Still struggling with feast or famine? (Or is it a myth?)

feast or famine

Have you ever struggled to get enough clients or consulting work? Chances are, your answer to that question was

  • yes
  • of course!
  • hell yes–and I could use some help!

OK, but let’s get a little more specific.

  • Are you struggling to get your first client?
  • Do you have just 1 or 2 clients, but can’t seem to figure out how to get more?
  • Are you at a loss for how to get more consulting work?
  • Have you gone through a time when you didn’t have enough consulting work?
  • Have you had problems paying bills because you didn’t have enough consulting work?

Where I was

Some years back, after I’d started doing consulting full-time, I went through a period where I was flush with work. Lots of projects for lots of clients. I even had a couple clients for whom I was doing multiple projects at the same time. I was crazy busy, and it felt good to be needed and getting paid for it.

But within a period of weeks, those projects dried up. I finished the work, and faced the prospect of little work for the next couple of months.

Sure, I had a couple small projects lingering, but they weren’t going to pay the bills.

And at the time, I was full-time committed to consulting. I’d long ago ditched my day job, and resolved never to get a “real” job again.

And to top it off, I was the sole breadwinner, since my wife had stopped working to stay home with our kids.

So, yes, I was stressed. Actually, I was way more than stressed. I was scared.

I thought about all the bills that needed to be paid: mortgage, electricity, water, my daughter’s day care, groceries, private jet lease… OK, well, everything except that last one.

It was scary. How was I going to get out of this hole?

You’re not alone

Virtually every consultant and freelancer has experienced feast or famine, where you swing from periods where you have lots of work to times when you can’t find any gig worth taking.

A quick Google search for “consulting feast famine” returns over 600,000 results. Clearly, lots of people are struggling with this problem.

Feast-or-famine is scary, no question about it. When you don’t have enough work and can’t find clients:

  • it’s incredibly stressful
  • you’re scared you won’t be able to pay your bills
  • you see your bank balance dwindling and hovering near zero
  • you feel discouraged
  • you wonder whether you should give up and just get a job

You start believing the worst things about yourself:

  • that you aren’t cut out for this,
  • you can’t sell,
  • you’re no good at running a business,
  • you should have listened to your:
    • father
    • mother
    • spouse
    • next-door neighbor
    • crazy guy on the street corner who’s shrieking about Armageddon…

When you’re in the thick of it and terrified you can’t pay your mortgage, it sucks. No question.

“Feast or famine” is really a myth

I know, I know, you can’t argue with the reality of not having gas money, or having 5 days until your mortgage is due and wondering if your client can pay early. Things can get really bad in real life.

However, most consultants and freelancers assume that “feast or famine” is just something they have to deal with. That it’s inevitable.

And, yes, when you go through the cycle, it feels real. The results are real.

So we freak out, scramble around, and when some work finally comes in, we settle down into the routine, only to repeat it again and again.

But “feast of famine” is NOT inevitable.

Sure, it can be your consulting reality if

  • you’re not doing specific things to prevent it, or
  • don’t know what to do to prevent it, or
  • don’t know how to do the things to prevent it.

So, how do you prevent “feast or famine”?

And what can you do when you’re in the thick of it to dig yourself out of of the hole?

Well, things like marketing, prospecting, targeting, qualifying, defining and validating your niche, identifying your ideal client profile, etc. Each of those are pretty big topics by themselves. And plenty of people have written articles and even books on those topics (and some of those authors don’t even have experience doing what they write about).

At a high level, consulting and freelancing is a service business, and service businesses share a lot of similarities. Sure, you can read about how, in general, to do all the things I mentioned above. But it’s far more helpful to get specific advice from someone who’s been in the same trenches your’re in, and can give you a hand to help you through it.

“Feast or famine” can become an excuse

I’m not trying to say that you or me or anyone else puts themselves in the “famine” on purpose. What I’m saying is that when we’re in the “famine” it’s easy to throw up our hands and say, “Well, this is how it is! Everyone has a tough time with it.” And then neglecting–or not even realizing–the fact that whether you’re in the “feast” or “famine” is actually under your control.

I know this goes against a lot of traditional thinking, and may even run counter to your own experience. After all, you don’t have control over whether your prospects sign a proposal, or how long they take to sign it, or how many prospects come knocking on your door.

Or do you?

Imagine for a moment, that you had a steady flow of prospects coming to you–not necessarily a flood, but even just a consistent trickle.

And what if you could convert 60%, 70%, or even 90% of them into clients.

And what if each client you got gave you a pipeline of work. Not just one-off projects that last a week or 2, but ongoing work over 3, 4, or 5 years?

If you had that, how likely would it be you’d be in a “famine”? Not very.

There’s more under your control than you might realize

See, the most successful consultants are playing a different game than everyone else. These are the people in the top 5-10% of their field. They do things that the rest of the pack isn’t doing. And they DON’T do things that the herd does.

That’s why they’re getting different results.

That’s why they don’t worry about “feast or famine”. It’s no longer part of their reality.

So how did I get out of the feast or famine cycle?

OK, since you’re probably wondering, yes, I did dig myself out of that rut.

I realized I needed to step up to the plate and do things I had been avoiding, like following up with and reaching out to prospects and current clients. Climbing out of the hole didn’t happen overnight, and, yes, it was stressful.

Besides just scrambling around for short-term results, I also made a conscious choice to systematize and automate some of the things I do, like marketing. Creating systems that automate much of my marketing and sales have not only saved me countless hours, but have reaped literally 10’s of thousands of dollars.

In fact, I landed my biggest clients through marketing channels that were essentially automated. These are clients who’ve given me:

  • consistent consulting work over the past 5 years,
  • paid me over $100k
  • signed 5-figure proposals

What you can do right now

First, realize that “feast of famine” is NOT inevitable. When you take the right kinds of actions on the right things, you’ll have a consistent–and consistently growing–flow of clients, consulting work, and cash.

Second, realize that the most successful consultants are playing a completely different game than everyone who complains about “feast or famine”. These people do things others don’t, and they avoid things that most people rely on.

What next?

OK, so this post was a lot about mindset, and you’re probably wanting more specifics. I get it.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll go into more detail and give you access to some of the best material I’ve ever put together. These will be strategies and tactics that have worked for me and my students.

For now: take 30 seconds and tell me in the comments below: what’s the worst thing you’ve experienced with “feast or famine”?

I read and respond to every comment.

And I’d like to hear from you, right now: what’s the worst thing that’s happened to you because of “feast or famine”?

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Jorie - January 14, 2014 Reply

Well my situation is a bit unique. In addition to being a Proposal Writer, I have a part-time job at our family-owned business that supplements my income. It is a lot of work, but while I am waiting for payments from my clients, the extra money definitely helps. What has also helped me is being able to implement a monthly contract with one of my clients. That way I know for sure I have a set amount of money coming every month on a specific day. The hard part in the long run with that is not selling yourself short and making the client see your value; even when your workload is slow. Overall though, I agree that there has to be some creativity on our end as Consultants to avoid the feast or famine scenario.

    Greg Miliates - January 15, 2014 Reply

    Hey, Jorie, thanks for your comment! You make a great point about monthly contracts/retainers, and how they can boost/supplement your business. Those alternative fee arrangements can create more regular income, and can also allow you to earn a higher effective hourly rate.

    And, yes, it IS hard to not sell yourself short and underprice your services when times are lean.

Brad - January 15, 2014 Reply

Thanks for being real and honest with your readean and in anand him and him and himrs, Greg!

    Greg Miliates - January 16, 2014 Reply

    Glad you liked the article, Brad! Not sure I completely understand your comment though. 🙂

Tony R - January 16, 2014 Reply

I’m at the point to where I want to leave the 9-5 corporate world and would like to start consulting. The issue is I don’t feel I’m adequate or have ‘enough’ skills to do consulting work. I feel people will see me as a fake or not knowledgable enough.

    Greg Miliates - January 16, 2014 Reply

    Thanks for your comment, Tony! What you describe is the same experience I hear from lots of people who email me: they want to quit their day job, but worry that they’ll be exposed as someone who can’t deliver or doesn’t have the expertise.

    Keep in mind, if you’re planning to consult in a field where you have work experience, you likely have enough expertise to provide value. The difference is that you’ll be switching from an employee role to a business owner role–which is VERY different for 99% of us.

    I went through the same thing–even though I’d been CONSULTING as my day job. Essentially, I was switching from consultant-as-employee to consultant-as-owner. I was doing the same work: scoping projects, talking to clients, creating project estimates, doing the consulting work. The exact same work. But it was tough to get through the mental barrier of feeling like I didn’t know enough to do it on my own.

Chucky - January 29, 2014 Reply

Hello, Mr. Greg!

I’ve been struggling for about a year with trying to start up my consulting business. I work in the computing field, and I feel I’ve really been stuck in a rut. I have a client that I have undersold myself to, a small family-run business, and the reason I sold myself short is because I sized them up and just concluded that they couldn’t pay my rates. This was after losing my “real” job, so I was desperate. How do I avoid doing that again? Anyway, I’m developing a database for them for what amounts to just pennies, and since I’m under a contract, I don’t want to just pull out, but like I said, it is unprofitable. How do I deal with this situation?

    Greg Miliates - January 29, 2014 Reply

    Ah, sorry to hear about that situation. Like you said, the best thing I’ve found in situations like that is to do what you can to complete the project as soon as possible–without any scope-creep or scope changes. Just get it done so you can put it in the past.

    Going forward though, you’ll want to adjust your pricing and possibly your scoping process to prevent the same problem. Asking qualifying questions can often filter out low-value, budget-driven prospects.

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