Last Sunday, I sat down to look at my calendar and my upcoming week, just as I do at the end of every weekend. All the familiar standing meetings were there. Two big multi-hour planning meetings had comfortably taken up all of Monday and most of Wednesday. And I had one early morning networking coffee and a happy hour, requiring extra kid-management coordination with my husband. It looked pretty much like a typical week in its blend of recurring and one-off events with a few time blocks in between to get my "actual" work of writing, thinking, and organizing done.

There was one meeting, however, that I didn't recognize. I had to click on it to see what I needed to do, for who, and by when. All it said was, "What's different?"

I opened it and immediately remembered what I'd done. This was a reminder -- with an embedded promise -- I'd sent myself a year ago. "What's different?" meant "What's different in my business now from this time last year?". The little promise I'd made was to make that week's scary, daunting events the best thing that ever happened to my business. This was a prompt to reflect back and get grateful.

This time last year I lost my primary contract. It was the biggest and most reliable contract in my stable of clients, and it disintegrated overnight. This was the scenario I'd worried about since starting as an independent consultant three years prior, and it happened -- half of my work was gone.

Losing half of my work meant losing half of my monthly revenue or income. (For every independent consultant I know, these are the same thing.) Losing 50 percent of my revenue translated to roughly a 25 percent loss for our overall family income. So, while it felt like everything was falling apart, it wasn't. This wasn't a catastrophe, but it couldn't be ignored either. Since I tend to be a little more of the "chicken little" in our relationship, my husband stepped in to put things in perspective. This was hugely helpful. We laid in bed and made an actions list.

With a drop in any business, whether it's complex or simple like mine, there are three main action steps you can take: 1) find new work, 2) cut expenses, and 3) get supplementary funding. We brainstormed a bit before I fell asleep with a written plan waiting patiently on my nightstand.

So, the plan -- really just a list -- included aggressive outreach to my network and past clients, shaving off extra costs in both the business and at home, and an estimate of how much savings we'd have to tap by the end of the month.

The morning after hearing the news of this loss in work, my head was still spinning and I was anxious. But I was thankful to have a plan prescribing what I'd do when I opened my computer. Those first couple of days became all about executing that plan. My primary focus was reaching out to my network. I let them know (in varying degrees of detail) what happened, that I was available for work, and a little reminder of what I do.

As I emailed, called, and messaged people, I remembered thinking two things. First, I'd forgotten how many people I'd worked with over the years. Second, I was so incredibly grateful for the positive, supportive response I received back. And before this crash, I'd like to think I would have offered the same support when people reached out to me. After the crash, I'm fully committed to always being a warm and welcome sounding board when someone asks for help.

For three months, new work came in and existing work grew to fill the void. Opportunities with new clients I couldn't have previously imagined came through, and the door opened to working with a really smart, capable team. Now, my monthly revenue is back up and the next six months look stable. So, what's different now from this time last year? I'm a lot less anxious, and I'm more confident that I can handle a dip in my business in the future.

As an independent consultant, I believe there's an order to getting more work as quickly as possible after a dip like this. You want to organize your outreach efforts according to what has the highest likely return on the time you're going to invest.

  1. First, approach all your current clients. Let them know you're available for and interested in doing more work for them.
  2. Next, reach out to past clients. They already know and love you. Their businesses are always changing and they might have an emerging need that you'd be perfect to fill. Ask for referrals to other people and businesses in their network.
  3. Do a search for any requests for proposals. Depending on your niche, this might be Upwork, government lists, or opportunities aggregated by an association.
  4. Then, get creative about looking under every rock you can for clients. You can look at job postings and approach hiring managers. Occasionally, they're open to hiring a contractor instead of a full-time employee. If you find an interesting position, it doesn't hurt to reach out. Look for news of local companies winning big contracts. The internet is a treasure trove of resources -- don't take it for granted.
  5. Cold contacting prospective clients on LinkedIn or via email is next.
  6. Fussing with your website is last. Perhaps this step shouldn't be on this list at all, but I put it here for a reason. Too often when we're feeling worried or confused, we fall back into busy work that has little to no chance of producing tangible opportunities or revenue. Don't bother wasting time and distracting yourself with tweaks to your brand, logo, website, or even your resume. This is work you do when everything is going well and you have time to expand.

During the confusion and worry that comes with any downturn in business, it's important to remember that you have three options: get more work, cut costs, and dip into savings (or get a loan or other financing). It's just these three, no others. Of course, the goal is to get more work as quickly as possible. By prioritizing your approach, you increase the chance of getting work sooner and getting the best return on the time you've invested in recovery.

Of course, giving this advice is a lot easier now that I'm in a better place in my own business. If you're going through a slowdown in your business, know that, as long as you hustle to make up for it, the hard times will be temporary. Then, when you get back on track, you'll be able to look back at where you were a year ago and know that you're better equipped for the future.

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