Two years ago today, I stocked up on canned chili, dusted off the desk in my home office and officially left my job.
Photo Credit: kolbisneat
If you want the whole story from the early days, I wrote this post 150 days in on how I turned down a guaranteed 6-figure payday to go into a field that (depending on who you asked) guaranteed I’d make hardly anything for a good, long time.
For now, though, here’s an excerpt:
“I printed off the job offer and pinned it to my bulletin board with a circle around the dollar figure I’d just walked away from. This would be my reminder.
Every morning, I’d look at it and remember exactly what I gave up to chase this idiotic dream of bashing a keyboard for profit.”
I had an unspoken goal: I wanted to match it and prove that I could be just as successful (financially) on my own.
In my first year, I came up just shy.
In my second year, I obliterated that number by +28%.
Since I launched in 2013 full-time, Business Casual Copywriting has generated over $230,000 in profit and more than that in revenue.
That in a supposedly “saturated” industry that “pays peanuts”. But please don’t read me wrong:
I’m not sharing that for your applause or because it makes me feel good to wave around vague income numbers and pretend I’m king banana.
Yes, I hope the dollar figure will earn your interest – but I want the lessons I’ve learned to be the part that earns your respect.
Here are the 9 most important lessons I’ve learned in the past two years:
1. If you want to be a successful freelancer, you can’t just be a strong writer (or artist, or developer, or…)
Some of the best writers I know barely eke out a living off their craft. That is NOT because writing isn’t valuable, demand is low or the market is too saturated.
It’s because freelancing is a business, and they don’t know how to operate like one.
If you want to win as a freelancer, you need to learn how to…
- Market yourself (the most important skill you can learn)
- Handle your books
- Manage your time
- Negotiate a deal
- Meet a deadline
- Network your butt off
Businesses like working with businesspeople – they do NOT like working with clueless creative divas – although they do find how cheaply they can get work out of them attractive for a time.
If you want to win as a freelancer, brush up on your business skills. Hell, I’d say it’s even worth it to go in-house for awhile, just to see how businesses really run.
2. Confidence changes everything.
Nobody ever hit a home run by bunting. And as a freelancer, nobody is going to go to bat for you except yourself.
If you’re afraid to raise your rates, push back on a client or stand up for yourself, you will keep on spinning your tires and continue earning less than you could be.
Here are some facts you need to accept:
- If you have the talent, your years of experience DO NOT MATTER. Clients pay for your results, not your résumé.
- If you operate like a business, hit deadlines, deliver strong copy and are easy to work with, you’re already in the minority of freelancers (just ask anyone who’s hired them before).
That’s worth a premium.
- You are going to hear “No”, have clients disappear and quote people who cannot afford you. Deal with it. Being exclusive to an audience who can afford you is actually a good thing.
- Your clients are making money off the content you provide – usually an out-sized return on what they paid. Don’t be afraid to make some money yourself.
Confidence in the way you charge, communicate and handle your business is attractive to the right audience – and if you don’t push the envelope, you’ll never know what you’re really worth.
Good freelancers change the conversation from “Here’s what we need and what we’ll pay you” to “Here’s the level I’m on – if you want to be on it, here’s what it costs.”
3. Find a focus.
When I started out, I cast a wide net out of fear that if I didn’t, there wouldn’t be enough work.
I don’t regret doing that for one second – it taught me what I was good at writing and showed me where the better margins were. It also helped me survive year one.
But as soon as you figure out where the money is and what you’re really good at/passionate about, you need to cut down your offering and JUST do those things.
If you’re the go-to gal for “___________”, you can command more for that type of work because you have a reputation and more power in the relationship.
I nervously cut blogging from my offering in favor of conversion-focused copy (websites, landing pages, email marketing campaigns). I worried my income would go down. Blogging work is easy to come by and pays reasonably well.
When I eliminated blogging and let the world know my new focus, my income went up instead. My fear was unfounded. Focusing works.
4. Never underestimate the power of a single connection.
I am constantly amazed at how relationships I’ve forged have turned into projects, opportunities and even a TEDx talk!
Brand new freelancers I’ve supported have turned around and sent ME awesome projects.
Whether it’s a client, acquaintance, new friend or fellow freelancer – try to treat everyone with respect and leave them better than you found them.
Have meaningful conversations instead of rolling around, handing out business cards. Be helpful first; listen more than you speak.
And never write anyone off because they’re in a position where they can’t immediately help you or give you a job.
You never know where that person might wind up, or that relationship might lead.
5. Freelancing is a job.
Yes, you can work in your underwear, wake up at 11:00pm and drink beer all day if you want to.
But you shouldn’t.
Freelancing is NOT the beach vacation or easy, unbridled freedom you imagine it to be. Yes, it can be very flexible.
But it’s up to you to set your schedule, nurture your body and mind, deliver for your clients and build your own future.
That doesn’t happen if you’re goofing off on Facebook every day or coasting along, waiting for work to find you.
Equally important, though: Don’t let the lines of your work and the rest of your life blur to the point that you’re staring into your phone at the dinner table with your friends or answering emails at 8:00pm on a Sunday.
This is only a job, not your life. Separate the two.
6. Scaling is harder than you think it will be.
I tried to start a little writing team – and for awhile, it worked. I had 10 subcontractors (not all busy at once) and was passing off work like nobody’s business.
But it fell apart.
I quickly learned that the time I was spending trying to train them, fix their mistakes and compensate for their missed deadlines was easily offsetting the extra income I was making.
I paid them too much, too fast out of wanting to try and prove freelancing could be lucrative.
So I killed the team.
Then, I thought I’d write a book or sell a course. Passive income, right? Both those things sound easy. Neither one is.
Perhaps hardest is giving yourself the time and space to build another asset – ignoring immediate income for the sake of building something bigger.
It’s totally possible, but it’s not as simple as you’re imagining – I promise.
7. Trust your gut (every. single. time.)
When you’re sitting there, staring at that email and feeling uneasy about the client – don’t take them on, no matter how much is on the table.
When you’ve written that quote out but you’re debating lowering the price because you *think* the client might not be able to afford it, stop and go back to your first number.
When you’re scheduling your time and think to yourself, “That’s going to be an ugly weekend.” – don’t book it.
Every single time I’ve gambled against my gut instinct on a decision, I’ve lost – and you will, too.
8. Some days will be total write-offs. That’s OK.
Any writer can relate: There are days you wake up knowing nothing is going to get done that day.
Your best work eludes you. You can’t get traction. You’re burned out, tired and uninspired.
When those days come, flex your freelance muscles and get away from the desk. Exercise. Be with people you care about. Play a video game.
Whatever constitutes a good day for you.
And then, don’t feel guilty about it. Wake up early, get back to work, and plod on.
Stop fighting off days and instead, form habits that keep them from ever showing up.
Find out what sets you off – distractions, habits, stress – and be proactive about the way you go about your day so that the next one will be productive, too.
And please, try to get enough sleep.
9. Money matters – but only so much.
I started this post out with some financial figures because I knew it’d get your attention.
People love talking about what other people make, and the “six-figure dream” is more or less universal among freelancers.
I’m not going to sit here on my throne of privilege and pretend cash isn’t important or worth striving for – because it was for me.
But realize that no matter how much you make, someone else is making more.
Paul Jarvis built a course that’s made him my entire years’ revenue in a few months (and growing).
Joanna from Copy Hackers charges twice my hourly rate and works on projects with minimums twice as big as mine (or bigger).
And my friend Ross Simmonds, who went out around the same time I did, turned my entire two-year profit in ONE year this year.
Even after crushing my first goal, I was kind of bummed out for awhile because I felt like I was behind.
But two years ago, I’d have thought that was insane. Because it IS.
I’m on someone else’s rung, and so are you.
There’s always a bigger fish, and if you choose to compare, you’ll never be satisfied or proud of the life you’re building.
There’s so much more to this than money.
Whether it was the chance to be your own boss, do what you’re good at, have the flexibility to travel – remind your self of what freelancing means to you and what drove you to make the move in the first place.
At the risk of sounding like a cheesy motivational poster on Pinterest, don’t freelance because you want to make a living – freelance because you want to make a life.
Thank you so much to my friends, family, clients and peers who have made this journey so worthwhile.
I’ve still got so much to learn, but I’m looking forward to the trip.
If you’re a freelancer or business reading this and you want to chat about freelancing / ask questions / hire me to help you plan and write content that makes you money:
Business Casual Copywriting