I’ve never done a comprehensive yearly review of my business, but I’ve spent a lot of time this year hanging out with more mature freelancers and this is something that they do, so I’m going to do it too. This isn’t to show off (though, I actually do want a fucking award for how much I’ve achieved this year *under the circumstances*) or inspire comparisonitis. I simply believe that transparency helps other freelancers and contractors, especially those who are primary parents or caregivers, by pulling back the curtain on what often seems like a mysterious world where everyone is definitely doing much bigly better than you and never ever screaming inside their heart.
This is not a how-to manual for earning a certain amount of money. This is simply a summary of what my business has looked like this year, with some friendly advice sprinkled in because I just can’t help it.
Freelance Income Sources
Most of this ($6800) came from an anchor client for whom I did SEO content writing. I do not anticipate working with this client in 2021, so I’ll need to find ways to replace that chunk of work. The rest came from an email marketing copywriting project ($1300) and a few published articles ($100-$250). I spend very little time seeking bylines mostly because, without an established name or platform, my effort-reward ratio for publishing is very low. My bread and butter writing work is anonymous copy and content writing, and I mostly like it that way until I get in my head that I need to have “a PlAtFoRm.” But a fat paid invoice usually cures me of that, heh.
Web Design: $8310
This year I built 5 websites from the ground up:
One was booked back in November 2019, so only $2500 of the project total ($4500) landed on this year’s accounting. Two were my 1-Day Website packages ($1250+hosting), and two were billed as half days ($650), though they really probably should have been full day rates ($1000). Based on my time logs, I am planning to raise my 1-Day Website rate and make that my absolute lowest full website rate.
I also did some refreshes and updates for past (denoted with *asterisk) and new clients:
These updates typically entail adding new pages or restructuring old ones. When I build sites for clients, I pick WordPress themes that are usually pretty easy to update for the average user, but sometimes my clients just don’t have time or aren’t sure exactly what they want, so I hop in and help them out.
Web Hosting: $750
I also started building some client websites (usually the smaller ones) on my hosting account so I can keep their theme and plugins updated. I charge a couple bucks a month so I don’t have to fuss about billing these updates or any teeny-tiny changes.
Marketing: $5490 as a contractor, $4917 as a part-time employee; $10407 total
I did a one-off social media marketing project ($1000) for a nonprofit client in April, and when the client received Paycheck Protection Program funding, they hired me as a part-time employee to continue working for them. (I had to be a W-2 employee in order for them to use PPP funds to pay me.) Following this period, I went back to contractor status but negotiated a retainer agreement with them. I do a mix of copywriting, website updates, and strategy for social and email marketing. I’d gotten a little whip-shy about retainers because my first few weren’t a great fit, but I’ve really enjoyed working with this client and helping with their mission, and the income stability is very good. I also did a very fun speaker reel project for a client ($500) where I put together the storyboard, culled raw footage, and project-managed the video editing.
Course Creation: $4000
This year for the first time I got hired to use my education background to make a course for someone else! For my first course project ($3500), I took the client’s materials from previous live trainings and organized them into an outline for a series of instructional videos as well as copy and structure for an interactive workbook (which I did not design myself). I also researched learning management systems (LMS), loaded the content into the LMS we chose, and wrote the peripheral copy such as titles and instructions for each module. I also project-managed the video editing and workbook design process, which my client tells me was actually a large part of the value I delivered. I did not work on any of the marketing for the course and I don’t really want to, heh. I also collected a deposit ($500) for a different course project starting in 2021. Courses are a new service offering for me, so I did have to plow quite a bit of time into scoping and building out a process for the first project. (As in, literally a week of time into writing the initial proposal.) This is why it’s important to specialize so you’re not reinventing the process for every new type of project you take on!
Virtual Assistant: $1250
I’m not actually a VA but this is kind of my junk drawer category for projects that don’t fit super squarely anywhere else, and “kicking tech shit until it works” was kind of an unwieldy category name. I had two small projects that I billed as half day rate ($650) or slightly less. One was loading prewritten emails into ConvertKit and setting up/testing the pertinent automations and tagging, the other was implementing a custom proposal template for Dubsado using a free course. I don’t hate these kind of small-bite implementation projects, particularly when my work day was really chopped up due to lack of child care, but it might be hard to squeeze these in if I start taking bigger course projects.
I started offering one-hour consultations as sort of a paid version of “pick my brain” for $125/hour. I did 3 of these sessions (one at a slightly lower rate) and helped clients sort through specific questions related to podcasting, website marketing, or ConvertKit. I also piloted a joint consulting service with my business bestie where we helped a new business get off the ground with simple but effective ways to optimize her internal processes as well as feedback on her branding and messaging. I really enjoy this sort of thing; it’s nice to be able to help someone very directly with their work, and use some of the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years even if I’m no longer providing those services. (See above note about specializing!)
Most of this ($750) was copy editing content that would eventually be used in videos for a group coaching program. I found this project a bit challenging because the client also asked for feedback on content and sequence, and I really prefer to do that sort of developmental organization before there are thousands of words on the page. I don’t mind parachuting in on websites but for written content I really like starting on the ground floor and building up. The other $50 was updating a piece I’d written for my corporate content writing client.
My clients are wonderful! My business management software has an option for gratuity on all invoices and it’s never expected but always welcome.
Total Freelance Income: $33,917.96
Other Sources of Income
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: $5280
I filed for this when our state was under stay-at-home orders, because I had no idea how long our child care provider would be closed or whether clients would even want to spend any money. There were a few months where things were pretty quiet and I’m grateful for the PUA program to get us through the most uncertain days.
Stimulus Payment: $1200
I’m just counting the part that was for me, not my spouse or child.
Online Science Teaching: $607
When schools were closed, I leveraged my science education background to teach online biology classes through Outschool. I offered four different classes and taught a total of 101 students. I logged 15.75 hours of student-facing class time, and probably spent 3-4 hours preparing each class, which I offered more than once. It probably shakes out to about $30/hour, which honestly isn’t too bad, but once my freelance work started picking up again, it made more sense to move forward with that.
Total Income: $41,004.96
This is about where my second-year teaching salary was, which has always been a fairly important benchmark for me. My income from freelancing alone is about what I made in my first year of teaching. My next goal will be to meet or exceed the salary of my last full-time teaching position, which was around $52,000.
Freelance Income Over The Years
2016: $3,300 – had baby, started freelancing
2017: $6,887 (101% growth over 2016) – moved to new town, decided to continue with freelancing instead of going back to teaching full time, 3 hours per day of child care+ 2 hour naps for second half of the year
2018: $21,863.55 (217% growth over 2017) – had several ongoing marketing retainers and some bigger website projects (that I still undercharged for), 3 hours per day of child care+ 2 hour naps for second half of the year
2019: $24,247.50 (11% growth over 2018) – 4 hours per day of child care but lost kiddo’s nap
2020: $33,917.96 (40% growth over 2019) – 60 days with no external child care, 3 months of 2 hours of babysitting, splitting some child care time with spouse, and then four glorious months of full day (7-hour) child care
My “Hourly” Rate
$41,000 is perhaps not super impressive until I consider the fact that I made just $1,000 more per year working 40 contractual hours per week, commuting 10 hours per week (NEVER AGAIN), and spending at least 10 hours per week outside the classroom grading and planning. Whereas now, I work no more than 25 hours per week. My time tracking this year was not super precise because, well, that was just an exercise in sadness sometimes. So I really don’t have a good estimate of how many hours I worked total (including admin, billing, prospecting, marketing, etc.) but I did make an effort to track my project time relatively carefully. I don’t bill by the hour (and here’s why you shouldn’t charge hourly as a freelancer) but I like to know approximately what I’m netting hourly.
Here are a few sample net rates for some projects I did this year:
- Course creation: $100/hour – This does not, however, include the time I spent scoping the project and putting together the proposal.
- Full website build: $112.50/hour – This one is perhaps slightly misleading because the whole project took fully 7 months longer than planned. While the project delay was by mutual agreement and I wasn’t actively working on it for all (or even much) of the extra time, it took up space in my brain and there was back-and-forth emailing to get things restarted that I probably didn’t log as well as I should have. (One more reason to have a different kind of late fee built into your contracts.)
- Small website build with e-commerce setup: $72/hour – I…always underestimate e-commerce setups, partly because they’re fiddly and partly because I just don’t do them often enough to remember how fiddly they are.
- Email copywriting: $122/hour
- Consulting: $125/hour
My “official” hourly rate is currently $125/hour, but you can see that I’m usually a bit below that. I try really hard not to get below $100/hour because 15% of that goes to taxes, 40-50% of that needs to cover the time I spend on unbillable tasks like admin, prospecting, and writing this blog post, and there are also general overhead expenses and project-specific expenses like contractors. To hit my target rate more often. I’ll probably raise some of my rates, try to tighten up my scoping for flat rate projects so that I’m closer on my time estimates, and find ways to be more efficient in my work and non-billed tasks.
Personally, I do not charge my clients more if I undercharge on a flat rate project. I promised them a specific deliverable at a certain value and I don’t believe it’s their responsibility if I miss the mark on scoping that. Now, if they change the scope or direction while we’re working, that’s a different story. When I see that starting to happen, I’ll stop and we’ll reevaluate together. This is why I am very specific in my proposals about the exact deliverables, how many revisions, etc.
Because I enjoy being a ridiculous data monster, I calculated approximately how many words I wrote for various project types this year.
- SEO Content Writing: 12,758 words
- Bylined Articles: 2,308 words
- Marketing Copy (includes blog posts, website copy, social media posts, and email copy): 11,273 words
- Course Creation (course outline, storyboard, and three drafts of a proposal which I typically wouldn’t include in this category but I’m not counting worksheet copy or microcopy written in the LMS so I’m hoping this shakes out more or less evenly): 7,112
Approximate total paid words: 33,451
I did not bother trying to tally all the unpaid words I wrote for my blog, newsletter, and social posts, but I know this post is at least 2,800 words. And Scrivener tells me I wrote 36,743 in the first two drafts of my novel. I…don’t know how many of those will make it into the final product, but I wrote them!
Where My Clients Came From
At this point in my freelance life, I do not get cold inquiries for projects from my website/social media, send proposals in response to RFPs, or apply to job postings on sites like Upwork. All of my clients come in through referrals and a few professional communities I’m in, for which I am wildly grateful. I’m at about a 50-50 split between personal referrals (friends who end up hiring me, other professionals I’ve worked with who send me clients, past clients who send people my way, or folks who have seen my work for someone they know) and connecting with clients who are members of the same professional communities. Incidentally, both communities are paid but have been well worth the investment. I just joined Courage to Earn Pro for 2021 and am really looking forward to being in a community of women of color.
What Else I Did With My Time (aka Why Didn’t I Make More Money)
Besides screaming internally while staring into the void, I did a lot of other shit that I would like a medal for.
- Applied and got interviews for 3 full or half-time jobs. I mention this because I also sank close to 30 hours into interviews and various hiring tasks with basically nothing to show for it. Thirty hours is A LOT of time for me to lose, and I have to wonder how much more I could have earned this year if I had put that time toward a client project or developing a product for myself. Job searching is a bit of an anxiety-coping mechanism (I KNOW it’s a very bad one lol) and for a lot of 2020 I really wanted the security of a full-time salary with fucking paid time off. But the reality is I do not have full-time availability (see below) and it is definitely just a well that none of these panned out.
- Completed 9 credit hours in 9 weeks with a 4.0 GPA, which probably shakes out to at least 20 hours of time on homework and quizzes each week.
- Completed 3 graduate credits with an A grade while carrying a full (for me) freelance load.
- Produced and published 22 podcast episodes.
- Rebuilt Mochimag.com, migrated 1200 old articles, and oversaw the publication of 111 new articles (I had A LOT of help, don’t worry)
- Wrote 31,000 words in the first draft of my novel before starting over (I think I’ll be able to mine the first draft for some details in the second draft though)
- Read 27 books, including 24 written by people of color (and I’m giving myself Obama’s memoir for Christmas so it might be 28 by actual year-end.)
- Prepared approximately 1500 meals and snacks for my household
- Did approximately 400 loads of dishes
- Washed approximately 150 loads of laundry
- Dusted my house once
This, uh, is maybe why I get ever so slightly irritated when I hear college students complain about how busy they are. But I promise I don’t put this here to play life-is-hard Olympics. I make note of this because as a freelancer parent, I sometimes get a complex about not hitting six figures per year by now or having a massive following or a big splashy product launch or whatever other external measures I see on social media or in some of these professional groups. But I’ve done lots of other things, and my ultimate goal for all of it is to raise a happy, healthy, functional human who has less harmful shit to unlearn than I did. And the best way for me to do that now is to be present and available. So if that means I don’t get uninterrupted 8-hour work days (LOL WHAT EVEN IS THAT), that’s just the choice I’ve made and I believe it’s worth it.
So that’s my year in a nutshell…a 2,800-word nutshell, hah. 2020 brought a lot of changes and surprises, but I’m grateful to have had my best freelancing year yet and optimistic about what lies ahead. (Eh fuck, did I just jinx us all?)