Another week, another bit of freelancing advice! Have a great Sunday.

The software development sector goes through cycles, just like any other profession. We’ve had a boom for the last ten years, and before 2023, many developers had not experienced a real downturn during their careers. But there are cycles for us, just like any other industry. The Dot-Bomb crash twenty years ago and the current downturn in 2023 are both examples of this.

You may also go through some personal cycles: life events such as family emergencies, health complications, or burnout can force you to scale down how much you can work at times—or even cause an extended time out between projects.

A personal example: during 2020, we had a health issue with our youngest daughter. I took almost no time off from my client then (fully remote work during COVID helped me work around things). In hindsight, this was a mistake: I was severely burned out by early 2021 and decided to halt client work for a few months so I could recover.

So: you can expect to have slow periods where you find yourself between projects and clients. How should you handle this?

Pay yourself a moderate but constant salary.

Set up standard payroll that pays you the same amount, the same way, every month.

If you have a decent hourly rate and a long-term contract, the company will likely bring in enough revenue that you could pay yourself a handsome salary during that period. Don’t inflate your lifestyle and salary to match this level of revenue.

Instead, keep your salary as moderate as possible so your company runs a monthly surplus and steadily accumulates liquid savings: this builds your buffer.

Your salary comes out of that buffer when you hit a slow period. Stay at that steady, moderate wage year-round. In that case, these periods will feel less dramatic: nothing changes in your household finances, and you burn through your company runway at a less alarming rate.

Invest in yourself

I look forward to my next dry period: more time and energy to spare!

Here are a few things that you can amp up considerably when you find yourself with time off between projects:

Pick up more new books and video courses. Learn new programming languages, platforms, frameworks, and libraries. Build things. Participate in open source. Ideally, create small but concrete things (apps, websites, tools?) that are finished and polished enough to show off as part of your portfolio.

Now may be the time to branch out into skills outside your core competency. UX and design if you’re a backend developer. API and database knowledge if you’re a front-end person. Maybe learn some basics of project management?

Investing in yourself can also extend beyond tech: how about improving your health and fitness? My exercise, diet, and sleep schedule sometimes decline when I have a busy project with a client. Downtime is an excellent opportunity to get your body and body back in shape.

All these areas can and should be worked on all year, but crank them up when you are between clients!

Finally, note that we use the word invest consciously here: when your company invests in you as an asset, you’re not just burning through savings. By framing downtime this way, it can be less stressful for you to see the company bank account shrink week to week and month to month.

Networking and marketing

Put yourself out there alongside and in front of more people:

  • Submit talks to conferences.
  • Do blogging or video tutorials.
  • Go to tech meetups.
  • Help with volunteer/non-profit work in the local tech community.

Get back in touch with old colleagues: now that you have more time to spare, it’s the perfect time to do coffee, beers, and lunches with old friends and teammates. They might even know of some leads! At the very least, you’ll keep in touch with people you enjoy being around.

Again: this is stuff you should be doing year-round. Just pour more energy into it when you are between clients!

“This too shall pass.”

You see the central theme here: do your best to keep the cyclical nature of the industry and your own business in mind—both during busy and quiet times.

When you are busy and profitable, you should prepare for lean times. When you are between engagements, you should trust and prepare for things to pick back up again later.

Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson

Software dev of 20+ years now helping other devs gain autonomy and become calm, independent contractors—new issue every other Sunday

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