Last December, my Christmas present to myself came early, when I sent an invoice on December 18 that put my billing over $100,000 for the year.
I was officially a six-figure freelancer.
Hitting six figures seemed wholly impossible when I began freelancing five years ago. In fact, I really never imagined I’d be making more than $100,000, whether in a freelance position or traditional job, and definitely not at 30 years old. After all, I studied journalism in college and listened to years of well-intentioned adults tell me I was headed into a dead-end career.
Honestly, it felt great to prove them wrong. Here’s how I did it, building my freelancing gig into a six-figure business.
Growing my writing business
I’ve dabbled in freelance journalism since college and I started full-time freelancing in 2014, after my first daughter was born. I wanted to be self-employed in order to have more control over my time. Initially, my goal was to cover our $1,200 rent, which was a stretch at the time.
However, after I dove in, my business grew quickly. Here are my gross billing numbers for the years I’ve been freelancing:
- 2014: $6,476
- 2015: $24,876
- 2016: $35,151
- 2017: $61,425
- 2018: $83,564
- 2019: $100,149
As you can see, there have been some significant jumps along the way.
In 2016, I tapped into an online network of writers that was hugely helpful with job leads. In 2017, my daughter started school five mornings a week (prior to that I had two days a week of childcare).
Having dedicated time each day to work helped my income increase dramatically.
In 2018, I began working with more content marketing clients, who paid higher rates. That is also the year when I had a second baby and my husband started staying home with the kids, leaving me as the primary breadwinner.
Shifting from journalism to content marketing
When I started freelancing, I was doing almost exclusively journalism, for local newspapers and smaller online outlets. I was paid $50-$150 per story, which often required in-person reporting. It was decent money to get started, but I knew I would never be able to break six figures at that rate.
Over time, I connected with more content marketing jobs through professional networks. While websites and newspapers have ever-shrinking budgets, corporate clients are able to pay substantially more to drive traffic to their sites. Writing for them is a lot more lucrative.
Last year, about half of my work was for corporate clients. I wrote for automotive brands, healthcare companies, universities and insurance agencies. I used to assume content marketing would be boring, but these higher-paying jobs gave me the chance to do in-depth reporting on issues I care about, and that happened to be tangentially related to my clients’ products or services.
Shifting to content marketing has allowed me to make more per hour that I work. That let me be more selective about the work I took on, and even helped to subsidize lower-paying projects that I care about, like stories for my local paper.
Know your price
Over the past two years I’ve taken on more higher-paying clients, usually in the corporate world. As I’ve done more work in this realm and had positive feedback, my confidence has grown.
With that comes the ability to say no. Now, before accepting a new client or assignment I weigh whether the pay is worth my time.
Some freelancers have an hourly rate that they strive for. While I’m not that exact, I do fluid calculations to decide what work I should take on, and which I should pass.
Last year, my highest-paying story was $2,000 (for an in-depth reported piece) and my lowest paying story was $40 (for a quick news brief). Despite the range in pay, I felt most of the stories I took on were worth my time.
When I’m considering a new client or assignment, I ask myself:
Is the pay fair?
This involves looking beyond the rate per word. I consider whether a story is reported, how difficult sourcing will be and past editing experiences with the outlet.
For example, the $2,000 story required tons of reporting and edits, so although it was my highest-paying story, it was not nearly my highest hourly rate on an assignment. I took that into account next time I worked with the client.
Is the work consistent?
I am willing to take a lower rate per project if the client is offering consistent work. This is the all-important “anchor client” that freelancers talk about. For the past few years the clients that paid me the least per story paid me the most over the course of the year. Their lower rate was worth it because I could count on the work without spending time pitching or marketing myself.
Are there special factors?
Although I’m a business owner, there is an emotional side to writing and I take that into account. If I have the chance to work with a dream outlet or report on a story I’m passionate about, I might do it for a lower price. I regularly work at a lower rate for my local paper, because I enjoy supporting local journalism and genuinely appreciate that community connection.
Moving forward as a business owner
Freelancing gives us a ton of flexibility, but to break six figures I had to learn to approach my career as a business. Here are some ways I’ve done that:
Present like a professional
Most of the time I’m working from home in leggings, but I always put a professional face forward for my clients. I invest in a website and always communicate assertively and confidently, especially when negotiating rates. I never miss a deadline and don’t bother editors and clients with too many questions.
Diversify your income
Early on when I was freelancing, one client made up about three-quarters of my income. When they folded overnight, I panicked. Now, I make sure that no one client dominates my schedule, so that I have security no matter what happens to a specific client.
I live in rural New Hampshire, so in-person networking is very limited, but online networks have bolstered my career. I’ve attended conferences (selectively) and taken online classes, as well as participating in digital communities of fellow freelancers.
Always ask for more money
Whenever I get an assignment from a new outlet or client, I ask “Do you have any wiggle room on the rate?” Sometimes they don’t, but about three-quarters of the time this results in a higher rate, which adds up over time.
Pay for childcare
Like many freelancers (especially women) I started writing from home with my child around. However, when I prioritized paying for childcare, my income jumped. Writing requires some mental space, and it’s hard to find that if you’re caring for kids at the same time.
For two years, hitting $100,000 has been my lofty goal. Now, I’m working to sustain my business on that level. At the end of 2019 my three biggest clients all stopped publishing, so hitting six figures in 2020 will be challenging. Still, I know having clients come and go is par for the course in freelancing, and I feel up for the challenge of finding new work.
Photo via F8 studio / Shutterstock