The creative service business model is most often structured around time and materials. This means your total compensation is capped by simple math. Available time, multiplied by your hourly rate, minus overhead. But what happens when you have available time, but no billable work to fill it? Downtime for the creative entrepreneur can be deadly. Of course the answer to avoiding excessive downtime is strong marketing. But even with effective marketing, every creative practice will experience gaps in their project calendars. The question is, do you have a plan to make the most of your downtime?
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We all need to take a few breaks throughout our work week. Whether that’s going for a quick walk, or enjoying a diversion from social media feeds, short breaks are a healthy part of your work life. But let’s be honest, sometimes those quick diversions end up stretching into never ending rabbit holes. If you had a timer that calculated all your diversion time—beyond that healthy break range, what do you think it might add up to over the course of a year? Yeah, I don’t want to know either.
Taking breaks is healthy. But what happens when you have time on your hands, because you simply have no projects? Unbillable downtime is one of the biggest killers of a creative practice. Nevertheless, even the most successful encounter them now and then. Knowing how to use these occasions, rather than wasting them on cat videos, can be the difference between a practice that gets stronger, and one that dries up altogether.
When you have a dry spell, or experience gaps in your project schedules, having a plan for how to use that time can significantly minimize their negative impacts. Without a short list of downtime activities, you’ll end up wasting this precious opportunity, only compounding the detrimental effects of low work volume.
Every business has weak spots in its operations. Maybe you struggle with project management, or maybe you don’t have an effective time tracking system in place. Perhaps you’ve been neglecting your finances because you struggle with managing financial software. Whatever your weak spots, there are always ways to improve. So when you encounter a day here or there when you have no work, go right to your list and use that time to take a quick online course on managing Quickbooks, or spend time architecting your time management system, or setting up a project management platform. If you have to absorb the costs of unutilized downtime, at least make the most of it and improve your operations so that you’ll be even more effective when work picks up again.
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for very long you might have been surprised that I did not mention spending time on your marketing as the first item on a downtime list. Well, that’s because your marketing can’t wait for downtime. Marketing needs regularity and consistency. In fact, one of the biggest destructive patterns among creative entrepreneurs is binge marketing only when they are facing a drought. And then letting it go when things get busy again. This pattern ensures that you’ll be facing another downturn in the not too distant future.
That said, if you’ve been maintaining a regular marketing strategy, then downtime could be used to up your game. Maybe work on a more extended whitepaper, or even an eBook. But never put off your marketing until marketing failures cause a desperate situation—by that time it’s far too late.
One last tip for managing downtime is something you should not do. Don’t take on unqualified clients with insufficient budgets out of desperation. Such projects may minimize the immediate sting of downtime, but they’ll encumber you well beyond its end—making it even harder to recover when business gets back to normal.
Downtime is a part of the creative service business model. But if you learn to make the most of it, seizing it as an opportunity to sharpen your business skills, then they don’t have to be so scary. Just be ready, have a plan, and make the most of these hopefully short, and potentially valuable opportunities.
Until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.