Freelance employment is quickly gaining traction in today’s world, but that doesn’t mean the route to successful full-time freelancing is any clearer than it was before. The truth is, full-time freelancing contains a ton of seemingly unrelated moving parts, something even I didn’t expect when I first set out on my freelancing journey.
Today, I use this Intrepid Freelancer blog as a space to not only recount my personal freelance journey, but also include transparent, tangible pieces of news and advice to help others succeed in freelancing. Much of the content featured on this blog is inspired by questions I’ve received from readers throughout the two years I’ve been blogging, and this latest entry is aimed at answering the dominate question I get asked constantly: How do you succeed as a full-time freelancer?
I spent much of this year reflecting on this question as I attempted to honestly answer the people that inquired, and I even started a blog series on it. It took a few months to put the pieces together, but below are the 7 things I can attribute my successful two years of freelancing to.
Before I get into the details, let me share briefly why I think my freelance business works so well:
My quality of life is better than ever. I can’t wait to wake up every morning so I can work on my projects. It’s just a bonus that I’m also making more money than I’ve ever made in my corporate career.
And to think just four years ago I dreaded the mere idea of doing work. Today, I may not have a steady paycheck and benefits, but I DO have the freedom to work wherever and whenever I want on projects of my choosing. I’m not bound by the constraints of a cubicle and daily commute, and I don’t need to ask permission to go on vacation or take on a new project. To me, this freedom opens up my drive to be successful, and it has enabled me to start reaching for my highest professional potential.
Also, I should be clear that what works for me will not necessarily work for everyone. These are factors that I’ve identified as triggers to my success, but in some cases the exact opposites can work for another person. Essentially, I’m an example, not a standard. With that being said, here are 7 specific things that have contributed to my success as a freelancer, with a detailed breakdown of my annual income and expenses for the last two years:
1. I focus my skills.
Okay, so I admit to being a full-time freelancer, but do you know what kind of freelancer I am? If you don’t already know, most of my income come from freelance photography, but not just any kind of photography. One of the biggest lessons I learned early on was to focus my skills and be a specialist because 1) you can spend years refining one particular photo style, 2) it’s less confusing when you’re branding and marketing yourself, and 3) the target client for each photo type is vastly different. You wouldn’t market wedding photos the same way you would market real estate photos. For that reason, I am very specific in the type of photography I sell to clients, focusing purely on events (including concerts), restaurants, and real estate, and thus have a huge local referral base for these types of jobs specifically.
Additionally, I talk more later on about how I diversify my income by selling other skills. I always make sure the work I do on the side relates back to photography, so as not to distract from my main skill and appear unfocused. The blogging and marketing I do, for example, is all related to photography in some way.
Lesson: Be very specific on the type of skill you choose to specialize in.
2. I always meet my financial monthly bottom line.
Do you know the bare minimum amount of money you need to make each month in order to “get by?” This was the first number I calculated long before I became a full-time freelancer, and I make sure I have enough steady income sources that add up to this amount. Thanks to zero debt and no commute, my monthly expenses are already incredibly low, making my bottom line pretty achievable. Want to know when you should call it quits in the freelancing world? When you aren’t earning enough to make your bottom line.
Lesson: Know the bare amount of money you absolutely have to make no matter what and make sure you’re earning enough to make these payments.
3. I have diverse forms of monthly income streams.
While I won’t reveal actual numbers, I will be transparent about one fact regarding my income: photography is not the only thing I do for money. The reasons are both in terms of economic stability and also my own interests. Truth be told, I could make a livable, respectable income by doing only photography, but that doesn’t work for me because 1) I love doing random acts of business management, 2) I’m a writer at a heart and always will be, 3) I love indulging in travel from time to time, and 4) I refuse to take on any sort of loan or debt.
With that being said, here’s a rough split of where my annual income comes from, with the percentage broken down in a graph below:
Blogging and Marketing: Referring back to point number 2, my financial bottom line must always be met, and I use my freelance contract work in the blogging and marketing sphere to generate my bare minimum income each month. These contracts have been consistent from the very start of my freelancing journey and the work can be done wherever and whenever I please, resulting in enough money each month to meet my financial bottom line. If I wanted to, I could make a decent living off of this income alone. This is how I solve the problem of being worried about not having enough photo clients at a time.
Agency-related photography: I launched my full-time freelancing endeavor around the same time I became a regular contributor to Getty Images and another photo agency which at this time shall not be named. Both of these supply monthly royalty payments, and as illustrated in the charts below, are not enough to be stand alone income. They’re still nice supplemental income, all of which is currently going directly into my IRA and investment accounts.
Freelance photography referrals: In order to find photography clients, I rely on two things: SEO (people finding me on Google) and word of mouth referrals. I don’t do online advertising or traditional forms of marketing like newsletters and cold calls. SEO and personal referrals have comprised over 60% of my annual income for the past two years, resulting in a pretty decent income I could live more than comfortably on without my other income streams.
Lesson: Diversify your revenue and income streams and don’t rely on people to come to you for business.
My Annual Incomes for 2 Years of Freelancing
5. I keep my expenses as low as possible.
As a freelance photographer, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid racking up a substantial amount of expenses in gear, rentals, mileage, and travel, to name a few. A lot of people will use the excuse of writing off these expenses in taxes, but to me, that’s no excuse to go crazy on spending.
My expenses have been absurdly high due to healthcare bills from my uninsured appendectomy in 2013 that cost me over $5,000 alone this year. Other than that, my biggest expenses tend to come from photo shoot travel (mileage and parking), most of which is reimbursed by clients, and office expenses (printing, postage, office supply). I have learned to refrain from unnecessary purchases, namely in the realm of tech and photo gear, and have learned that I don’t need the latest and greatest technology to still make a good living. Along those lines, I have zero debt and never buy what I can’t pay for in cash on the spot.
Lesson: Be mindful of your expenses and don’t rack up debt. You don’t always need the newest tech gadget to make your business run smoothly.
6. I invest in having a solid online presence.
As I noted earlier, over 60% of my income is based on referrals plus clients finding me on Google. Having a consistent, professional, and tech-savvy online presence has been a huge benefit for me, and it doesn’t cost me much money-wise: each year, the cost of my website host and domain has costed less than $200 a year making up not more than 1.5% of my total expenses. Websites and online presences are incredibly cheap money-wise, although they can certainly eat up your time. Unfortunately, I don’t have any metrics to analyze the amount of time I’ve spent building up my websites and online presences, but suffice to say that it has resulted in contributing to most of my income.
Bonus: Want to build a website for less than $150? I show you how here.
Lesson: Invest in your website and online presence. It can literally pay off.
7. I invest in online education and learning new skills.
Each year, expenses in online education make up less than 1% of my business costs, yet the payoff is the total profits I make each year. As might be evidenced by my drive to diversify my income streams, I also believe in diversifying my skills in the realms of business and marketing. I don’t however believe that attending a structured school or getting a stamped piece of paper from a school is necessary to learn these skills. I subscribe to many online education platforms, ebooks, and white papers on these subjects as a way to make sure my know-how is up-to-date. With the way that photography is going, having knowledge of an array of subjects relating to photos is key.
Lesson: Never stop learning. Everything you need to know about photography, running a business, and even web design is available online for free or a relatively low cost. You don’t need a degree or formal schooling to learn a valuable, commercially viable skill today.
My freelance business has been successful thanks to focus, constant skill building, financial diligence, passion for each project I take on, and freedom to live the lifestyle of my choosing. I would without a doubt have it any other way.
Are you looking to embark on your own freelancing journey? Get started by reading my guide to becoming a freelancer, and as always, if you have any questions at all, shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.