I Kept a Client for Two Years. It Was A Terrible Mistake.

When I first launched into freelancing about five years ago, I did so under the auspices – some might say romance – of the literal and historic origins of the term. The story goes that the word “freelance” comes to us from back when battles were fought with swords and shields. The “free lance” was a skilled soldier not bound to any king or lord. Rather, his services were available to the highest bidder. He would fight for whoever was paying him until the work was done, collect his coin, and move on.

For someone who had reached the end of his rope with the monotony of day-to-day corporate life, the freelance life was incredibly appealing to me; especially when I could talk about it using those kinds of words and ideas. Sure, I would need to define a skillset that allowed me to achieve the necessary level of authority to earn the freedom and independence I so desired in my work. But once I had created something that was viable and marketable, the notion of going into a situation, fixing it, and moving on to the next challenge was about as close to an ideal way of making money as I could imagine.

“Maintenance” would cease to be a part of my vocabulary. “Status quo” would be for everyone else. Settling in, getting comfortable, and plodding through the day-to-day would be for those who hadn’t been asked to resolve something the company was otherwise unable to resolve on its own.

After all, if they could, I wouldn’t be there.

This is how things went for the first few years of my endeavor. I’ve had the pleasure of working with clients around the world to overcome a wide variety of issues. I’ve elevated businesses and their leaders. I’ve helped to secure millions in investment and even more than that in revenue. I had successfully become the person working behind the scenes that no one knows about – the one who goes in unseen, affects the necessary change, collects my coin for a job well done, and moves on to the next battle.

And then they entered my life. For confidentiality reasons, I obviously can’t discuss who they are. For readability reasons, we’ll call them The Client.

The Client initially contacted me with a very specific set of needs. They had launched a new initiative, and the very nature of that initiative meant that someone had to handle it from the outside. This was very much a “come in and shake some shit up” kind of engagement – one of my favorite kinds. There was internal resistance, there was conflict, there was everything you’d expect to see when you’re trying to get a cruise ship to change direction with the agility of a jet ski.

I’d be lying if I denied that it was ridiculously fun. And, even better, it worked. Our mission succeeded and I was asked to do the same thing for a couple of other projects The Client had in the works. Failing to see the harm and enjoying the longer-term stability of a client that had a lot of work to be done and paid on time (otherwise known as hitting the freelancing jackpot), I accepted.

Anyway, after a while I finished those jobs, got paid for my efforts, virtually shook hands with my former employer, and walked away in search of my next temporary king.

See, that’s how this story should have ended. But it’s not. In reality, I became a de facto employee of The Client, allowed myself to become integrated into a full-time team and organizational structure, attended a multitude of meetings where I quite literally never said a word, took my orders, and woke up day after day feeling like I…had a job.

Mind you, this was not an “oh look, I have a new contract job to do” kind of feeling. No, I had a full-on job. A “roll out of bed in the morning and get ready for another day at the office” kind of job. The kind of job where the only thing missing was forced office birthday celebrations and a hellish commute either stuck in traffic or stuffed into a subway car with no option but to endure other people’s music through their shittily-fitting ear buds; a fate I was spared only because I worked from home.

The machine that fueled the maintenance of the status quo and squashed anything that tried to shake it up began firing on all cylinders once again within The Client’s walls, and I went from being an intentional wrench in the works to just another cog. I was no longer expected to fight and challenge and change. My role was now to shut up, get in line, and do what I was told.

This post, however, is not an indictment of The Client.

Quite the opposite really. I’ve written this post to indict myself. I’m indicting myself on charges of complacency, laziness, and greed and I’ve already found myself guilty on all counts. But, like the criminal who apologizes not out of remorse for their actions but out of remorse for getting caught, I must now also repent.

The Client paid well. They paid on time. The work was simple and the money was easy and they were willing to continue sending me barrels of cash in return for a minimal emotional or intellectual investment, so what kind of moron would I be to walk away from what others would say was the perfect work situation?

The simple fact of the matter is that I kept this particular relationship going for far longer than I should have because I sold out. I traded my soul for a paycheck and I abandoned the very thing that made me start doing what I do in the first place: my desire to use words to create opportunities for my clients and help them exploit those opportunities for everything they’re worth.

It was clear that my help in that context was no longer needed by The Client for quite some time. I knew it and they knew it. In the context of creating change and opportunities, my assistance wasn’t even wanted by the end. As time between contacts dwindled, drama reached a crescendo, and the river of tasks that was once swollen to its very limits dried up, I finally did what I should have done so long ago and formally terminated the relationship.

Having had some time to process, analyze, and learn from all of this, I’ve resolved to apply the experience’s lessons to my business from this point forward. I’m sharing them here for anyone else who might find themselves in the same situation.

First, I will never promise and/or dedicate all of my available bandwidth to a single client. That was one of the first things I did for The Client and I did it because of how much work they were promising. They also had limited experience working with a freelancer and I wanted to allay any fears they might have of my departure before getting it done. While I may have promised to forsake all others when marrying my wife, I’ll never do it for a client again.

Second, I now understand the power of recognizing the feeling of “this isn’t why I started doing this.” Frankly, if you’re in business for yourself and you’re not enjoying executing on that business, then why the hell are you doing it?

If I ever have to work with a client in a way that makes me wonder why I rolled out of bed that morning, then I will cease doing business with that client. Sure, there will be highs and lows. But when the lows start trouncing the highs, it’s time to walk away.

Third, I will never again compromise my business and professional needs for a paycheck. Was it nice not having to wonder about the next deposit into the bank account for a while? Absolutely. And, my time with The Client happened to coincide with a very expensive long-distance move. Having The Client’s money as a steady source of income did wonders to help pay for that move.

But the truth is that things with The Client should have ended long before the move even became a factor. Had I severed ties and moved on when I should have, The Client would have been a memory and “just another client success story” instead of a vivid example of what happens when you keep a relationship going long after its expiration date has come to pass, and the subsequent blog post about it.

As freelancers, we are in business to accomplish our tasks, collect our payment for achieving our employers’ goals, and move on to the next kingdom that requires our assistance (and is willing to pay our price for it). It is a key principle of doing what we do for a living.

I forgot that for a while, but I assure you I’ll never forget it again.