The solo’s gorilla client is truly a product of our time. Before the days of the booming gig economy, we didn’t need to think about the amount of income we generated from one client to the next. If you were an employee in a standard office place the most you probably had to worry about individual clients was just your time allocation and general performance. If a client left, it was typically your employer’s problem, not your own.
But now that we are, in effect, our own employers with direct relationships to our clients, we feel the concern of revenue distribution in a much more direct way.
More on this: Embracing the “Free” in Freelance Work
The gorilla client can be a little crazed at times, but he is generally well-behaved enough to keep in the zoo — while he demands much of your time, he is affectionate. It also makes life easier — having most of your work consolidated towards your one gorilla eliminates mental juggling, multiple streams of communication, and your need to keep an active pipeline.
Unfortunately, in other ways the gorilla comes to represent all of the hassles you disliked of your employer but without many of his actual “benefits.” A gorilla client will not give you a weekly pay stub — they won’t help you get health insurance, they won’t assist with your tax prep and they’re not necessarily thinking about where you fit into their operation in the long term. All of these factors are a recipe for far too many eggs in one basket — and a basket that often isn’t built to last.
Our indie businesses can fall into inertia without too much thought and that’s the problem. You might be sliding into gorilla client dependency without realizing it.
Here are the telltale signs:
1. Whenever you describe what you do one client always comes up . . .
Like many people, I became aware of the gorilla client long before I knew it had a name. The agency I used to work for sought to end every big company meeting on a high note — this meant concluding virtually every gathering with some kind of grandiose pat on the back for holding onto their one big client of note, and in a manner that bordered on self-parody.
As myself and several other colleagues predicted, this client left and some serious growing/shrinking pains set in. There were many things I swore I would do differently as a freelancer, but one day in the last year it dawned on me that I was beginning to sound a little like the broken record I complained about.
“How are your clients?” a friend might ask — “Oh, I’m doing a lot of work for client r right now — client r just had a big event this month — client r is the nicest guy.” And client r is a ridiculously nice guy, but I had become so reliant on his monthly invoice and the reliable work he accounted for that I started to feel like I wasn’t the master of my own destiny anymore. Far too much of my ability to pay my monthly expenses hinged squarely on him not dumping me for someone else whose work he fancied.
2. You have one or more clients that account for 25% or more of your revenue
There are many dangers to the plight of the gorilla owner but this is probably the most concrete illustration of the problem. What would you do if one month from now your revenue fell to 70% of what it currently is? Could you manage? Would you have to take up a part-time job to get by? Would that number be even lower than 70%?
Most businesses have small and large clients and that’s perfectly fine and healthy. But you want a relatively balanced spread of funds coming in and some fairly warm prospects to patch the leak if a client does drop off unexpectedly. (See, we said there were some benefits to smaller clients!)
If you are somehow unaware of what your distribution of income looks like, there is no reason you cannot fix this problem right now. It may help to lay out this information in a month-to-month spreadsheet with time allocation also accounted for. This will help you steer your work towards a healthier revenue balance.
3. You do virtually no administrative work outside of tasks for this one client
Is it starting to feel like your business is actually your client’s business? Obviously, it’s good if your interests align with your client’s but if they quite literally are the same things, then we have a problem.
While we all have our areas of specialization, an independent career is by default multidimensional. We’re able to work for ourselves because we handle many of the duties of business management for ourselves . . . unless we don’t.
This is what happens when you fall into working for a client full-time. Your dependency deepens because you cease to work for yourself.
4. The idea of marketing yourself has become a complete quandary
Marketing your solo business isn’t easy and the outreach and social skills that govern your success can quickly lose their edge if they aren’t regularly put to use. Many of us fall into gorilla client complacency because in the short term, it’s easy.
In a great piece for HubSpot, solo consultant Bob Sanders makes a vital point about the dangers of this game. “The first rule of new business is never stop new business,” says Sanders. “It takes too long to ramp up an effective new business process after you’ve been stranded by your “gorilla” client.”
Falling into the gorilla client lull is to do work in a vacuum — and this only gets us so far. Things like self-promotion and business development are big concerns that are tempting to put off indefinitely. However, none of these things become any easier by letting your network shrivel up not continue to bear fruit (you’ll find that “word of mouth” can get awfully quiet . . .).
5. You’re bending over backward for this client
Obviously we need to value our clients but do not need to worship them or make ourselves beholden to their whims. It becomes much harder to uphold this principle if one client is your everything. If you notice that you are making large exceptions for a client because of your fear of losing them, it may be time to re-evaluate your situation.
Want more insights into the gorilla client problem and what you can do to make your situation more sustainable? Check out our recent interview with Ilise Benun, “The Marketing Mentor.”
Ben Shanbrom is a freelance writer, musician and copy editor who works with artists and clients within his native New Haven scene and well beyond.