Freelance Tips: Sailing Through The January Lull


If you’re a freelance UX designer or consultant, you may have just experienced the “January Lull”. It’s when you’re waiting to start work on a big project at the beginning of the year. Here’s how to not only survive, but thrive during this time.

The January Lull is typical for corporate web design projects. In December or early January, you get a flurry of phone calls and emails checking your availability. You get excited and may even spend time discussing potential projects in detail with prospects, only to experience radio silence and no income from your efforts.

Think In Quarters, Not Months

Once you’ve been in the digital design industry for a while you’ll start to notice seasonal patterns. Most marketers plan their initiatives by quarters (3 calendar months at a time).

Here’s a simple rule of thumb to help you plan ahead. Assume that your next new client is at least 90 days away. That means you need to start your sales process at least three months in advance from when you expect to start work on new projects.

This approach has served me well over the years. Sometimes I’m lucky and it doesn’t take that long, but it’s important to have a steady stream of leads in your business. It’s always better to expect a famine than rely on a feast.

The 4 Seasons Of Marketing

To plan effectively for the January Lull you should have a good understanding of the 4 Seasons of Marketing. Here they are:

April: “Here Comes Q2!”. Most big marketing pushes are in the first quarter of the year, but a smaller wave of Q2 initiatives often follows hot on the heels of Q1. These are sometimes hard to get off the ground because the first quarter is so busy.

July: “Where Is Everyone?”: In the U.S., this is also known as summer. For companies with fiscal years that end in June, project budgets usually get approved in April or May. Resources are often harder to secure in the summer since many people are on vacation.

September: The “Oh Sh*t Season” or Back To School. People have been on vacation during the summer, moved or changed jobs and may even have let things slide. Immediately after Labor Day everyone in the U.S. gets super serious because Q4 is just around the corner.

Marketers are often behind schedule by the time they realize what’s happening and need to hire someone in a pinch. The days get shorter and it’s time to leave the beach.

November/December: “Budget Season”. For companies that use a calendar year as their fiscal year, most people are heads down trying to figure out what they can do for the following year.

Besides gearing up for large first quarter (Q1) initiatives, big companies may want to “spend down” any remaining budget in the last quarter. That way it doesn’t get cut the following year. This can be a good time to book small to medium-sized projects.

Keep in mind that the approval window for these smaller projects is relatively short. Due to the holidays, any projects that move forward are usually committed to by December 15th.

Why There’s A Lull In January

While many budgets are approved before the end of the year, management sometimes needs additional time to figure out which specific projects should move forward. This is where we are now (if you are reading this at the end of January).

It’s why “official” project approvals often don’t come through until mid-late January. Teams can’t kick off until a few weeks later because it takes a while to get resources lined up and committed to the job. And that’s why you wait.

As you can see, there’s a domino effect. The best way to get through the January Lull is to get booked on a large job or a series of small assignments before the end of the year that spill over into January. That way you can stay busy while people make up their minds.

Plan Your 90 Day Sales Cycle

Based on when you want to start work, here are some guidelines to help you develop your own 90 day sales cycle:

January: Start approaching prospects in late September or early October since people will be heads down in their budgeting season by November.

April: Spring projects should be pitched in January at the latest, or even before December 15th to account for the holidays.

September (Back to School): Contact prospects in May. You want to give yourself extra time since people are often gone or not as responsive in the summer.

July: Reach out in late March or early April. People will be super busy in the first quarter of the year, so be persistent.

What To Do While You’re Waiting

Nurturing a steady stream of leads is the absolute best way to avoid the classic freelance up and down income cycle. But a close second to that is investing in personal projects. These projects can be anything from developing your own products to participating in relevant affiliate programs.

The January Lull is one of the reasons I launched my UX mentor program last year. Besides meeting great people and getting a chance to help them with their careers, it’s pretty steady and helps fill in the income blanks while I’m waiting for larger projects to get approved.

You can also improve your existing skill set. Slow periods are a great time to review online courses. Some recent classes I’ve taken include Learn Sketch 3 A to Z and Mark Price’s iOS 10 and Swift 3 course.

Over To You

All of this planning ahead requires additional time but will set you up for success in the New Year and beyond. If you haven’t done it yet get busy! As always, thanks for reading 🙂

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3 Responses to Freelance Tips: Sailing Through The January Lull

  1. Gretchen CawthonNo Gravatar January 31, 2017 at 4:33 pm #

    Great perspective on sales cycles. Thanks!

  2. MaryNo Gravatar January 31, 2017 at 4:36 pm #

    Thanks Gretchen! Glad it was helpful.


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    […] hope and confidence. From there I created a larger plan, knowing that my next project was probably at least 90 days out. I expanded my outreach list to include previous coworkers, recruiters, friends, family, and anyone […]

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