The Holy Grail of the Freelancing: Retainers and How to make Sustainable Income

by
Jordan Lok
,
November 2, 2021

Legends speak of an equilibrium between the world of freelancing and full-time employment, the holy grail of freelancing, a fair balance in guaranteed work, long-term client relationships and flexible time to compose your own schedules. Have you heard about it? Folk ‘round here (The Gig Economy) recall the fabled freelance retainer agreement.


“People favour freedom.”

Freelancing. A job with total control for your own time, projects and clients; a job with total responsibility for your own time and not big on a stable salary. There exists a wealth of benefits and utility for freelancing and why people favour the flexibility it offers.

But let’s say you’ve taken a break out of a full-time career to enjoy some free rein over your life, maybe to take time off to advocate for a cause or to pursue a hobby.

It’s been months, you’re feeling the rush of independence after a remarkable time doing what you do best when suddenly a grasp of realization and reflection catches you.

A sense of absence amidst all the autonomy and irregular income. You miss having a salary. Nay, more importantly, you miss having stability.

Harkening back to our solution to making sustainable income in freelancing; the holy grail to restore a sense of stability in your gig career. Freelance retainers are the closest thing to a stable income as a traditional salary provides, and we’re here to aid you on your quest to land those prosperous retainer agreements. Ready your garb of consulting, knight-errant, for your adventure awaits! 

The Rise of the Freelance Economy in Southeast Asia

Roundtable meeting! It would be remiss of us to skip the Gig Economy’s presence within the context of our lands and set you off on your daring quest without some knowledge. 

But first, what is the freelance economy? Why does it appeal to many? In short, the freelance economy, or the Gig Economy is defined as a ubiquity of short-term contracts in comparison to full-time jobs. Freelancers, gig workers, temporary employees, self-employed, entrepreneurs are some of the many terms for talents that keep the gears turning in the Gig Economy.

Fun fact: A “freelance” was a knight without a lord in the Middle Ages. Most knights served a lord, whose castle and townspeople they’ve vowed to protect with bound armaments, a sword and a lance. Should a knight’s lord perish, they become independent and can be employed by any lord who needed an extra sword, thus their lance became free for hire.

So If you freelance, take solace in the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve come from a long line of noble knights! Hail, Sir Freelancelot.

Rising in popularity since the early years of 2010, the Gig Economy in Southeast Asia has been getting the changes it deserves while still remaining a competitive market. In a 2018 report by KellyOCG, a talent outsourcing and consultancy group, 65% of global hiring managers remarked that the gig economy is increasingly becoming the new norm for how businesses organize their workflow. In the Asia Pacific, the report revealed that 84% of hiring managers outsource to freelancers. 

Glory to freelancers! But that isn’t to say there aren’t any perils that percolate the minds of every freelancer. 

The Gig Economy is unregulated in Southeast Asia, rendering freelancers easy pickings for worker exploitation, vulnerable to being overworked or underpaid. Equal rights in labour regulations are demanded as the number of freelancers in Southeast Asia continue to grow to protect employees against worker exploitation. 

Perhaps as Southeast Asia’s workforce and technology continue to evolve, their local governments continue to implement more social security protection laws for the self-employed, the gig economy will undoubtedly witness a better and more confident future for freelancers as a steady career.

Retainer Reality: Risks and Rewards

Your quest for the perfect retainer isn’t as precarious as you think, especially when you start offering retainers to the people you enjoy working with the most. However, being aware of the pitfalls and murderous rabbits that wait along your path to the Holy Grail of Freelancing could be a great boon to your noble quest.

Retainer clients have massive advantages. They provide you with a steady amount of work and a set amount of income each month that you can count on, which translates to lesser hours you spend on freelance platforms scouring for tasks. Moreover, you don’t have to spend as much time qualifying for the project, assuming you’ve worked on a few assignments with your client before. It’s worth mentioning that clients love retainers too, as it makes them easy to plan your workflow and budget.

And there are the aforementioned risks that you should be aware of. Essentially, you will be stuck with your retainer clients. Bound to a contract, you are committed to working together as they’ve paid for your time and you have to deliver on whatever they’ve asked you to do. Sometimes, you may meet a difficult client who could overburden you with extra work, maybe you’ve underpriced yourself for the work too. That’s why it is important to do a “Test Run” for a couple of projects to see how you like working with them!

How you can start working on a Retainer as a Freelancer

Hear ye, hear ye! Now you already know retainers can be a dazzling endeavour once you’ve set them up right. To reiterate, you get to experience the best of both worlds, working at your own pace as a freelancer and an income similar to a steady paycheck. Retainers usually specify a set amount of work each month in exchange for a pre-established fee. However, it may take several months or years of trust and a body of work before you land on a quality retainer agreement.

Here are some tips on setting up the right retainer for you:

Retainers do not happen overnight. We’ve pointed out the aforementioned trust-building and establishing a good client relationship before committing to a long-term retainer contract. It’s important to approach retainers with thought and care since you’ll be bound to your contract for a while, especially if you’ve underpriced yourself and committing to a potentially problematic client relationship, risking your reputation if you dishonour the retainer agreement.

Pitch yourself as the all-in-one solution. If you can, ask your favourite clients about retainers after lining up several projects with them. Let them know what services you can provide and how they can benefit from them. For example, you may offer copywriting, illustration and design services as opposed to your client individually hiring them. Also, consider the experience you’ve accumulated over time as added value for your client. Clients achieve a better deal by working with a familiar face and one that is intimate with their workflow, rather than spending more money and time hiring individually for projects.

Treat your retainers right. Don’t take the very clients who keep you in business for granted! We believe reliability goes beyond exceptional work and on-time submissions. You’d want to make sure the relationship with your retainer is nurtured - ask for their feedback often and communicate to see if your client has been satisfied with your work! Another way for them to regard you as a boon to the relationship and staying on top of their list is through special accommodations like extra revisions, proofreading, or promotional posts to boost content. This is especially crucial as you reach the project closure, send thank you notes, or additional resources - really put an emphasis on the softer skills to managing your client. That kind of personal attention makes it hard for them to leave you when the next freelancer comes along. 

Maintain consistent communications. This is key for any relationship, don’t you agree? It is essential to let your retainer know that you treat them as a VIP, to have them ensure that their projects are in safe hands. Always show you’re interested in fixing potential issues effectively, this could come in performing your own revisions of assignments and communicating the issues you’ve solved to your client - and own up to your mistakes! Never fail to keep your client in the loop and honour their vision and feedback. No matter what, inform the client if there are any changes to the assignment, it could be decisions you've had to make or you’ve found a simpler solution to the project. Additionally, remember to not just inform them of the problem, but also provide solutions and mitigation plans that you think may benefit the vision of your client.


Now arise Sir Freelancelot, Knight of the Gig Economy. For tomorrow, when you begin your search for the retainer that works for you, know that you are members of the noblest freelancers the world has ever known. By setting clear terms and expectations, pricing yourself with precision and thoughtfulness, you can provide a better experience with your clients, establishing long-term relationships and increasing stability in your growing freelance career.


Jordan Lok

Author

An INFJ personality type and a savant of everything peculiar, Jordan often finds themself dabbling in the likes of self-advocating, creative writing and music.