When I started out as a freelancer, I read a lot of advice on how to increase profitability. I wanted to make sure I did things the right way, and I didn’t want to end up in the poorhouse as a failed freelancer — or worse, back in my parents’ house.
That fear of failure, combined with the need to make as much money as possible so I could “prove” myself, drove me to take every piece of work I could get my hands on. Saying no to a possible project or a client request felt like saying no to more money, so there was no way I could justify not doing something if it fell within my skill set.
The Dark Side of Taking as Much Work as Possible
Because I felt like I needed as many client projects as possible to keep myself and my business afloat, I scheduled time to browse through job boards almost every day. This wasn’t billable time, but if something good popped up, I wanted to be the first one on it before everyone else in my niche jumped in and got the recruiter’s attention first.
When I saw a listing for a job I could handle, I’d spend unpaid time communicating with the potential client, updating my resume, writing an application message, and scouring my portfolio for relevant samples. I’d even write free samples, if they asked.
Since I was competing with thousands of other freelancers, I’d hardly ever pitch a rate I knew I was worth being paid. If I needed to compete, I wanted to present myself as a good “value,” which meant cutting my rates to compete on a financial level, too. I also rarely got any of the projects I applied for, so most of that hard, unpaid effort was in vain. Did I mention I wasn’t getting paid my ideal rate for the 10 percent of projects that did come through?
Even though I wanted to be a website, sales-focused copywriter, these are the projects I’d take on:
- Producing podcast audio
- Writing podcast show notes that almost no one read
- Writing marketing advice for niches I wasn’t passionate about
- Writing blog posts for companies whose mission I didn’t believe in
- Writing relationship advice
- Writing clickbait quizzes
- Writing a cheesy ebook on real estate investing
- Creating images in Canva
And no, none of them paid the kind of money sales-focused website copy writing paid, but I presented myself as a jane-of-all-trades, if you will, so this was the type of work funneled my way.
No More Jane
After a few years, I realized I wasn’t as well-off financially as I wanted to be. I live a rather frugal lifestyle, so I knew it wasn’t due to my spending habits — I just wasn’t making enough to save the amount I needed. So, I put my foot down. I could always go back to what had become my business as usual, but I desperately wanted a change. I ditched my clients that didn’t match up with the work I wanted to do and only took on new work that did.
And you know what I noticed? The people who came to me for my advertised specialization already knew what they wanted. Not only that, but they were much easier to sell. Instead of spending an hour or two on an application for one project that I had a 90 percent chance of not getting, I spent the same amount of time or less putting together a proposal for someone who approached me, not the other way around, and I had at least a 70 percent chance of landing that work.
Now, the odds were in my favor. It was easier to land projects, and since I was a specialist, the price came secondary to the results, which meant I could finally charge what my services were worth.
The Perks of Specialization
I can’t imagine anything more impactful on the success of my freelance career than the shift from generalist to specialist — seriously. I dabbled in it in 2015 and made significantly more money than in 2014. But I went full throttle into my specialization in 2016 and increased my income that year by almost 70 percent.
That’s a big deal for anyone in any field, let alone in the dog-eat-dog freelancing world. This is my number-one tip for how to increase profitability as an indy worker: Work at and advance your specialization to become in demand and better demonstrate your full value to clients.