Jul 6 / Matt Saunders

What Is the Feast or Famine Cycle and How Do You Break It?

Integrate these 5 powerful principles to escape the famine and never go hungry again.
Finished a project and now wondering how you're going to get the next client and pay your rent? I hear ya.

As a business coach and freelancer of almost 20 years I've seen and experienced the impact of feast and famine plenty of times. That is until I began to integrate the principles I share here. This article is built on top of many years of hard lessons. So take time to absorb the message and apply it to your business.

Your future-self will thank you for it.

Why is it called "feast or famine"?

Table with food to illustrate feast
Have you ever landed a hefty freelance project that has easily sustained you for a few months, then experienced a quiet period once the work is finished?

If so, this is what we call the feast or famine cycle in freelancing. It is illustrated by the extremes of abundance and scarcity. It's one of the main problems faced by designers, copywriters and other creative professionals. And whilst the abundant times are great, the following famine can be very stressful.

But where does the phrase come from? What is the etymology of "feast or famine"? In this instance it would appear that we can turn to scripture for a definition, where the idea of feast and famine is mentioned several times. The meaning of feast or famine relates to the physical world (such as an abundance of rainfall, followed by drought) but might also be used as a metaphor for having gratitude and faith in God when times are both good and bad respectively.

Regardless of its exact origin, it seems clear that the experience of feast or famine has been deeply felt for much of recorded human history.

But can we change this? Can we break the cycle? I believe we can. But first, let's take a look at the mindset behind it.

What is the feast or famine mentality?

Many of the freelancers (especially the new ones) I speak to believe that the feast and famine cycle is "inevitable". They think it is just par for the course of being in business. 

Whilst I agree that we cannot change external factors, it's important to note that how we respond is within our control. And this comes down to both our mindset and the actions we take.

For example, if you are a copywriter and you believe that a period of famine is inevitable, you are probably unlikely to take proactive measures for when the time comes. Thus you contribute, if not actively create, a cycle of feast or famine.

Please don't misunderstand me - sometimes, the rain will not come. But the truth is none of us are exempt from these external factors. And that means it's down to us to build sustainability into our business model, ideally from day one. Here's how you can begin to break free from this vicious cycle that affects so many freelance businesses.

How to break the feast or famine cycle

Whilst the feast and famine cycle may come about due to market conditions, there are plenty of things you can do to reduce its impact and build a business that never faces a period of famine (yes, really).

Partly this relates to your beliefs and mindset as I covered in the previous section, but it also has a lot to do with the way you set up your business model. I've developed the idea of a "5R" business model which is strong, resilient and less affected by the impact of feast and famine. Here are the five components:

  • Repetitive marketing
  • Recurring revenue
  • Reserves of cash
  • Relationships that rock
  • Restricted access

Let's take a look at each in turn...

(Note: this article contains ideas sourced from my audience)
Man standing on cliff in front of sunburst

1. Repetitive marketing

When I say that the feast or famine cycle is self-inflicted it is because so many businesses stop marketing during times of prosperity. For example, when a web designer is working 10 hour days to keep on top of client projects, the last thing they are thinking about is where the next piece of work will come from.

This is a mistake.

I've been here myself several times. The work finally finishes and suddenly you're left with ~free time!~

And so you once again begin marketing. But the problem is, the impact of marketing can take weeks to be felt. Therefore, you should shift your mindset to see marketing as a continuous, ongoing activity.

This is why the first component of the 5R model is repetitive marketing. Don't stop, even when it feels like the feast will never end. Lisa agrees...
Never stop marketing. Even when you are busy, make time for your marketing. If you only promote yourself when you're quiet and don't do any marketing when you're busy, you'll never break the cycle - Lisa, Copywriter

2. Recurring revenue

As a freelancer it is pretty crucial to develop a recurring revenue stream for your business. This softens the impact of those drier months, and during times of prosperity, gives you extra cash to play with. Here are a few ideas to create recurring income as a freelancer:

  • Include a paid monthly check-in with your clients to discuss opportunities for new projects
  • Turn your knowledge into an online membership which you can use as a sweetener in your offer but also sell as a standalone product
  • Sell your skills on subscription, enabling your clients to access your service every month at a fixed rate

Imagine the possibilities not just for stability, but also for scale, if you were to integrate a recurring stream of payments into your business. Aside from crushing the feast-famine loop, it also just makes good business sense.

3. Reserves of cash

A lot of freelancers shy away from taking risks because they don't have a safety net. So to mitigate the feast or famine cycle it helps to have a cash runway. I generally recommend you have 3+ months income stored away for those leaner months. This should keep the wolf from the door, but more crucially, give you peace of mind. You cannot make good business decisions when you're stressed out and worried about money. Equally, you cannot grow if you don't invest. So holding a healthy bank balance is important as both a rainy day backup fund and as a tool for growth.

4. Relationships that rock

Here's an insider secret: most freelancers do not create AMAZING relationships with their clients. Sadly, there is a tendency among freelancers to keep their clients at arms length. They prefer:

  • Emails over meetings
  • Briefs over co-created scopes of work
  • Hourly rates over results-based project fees

There's nothing wrong with this in itself, but the "next level" in freelancing is to get really close to your clients.

The forth R is about building relationships that rock. It's about becoming a strategic partner, not an outsourced gun for hire. If you invest in relationships in this way, I promise you will never go hungry again as word about how great you are will spread like wildfire and your clients will stick with you for years to come.

Curtis puts this in wonderful terms...
Build relationships rather than treating clients as a herd of cattle. The revolving door philosophy showcases where your priorities lie - yourself, not the client. This should never be the mindset of a freelancer - Curtis, web designer

5. Restricted access

As a solo business owner myself I make sure that no single client gets too much of my time. I have worked at creative agencies in the past that have relied heavily on one or two "cash cow" clients. And when these clients one day decide to cut their spending, guess what happens? The agency needs to lay off staff and shrink its operations.

This final point is about ensuring you have a good spread of clients each delivering relatively consistent work and income. Restrict access to your resources so you don't end up giving all your time to any single client. This will ensure resilience when the economy gets tough or when clients leave at short notice. Guard your time like it's the most precious thing in the world (hint: it is).

Avoid the feast or famine business model

By now I hope it's clear what is meant by feast or famine in business. It is my sincere hope that you've taken away an empowering message from this article; that your business is yours to create. The business model you pursue will determine how strong it is, and how impacted it is by challenging times. Be sure to integrate at least two of the 5Rs outlined here to create longevity in your business, and avoid the famine.

If you enjoyed this piece you might like my book, The Dream Client Playbook, a framework for consistently finding great freelance clients.

I'll leave you with some wise words from Kevin...
I stopped calling myself a freelancer.

Instead, you're a business owner that is providing a valuable service/product that solves a pain point that people are willing to pay money for.

Define yourself by the value that you bring and how you do it rather than your title - Kevin, designer

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