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The case for freelancing (not just the $)

Updated: Apr 17



I've noticed a big spike in freelancers talking about their income on LinkedIn. How much they make. How they achieved it. Throw in some humblebrag and thought leadership-y stuff. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great to advise freelancers on how they can increase their financial success, but when there is an extreme focus on how much moolah they rake in, is it helpful or hurtful?


First though, let’s flip the script for a minute on corporate pay ranges. In recent years, there's been a significant uptick in states mandating salary transparency for job postings. This is a positive trend for workers, including freelancers. While some ranges are improbably wide and laughable ($50K-200K, anyone?), this move is still going in the right direction. These sort of job posting rules have doubled in three years, and it’s only expected to increase.


Most companies go kicking and dragging into pay transparency, but job seekers appreciate it—a lot. It helps them know their net worth in the market, takes a step toward eliminating persistent gender pay equity issues, and comes with rough but built-in salary expectations. The cat-and-mouse of negotiation still exists but it gets tamped down a bit.

 

Let’s switch back to the freelancer market, where (almost) anything is possible. That is to say, it's a free market for you to make more or less than someone else with the same experience. What determines your salary? Mainly you. Your expertise. Your client base. Your pricing structure. Your network. Your opportunities. Your focus on the business. You, you, you! See where I'm going with this?


On the other hand, there are external variables, including supply and demand, competition, timing, and other factors. The conventional wisdom would also be that your freelancing income goes up each year—but that's not usually how things go. One colleague made $300K last year, and another barely scratched $50K, both seasoned pros. And I've witnessed other years when the tables were turned.


Any freelancer will tell you that income can vary quite a bit each year. You can be riding high with tons of clients and projects and the next year, your cash cow dries up, a client moves on, or budgets get cut. It's a part of this life. I also maintain that there's something thrilling when you have a dry patch and get an amazing gig out of nowhere (or after hard work getting it). It's part of the excitement and rollercoaster of this career path, but clearly not for everyone.


If you're looking for predictability, consider climbing the corporate ladder instead (likewise, if you're working 40 hours a week for one client and no benefits, you might as well be an employee).


Long and short of it: Talking about your monthly or yearly income in dollars and cents is helpful, but only to a point. Sure, you get a baseline comparison of how you're doing vis-a-vis other freelancers, but it doesn't account for the realities of business and life. While talking about money shouldn't be taboo, it can also can be temporary client-in-time, and therefore less valuable as an aspiration.


Another side effect of defining income as the measuring stick of your "success" can is that it can cause stress and feelings of inadequacy for newbies and old-timers alike. Worse yet, it can make you look braggy or veering into Tony Robbins cringe territory, even if that's not the intent.


Imagine a rookie freelancer looking at their rate-per-word, and comparing themselves to those with "six-figure incomes" (the most widely used descriptor); or a long-time consultant in Iowa comparing their rate to a Silicon Valley independent when remote isn't an option. That’s why a host of rate databases exist to provide an aggregated baseline, pricing models, how to price services, conversations with other freelancers of your same ilk...you get the idea.

 

Throughout my consulting career, with my own blog and LinkedIn posts, I've tried to help others freelancers to do well, exploring different ways to get paid, come in to new gigs, or plain old practical consulting advice. This isn't the only way to write about freelancing, but it's my version of paying it forward.

 

To be clear, this isn't a self-righteous diatribe on the joys of consulting, minus the income (and if you think that, it's OK). I've been a freelancer for just shy of 25 years. I've had my ups and downs, both with clients and money. They don't call it the "freelance hustle" for nothin'. There are times when the feast is quite feastly. And the famine is a desert, without a mirage in sight. Making money is an integral part of the freelance package, but it's really (really) not everything.

 

If you’re going into consulting squarely focused on money, you might be sorely disappointed (or pleasantly surprised). From my perspective, I know why I left my cushy job for one sans the security and plenty of risk. Looking back, those core drivers of independence, variety, learning, flexibility, and other personal riches still keep me grounded—and out of the 9-5 grind.


 

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2 Comments


Hear, hear. It can't be all about the money--and I'm saying this as someone who made X dollars last year compared to 3X in the several years before that. One way or another, you live to be wearing all the hats: from project manager and IT carpet crawler to CEO and VP of marketing of sales... all in service of a 1-person enterprise. It's a thrill, even when the challenges are steep. The payoff for me is that I get to look back and say I built something from scratch--and as a creative person, that lines up with my values in a way that's satisfying way beyond cashing a check. (Well, usually.) 🙂

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Guest
Apr 15

Well said, Janice! Would love to know how you are using AI as a writer. And speaking of all that money, happy to see your cuz pay $288M in taxes today. 😜

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