We're not contemplating whether you should or shouldn't tell your clients you are traveling. You should. The question is how.
As a freelancer, I’m sure you’ve come to recognize that every client is different. Some of them are a lot different and some are down right loony. However, they do pay your bills and they all deserve to be told if major changes are happening in your business.
Seriously. You’re clients might not actually care, but do them the honor of at least telling them. The few clients I didn’t tell were more irritated that I didn’t mention it than that I was actually gone.
The sooner you can mention that you are considering becoming location independent, the better. I started a year in advance. In the fall I usually take the opportunity to reconnect with all my clients, explain any changes in policies or rates. I included in my standard email that our business would likely become 100% remote the following fall. I didn’t provide details right away, I just gave them a friendly heads up.
It is a big deal. But most of my clients didn’t care as long as I the work got done. They appreciated that I was open, honest and realistic about the challenges of working from the other side of the world.
Don’t just be willing to negotiate, make an offer. Know the points you’re willing to compromise to keep a client happy and mention it.
You’re leaving for a good reason. You’re traveling for a good reason. There are parts of traveling that you love -- and working, unfortunately, can get in the way of those. Decide what you are willing to sacrifice to make some cash, and more importantly, what you aren’t willing to sacrifice while traveling.
The smartest move I made when I decided to take my business remote was to ask my biggest clients what they thought. In person. I bought them lunch and said, “What would you think if I permanently left the Seattle area and worked remotely from around the world?”
Their first response was congratulations and envy. But once I dug a little deeper, I heard their concerns. I didn’t combat them with excuses. I just listened. I took notes. What problems would I need to solve to make our business relationship work?
Some clients I realized I couldn’t please. Others just needed reassurance in simple ways to make them comfortable with the new arrangement.
This was the hardest part for me. There were clients that just simply would not be satisfied if I couldn’t come into their office for a meeting once a month, or that I couldn’t respond to emails everyday between 9 and 5. Pick your battles carefully. When you can’t win, politely admit defeat and concentrate your efforts elsewhere.
Some of my clients need special attention. Here are a few scenarios I ran into and how I dealt with them.
Analyze the situation. Why do they want you and what could put that at risk? My top four clients contribute to more than 85% of my business. I know all of them very well. I made a spreadsheet (mostly because I’m a dork) and charted all the types of business they gave me. Then I wrote down what each project required and what income I could earn.
Here’s what it looked like:
|Client||Type of Work||$$ per year||Needs to Sustain|
|Client 1||Big events||$24,000||Fly home twice a year|
|Client 1||Small events||$12,000||Able to have stable internet connection for about 2 weeks. Will have lots of advance notice|
|Client 1||Small Powerpoint Gigs||$5,000||Check email at least once a week and stay put to do work for at least 3-4 days|
|Client 2||One off little projects||$43,200||Email access every 24-48 hours and out of office and advance notice when I'm unavailable for more than 2 days|
|Client 2||Long-term projects||$14,400||Email access once a week|
|Client 3||Huge once a year event||$15,000||Fly back to Seattle for the month of July|
|Client 3||Other small events||$7,200||Able to have stable internet connection for 1-2 weeks. Will have a 2-3 weeks advance notice|
|Client 3||Last minute work||$28,800||Internet access every 24 hours|
|Client 4||All||$28,800||Able to stay in one spot for 1-2 weeks to complete a project. Or have email access every 24-48 hours|
After making this chart I realized my best clients gave me many different types of work. And only one of those was jeopardized by traveling. For example, client 1 above needed me to work big on site events which require me to fly back to the states. I knew I couldn’t expect that client to pay the extra airfare to fly me to the event from Timbuktu. Fortunately I was still capable of completing all of the other projects while traveling.
Discuss the good and the bad with your clients. Explain that you understand the difficulties of working from Timbuktu. Emphasize that you will need to cut back some of your projects but are still more than capable of taking on the rest.
Most importantly, be honest and understanding. Becoming location independent is not going to make your clients life easier. The sooner you acknowledge that to your client, the more likely they will be to express their concerns. The sooner they express their concerns, the more time you have to find solutions and compromises.
There’s always at least one. That thorn in your side that always calls at just the wrong time. It’s always just “a simple fix” and 16 hours later you’re still working on their “simple fix”. There are a hundred easy ways to fire a client, but you should resist the urge to burn bridges.
If you don’t want the hassle any longer, politely explain that you think your new lifestyle won’t allow for this type of work. Six months later, when things are slow and you’re hurting for cash, it’s good to have the ability to look up this client again.
The question you have to answer is: are you still willing to do last minute work?
A few years ago I would have said that 80% of my work was booked less than a week in advance, and probably half of that was booked the same day. I was ok with that. Now I’m not.
I set the expectation early that when my business went remote I would NOT be available to complete work in less than five days. I would not be checking email more frequently than every 48 hours. Of course, I often do check email several times a day. And if I have reliable internet access I still turn projects around on the same day. Although I usually include a friendly reminder that this is not to be expected all the time.
I don’t get crazy short term requests anymore. Yes, that means I get less work. But I also travel without the nagging urge to check email every 10 minutes.
I still get requests from clients for last minute work at inconvenient times, like when I happen to be enjoying a cold beer on a beach reading some trashy novel... I politely remind them not to make their problems my problems. Then I have another beer.
They call you up maybe once a year. You never really know if it’s worth the trouble to fill out another set of take paperwork and write a giant statement of work for 10 billable hours.
I have a lot of clients like this, sometimes more than I like. It’s not that they don’t think highly of my work, they just don’t need a graphic designer that often. The plus side is that most of them have very flexible deadlines and a huge network of potential referrals. Even though it can be inconvenient, this type of work comes in handy while traveling. It allows you to continue to grow your business and replace the clients you lose over time.
Rather than sending these clients my standard notice, especially if I hadn’t heard from them in 6 months, I let them know at the end of a project. Usually when I sent the final invoice I say something nonchalant like: “By the way, coming soon to another continent near you...” I started doing this a year before my trip and was able to hit almost all of my casual clients.