Could Working on Retainer Help You Build a Reliable Freelance Business?

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Working as a freelancer can sometimes feel like you’re an explorer, always on a quest for greatness — or at least a steady paycheck. But without a band of Argonauts, you’re alone, trying to figure out if you’ve found the golden fleece on the horizon or just another ordinary pile of wool.

Freelance retainers, while not quite as thrilling as Jason’s hunt for the sheddings of a mythical beast, do have an air of mystery to them. And these types of freelance contracts are often just as hard to come by!

A “retainer” for a freelance writer usually refers to a retainer agreement. It’s a contract whereby your client typically pays you a set amount of money each month (or week or year) for a certain set of deliverables, a scope of work you agree on in advance.

Retainer agreements can either be really good or really, really bad. To decide whether a retainer agreement is right for you, I’m going to outline a few of the basic pros and cons.

Pros of working on a retainer agreement

Considering the amount of freelance writers who “swear by” retainer agreements, there must be something good about them, right? Well, yes.

If you know how to work them to your advantage, retainer agreements have several positives.

1. The pay is more reliable

One of the few downsides of self-employment is the income uncertainty that comes with it. The infamous “feast or famine” cycle has left more than one freelance writer running away in terror.

Your bills keep coming regularly, but your payment schedule is constantly up in the air. You might even earn more as a freelancer than you did in your day job, but not knowing when that paycheck will arrive can be stressful.

When you work on retainer, you typically don’t have that payment problem.

Provided your client pays as agreed, you’re guaranteed a steady flow of income. It’s the closest a freelance writer can get to a reliable paycheck and recurring work while still being their own boss.

2. You can get (and keep) better clients

Entering into a retainer agreement takes trust from both parties, but especially on the client’s part.

Typically only the “best” of your clients will suggest keeping you on retainer. These tend to be the clients you’ve worked with for a long time, who are most familiar with your dependability and general amazing-ness. Since you already have a working relationship, those clients are also already familiar with your rates.

Plus, you’ll also be able to work for a smaller group of “premium” clients – rather than a scattershot of “anyone who comes along” like you may do now.

3. Clients love retainer agreements

There are a few exceptions to this rule of course, but most clients would rather continue to work with a freelance writer they know they can rely on than scour the Internet looking for someone new every time they need a writer.

By setting up a retainer agreement, your clients have an added layer of confidence that your services will be there when they need them. In other words, it creates a feeling of security not only for you, but also for them.

Cons of working on a retainer agreement

Not everything about working on retainer is all it’s cracked up to be. You may encounter the following disappointments:

1. The pay can be lower

Some clients prefer retainer agreements because freelancers sometimes offer their services at a slightly decreased rate in exchange for steady pay.

While this can be a disadvantage, it can also work in your favor, depending on the rates you agree on. Why? Because when you’re on retainer, you no longer have to spend as much time pitching or trying to land work. Those aren’t billable hours!

If you know you’ll get paid consistently for a certain number of hours, it might make sense to take a small hourly pay cut; if you set your rates in a smart way, you’ll still make more in the long run.

2. Work levels can still vary

When you work on retainer, you may find that some client months entail little or even no work; while other months you’ll be overworked.

If a client expects you to be “at the ready” 40 hours per week, but according to your retainer, you only get paid for five, then your monthly rate quickly becomes less than you’re worth.

As a freelancer on retainer, you still have to be clear when you communicate about expectations, scope of work, and deadlines. Even though you have a steady work agreement, you may not be able to make assumptions about what’s headed your way in the coming weeks or months.

3. You’ll have to deal with scheduling conflicts

While working on retainer, you’ll always have a potential deadline hovering over you. And depending on the specifics and flexibility of your agreement, your deadlines may be highly inconsistent. Essentially you’re under contract to be at your client’s beck and call.

When you have a vague retainer project deadline looming over your head, it can be hard to accept and schedule other time-sensitive work. Even when your deadlines are clear, if your workload changes from month to month, you’ll still be left in the dark. You never want to risk overbooking yourself and, if you’re on retainer for an unpredictable client, it’s harder to judge when that’s a possibility.

4. Dependency issues are common — on both sides

Since your contract likely states you’ll be “at the ready” whenever your client needs you, you might be kept on a relatively short leash. Many of us left traditional work behind to be our own boss, so the expectation that you’ll always be available can be frustrating. This is something you might want to put limits on from the get-go.

However, personal frustrations aside, retainer agreements have a potentially more sinister side-effect: dependency. They encourage you to place all — or most — of your business eggs in one basket. And that almost always spells disaster for freelance writers.

Even with a retainer agreement, you’re still a freelancer and your client has the option to leave you at any time — so you can’t rely on a single client to get you from month to month. You still want to diversify your income sources!

Perhaps the best solution here is to have several clients on retainer, so you’ve both diversified your income and can rely on those paychecks month after month.

How to make the most of working on retainer

how retainers can help you build a freelance writing business

If you have amazing time-management skills and a little less freedom feels like a fair price to pay for steady income, then working on retainer might be for you.

But if this is a path you want to pursue, take heed of the following:

  • Clearly define the scope of the work in your contract. Retainer agreements have a tendency to get out of hand. If your contract is poorly planned, there’s a good chance your client is about to take advantage of you — even if they don’t intend to do so.

    Make sure you understand clear definitions of not only what you’ll be paid, but also the type and amount of work. For example, rather than having “one blog post per month” listed in your contract, try more specific wording like “one blog post up to 2,000 words per month, with topic agreed upon one week prior to deadline.”
  • Suggest a trial or probation period. If you’re unsure about working on retainer and need to get comfortable with the idea, suggest a shorter payment period over a probation period. Say, “Let’s start with __________ and see how we feel.”

Remember: you can always renegotiate with your client at a later date and sign a new contract with that updates each party’s responsibilities. Nothing is permanent.

  • Choose a service that works well with your arrangement. The best retainer projects are exactly that: projects. If your client tries to offer “per hour” services rather than “per project” services, small details may eat up too much of your time.

Stick to project-based arrangements that can be done routinely: three blog posts per month, or a set number of social media posts, e-newsletters or other repeating content updates.

Above all else: Be realistic. If your schedule is already stretched to the limit, say “no.” Don’t let the lure of a steady paycheck fool you into thinking you can somehow materialize extra hours in the day through sheer will alone.

Have you ever worked on a retainer agreement? What advice would you add? Let us know in the comments!

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Lauren Tharp is a freelance writer and the owner of LittleZotz Writing. Lauren helps small businesses bring their brands to life through written content; and she also helps fellow writers get started as free... .

LittleZotz Writing | @littlezotzwrite

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Comments

  1. I’ve worked on retainer for a non-profit for about ten years. The job grew out of a number of years of volunteer writing and editing for the same org and then a one-time paid assignment I did for them. Volunteering some writing is a good way to show an organization or business you have something to offer.

  2. I’ve worked exclusively on retainer for almost 2 years now. The stability of the income stream is the most appealing feature of this arrangement for me. The biggest problem in the early days was scope creep, but I quickly learned to include in my retainer agreement an explicit provision that any client assignments in excess of the quantities stated in the agreement will be invoiced in addition to the agreed monthly retainer fee. The scope creep hasn’t entirely gone away, but at least it’s now worth my while.

  3. Hey Lauren, nice post 🙂 A retainer sounds great, but I hadn’t considered the potential downsides. It’s always good to have the opportunity to see both sides of the story. Now I feel like I’ll know what I’m getting into, if and when the opportunity comes along. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • When I was writing this post, the editors and I would have little quibbles about some of the downsides I had written. My overall view of retainers is a bit negative as I’ve had almost nothing but bad experiences with them; however, the editors (Alexis in particular) had much more positive views of them! I guess it really just depends on the client! But it’s good to be prepared — for the good or the bad — right? 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, Daniel!

  4. Hi Lauren! Great to see you here.

    I’m currently working 100% with retainer clients, and I love it! Here’s how I’m making things work for me:

    1. I diversify my project/client load. I’ve just signed a content management contract, and that will take up a great deal of my time, at first. But, I also have a client who only requires four submissions a month, and two other clients who want two submissions a month. So, I can fit in my smaller scope projects in between my larger projects.

    2. I’m explicit in what I’ll offer, what’s expected on both ends, fee schedules, billings, and every and anything that might arise. I’ve had a client ask me to amend my terms, and I’ve asked a client to amend their terms. Once all the the amendments took place, the contracts were signed with no problems.

    3. My contracts are clear that any revisions above and beyond the scope of what was asked for will be billed.

    4. If anyone reading this pays attention to nothing else, then PLEASE implement this tip: Include a “kill fee” clause of some sort in your contract.

    My contracts state that I must be given x amount of days notice if the client wants to end our working relationship. For example, with one client, I’ve agreed to 30 calendar days notice. If they fire me before the 30 calendar days notice, then I’ll invoice them in the amount of my next month’s retainer.

    This covers my rear from being let go with no money. Of course, the client could figure out how to fire me within 30 days and pay me as little money on my next invoice as possible, but I don’t intend for that to happen. As Lauren said in the article, retainers ensure that you’re working with a higher-tiered client who understands how business gets done.

    So, figure out how much time you’ll need to land a new client if you get fired from your retainer client, and either place a calendar date when they need to give you notice, or claim a flat “kill fee.” Never leave yourself hanging! It sucks to look for work when you’re financially desperate for work. You’ll need some financial padding to find the best quality clients.

    5. Speaking of “days”, clarify if you’re working with calendar days, or business days. Also, clarify if you’ll be paid (or given notice) within 30 (more or less) calendar days, 30 (more or less) rolling days, etc.

    Bottom line: Dot all Is and cross all Ts. A reasonable client should have no issue with signing a very detailed contract that works for both parties.

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