice and assistance with small tasks), and can bring stability to our cash flow and income.

How to immediately start closing more freelancing deals

One of the biggest reasons prospective clients don’t proceed with a project after having you provide a thorough proposal is because they are concerned about their options if you mess up. Take that risk away: Offer a strong guarantee. Here’s how I do it in my consulting practice.

Something like this will do:

The quality of my work is guaranteed. If you do not believe I have met the mutually established objectives for this arrangement, I will continue to work toward those goals with you for no additional fee. If, after such an additional attempt, you still believe I have not met your objectives, I will refund your fees in total.

I borrowed this idea from Alan Weiss years ago, include it as boilerplate in every proposal letter, and haven’t looked back.

Is the above scary? Are you taking on more of the risk? Yes. That’s why it’s powerful.

Do you have to use exactly this language if it makes you too uncomfortable? No. But make sure you pick something that makes you a little uncomfortable. Otherwise it’s meaningless and not compelling. And therefore not of value.

(Also, you’ll have to adjust the language if your projects aren’t fixed fee — like mine predominantly are — but the spirit can be similar.)

Not incidentally, offering a compelling guarantee is also justification for charging higher fees. Accepting risk — taking it away for the client — has value. Clients aren’t simply paying you for your advice or your labor, but everything you bring to the table.

If accepting this level of responsibility for your work isn’t acceptable to you, that’s fine. Just expect to close fewer, smaller, and less profitable deals. Which is fine if it helps you sleep better.

But I sleep better doing things this way[1].

[1] You don’t have to go crazy. Try it on a proposal or two and see what happens.

Why Marketing Really Matters for Solo Professionals

What getting good at marketing can do for the individual is to help him or her find the clients they could care about and be eager to help, and the types of work that would be truly stimulating. The better you are at marketing, the more truly professional you can be, because you are not forced to take money from anyone and everyone just because you need the cash.

— David Maister in “Doing It For The Money

A business does marketing and sales for the money, but that’s not the sole reason to get good at it.

David’s original article is a bit long, but there are some other tidbits wrapped around this quote if you feel inclined to dig them up. I also recommend two of his books, “The Trusted Advisor” and “Strategy and the Fat Smoker“ and/or spending a morning with your coffee in hand while perusing his articles and blog archive.

Amateurs Get Angry With Clients. Professionals Educate Them.

Paul Jarvis, writing for 99U:

As most experienced freelancers know, sometimes we have to fire our clients, for their benefit and ours. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I used to think dealing with frustrating clients was just part of being a creative. But then I realized while, yes, there are frustrating parts of any relationship, frustration should be the exception rather than the rule.

There are certainly times when we want to turn into the freelance version of Donald Trump, screaming “You’re Fired!” at everyone we disagree with. But the truth is, we deserve the clients we get. Bad clients aren’t the result of some cosmic force working against us, they’re more likely the result of our own actions.

Frustrating clients are the result of some misstep we’ve made along the way. To do our best work and work with the best people, we need to be diligent in our relationship with our clients.

Read his suggestions on how to accomplish this.

Flaws in Handling New Business Inquiries

The WAV Group had researchers pose as consumers and make inquiries with real estate brokers. The results were depressing. Their results were about right for solo technology professionals as well, in my experience.

Unfortunately, that’s not the the most depressing part. It’s embarrassing for me to admit this, but the very week this study came across my desk I blew off a new contact …and we were discussing some ways we could work together. I didn’t ignore him intentionally. I simply completely dropped the ball on getting back to him in an email thread we were having.

I never like to leave somebody hanging. I have no excuse, though I told myself I was too wrapped up in a couple of projects that suddenly picked up momentum that week to continue the thread wholeheartedly. I still should have acknowledged him and said something before it became a 14 (!) day gap of silence. This is Customer Service 101 and I blew it. Learn from my mistake.

Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won’t have time to make them all yourself.


Alfred Sheinwold

How to get your consulting fee upfront

I could make this article very short with the smug answer: “Just ask for it.

But I know from real world experience that the more accurate answer is it’s both exactly that simple and, at the same time, not just that easy.

How much do you ask for? When do you ask for it? How do you ask? How do you make it in the client’s interest? How do you deal with objections?

How much you can ask for:

  • A portion of the fee upfront.

This one seems obvious to me now, but I went several years before I moved beyond the “work a bunch of hours then send an invoice and wait” model. You can do this whether you are fixed fee or hourly, basing the latter on an estimate. It did wonders for my cash flow, for my scheduling, and for eliminating clients (or worse, prospects — i.e. folks I’d never worked with at all before) that would say “Let’s do it” then drag their feet or expect me to move quickly to do my thing for them, but then would take forever to pay me for my promptly completed work.

  • The entire fee upfront.

You’d be surprised how acceptable this becomes once you simply start making it your convention. And, really, it’s not all that strange when you consider that you can’t drive away with a car (or even walk out of Walmart) before paying for your purchase, as well as the fact that in most cases you are taking on greater risk than the client is by working on a project for a client for a few weeks or months with only the “hope” that you’ll get paid at the end. You are a freelancer, not your client’s banker/lender.

When can you ask for it:

  • After you’ve set your fee (but not a moment before).

When you get paid is a discussion about payment terms, but not about your fee itself. I learned this from Alan Weiss. I don’t discuss payment scheduling until at the very end of my full proposal. The easiest and most seamless way to do this is to require payment as part of proposal acceptance. That is, nothing means anything until a check is in hand (you can’t deposit a signature and people can drag their feet even after signing agreements).

How you can ask for it:

  • At the end of your proposal.

A simply line or two entitled payment schedule or payment terms, at the very end of the proposal (after fees have already been stated), right where they are expected to elect any options and accept the proposal. My favorite way to do this (and what is in every proposal I send out) is an approach I borrowed and adapted from Alan Weiss is to require signature to proceed and to make payment equivalent to a signature:

Upon your acknowledgement I will provide an electronic invoice once you’ve made me aware of which options you prefer and if you wish to take advantage of any of the discount payment terms, which may be paid online or by check. Once accepted, all payments are due in accordance with the payment schedule above.

Your choice of option(s) and your signature indicate acceptance of this proposal as discussed and described above (in the absence of your signature, your payment also will indicate acceptance of this proposal).

  • With a discount carrot.

I routinely offer a discount of 5% to 10% for receiving full payment upfront (sometimes up to a year ahead). And no discount (or a smaller one) for receiving no or only a partial payment upfront. As a bonus, some organizations are required to take these discount terms when offered.

  • Offer different payment terms depending on the option chosen.

In nearly all of my proposals I give the client several options for achieving the agreed upon objectives, each with varying levels of risk, speed, client involvement, etc. This makes it easy to also associate different payment terms which each option. For example, for lower end (and generally lower fee) options I usually require the full fee upfront. This is justifiable because part of the way I’m able to offer a cheaper option at all is because I get paid upfront for it — i.e. it offers lower risk for me so I don’t need to get compensated for taking that risk, while for higher fee options I am more flexible — i.e. 50% of the fee upfront and the balance in 30 days.

How to handle objections:

  • Offer a strong guarantee.

One of the biggest reasons clients don’t like to pay upfront is because they are concerned about their options if you mess up. Take that risk away:

The quality of my work is guaranteed. If you do not believe I have met the mutually established objectives for this arrangement, I will continue to work toward those goals with you for no additional fee. If, after such an additional attempt, you still believe I have not met your objectives, I will refund your fees in total.

  • Make sure it’s really payment terms being objected to.

I never negotiate fees. I only negotiate two things: payment terms and project scope (which for me primarily entails engagement objectives and implementation approaches). This makes it important to distinguish between whether the objective is about the payment terms or about project value. The former is a very different discussion from the latter.

  • Be willing and flexible when it comes to negotiating payment terms (but not fees).

It’s okay to negotiate payment terms. I suggest that if it seems like you can’t get anything at all upfront, that you tie the first payment to a meaningful, but fairly minor milestone. As soon as the first payment is actually received, the remaining payments are far more likely. And your only concerned with payment terms for two reasons: to manage your cash flow (i.e. sooner is better; some is better than none) and to minimize your risk (i.e. of non-payment, of slow payment).

If you enjoyed this, I suggest you check out the book Value-based Fees by Alan Weiss.