Stacking Pancakes: A Freelancer’s Guide to Recurring Revenue

Freelance life may seem so simple. You bid on projects, win some, deliver the work and earn a living.

Sure, you have to do some selling and well, there’s that dreaded admin work you have to do too but since you do what you love, you can get used to these small galling things, right?

And yet the reality is so much different…

You see, freelancing also comes with all kinds of ups and downs.

Some months you’re drowning in work, unsure what to stick your hands in first. You lose sleep, twisting and turning at night wondering how you’re going to manage it all.

In others though, you’re desperately checking email every couple of minutes to see if any new inquiries have arrived. But, you lose sleep again, this time because you don’t know how you’re going to pay this month’s rent.

Believe me, I know this very well.

Luckily I’ve found a solution to overcome it. By focusing on developing recurring service offerings, I was able to create a stable and predictable business environment and have enjoyed living a less stressful freelance life ever since.

I call this method “Stacking Pancakes” and in this post I’ll show you how you can use it to build a recurring revenue freelance business too.

But first…

Why recurring revenue?

I define recurring revenue as predictable income you can expect to continue for some time in the future. I know there might be other definitions but to be honest, this one works best for me.

Having recurring revenue means that you can forecast; to some degree of course, how much money your business is going to generate each month.

At the start, it might be a couple of months ahead but as your business grows, you will be able to predict your income even a year into the future.

Sounds great, right?

But stability and consistency of income aren’t the only benefits of recurring revenue.

You also get to work with better clients.

Admittedly, when starving for work, we’re willing to accept any project that comes our way. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a client you’d normally work with or if they can pay only half of your rate.

When you’ve had no work for some time and have no prospects for other projects in the future, you’re willing to sacrifice a lot just to get busy again. But often this ends up being another “client from hell” story.

Having consistent work month on month gives you the freedom to pick clients and projects you really want to do.

It also helps you to make better business decisions.

It’s easy to make poor business decisions when you’re starving for work such as:

  • Reducing your prices,
  • Accepting projects you normally wouldn’t take,
  • Offering other services you don’t specialize in to make a few bucks,
  • Take on clients you’d normally never work with,
  • Agree to deliver work for free only to win the project
  • …and so on.

But I’m sure you’ll agree, none of this has a positive effect on your business’ future.

The stability that comes from having recurring revenue, however, gives you the time and resources to plan and execute a long-term business strategy without having to sacrifice on anything.

You can earn more money.

Here’s the thing about a traditional freelance model:

It’s not scalable.

There are only so many hours you can bill each month. And unless you begin to work longer and longer days, there is just no way to scale.

Then there are the unbillable hours you spend chasing new work, writing proposals, managing clients and generally looking after the business.

You’re not making a dime working on these tasks.

A recurring income means that you have a set amount of work booked each month, minimizing the need for constantly having to chase new clients. You have more time to deliver the work. And every new client you onboard increases your income for months ahead giving you greater stability and a bigger income.

This is what stacking pancakes is all about.

Lastly, it increases the long-term value of a client

In a typical freelance business, the revenue from a client ends the moment you deliver the work. Sure, they might hire you again in the future but most of the time you can’t tell if and when that’s going to happen.

What’s more, you often have to invest time, money and other resources to retain clients – such as sending them email newsletters, asking them for lunch or engaging them in any other ways until they’re ready to buy again.

All this adds to the cost of running a business without delivering any predictable results.

Getting clients on a recurring revenue package secures their business for the future. You no longer have to worry when and how you’re going to get more work from them in the future.

All this sounds great, right?

But here’s the question I bet you’re asking right now:

Why would anyone want to buy a recurring package from me?

What are the benefits of hiring someone on on-going basis instead of just once?

Well, for one, it helps them get projects done.

From my experience, in many companies a typical project goes more or less like this:

  • They hire a freelancer, say SEO consultant to set everything up and deliver initial results. The person optimizes their site, builds the first few links and configures their reporting tools.
  • After that, the client takes over… only to do nothing with the project for months. They don’t update the site; build new links and so on.
  • They eventually realize that their rankings are dropping and hire another freelancer to jump-start the project again and … the cycle starts all over.

Having someone on a retainer means that projects get continuous attention and the work gets done, without any need for a client to get involved.

They get ongoing help.

Here’s another common scenario:

A client hires a freelancer, they deliver the work and both parties move on.

But then, something changes. Google releases another algorithm update for instance. Or Facebook changes their advertising policies or anything else happens that affects the work that’s been done.

Suddenly, the project needs urgent updates but there is no one responsible for it.

On recurring basis, clients simply don’t have to worry about any of this. They can sleep soundly at night knowing that you’re ensuring the work is delivered to their current standards and react to any changes that might affect the outcome.

It’s easier for clients to manage the cost

Often times client get a much better value from hiring you on a recurring income basis rather than one-offs every now and then.

Not to mention that it’s much easier for them to manage the budget when they spend the same amount regularly as opposed to throwing lots of money at a problem when it escalates.

So how does the Stacking Pancakes method work?

Let me give you an example. Imagine winning a project to deliver a $15,000 marketing campaign. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

It’s two months of guaranteed work and a good income but here’s the catch… once you do the job the revenue stops. And, unless you have other work lined up, you’re left with nothing going forward.

Now let’s look at a different scenario:

Imagine you offer marketing consulting services at $1,000 a month. By adding a client a month and assuming that attrition rates are low, you could end up with a $12,000 a month business at the end of year one.

And which option sounds better – a juicy, $15,000 one-off project or steady, $12,000 a month income?

That’s the power of stacking pancakes – by productizing your services and adding more clients on recurring packages you can build a thriving and scalable business.

Sure, there’s always some churn. Some clients will stop using your services after a while. But when you have a number of recurring clients, a lost customer will not affect your business as badly as losing the only project you currently have in the pipeline.

Not to mention that this income is easy to replace by onboarding another client on the same package (and that’s also much simpler than finding another big project to replace a lost one).

OK, but that’s the theory. I know it sounds nice and sweet, but where do I even begin stacking pancakes?

Here are the steps I recommend:

  • Develop recurring service offerings,
  • Build package tiers,
  • Develop pricing for productized service,
  • Develop the process for providing services,
  • Sell, sell, sell and finally,
  • Stack the pancakes.

Let’s explore each step in more detail.

1. Developing Recurring Service Offerings

I admit, figuring out how to productize my service was one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome but turned out it actually isn’t that difficult!

Here’s the simplest way to do it:

Build packages around specific work you’re going to do for a monthly fee.

For instance:

  • You could create a blogging package to deliver a set number of posts each month.
  • Or a social media management package that includes a certain amount of messages and curated content.
  • If you’re an SEO consultant, you could offer packages including building a specific number of links per month and so on.

You could also create bundles of services that include the main service along with some complimentary ones.

For instance, you could develop blogging and social media management packages. Or start offering SEO & SEM packages to clients who need thorough help with driving traffic to their site.

Here are some examples of freelancers who have already productized their services:

  • WPcurve – Dan offers 2 monthly WordPress support packages.
  • Snowbistro – Richard offers 3 content marketing packages.

To productize your service, start by picking a service that is the combination of three criteria:

  1. It’s in high demand,
  2. It’s profitable and also,
  3. It’s easy to deliver.

One of the most common mistakes with productizing a business is selecting a service you’d prefer to deliver as opposed to one your customers actually want.

The service you’re going to offer as a package must directly relate to your customers’ biggest pain point. Otherwise, there will likely be little demand for it and in turn no revenue.

It also has to be a service that could generate revenue without requiring too much time and resources to deliver. Otherwise you might end up having plenty of work but very little money coming in.

Once you select your service it’s time to start building your productized offering.

2. Building Package Tiers

If you look at examples of freelancers who have productized their businesses you’ll notice that they almost never offer just a single package.

Dan of WPCurve offers his customers 2 price plans. Richard from Snowbistro has 3.

Here are some other examples:

Undullify offers a single one-off and 3 monthly design packages. Authority Engine has 2 monthly podcast editing tiers while Zenkeep offers 3 bookkeeping options.

In fact, almost every major business you encounter uses a tiered model in one way or another. Take ecommerce stores for example. Most offer at least a couple of shipping options – same day delivery, 2-4 working days delivery and so on.

Your phone company probably offers different packages, too.

But why use a tiered price model in the first place?

Firstly because you can make more money with it.

It’s a fact:

Many people pay to the maximum they can afford.

It means that if you offer just a single plan, say at $599 and people would be willing to pay you $999, you’re leaving $400 on the table by not giving them that option.

It also helps to attract more customers.

Every customer has slightly different needs and expectations.

Offering 2-3 different price-plans means that they can select the package most suitable to their needs.

It can help overcome sales objections

Offering a lower price plan might be a way for some customers to try your service at a lower cost and move to a higher plan if they’re happy with the results.

It’s also easier to create a single tiered product than many separate ones

It’s kind of a no-brainer, right? Tiered packages are really a variation of the same thing. Creating them is as simple as deciding on a service and specifying 3 delivery variations.

Coming up with 3 distinct productized services however takes more time and effort. Not to mention the hassle of managing distinct offerings.

Here are some ways to differentiate your tiered offerings:

Differentiate by Quantity

Simply increase the amount of service in each higher package. For instance, if your first package includes 10 backlinks a month, offer 15 in the next one and so on.

Differentiate by Quality

For instance, in your basic package you could offer only email support whereas higher packages might give a customer access to live chat and phone.

Add complimentary services

You could also offer additional services complimenting the main product, i.e. a higher blogging package might also include keyword research and blog post promotion.

Service duration

Differentiate the length of engagement, i.e. on your lowest plan you could be working with a client for 3 months whereas the highest plan could secure your services for a year.

Speed of delivery

You could also differentiate by the delivery timeline. On their higher plan WPCurve for instance promises to deliver of the service within 4 hours, twice as fast as on the lower plan.

3. Pricing Service Offerings

I’m sure you consider this a million dollar question:

How do you price your service so that they will be:

  1. Within your target audience’s budget and
  2. Profitable for you?

Here’s how I’d approach it:

At the start, I’d recommend you simply tie it to the hourly rate.

Calculate the amount of hours required to provide the services and charge it as X hours x hourly rate = package price.

Later on, when you establish your productized service, you can move to value-based pricing.

Offering it however requires a specialized in demand skill set. Furthermore, it’s usually connected to a person’s reputation and authority within a community.

When considering your price, consider structuring it this way:

Setup fee

Charge an upfront fee for the configuration of the account, setup of a campaign, etc.

Most clients are comfortable paying for the setup of an account, especially when it’s for a service they plan to execute over several months.

This stage could also lead to additional work such as strategy development, conducting planning sessions, audits or even billable project launch meetings.

Monthly Retainer for Productized Services

This is where you’d be charging your monthly package fee and delivering the specified service.

Add-Ons

Lastly, charge separately for any service that falls outside of the outlined tiers. This could add up to massive additional revenue for your business.

4. Developing processes to provide a service

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before:

To grow a business (and prevent its demise) you need to develop a set of processes you’re going to run it by.

But many freelancers don’t believe this applies to them.

After all, why bother developing processes if it’s only you working in the business? You know how everything operates and there’s no need to write that down, right?

Wrong!

And here’s why:

Processes simplify every aspect of a business. With a set of procedures in place it’s easier to manage and grow a business.

It’s also easier to test and implement strategies that work. Take client onboarding as example. You could approach every new inquiry differently, responding to it depending on how you feel about it and your mood that day.

But that often means losing potential business because you either forgot to ask an important question or simply responded in non-professional manner.

Alternatively, you could test various approaches and develop a step-by-step process that you know works most of the time and takes less effort since you know what actions you need to take and when.

They also prepare your business for expansion. The thing about offering productized services is that at some point you’re bound to hit the ceiling. There are only so many clients you can take each month. And the next logical step if you want to grow your business is to hire someone to help.

Regardless of whether it’s going to be a fellow freelancer or an employee, having processes in place means that the person can quickly learn how your business operates and start delivering the work to your standard right away.

Developing processes is a huge topic that deserves its own guide (and surely I’m going to write one at some point). So for the purpose of this post I’m only going to tell you what areas of the business you should develop processes for:

Service delivery – you should define how you’re going to deliver the service every time. This could include reporting, client management, delivery formats, obtaining all necessary information to provide the service, typical timelines and so on.

Onboarding – you should also have a step-by-step system for handling new inquiries. It should include all steps you’ll follow from the moment client gets in touch, to when a contact is signed (i.e. offer a free consultation).

Customer service – support is the key to a business’ success. You should therefore develop processes to ensure customer satisfaction (i.e. monthly or bi-monthly follow up call etc.).

Finance – Lastly, you should put in place a process defining how you deal with money. For instance, when do you issue invoices, at the start of each month or randomly throughout the month? And, how do you deal with late payments?

Having processes in place means that you’ll be able to focus on delivering the work without having to worry what to do next.

5. Selling

It goes without saying:

Once you set your product based service business, you need to go out there and find clients.

There’s a number of ways you can find new work:

  • Use content marketing to attract clients,
  • Network on local events and build relationships with businesses in your area,
  • Speak at events,
  • Cold call and many others.

Whatever methods you choose, it’s important to be consistent and never stop selling. You want to keep stacking those pancakes and so, you need to continuously onboard new clients.

6. Stack the Pancakes

And, that’s it!

All that is left is to keep on selling and you should be well on your way to building a profitable, steady and predictable recurring revenue freelance business.

Stacking the pancakes is about starting small, building from a rock solid foundation, and eliminating the unpredictable swing in revenue associated with being a freelancer.

Conclusion

Freelancing comes with various ups and downs.

One month you’re drowning in work, the other, you check email every couple of minutes hoping that a new inquiry has arrived.

By developing recurring service offerings however you can build a steady and predictable business that gives you financial stability and allows you to invest energy in growing revenue without constantly chasing new work.

Written by: Calin Yablonski
Calin is a freelancer, local search marketer and founder
of the Freelance Business Guide.