What to do when business is slow

What to do when business is slow

January was slow for us. We had some small projects to work on, but no big, meaty ones to sink our teeth into. Admitting this publically isn’t an easy thing for me.

If you freelance or run a services business you’re going to have periods of slowness. Don’t worry. It happens to everyone. It’s the nature of our business. But, there are things you can do to limit the damage or better yet, prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Look for patterns

InkblotWhen business slows down, make a note of it. If it’s happening frequently, is there a pattern?

Does it coincide with the start or end of a fiscal year? Is it in August when everyone goes on vacation?

I’ve noticed January is traditionally slower for our business. We write a lot of proposals, but aren’t starting a lot of projects. My hunch is everyone has a new budget and is spending the first month making strategic plans.

Talk to your clients and ask them, “How’s business?” A number of our clients are marketing managers and call March “trade show season." That explains why they don’t have as much time for new web projects.

Embrace the downtime

If you see some down time coming, prepare for it. Sock away extra cash. Make plans to build a product. Plan a vacation. Ramp up marketing. (Probably not all at once though.)

If you find yourself in a dry spell, don’t fight it. Try to embrace it.

This is really hard to do.

I’ve been in business six years. I know January is traditionally slow for us. Yet when 2013 started slow part of me worried that the well had dried up. I heard that little voice in my head.

“This is it. We’ll never get another project again!”

Of course it wasn’t true. I knew we had projects waiting for us in February. I knew the pipeline was strong. The work just wasn’t ready for us right this instant.

I told the team to enjoy the down time because it doesn’t happen that often. They took a few weeks to update internal processes, take care of our maintenance clients and create open source tools like Member Group Tabs. This work will pay dividends for us throughout the year.

Do a rain dance

While the team was in the lab I was doing my best to make it rain.

I was pretty sure our January slowness was part of a pattern, but I wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

I checked in with clients to make sure they were happy. I asked if there was more that we could be doing for them. In some cases this led to more work for us.

I followed up on every lead, no matter how soft, to see if there was short term work that would keep us busy. I put the word out that we had some availability for quick turnaround work and followed up on leads that had previously fizzled.

Now is not the time to hide in your turtle shell and hope the storm passes. This is the time to pound the pavement, shake some trees and make things happen. (How’s that for mixing metaphors?)

Depending on how desperate you’re feeling you may also want to:

  • answer job board listings
  • temporarily lower rates
  • call a colleague to see if they have overflow work they’d subcontract to you
  • attend a meetup or industry event and casually mention that you have some short term availability (Try not to look desperate.)

If you need quick results don't bother cold calling someone you’ve never worked with before. That takes more time and effort to turn into a paying gig than you can afford right now.

Services is a funny business. It will have you stressing about too much work one minute and stressing about not enough work the next.

Enjoy the ride.

Posted March 7, 2013 by Jason Siffring

Jason has over 15 years of web development experience and is the owner of Surprise Highway. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.


Dennis Moons Dennis Moons
on April 10, 2013

Thanks for writing this Jason.

It’s always though to stay calm, when things are slow. I haven’t been in business long enough to spot these cycles (e.g. January being a slow month). But I do try to use this downtime to come out stronger when proposals do get accepted again!

Josh Brown Josh Brown
on April 11, 2013

Getting subcontracted work from a colleague seems like a great idea (and to me, doesn’t seem all that desperate). I know lots of companies in the same field as mine (iOS development) and am actually fairly good friends with the owners, so I’d happily take subcontracted work from them if things get slow for me.

Down time also seems like a great time to work *on* the business (since you’re not working *in* the business). You could reflect on what you’ve done and focus on what you can do better in the future.

Joao Alex Joao Alex
on April 28, 2013

The beginning of the year is usually like this across multiple industries.

People in general may be holding back from the spending they did in December.

But if you’re developing high end work (I seen your budget/form page), it may prove wise to hire a salesman (outbound) or an digital marketer guy (inbound).

Howdy Stranger Krasne T
on July 2, 2013

Well, that’s about right December and January are usually the slower months, a lot of small and midsized businesses close over a week before the holidays and then open in the first week of January.

Dec/Jan are actually my favorite months because I know that I will start getting a lot of work in the beginning of February, and I usually spend my free time on sending newsletters to wish clients happy holidays at the end of Dec and then and at beginning of Jan send some promos and offers.

August is very slow month as well, most people like to take their vacation time during that time period, also here in Europe some offices close for 2-3 weeks and make their employees to take their vacation days whether they want it on not.

Robert Robert
on November 12, 2013

I made cookies yesterday, that helped. If only to ask myself, “why am I making cookies”??? I also did low priority tasks like cleaning and washing to feel like I was moving forward. My industry is struggling (Music Photographer) in this economy, I can either struggle with it or change. Need to embrace change.

Howdy Stranger kira
on January 9, 2014

this is the best article ever. I am a hairstylist and I have started freelancing in May 2013 and have been busy up until the month of December and now this month of January. My first thought was that i would not get work next month, however, that was panic talking. I am constantly connecting with agents from hair and makeup agencies mentioning my availability as well as emailing an updated resume. I am confident that 2014 is going to be a magnificent year for me. thank you once again for this wonderful article!

Jason Siffring Jason Siffring
on January 10, 2014

Hang in there @Robert & @Kira. Keep hustling and good things will come.

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