How to make more as a freelancer
Do what you love. That’s what the career counselors tell you when you are young. That is what your parents pretend to instill on you when you are born. What they forgot to mention is that very few people are doing what they love and making a ton of money from it.
Before I carry on any further let me talk about money: It isn’t everything.
This is very true. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum where I had money to burn without any concerns and also not a dime to go and buy dinner and in neither case did money affect my attitude (maybe just a tiny bit). Sure without money I would stress about how to pay the next bill and with money I would stress a bit about how I was going to keep it, but at the end of the day I could have fun with the people I love and that was that.
However, I’ve always preferred to be financially secure than not and so I wouldn’t mind being on the end of the money spectrum where I have some to burn because you never know what is going to happen to you tomorrow.
Ever see the show Dirty Jobs? It’s about a guy who travels the country finding the jobs that nobody else wants to do, but somebody has to do it. There hasn’t been a show yet that I’ve seen where the people claim they love their jobs. They do it to survive and that is how most of the world works. You can be content with your job, but true happiness is doing what you love AND making enough to actually enjoy what you really love in life. As a freelancer this means you need to become a better business person than designer.
Here is a TED Talk by Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs. Watch it.
The top 1%
There are thousands of freelancers out there, designers and programmers. I don’t know the percentage of them that make six figures a year, but I would have to assume it is very, very small. There is also a small percentage that make enough that they get to live comfortably in life.
The rest? Simply trying to grind it out so they can eat and pay bills or grind it out so they can get to that level. While I don’t think there will ever be a shortage of clients, that doesn’t mean the competition pool isn’t going to increase—because it does.
The problem is that the competition pool grows faster than your skillset. It can take years to become the type of designer that you aspire to be and it takes only seconds for another fifty people to decide they want to do freelance work. In most cases I see freelancers say they need to get better and continue to go out and look for more work. This is a good strategy, but think about it for a second from an economical standpoint.
There is only one of you, and that includes the work you outsource to others, and there is only so much time in the day you can devote to work. If you aren’t working then work isn’t getting done, and if work isn’t getting done then you aren’t finishing up projects to help get you paid.
The less projects that get done the less money you get paid. Freelancers know this logic, but they don’t seem to consider it too often. This is why it’s easy to find someone who has put too much on their plate.
If you are doing $2,000 jobs with 3 month timelines then you have to work on 3 projects at the same rate simultaneously just to make $2,000 a month. Not sure about where you live, but in America you are going to struggle at that income level. You can make it, but you aren’t afforded any luxuries.
Simple math dictates that if you want to make more then you have two real options.
- Take on more expensive projects. However, these have to fit within the same timeline as the $2,000 projects for any revenue increase. For example, you finally landed that $20,000 job, but it takes 10 months to complete and it’s the only project you are working on during that timeframe. That’s no different than the simple website you did for $2,000 that took one month before. You’re a freelancer so you will stack projects so you don’t just have one you are working on.
- You pile on more projects. This means you pile on stress and time constraints as well, have fun with that.
Now you have to figure that you are going to be doing this for the rest of your life. One more time. The rest of your life. To pull this off you better run a pretty damn good business, but do you really think you are going to reach your goal of retirement? Freelance money is rarely used to think about the future, it’s always about the here and now.
Time to change that.
If you follow the design community enough, you have probably come across an article or two about designing themes to sell. You’ve heard the tales of designers pulling in 5-6 figures a month from these themes and while those are true know that those success stories are far and few between.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go this route, though. Instead though of focusing all of your time in making a theme (they can be time-consuming), why not use the throwaway designs from your clients’ rejections?
You spend time doing mockups and having them rejected by clients and what do you do with them afterwards? You can’t tell me someone out there doesn’t have a use for them. Tidy them up a bit and put them on sale. If someone doesn’t buy them it’s no sweat off your back, but if someone does then you made a little bit of coin. There are cultures that make sure to eat every part of the animal and you should find a way to use every single thing you design to your advantage.
Here are some places that allow you to sell themes:
You don’t even have to sell whole themes, you can simply sell digital assets (logos, icons, etc). Drew Wilson has made over $100,000 with his icon set Pictos. This required a ton of promotion and being deeply involved in the community, but he started from scratch just like everyone else.
Every project is an experience. It’s a story that someone would love to hear. I’m not going to suggest that you start a blog because creating a successful blog is a full-time job. What I think you should do is whenever you finish a project, take a day to write about the experience of it. Jot down everything that you can think of from lessons learned to things you would’ve done differently. Over a year’s time you have yourself a pretty good first draft for a book.
Set some weekends to clean it up and in no time you have an e-book that you can sell. Freelancers are always wanting to learn and they do that from the experiences of others.
A great example of a site re-purposing their content into a publication is Smashing Magazine. Every once in a while they release some of their already published content in an e-book format with a bit of extra added to it and they sell it. When you continually produce great content you have a ton of options of what you can do with that content later with regards to earning extra revenue.
As a freelancer you can make money off of everything that you do. No work should go to waste and over time you will find that you have set yourself up with a sizable passive income stream that might rival your freelancing money. Set that money aside and you are looking great for retirement or that dream vacation. When you think of yourself as a business then everything you do is an asset.
Paul Scrivens is the Product Designer at (mt) Media Temple. He also runs the Imagination Community, Drawar. He believes great design makes the world a better place and that we should all strive to improve the world around us. You can find him on Twitter @scrivs. He also likes cats.
What strategies have you used to increase your freelance income? Let us know in the comments!