Seven years ago, I was struggling. I had just left a full-time job at an agency to pursue a freelance career. My schedule was packed every day, but my income was… unimpressive. I was living in a tiny apartment with my new wife, but every month felt the same. We weren’t getting anywhere.
My wife started dropping little hints that perhaps freelancing wasn’t for me. Soon those hints became less subtle. “Maybe send out a few job applications? We want to have a baby soon…”
At the time, I called myself a “freelance writer.” My average rate was about 10 cents/word ($150 for a 1,500 word article). I had a few reliable clients and a decent backlog of work, but it never felt like enough.
I trolled the usual freelance listing sites: Problogger, UpWork, Freelancer.com, etc. I got a few gigs, but nothing that paid any better.
In some cases, I was told the rate was non-negotiable. “Sorry, this is our budget.”
But in most cases, asking for more money was met with silence. I’ve sent a lot of unanswered emails.
The situation was frustrating because I knew it’s possible to earn more. I knew people making $100K+/year writing blog posts. And in some cases, their work wasn’t that great. In one instance, a friend showed me his $500 article that was identical to the type of content I was creating at the time.
I started to examine the freelance writers I admire. I tried to figure out what made them so successful. Their work was good, of course, but there had to be something more.
It required a lot of careful observation and I asked a billion questions to other freelancers (how I wish I had Freelance Focus back then!), but eventually I managed to take three steps that tripled my rate.
1. I stopped calling myself a freelancer
You are a freelancer, but clients don’t want to hear that. A freelancer is a hired gun, a day-helper, someone who trades labor for a quick buck. To many people, the word “freelancer” is a bit of a pejorative.
Now, I’m a “content marketer” or “content strategist” or “marketing consultant” depending on the client. I still work under my own name (no branded company), but my title refers to how I add value.
This applies to any kind of freelancer, of course:
- You’re not a freelance social media manager, you’re a customer success manager, a community manager, a brand advocate, or a customer evangelist.
- You’re not a freelance graphic designer, you’re a creative director, a design consultant, an illustrator, or a branding expert.
- You’re not a freelance web developer, you’re a product designer, a solutions architect, a fractional CTO, or a quality assurance engineer.
2. I niched down
Early in my career, it seemed smart to tell people that I was willing to write anything. I thought that made me flexible and accommodating.
When clients notice you write about numerous topics, they assume you don’t have expertise in any of them, so your content will be average at best – and they pay accordingly.
When you present yourself to someone with expertise in one or two domains, and you have a portfolio of work to prove it, they assume they’ll be getting high quality work that requires fewer revisions – and, once again, they pay accordingly.
How did I choose a niche? I figured if I was going to specialize, it ought to be something I enjoyed. I made a list of all the topics I like to write about, even if I wasn’t 100% confident in my ability to write them well. I figured I would grow comfortable over time.
This came with several benefits:
- I could study my customer deeply, especially regarding their needs
- I sent fewer pitches because I focused on a smaller group
- Because I sent fewer pitches, I could write better pitches
- My knowledge of the subject grew quickly, resulting in better content
- With more expertise, I produced content faster
3. I went after bigger companies with deeper pockets
Admittedly, this wasn’t my idea. I complained to a friend about companies refusing to pay higher rates and she hit me with some wisdom: “So talk to companies with more money.”
It had never occured to me to limit my outreach to companies that could pay what I wanted. I was casting a wide net, going after everything, when I should have focused on the companies that served my goals.
As much as I loved writing for early stage startups and solo founders, they just didn’t have any money. They were still in bootstrap mode, so they resisted high prices. The entrepreneur and marketing spaces were saturated with writers, so prices were low there too.
Ultimately, I chose to focus on financial technology companies (“fintech”) and post-Series A startups. These companies are less concerned with price and more concerned with outcome. Lately, I’ve dabbled into the cryptocurrency and data security spaces, but only if I can verify a company’s stability.
After these three steps, my writing rate ballooned from about 10 cents/word to 30 cents/word. Since then, I have continually raised my rates as high as $1/word, and I produce better content, faster than ever.
Now, you probably aren’t a writer, but this advice still applies.
- You’ll be respected more and earn higher rates if you position yourself as an expert who adds strategic value, not just a “worker bee.”
- You’ll also be able to charge higher rates if you can demonstrate deep domain expertise through specialization and a robust portfolio of work relative to your target prospect.
- You’ll have more success increasing your average revenue per client by focusing your outreach and sales efforts on companies who have the budget and buy-in to pay generous wages for quality work.
Figure out what kind of freelancer you want to be, then go after the clients that match your goals. This is key to building a sustainable business that you love.