Imagine, it’s a Sunday afternoon at your first WordCamp. Between some impromptu naps you’ve made it to the last session of the day. Your agency paid for you to be here, so you should probably go to the track that will help you improve speed on your company websites, but something about the title “Six Figure Freelancing” is too enticing to pass up. Expecting some snake oil salesman pitch or some convoluted process you’ll never be able to pull off to make over six figures freelancing on your own, but intrigued none the less, you walk in and take your seat. This was me. I didn’t know it at the time, but this session would change my life forever.
Now I won’t dive into the details of the session in this post, if you’d like to see exactly what I saw you can read the full six figure freelancing WordCamp session by Nathan Ello here.
Looking back and re-reading this post I realized I didn’t actually use many of the methods laid out for holding myself accountable daily, weekly, monthly, etc. but the one thing I DID get out of this session was the existence of a company called Codeable. You may have heard me mention them in previous posts on my blog. Don’t worry this won’t be another Codeable manifesto, but it is a crucial piece to how I’ve managed to crack six figures in my first year freelancing.
Before we go any further I want to point out if you’re looking for a “how-to” for making six figures, you’d be better off served reading Nathan’s Post. This is about my journey to reach that end-of-year benchmark and some thoughts along the way. That being said you may still find a golden nugget of information in here somewhere, so indulge me if you will.
After WordCamp in late 2016 things at work for me started to take a bad turn. You can read all about why I was forced into quitting my job for some backstory if you’d like. I applied to Codeable a few months after seeing Nathan’s session figuring I might as well throw it out there and see what happens. Unfortunately I didn’t hear back before work got so bad I quit in June 2017. But what do you know, just when I started freaking out I was jobless I got an email from Codeable for an interview in July and as of October was a full fledged developer on their platform. I spent the next 3 months building up my rep and completing as many jobs as I could, but by the end of the year (minus taxes and expenses) I had only made a measly $27K. Which was a little more than half what I made the years prior. I felt like I was going backwards instead of forwards, and the last thing I wanted was to work at another agency.
The first bit of 2018 was a little bit of the same. Getting enough jobs to stay afloat, but not really thriving. Then in March I nailed down my first retainer client. A retainer client, who in 15 hours a week singlehandedly paid my salary from my previous 40 hour a week job. “This is great!” I thought. I could sit back, relax and only work 15 hours a week… this is when that WordCamp session on six figure freelancing came back into focus. Adding up the numbers I was already 50% of the way to 100K with my retainer, so I only needed to work at getting jobs to complete the other 50%. When I looked at it glass half full, it didn’t seem so unattainable. So I decided that 2018 would be the year I turned that WordCamp session into a reality for my business.
Sources of Income for 2018
1. Retainer Clients
#1 on the list is a no-brainer. It’s half of my income for 2018 (the USD > CAD conversion helps), but don’t let that fool you. I still had to complete the work for my client week to week, act professional, meet deadlines, and keep proving that I was worth the investment.
2. Codeable Job Boards
I was still scoping out projects on Codeable to get more clients and bring in more business. I was mainly looking for full website builds, but took on smaller projects to fill up gaps of time and increase my amount of jobs completed.
3. Facebook Groups
I landed my first local client through a Facebook Group of all things. They can actually be a wonderful resource to find clients that are looking for services that you provide. At first, I didn’t think I would get the job as I was up against some impressive agencies and I was just starting out on my own. But my project proposal was so impressive I nailed the job.
Again, social media to the rescue. I got many job offers, and requests for freelance work via the platform. I ended up doing some overflow work for a company in Vancouver. This helped me gain some insight into how agencies were building their websites. I learned a lot and improved my skills during the project.
5. Repeat Clients / Word of Mouth
Near the end of the year I found myself not having to troll the job boards anymore, but rather clients were coming to me with project requests. This was primarily on Codeable but I did have 2 personal word of mouth referrals for new websites as well.
While this wasn’t a huge source of income, something is better than nothing. If you’re going to recommend a product or service to someone that you’ve spent time vetting, you might as well get a kickback for it. But make sure you follow the guidelines for disclosing this information.
I attended WordCamp Seattle 2018 after previous success with the event. But, this year instead of sitting in sessions all day long, I took some time to brave the world of actually speaking to other humans. This paid off and got me another interview of sorts with an agency to help with their overflow work. This didn’t come to fruition until 2019, but it’s worth mentioning as a potential place to look for leads and garner relationships as a freelancer.
Even with all the above working in my favour, getting to my goal at the end of the year was not a simple task. I had a client back out of a large project near the end of the year and had to make up that money elsewhere by taking on some smaller jobs in December. Something I would later regret, as I experienced my first “burn-out” as a freelancer.
As the year closed on 2018, taking into account the exchange rates and the fact that I was doing work on a retainer that I wouldn’t technically get paid for until Jan 8th, I only just managed to get myself over the 100K mark, $103,865.88 CAD to be exact.
It felt great! I was super proud of myself for pushing through and getting it done. Then I immediately said: “I’m never doing this again”.
Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t referring to never making six figures in one year again, but rather going about it the way I did.
Lessons I learned from making my first 100K
Don’t take on jobs just to make an arbitrary goal
I took on a lot of work near the end of the year to make up for that lost project. Work I could do, but work I definitely didn’t want to do at the time. Some of that work I’m still dealing with in 2019.
Burn-out is real
Working consistent 12-16 hour days is not sustainable for a normal human. Some of those days were spent working on my own business and loving every second of it. But a lot of those days were spent stressing on projects that went over time, over budget, or I didn’t plan my schedule accordingly to facilitate all of my responsibilities.
I always say a bad experience is much more valuable than a positive one. I’ve only ever gotten stronger and smarter from negative things that have happened in my past. So taking the lessons I’ve learned from this first year I have some thoughts leading into 2019.
Thoughts for 2019
Having a goal is great, but not killing yourself in the process is better
While I’m not going to sit back and play video games all day instead of working, I am going to try a find a better approach to balancing work and life. For me this means not forcing myself to work when I’m mentally not ready for it, and on the flip side getting something done when I feel the urge to. Even if it is a mid-afternoon on a Sunday. Saying no to projects that aren’t a good fit for me, to make room for the ones that are. And making sure I have time for hobbies and travel between work stints.
Diversify your client base
While having my retainer client has been amazing thus far, both in the monetary sense and the fact that I enjoy working with them, having more than 50% of your income in one place is a scary thought.
Free isn’t always Free
I spent the better part of 2017/18 trying to do everything for free to save me money. This ended up costing me time. Something which I realized way to late, is more valuable. This isn’t to suggest you throw money at a problem and hope it goes away, but it also doesn’t mean spending 2 days working on something to save you buying a $300 plugin.
It’s OK to spend money on your business
Like the above, sometimes you need to spend money to make money (ROI). I was being so stingy and always berated myself for spending a dime. This year I’m going to go on those business trips, meet some humans that can help improve my business or even just my mental mindset. Invest in courses and training to keep me moving in the right direction rather than trying to do everything myself.
While another 100K is certainly attainable in 2019 I’m taking a more “C’est La Vie” approach to this year than the last. Not to mention the taxes on that amount are probably astronomical, I’m not looking forward to giving my accountant the numbers this year, eek!
If there’s one lasting impression or thought I can leave you with, it’s Freelance is not as scary as it sounds. You will stumble, but you’ll find your footing again and most likely end up walking taller for it. I encourage anyone thinking about it to give it a try, you never know what you’re capable of handling until you do it solo.