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Secrets of $200,000 Freelancers

The number of solopreneurs who earn this much is small but growing. Here are some freelance tips to join their ranks.


by Elaine Pofeldt

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Margaret Osborn, 46, knew something was wrong when her boss strode into her office alongside an executive she suspected had been hired to replace her. The new colleague had started work that Monday with a job title a notch above Obsorn’s—and avoided talking with her for four days.

As the duo sat down across from Osborn, her boss looked away. It flickered across Osborn’s mind that his wife, who co-owned the company, had stayed home that day. “We wish you luck, but this isn’t working out,” Osborn heard her successor say, while her boss sat in silence. “This is your last day, and you can leave as soon as you like.”

“Okay,” Osborn managed to say. Osborn had disagreed with her bosses about how aggressively to market the firm’s services to existing clients. Still, it stung that the owners had a stranger fire her.

Instead of stewing about what happened, Osborn made a quick decision: She would go into freelance business for herself. The prior year, she had assisted a relative who needed marketing help. Getting fired was an opportunity to start being a “solopreneur”—and do things her way.

It was a gamble, but a smart one. Today, Osborn’s business, where she is the only full-time employee, brings in annual revenues of more than $200,000.

Osborn is in relatively rarified company. Just 1.6 million freelance businesses - “non-employer” firms across the country (those with no full-time workers except the owners) earned $100,000 to $249,999 in annual revenue in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, those numbers rose 9% from the year before, suggesting that more people are figuring out the art of building a business where they can match a past corporate salary and pay for the equivalent of a corporate health plan.

Wondering how you can earn a corporate-level salary by tapping your own talents as a solopreneur? Here are business strategies and freelance tips Osborn and others have used to break $200,000.

Get Realistic Midlife can be a great time to reinvent yourself in a new career, but only if you have the financial resources to sustain you while you ramp up. If, say, you’re a 50-year-old breadwinner with two kids in college, an at-home spouse and a dream of retiring someday, you’ll find yourself on stronger financial footing quickly in a freelance business where you can market skills and expertise you already have—and tap the professional network you’ve already developed.

Sticking to what she knew helped Osborn. She looked up past corporate colleagues and clients who’d left her prior agency on LinkedIn and told them she had gone into business for herself. Work began rolling in, virtually overnight. “I was flabbergasted at how fast it was coming,” she says. She attributes this to her reputation for doing high-quality work—and the reserves of trust she had built by giving clients honest advice over decades.

Brand Yourself Your professional contacts may hesitate to refer work to you if it looks like you’re just freelancing until you can find your next job. To show you’re committed to the freelance business, come up with a name, form a business entity such as an LLC and put up a simple website, advises David J. Whelan, 43, who generates more than $200,000 in revenue at his profitable, Los Angeles-based firm, Bespoke Business Strategy, founded in 2006. “There’s a little bit of self-actualization in that,” he adds. “You’re saying to yourself that you’re serious.”

See Also: Make money as an online expert

Maximize Word-of-Mouth Marketing While doing his taxes five or six years ago, speaker Barry Maher, 66, realized that he was spending a small fortune sending out fancy press kits and video demos when much of his work came from referrals and repeat business. He decided to trim his marketing budget and keep his website functional—instead of “gee whiz”—passing the savings to his clients. “All the time I saved on marketing allowed me to concentrate even more on giving the best presentations I possibly could—and business took off,” says Maher, based in Corona, California. Today his speaking business, founded in 1986, consistently brings in more than $200,000—a level he had reached only intermittently before. Even better, he finds that working primarily with clients he has secured this way makes his business easier to run. “They are pre-sold on you, they know what you do, and you don’t have to turn their expectations around,” he says.

Say Yes To More Business Than You Want It’s not easy to toggle between multiple projects, but if you want to generate six-figure revenues in a solopreneurship, you absolutely need to master this skill. Whelan does enough business development to attract 80 hours of work per week, presuming that some deals will take longer to close and others may get shelved. “If you’re lucky, you’ll get 60 hours of work,” he says. While that may be a fuller plate than you want, he notes, “If you try to develop your freelance business based on what you know you can do, you’ll probably end up having half of the business you want to have.” Of course, you need a safety hatch if you find yourself overbooked. Whelan teams up with other consultants and freelancers he has gotten to know over the years to get the job done.

Treat Freelance Help Like Full-Time Employees If you do bring in freelancers to help, make sure you’re clear on the standards you expect. Osborn—an admitted “control freak”—has come up with formal processes for contractors to follow when tackling projects, whether her team is developing content for a website, putting a press release out on a wire service or presenting materials to a client. “I have found that my contractors love that,” Osborn says. “They want do to things the right way.” And with her team clear on what it takes to keep her clients happy, she has time to concentrate on other things—like figuring out her next steps for growing the business.

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Elaine Pofeldt is co-editor of the $200Kfreelancer, a site that aims to help freelancers make a good living.

Photo Credit: Thomas Barwick/Iconica/Getty