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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! :)

What is your biggest weakness as an employee?

I disappeared from Twitter and my blog over the last few days because I was busy attending the Society of Nuclear Medicine & Molecular Imaging Conference in downtown Vancouver. If that sounds super geeky, you’re right, it was. :) I haven’t talked much about my new job on this blog, but I work for a high tech company that makes particle accelerators called cyclotrons.

Here are a few pretty cool pictures I took from the trade show and over the last few days:

Working in this industry has been challenging over the last 5+ months. There’s a lot to learn, and it can be difficult at times – especially for someone like me, who didn’t take a single chemistry or physics class in high school. But over the past few months, I feel like I’ve really gotten comfortable with the things that I’m familiar with – coordinating trade shows, events, designing, and getting involved in video production.

But after this weekend, where I met dozens of people around the world, I realize that I really need to focus more on being less shy. I can be pretty terrible at approaching people, starting conversations, and making small talk in general – it’s my biggest weakness as an employee. And while I’ve done a little bit of speaking in front of bigger groups at work (and leading meetings), I’m still not comfortable presenting in front of management.

So what does this mean? I’m not sure. I want to say that I will start going to Toastmasters again, but I’m not sure that’s the best thing for me. Or maybe I need that, as well as something else. I think I just need to face my fears and go for it at work. Stop being afraid. Seize the chances that I’m given. Because if I don’t do it, I’m never going to become a better worker, and I’m never going to get to that level I want to get to.

I think it’s really important to know what your biggest weakness is. Not only is it super easy to answer that kind of question in an interview, but since you’ve identified it, you can say something like, “I think my biggest weakness is X, but I’m doing X, Y, Z in order to improve my skills in that particular area.” It shows initiative. And you can stop answering the biggest weakness question with the standard “I’m a perfectionalist” or “I work to hard.” Because really, come on. Nobody is good at everything, and it’s okay to admit what you’re really weak at. Just make sure to follow it up with how you’re going to turn that weakness around and make yourself better because of it. :)

What do you think your biggest weakness is as an employee?

Truth: if you don’t ask, you won’t get

Last week, I tweeted something that’s been on my mind for a while now:

It’s something that I really try to practice in my everyday life… sometimes I go after things that are completely outrageous. And sure there are plenty of times where I don’t get what I want. But there are always those times, those unbelievable I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me moments where I actually do get what I ask for. And it’s because of those moments that I keep asking.

I think this is especially important when it comes to a career. I might be shy in my everyday life, but the workforce is competitive, and if you’re not actively asking for (and going after) what you want, somebody else is bound to get it over you.

Take your salary for example. Did you negotiate your starting wage, or did you just take what was offered to you?

In my experience, you are always worth more than the first offer. Every company expects you to negotiate, and if you don’t ask for more, the company isn’t going to just give it to you. I mean, you wouldn’t take the sticker price when buying a car from a dealership, would you? And if you buy anything off Craigslist, you would always try haggling – because you know they’re asking for more than they would accept. Right? :)

Sure, it’s hard at first – especially for women. I had such anxiety about it when I first entered the work force, and since then I’ve been called everything from greedy and bossy, to confident and assertive. But asking for fair compensation does not make you selfish or bitchy or aggressive. It makes you smart because you’re asking for what you rightfully deserve.

I have never taken a job offer without negotiating first, and I have never been turned down. In most cases, I end up $2,000 to $4,000 ahead. Sometimes I have it written in my contract to get an automatic raise after a certain period of time, or a year-end bonus. A few thousand dollars may not seem like much now, but in the long run, it can add up. Your raises, bonuses, and future earning power are dictated by how you negotiate your starting salary with a company. And that few thousand dollar gap has the possibility of becoming bigger in the future – leaving you farther behind how much you are truly worth.

Of course, when you’re negotiating your salary you have to have solid reasons why you think you deserve more. So try to evaluate your skill set and years of experience compared to other people in your field. Then try to formulate a salary range for your job. You don’t need an exact number, just a rough estimate. Check out websites like Glass Door and Payscale to help you get started. I also like looking at job postings on LinkedIn or Eluta, as well as asking friends and family to find out what other companies are willing to pay for a similar position.

Related: How 20-somethings should ask for a pay raise

The worse thing that can happen is they say no

And so what? If they say no, and you are comfortable with the salary being offered then go ahead and take it. But before you do, perhaps you can try to negotiate an automatic raise after a certain period of time, or more vacation time in lieu of a raise. I’ve only successfully negotiated more vacation time once in my career, and it was because they said no to my salary pitch. But now that I look back on it, that one extra week of vacation was worth way more to me than a few extra thousand dollars a year. so I was extremely happy.

Nobody works for free, and the reason that most of us have a job is to generate an income. You deserve to be fairly compensated. But if you don’t ask for it, you likely won’t get it.

Thoughts? What has your experience been negotiating your salary?

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