Low Maintenance Freelancing: 4 Ways to Reduce Client Clutter and Never Pitch Again

In 2007, Tim Ferriss’s The 4 Hour Workweek hit the shelves and marketers everywhere rushed to decrease their workload and boost their income. When you’re selling a product, it’s not particularly difficult to do so. After automating sales systems and creating low-maintenance businesses, they escaped office monotony and enjoyed their lifestyle, only to hear an army of designers asking how it was all possible.

For service businesses, minimizing work is significantly more difficult. The greatest asset that product-based marketers have is that their product isn’t human. A product can ship without direct attention, but a skill such as design or development can’t simply be outsourced until it no longer costs any time. However, there are ways for designers to minimize their time spent at a desk while still maintaining a per-hour or per-project income.

The following are a selection of strategies that can reduce the amount of noise in your design business. By systematically trimming away the non-design aspects of online design, it’s possible to significantly cut down the amount of time spent working while still maintaining the same end result. Try one or all, and create a design business that isn’t paralyzed by incoming projects and client maintenance, but liberated through simple systems and long-term strategy.


Prioritize Low-Maintenance Clients

Here’s one sure-fire way to encourage long-term professional relationships: prioritize them. In any business, there are some clients and customers that bring in more money than others, and are significantly more valuable to the business. As horrible as it may be to push away new business – and that’s not something you should always be doing – it’s often more worthwhile to sustain old business.

Give your long-term clients reasons to keep coming back. From special discount rates to incredible service, the list of potential ways to impress, inspire, and market to long-term clients is endless. Rather than a relentless pursuit of new business, many intelligent service businesses are dedicating marketing power to prioritizing and strengthening their connection with long-term clients.

Think of it this way. Would you rather have a single email once a month with a consistent design request, or hundreds to field every month for the same amount of income? Prioritizing low-maintenance clients is about cutting the fat away from your design business. Cut out the chatter, the negotiations, and the noise, and focus on the signal.

Craft a Win-Win Referral System

Marketing is expensive. Sure, a good search engine presence sometimes doesn’t cost a cent, but it does cost you valuable time. Some of the best design firms – and some of the best marketing firms – don’t take on new clients without a referral from a current client. Why? Because actively marketing to new clients takes time away from what they do best: design.

Advertising a product is simple. After designing, manufacturing, and preparing distribution for a product, all that’s left is convincing people to buy. There’s a clear price, a clear product, and no questions to be answered.

In contrast, advertising a service is very difficult, especially when it’s in a field as subjective and variable as design. There’s project scope, pricing structures, and subjective pricing minefields such as style and content. Compared to selling a product, selling a service is next to impossible.

When you distance yourself from marketing to new clients and embrace marketing through old clients, you filter your requests automatically. Instead of a wall of requests, some bad and some good, you end up with requests and projects that are preselected for you. While current clients can’t discuss the finer details of design with their friends, they certainly can (and will) tell them what you’re good at.

Ignore Social Media

Reduce Inbound CallsThere’s an aura that surrounds social media that sometimes sucks the common sense out of people. We hear endless stories about social media changing the face of freelancing and service businesses, but in the end it’s rarely the driving force behind an online business.

Effective online marketing isn’t about using every service available to get your name out there. Despite the hype, a dedicated social media presence isn’t the answer to every business’s marketing dreams, and for some it’s nothing more than a waste of time, and potentially money.

The best marketing system is the one that brings you the most clients for the least amount of time or money. Sometimes it’s social media, sometimes it’s not. If your business has built a large database of clients through pay-per-click advertising, keep on doing so. Just don’t think you have to embrace social media.

Do Great Work

It’s unfortunate that the most obvious method for generating long-term clients is also one of the most frequently ignored. In a digital world, quality is your calling card. There’s no shortage of designers – we’re available in large supply – and the proof of your design and service quality is most often in the amount of long-term professional relationships you can build.

Chasing short-term incentives generates more per-week than putting in a lot of time, but on a longer scale it’s a far less lucrative way to do business. It’s frustrating to see designers cut corners and increase their short-term income in exchange for a future that’s packed with pitching, relentless temporary projects, and a revolving door of clients.

After a while, any designer begins to realize that a select few of their clients are worth significantly more to them than the rest. It’s called Pareto’s Law – to some, the Law of the Vital Few – and it dictates that 20% of your clients will ultimately bring in 80% of your income. Do great work and you’ll preserve that 20%. Shoot for the short-term incentives and you’ll end up in design hell: a revolving door of clients, no long-term strategy, and a roller coaster income.

Your Turn To Talk

What do you think? Any other tips and strategies you would like to share with the rest of us? Please take a minute to chime in by leaving a comment below.

images in this post: sindesign and nedrichards

Our spanish readers will be happy to find a spanish version of this post on Maquiladora – big thanks to Ulises for the translation.


  1. says

    Thanks for the great article, Mat! I love how you had a little jab at social media since everyone is so gung-ho over it. It definitely works for some and doesn’t work for others. :-)

  2. says

    Those are all good ideas, but the only one really related to the 4HWW is prioritizing clients. And even then, not so much.

    A few ideas closer to the spirit of 4HWW:

    -Break down the task of designing a site into individual chunks, and outsource the ones that are always the same or which don’t require your creativity. For example: if you use WordPress and some specific set of plugins, you could have someone in Bangalore do your install and initial setup (deleting the first post, changing permalink structure, etc). Saving you a few hours worth of work on every project.

    -Create a product. The very idea of a service based business is a bit anti-4HWW. If you love it, then keep doing it. But why not turn some of your expertise into a product to sell, so that you can be less financially dependent on client work. Ebooks, print books, software apps, graphic sets, premium Themes, WordPress plugins, audio-books…

    -Automate lead generation. PPC, SEO, and Thought Leadership Marketing techniques can move you from chasing clients to attracting clients.

    -Raise your rates. If you double your rates, and get half as many clients, you will make the same amount of money for half the work. If you multiply your rates by 10x, and lose 80% of your clients, you’ll make twice as much money in 1/5 the time. (Which means that if you currently work Mon-Fri, you could now do all your work on Mon, and get the rest of the week off).

    -Outsource all non-design work. Billing, bookkeeping, tax prep. Perhaps even design implemenatation (ie. moving from PSD to HTML/CSS).

  3. says

    Great post! I especially like how you mention downplaying social media. I think what you said about it is true. More so, there are a ton of tactics out there but only a handful of strategies that work for a given situation. Your post encourages readers to concentrate on the strategic, not tactical side of things.

  4. says

    Excellent article and comments. Like the idea of outsourcing everything non-design. Also like the idea of doubling rates. Might be something I’ll look into this year.

  5. says

    Well thought out article, I really enjoyed reading it. I agree that social media can be effective, but for the most part I’ve just found it good for staying in contact with the community, getting feedback, and meeting other designers living close.

    I’ve had trouble in the past taking on too many low priority clients to fill in the gaps, which ended up just causing more stress then it was worth. I agree that it’s best to put your effort into clients that might refer you to others, giving them top quality work will get them talking.

    Excellent post.

  6. says

    Thanks for building on the Ferriss-esque concepts in the 4 hour workweek! These ideas give hope to cubicle dwellers that there is a different way to work. The best message in Ferriss’ book is how we are totally governed by our fears of the unknown and how these fears keep us complacent and in the face of unhappiness or, worse, apathy.

  7. Anonymous says

    Very good article, thanks to Mathew. It’s a solution for very common problem with freelancers.


  1. Low Maintenance Freelancing: 4 Ways to Reduce Client Clutter and Never Pitch Again…

    By trimming away the non-design aspects of business, it’s possible to cut down the amount of time spent working while maintaining the same end result….

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