How I became a freelancer

How I became a freelancer

Over the past few months, I’ve gotten a lot of requests to talk about my freelancing – where my money is coming from, how I approach potential clients, and how I got started. I’ve talked about it before, but figured I could go a little more in depth here.

Related: Time management for the freelancer

As some of you know, my freelancing business started in 2005 when I was in my first year of college. I don’t actually think I had any paying clients – but I did a lot of volunteer work in order to build up my portfolio. Kind of hard to get business without proof you can do the work, right?

In 2006, I started this blog. It was a way to keep me accountable for my personal finance goals, and my professional goals. I barely made any money from my blog for the first three years, and minimal amounts of money through freelance graphic design work. Every contract I got was through word-of-mouth advertising, and I didn’t really do much to grow my business.

I kept going like this until about 2010, making about $2,000-3,000 each year through mostly graphic design work. I was writing a lot on this blog, but didn’t make a single cent through any sort of freelance writing project. I wanted to make more money freelancing, but I didn’t really know how. I wasn’t confident that my graphic design skills could carry me further, so I decided to focus on growing my blog instead. At that point (the spring of 2010), I had been blogging at GMBMFB for over 3 years, and I still wasn’t sure how I was going to make the leap from being an amateur blogger, into someone who could actually generate a decent income (without becoming super spammy).

In the summer of 2010, I was offered my “big break” which also proved to be the tipping point of my career as a freelance writer/blogger. The financial editor of the Toronto Star contacted me, and offered me a job as a blogger for a new website called Moneyville (which launched in September 2010, but folded back into the Toronto Star website earlier this year). Of course, after verifying that it wasn’t an elaborate prank, I accepted. I would have been crazy not to. A job writing for the largest daily newspaper in Canada? Yes, please.

Writing for The Star taught me a lot. I went from obscurity to being read by tens of thousands of people every week. And of course with that came a lot of criticism. That definitely affected my writing here at GMBMFB. I was self conscious, and aware that whatever I said on my blog was likely going to be used against me in the comment section of Moneyville. Or in discussion forums on other sites. Or made into memes (yes, that actually happened). It was really tough at the beginning. Yeah, I know. I knew what I was getting myself into. People can be really, really mean, and that’s definitely something to think about if you want to become a writer/blogger. Do you have thick skin? Can you let the insults and criticisms roll off your back? Or will you brood and get sad/angry about it? Really think about it for a while, because I didn’t. Luckily I had some amazing people to look up to, who gave me good advice and encouraged me to keep on doing what I was doing.

So, by the end of 2010, I had made about $8,000 freelancing. It still wasn’t a lot, but it was triple what I had made in the previous year, and it gave me that push I needed to challenge myself to see how far I could go. This was also around the time I started working 70-75 hours/week.

In 2011, I made $32,000+ in freelance income, and it was at that point I knew I had a shot at being able to work full-time as a freelancer. As my income increased (and my client list), I had a huge decision to make because I was going to burn out. Do I do what’s scary, and try my luck at freelancing? Or do I play it safe, and continue to work a steady FT job? And as you may know by the end of 2011 I got the extra push I needed to quit my job. By that time, I had secured two relatively well-paying jobs that would guarantee me about $30,000/year. Add in a few extra one-off assignments, plus blog income (through sponsored posts/advertising/etc) and I felt confident I could make it on my own.

Related: When does a freelancing career take over?

2012 was tough. As a full-time freelancer for the first time in my life, I was a bit overwhelmed having to manage my own schedule and create opportunities for myself. I ended up making over $55,000 in 2012. It was never easy, but I accomplished something I had always dreamed of doing: living and traveling abroad. I know I can look back on my year in Germany as something to really be proud of.

This year is a little bit different. I’ve spent so many years trying to increase my freelance income, that it seems weird to scale back. It was extremely difficult to leave my job with the Toronto Star earlier this year, and I’ve said no to almost every freelance contract that has come my way. Still, I expect to earn around $15,000 from freelancing in 2013. It’s a far cry from past years, but I’m living a more balanced lifestyle, and a higher salary at my full-time job definitely makes up for my loss in freelance income.

How do I land freelance gigs?

I get asked this question a lot, and I hate answering it because the truth is, 99% of my freelance gigs just fall into my lap. The only freelance job I actively pursued was writing for Canadian Living. I heard from a friend who saw on Twitter that they were starting up a finance section. I e-mailed the editor immediately, and gave her samples of my writing from Moneyville. I was initially turned down for the position because I didn’t have enough experience (fair), but before the launch date, one of the writers dropped out, and I was in.

Whenever anyone e-mails me asking for advice, I tell them to network. Get their name out there. Go to conferences, be active on Twitter, comment on other blogs. Be approachable, friendly, and ask questions. A few years ago, a guy e-mailed me asking for advice. He actually took what I said to heart, and when I finally got to meet him last year, he was a regular paid contributor on a few very high profile websites in Canada.

How much should I charge for my writing?

I think it depends on your experience level. If you’re just starting out, I believe the average pay for a blog post is somewhere around $25-50? Someone please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. Then, as you become more well-known, you can start charging more for your services.

When I left freelance writing earlier this year, I was earning between $300-400 per article. The most I’ve ever earned was $1,400. And I also did a fair share of unpaid blog posts for “exposure,” which is fine at first (actually, I definitely recommend it). But once I started making money, I felt like I didn’t have to write for free anymore.

How much do you make from blog advertising?

I know bloggers who make a killing with advertising, and I make peanuts compared to them. It generally depends on how quick I am to respond to e-mails (if I respond to them at all). Some bloggers take every opportunity, but I have pretty strict guidelines for myself in terms of what kind of advertising appears on this blog. And according to my excel spreadsheets, this year I’ve made between $800-1200/month through blog advertising.

In 2011 and 2012 I would usually make closer to $2,000/month (sometimes much more) – but I was a lot better at responding to advertisers. AND my posting rate was a lot higher – I would generally have new content every day. Now, I’ve slowed down to 2-3x/week and I don’t care as much to pursue as many advertising opportunities.

Will you ever go back to full-time freelancing?

No idea. If I’m super honest with myself, freelancing full-time gave me such anxiety. Last year, there were weeks where I made $0, and started freaking out and doubting myself and looking at plane tickets home. Then, there were times where I had so much cash coming in, I couldn’t believe I ever worked a full-time job AND freelanced at the same time. Ups and downs? Plenty.

It’s nice to know that I have the worth ethic and drive to make it as a freelancer. I didn’t return to a corporate job because I couldn’t make enough money – I returned because I wanted to be a part of something bigger. I missed talking to people every day, and I missed playing with a big budget and creating things on a scale that I just couldn’t do as a freelancer. Maybe one day, I will return. But as of right now, and as far into the future as I can see, I’ll be working a corporate job and freelancing on the side.

That’s it! I think I’ve answered all of the questions that I had starred in my inbox. If there’s anything else you’d like to know about my freelancing or blogging, please feel free to ask! :)

About Krystal Yee

I'm a writer, personal finance blogger, and marketing professional based in Vancouver. I'm a former Toronto Star (Moneyville) columnist, author of The Beginner's Guide to Saving and Investing, and co-founder of the Canadian Personal Finance Conference. When I'm not working, you can usually find me running, playing field hockey, or plotting my next adventure.

15 comments

  1. Yeah, posts start at about that and can go up quite dramatically. I was pretty lucky and scored a $200/post ghostwriting gig nearly right off the bat. Writing for print, though, still offers way higher rates in general than blogging.

    • Agreed… and I guess it makes sense, but I couldn’t believe how high rates are for magazine articles compared to newspaper.

  2. Thanks for the posting. I am reading your blog for over a year.

  3. Great post! You were one of the main reasons for why I started freelancing. The extra money has definitely been nice.

  4. I still make no money from my blog or freelancing. I have had a couple of writing opportunities, which has been nice. I keep hustling, writing, and developing relationships. I do want to increase my freelance income and use it to supplement our net worth.

  5. Interesting. I, too, just like building it and see the income as milestones along the way. It has to feel good to have the choice between sticking with it or rocking your day gig.

  6. Awesome post, Krystal. It was very interesting reading about your rise to fame. You are definitely an inspiration for me. I went from writing about Pokemon and video games to personal finance, real estate and mortgages. Keep up the great work. I look forward to seeing you at CFPC13.

  7. Very interesting post. I’ve often considered taking the leap into freeelancing but like you say, its way too uncertain, especially if you have a family to support.

  8. Thank you so much for writing more about freelancing! I’ve been trying to translate my writing experience into a lucrative freelancing career and advice from people like you that have found success is invaluable.

    Do you have any tips for increasing blog traffic without being spammy and maintaining integrity?

    • I know a lot of bloggers do carnivals and link exchanges – those are great ways to increase blog traffic, but I find them a little bit spammy, so generally don’t participate.

      The way I increased my blog traffic was through comments on other people’s sites, guest posting on more popular blogs (and getting a link within the content or in the byline), as well as running giveaways. People love free stuff, and whether it’s something small like a book, or gift cards/cash, etc. I think readers really like it. Plus, it helps me give something back, while also getting more traffic than normal.

  9. Really good post. I find that the longer you blog, the more money seems to “fall in your lap”. Took me about 5 years on my old blogs before I really started making any money.

    Otherwise, the first 5 years or so, it’s about $1200 a year at best for Google Adsense advertising alone.

    I avoid sponsored posts but I do accept links in the sidebar although my rank is not high enough for people to pay my rates ;) Good thing I am not a 100% blogger.

  10. Thanks so much for this post (I hopped over from mochimac’s site). This was helpful. I love to write but have no idea how to go from writing on my own blog to writing for someone else. I’m beginning to see more and more freelance is about doing a number of different things rather than having just one revenue stream. I don’t really care for sponsored links but it seems that is the way advertisers are going now. I’ve even heard some big bloggers talk about their concern because they never allowed sponsored content but now sidebar ads are decreasing.

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