I hate slow projects. I like thrill rides.
Consider this 2 x 2 describing the universe of potential freelance projects, with two dimensions for different types of speed.
The horizontal axis describes the amount of work. Is this something that can be completed quickly, like a blog post or a tweet, or a big job that includes many elements, like a ghostwriting a book?
The vertical axis accounts for the pace of response from the client. Every project requires interaction. Is the client able to respond quickly to keep the project moving, or does it take them a long time to react to work in progress?
Each type of project has its pros and cons. But if you enjoy freelancing and want to make a good living at it, you should be prefer thrill rides. Here’s why.
Quick hits are ephemeral and hard to live off
Quick-hit jobs are like snacks. “Review this one-page announcement.” “Write a Twitter thread for me.” “Listen to this 20-page presentation, and give me feedback.” They’re short jobs that must be done quickly.
It’s hard to charge a premium for quick hit jobs. It would seem exorbitant to get $1,000 for reviewing a short presentation, but even if you could, you’d need a lot of jobs like that to earn a living. If you have to work to land each one, your sales overhead is going to eat you alive.
You could get a gig creating a whole slew of things like that: “Do two Instagram posts for me every day.” But such gigs are pretty rare. And they’re ephemeral; the client could cut you off at any time. That’s not much of a way to make a living.
Odd jobs are low-compensation
A lot of clients have low-priority tasks lying around. They may even pay for them. “Find all the typos on these web pages,” for example. They’re short duration, but not urgent.
They share a problem with the quick hits — they’re not extended enough to live off. But it’s worse. Since they’re not urgent, clients won’t pay a premium. “Do these little things when you get around to them” is typically a job for a low-paid or unpaid intern.
If a job looks like this, avoid it. Doing inessential work is neither rewarding nor lucrative.
Slogs are a pain in the ass
Many are the clients who want a big job done, but can’t get around to responding so you can collaborate effectively.
I once ghost wrote a whole book with a client like this. The potential pay was great. The actual pay was always off in the future, because I couldn’t complete anything without the client’s input, and my contract had milestones based on completing pieces.
The good news about projects like this is you can generally slot other things alongside them without causing time conflicts. The client has other priorities so they are unlikely to insist you turn things around quickly when their own responses are super-slow.
And the quality of work in such projects is at risk, because it’s hard to create continuity when producing so sporadically.
If you’re considering a project like this, put the client on retainer. Then you get paid every month regardless of whether the project is stalled, which creates an incentive for the client to respond.
In my freelance ghost writing project, eventually someone else at the client — somebody who had a stake in the outcome — convinced my main content partner that if he didn’t work with me on a regular basis, we’d never see the end of the project. I began to meet with the client more frequently, and things picked up; the project benefited, and I was much happier.
Thrill rides are the best
Of all these categories, I prefer thrill rides. The client responds quickly and you’ve always got more to do. There’s both the fulfillment of a long project heading towards a meaty goal and the continuity that comes from building at a fast pace. A thrill ride project is rarely boring, and affords the highest likelihood of creating in flow.
Thrill ride have their challenges. You can’t let up. Setbacks are at risk of becoming crises. There’s a much higher stress level.
But I love collaborative creation. I love going from zero to “Wow, that’s an awesome thing we created” in months, not years. Every project I look back on fondly was a thrill ride.
And it doesn’t hurt that thrill rides generate solid chunks of money quickly.
Find big jobs that are just at the edge of your ability to keep up. Find clients that can respond as quickly as you can handle.
And to the clients: if you’re hiring high quality freelancers, you’ll get better results if the job is big and you are responsive. You’ll enjoy the thrill rides as much as we do, and you’ll get better quality content, too.