I was asked an interesting question the other day: How many clients should you have? I’ve never really thought about that before and I’m not sure there’s a concrete answer for that. But I thought it was worth exploring here. I don’t think it’s so much about a number as it as about balance, factoring in workload, income, and other needs. I suppose the easy answer is “enough.” You need enough clients to keep your business healthy, but not so many you can’t keep up. Let’s talk about what that really means, starting with some general ideas. Then I’ll share what my plan was when I started, how it’s changed over the years, and how I feel about it now.
In general, I wouldn’t set a number of clients as an expectation. I say that because clients vary so much in what they bring to your business. You could have a large number of clients who bring you one job each, a few clients who bring you several projects each, or some combination of the two. Some of that might depend upon what type of work you do, how you market yourself, or how you prioritize your decisions. Your short-term and long-term goals are factors as well. You might be looking for one big account that will offer more stable income, or you might be looking for some smaller jobs to fill out your available time. There is no right or wrong way to do any of it. It all depends on your personal strategy. And that’s what I’d focus on instead of the number.
My First Three Clients
I never formed a proper written strategy, but I had ideas in my head. I did prepare a business plan in the beginning, but I don’t think I looked at it once after it was completed. I’m pretty sure I found it a couple years ago and it made me laugh, but even now I don’t remember what was in it. I tried to dig it up to reference, but it’s probably on an old backup drive somewhere and I didn’t want to lose any more time searching and getting distracted with other things I haven’t seen in a long time. I’m sure you know how that goes. Squirrel!
When I first started my business, I thought I was going to move away from production entirely to focus on consulting for other small businesses. The fun had fizzled out in the work I was doing, and I felt more drawn to helping others. I had spent so many years learning the best ways to run a business, and the best ways not to, and I saw a trend amongst my friends who owned creative businesses – many needed some guidance but not necessarily a full-time manager. I didn’t want to work full-time for anyone, so it made perfect sense to me. Of course, this was out-of-the-box thinking, because traditional companies assumed management was full-time and in the office back then.
I actually had a marketing agency that had reached out to represent me at that time wanting to promote me as the “part-time CEO.” I thought it had a nice ring to it, but at the same time, I don’t like it when solopreneurs call themselves the CEO of their company. This is only an opinion, and I understand that many don’t agree with me, so I won’t get into it much further, but it feels like an ego thing to me. And I was so burned out on the corporate world, that I didn’t want to try to bring in that kind of structure in terms of a title, and I didn’t want to present my company as anything bigger than what it was. I just wanted to be me.
The first test to my plan came while I still had my regular job. My first client was a referral from a makeup artist friend – it was a photography business with a small staff of other photographers, retouchers, and admins. The owner was also the primary photographer, so it was important that he spent his time out shooting and not doing the day-to-day work at the office. But they were lacking structure and he knew things could be running more efficiently. So I went in, reviewed the systems, talked to the staff individually, and got a sense of what was happening. I made suggestions, helped implement new procedures, and trained the staff. A big part of how I wanted to differentiate myself from a typical consultant was to help in a way that the existing staff could maintain when I was done. So no, that wouldn’t lead to consistent work for me, but the hope was that they would then refer me to someone else who needed similar help. Again, that was considered out of the box. But that photographer is still a client to this day. I took over the bookkeeping so I could keep an eye on the business and make suggestions as needed.
My second client also came along while I was still at my job. One of my favorite production companies to work with was looking for some short-term help for a few months while they were busy. I had planned on reaching out to them anyway, so I jumped on the opportunity. Even though it was doing the production work I wanted to get away from, it was a good chance to build my new business further and let others in the industry know I was available outside of that company. Luckily, by doing that work I quickly realized I didn’t need to veer away from production, I just needed to work with different people. That wasn’t in my plan, but I’m sure glad I listened to it because the bulk of my business remains in production.
And that’s the thing with plans. Whether they’re simple outlines, detailed steps, written down, or all in your head, sometimes you have to veer from them and go with where the work takes you. For me, I ended up somewhere much better than what I could’ve controlled anyway. Plans are fine, but it’s important to be flexible so you don’t get so focused on where you think you should go that you miss a better opportunity that comes along. I believe plans need to be written with a metaphorical pencil, so they can be erased and rewritten as necessary.
That few months turned into a couple years, and that was my first retainer client. We agreed on a monthly rate and an average number of hours per month, and that gave me a good starting point to launch into my business full-time. One thing I remember the owner of that company saying was that it was good to have a mix of low-volume/high-income clients and high-volume/low-income clients. That means you’ll have some clients whose projects have smaller budgets, but they have a lot of them and some who have bigger budgets but not as much work. It’s a perfect way to balance time and income and keep work steady, so that’s something you may want to consider as you continue building your business strategy.
My third client, still while I was working my regular job, was another referral from a production friend. Do you see the pattern here? I’ve mentioned before how powerful network referrals can be, and this is why. It’s how I get the bulk of my business. I hadn’t worked with anyone on the team before, but was offered a 9-month position working as a project manager for the 2016 Presidential Debate. This is another element of strategy, taking on longer duration projects that will keep you busy for a time, but are unlikely to repeat. These can be nice to build some steady income for a bit. That job in particular was a great networking opportunity. Not only have I worked with that client a handful of times over the years, but other people I worked with on the debate became new clients as well.
At that point, I had enough business on my own and my time at the job job had run its course, so that’s when I put my full-time focus into Aardvark Girl. Just in working with those first three, I had a lot of realizations about how I wanted to move forward, and this is still what I do today.
My Business/Client Strategy
- Retainers are important for stability. When you work for yourself, income can be unpredictable, so it’s nice to have some kind of foundation where you know you can count on a certain amount each month. My goal now is to make sure I have enough monthly retainer work that my expenses are covered, so even if I didn’t get any other jobs that month, I wouldn’t have to worry about paying any bills or pulling money from another account. It is important when working on retainer, to make sure the deal is outlined and agreed to by both parties. You have to be careful about how many hours you’re committed to and how flexible those hours are throughout the month. I currently have about 12 retainer clients, ranging anywhere from one to 35 hours per month. They keep me busy but still leave plenty of time open for bigger projects.
- Multiple Revenue Streams. Multiple revenue streams are important for balance. If you only do one type of work, if the industry is affected by something, let’s say a worldwide pandemic, it makes it harder to stay afloat. But if you’re able to make money doing different things, you can cushion some of that blow when it happens. For me, I started by doing production and consulting. But even within the production work, I found multiple options. My experience had been primarily with commercials and video, but working the debate introduced me to a lot of people in live events. I quickly planted one foot in each world because it seemed that if one area was slow, something was going on in the other. That helped a lot. On the consulting side, I also added online business management and bookkeeping for select clients. All of my services are related, so it’s not about being all over the place with different offerings, it’s about sticking to your niche but expanding on what you can do within it.
- One-Off Jobs. In the production world, I’m often working on projects that are only going to come around once. Each one is different, and it’s often unpredictable when they’re going to come up. These are the jobs I take with the time that isn’t tied up in retainers. They could last a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks. It all depends on that specific client and that particular job. These aren’t necessarily projects I can count on, but I know that I have loyal clients who will continue to hire me when they do come up and that’s why it’s important for me to maintain flexible schedules with everyone. With these jobs, I go for quality over quantity. I’d rather have a small number of loyal clients than a large number of clients I only work with once. With those relationships, you get to know how to best work together so you avoid the learning curve that comes along with a new client. I’m always happy to expand my network, but my hope is always to have lasting partnerships.
- Long-Term Projects. Working on long-term projects can be great for financial growth. The Debate gave me 9 months of income when I was first starting out. That peace of mind at that time was immeasurable. And that continues. Working on Intervention for nearly a year and a half propelled my business forward in a whole new way. I would be grateful for another season or any similar arrangement any time. Even when you know these jobs have an end date, chances are something new will come along to fill that time when it opens up. I usually can only take on one of these at a time, although occasionally two will overlap. I’m always careful to make sure I don’t take on more than I can handle.
With the combination of monthly retainers, multiple revenue streams, one-off jobs and long-term projects, I never find myself in a place where I’m panicked about not having enough work. If one area is slow, another may be busy, and if nothing else I know I can count on my retainer clients. Not to mention the variety keeps my brain active and prevents me from ever getting bored with my work.
So How Many Clients Should You Have?
None of that really answers how many clients should you have, because I think that’s different for everyone. The strategy I just outlined is what works for me, balancing different types of clients and jobs to fill the time in a flexible manner. I have a lot of voice actor friends, who get a ton of one-off jobs and only have a few volume accounts, but they are constantly working. If you recall my interview with Aiden McFarland, he talked about how he built his business with just two clients. So it’s not about comparing a number or strategy to what anyone else is doing. It’s about finding what works for you and what supports your overall goals.
For me, I value loyalty, consistency, and quality of relationships more than anything. Income is great, and obviously something I need, but it’s not my primary motivation for what I do. Others place more importance on financial growth, which is perfectly normal for a business owner, and there’s nothing wrong with making money a priority. Some might be chasing recognition or the ability to work with bigger brands or opportunities that will allow them to travel. There’s no right or wrong goal here. The key is to figure out what is important to you, what steps you can take to start moving in that direction, and then make the decisions that will lead you all the way there.
What is the perfect client scenario for you? I’ll be posting about this episode on social and would love for you to add your perspective. Or feel free to start your own conversation and tag me. You can find me @aardvarkgirl across all platforms. Talk to you soon!