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The Gritty Underbelly of Working for Yourself
Many years ago, I overheard a conversation about small business ownership. A statement made caught my attention: most small businesses don’t turn a profit for five years.
At the time, a friend of mine had quite literally put all her eggs in one basket, and I was scared for her in a big way. She’d drained her retirement account to go whole-hog on a small business she designed to fill a gap in the marketplace.
The overheard statement about small businesses and profits made my insides squeeze up. But my friend persisted. She did the thing. And now, years later, she’s reached a level of success she had only dreamed of once upon a time. She became the person she wanted to be all those years ago by following her passions and intuition.
In January 2022, it was my turn to go whole-hog on myself.
When I broke the news to my parents that I was going freelance full-time, my dad looked shocked, and my mom looked worried. You have a daughter, they said. You can’t just upend her standard of living, lead her into a life of poverty, they said. You can’t just shirk the comfort and security of a paycheck, they said.
And while I probably needed to hear their well-meaning negativity, it still stung. I should have expected it. My parents have always kind of been nervous nellies. While they did support my choice to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature, they pushed me to join the corporate world way back when because they also prioritize steady income and the stability it provides.
And I understand why. There wasn’t always extra money in my household growing up. We didn’t always have enough. And they were scared that I would find myself deeply impoverished without a clear path forward.
It’s easy to support a friend, family member, or acquaintance who is starting a new venture when you know or believe them to have a solid back-up plan. But what happens when there is no back-up plan? No plan for failure? No safety net?
That’s what I faced when my 12-year corporate career ended. While I’d talked about going freelance full-time for years, I’d never actually taken the steps to do it. I was scared. Of failure. Of poverty. Of disappointment. Of having to let go of a long-term dream of mine.
But after that conversation with my parents, I had a similar conversation with my partner, the father of my child, and a working-parent-turned-stay-home-dad due to the lockdowns of 2020. He believed in me.
It may be hard, he said. We may have to tighten our belts, he said. We may have to make some sacrifices to live the dream life we want for our family, but we can do that, he said.
And that was all I needed.
If I wasn’t willing to take a chance on myself, why would anyone else? Fling self off edge in 3…2…1.
I’m an editor, so my start-up costs were relatively low: website I designed and maintained myself; business cards for when I ventured into the outernet; non-fiction learning books (aka: Mom’s homeschool books to my kiddo).
And I thought I was in a good spot. A few hundred dollars and a couple of weeks of time spent, and I was ready to take on some clients.
My potential clients didn’t know I existed.
Sure, I had a website, but I had no traffic. Sure, I had a few novels I’d edited some time back, work I was proud of for many reasons but which highlighted my prior lack of expertise. I mean, I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing.
I needed help.
I joined an editor’s group, read all the free everythings I could get my hands on, put out a few ads. Months went by, my savings was dwindling fast, and I had so few clients I was starting to feel the squeeze of anxiety. So I hired a freelance marketing professional to help me learn how to market, and I learned something that helped me more than probably the expert even realized: A freelance editor and writer is not just an editor and writer.
A freelance editor and writer must also be a marketer, a personal brand builder, an SEO expert (or at least SEO-capable), a copywriter, a designer, an accountant, a communications specialist, and more.
So I started investing. Since my savings had dwindled to an alarmingly low level, I didn’t have the money to invest in professional help beyond the marketing expertise, for which I was grateful. Instead, I had to invest my time—however much was needed—to learn the things I didn’t know how to do before.
After all that learning and upskilling, I seized a level of confidence I was surprised to find. And it came from my newfound competence about editing and writing. I didn’t just want to help. I knew I could actually help authors plan, write, and revise their books with a level of certainty even a college degree didn’t provide.
So, rather than continuing to offer a full suite of editing services from development, line, copy, and proofing, I started thinking about the projects I loved, the clients I loved, and designed work that best fit me and my talents.
I learned I was passionate about story development, no matter what stage of the process the author was in.
Swimming ideas that needed to be refined and put into an outline? Yes!
A first draft that needs an editorial eye for overall development? Yes!
Copyediting for grammar and punctuation? Snoozefest.
I dropped the services that were no longer serving me and built services I was proud to stand behind for clients I was excited to serve.
The Dirty Reality of Freelancing and Money
Freelance work is work…as long as you’re getting paid. If you’re not getting paid, if you don’t have clients, you’re not a freelancer. You’re unemployed.
Harsh, but it’s true.
In the first year of freelancing, I made only $2,700. So far in year two, I’ve made more than $5,000 - nearly double. When thinking about it in relation to last year’s numbers, I can’t complain about an almost 50% pay increase. But $5,000 does not pay my family’s bills for the year.
This year, I’m learning and growing, working through marketing strategy to better communicate how I help authors get their books planned and written. But I’m not putting all my eggs in the story development basket.
Instead, I’m spreading them into several baskets. While I’m marketing story development coaching and editing, I’m also pitching my own stories to publications and sending out other writing pitches to develop the writing end of my freelance business.
And I had some small success already. One of my flash fiction pieces, The Witch, was picked up by Flash Fiction Magazine and published in June.
Because my family still needs to eat.
Because I still love working in the editing and writing space.
Because I still believe in myself and my ability to overcome this period of low pay in pursuit of a better future.
Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe none of this will work out.
But the “what if?” won’t allow me to stop pursuing.
My dreams aren’t ready to die.
Happy reading & writing!