As you may already know, I’ve been traveling the world full-time while running my freelance business for almost eight years now. Every quarter, I sit down and take stock. What did I do? What kind of work is bringing in my income? What sales activities worked – and which didn’t? How am I doing with my financial goals for the year?
And as I’m evaluating all that for myself, I also share it all here. Because how freelancers make their business work shouldn’t be a mystery. It shouldn’t all be trial-and-error. And the only way to demystify things is for some of us to lift the curtain and show others how it works.
Which is why that’s exactly what I’ll be doing today.
Q1: business in the time of corona
Before I get too far into this, it only makes sense to address COVID-19. Because in early March, like dominos, quarantines and stay-at-home orders started dropping all across the world. Businesses have been forced to close or change their operations, often drastically. Unemployment is through the roof and people who have never worked from home before are trying to figure it out in the midst of some serious chaos, grief, and even danger.
It would feel weird and wrong not to acknowledge that this quarter, things changed drastically in so many ways. There is no more business as usual. Even for those of us who weren’t as drastically effected.
That said: I am one of the ones not as drastically effected.
I already work from home. All my clients are already used to dealing with me remotely. In general, tech is one of the less impacted industries and the most capable of sending all its employees home to work remotely. Client budgets may well take a hit as this goes on, but for now, most clients are either holding steady or ramping up.
So, my business didn’t really take a hit in Q1. Two clients have gone dark, but two others ramped up and a new one entered the picture.
That said, my mental health has taken a hit. If you follow my work, you already know that I’m a big ‘ol bag of mental health diagnoses. Depression. Anxiety. OCD. CPTSD. And one of the reasons I’m self employed is that it’s much easier to manage them when I can work on my own terms. Set my own hours. Choose my own clients. Take longer vacations. Work shorter workweeks.
Overall, those strategies are still helping me right now. But the constant barrage of negative news, the trapped feeling of not being able to get out of the city and onto the hiking trails without risking public transit, and the helplessness of watching friends lose jobs, get sick, and get stuck at home in bad situations is definitely taking its toll.
So if you’re working from home – whether you’ve been at it for years or are trying it for the first time – and you just can’t seem to get things done as quickly, know that you’re not alone. I’m still hitting my deadlines. As far as I can tell, clients are still happy with me. But my part-time schedule has ballooned. I’m working weekends to keep up. Not because I have more work, but because work is simply taking longer right now. Focus comes in waves and I have to ride them when they come.
For Q2 (obviously more on that in the next edition of this review), I’ve already had to draw some firm lines for myself about how much I can reasonably take on, both in order to always deliver what I say I’ll deliver (something that’s very important to me) and to take care of my mental health (also vital). (Hint: it’s less than usual and I had to turn down a client who wanted to book me full-time for the quarter.)
I’m sharing all this because I hope that if you’re beating yourself up for being less productive right now, it’ll give you some comfort. It’s okay.
How I made money in Q1 2020
In this section of my quarterly reports, I used to break my income down by type – content strategy, travel guide sales, website consulting, etc. But in 2019, those percentages became irrelevant. I ditched my website consulting to focus on what I’m best at (content strategy and copywriting). I started taking my guidebooks out of print, since they’re getting older, and offered them for free instead. And my income from ads here on the blog is almost always less than 1% of my overall income. So breaking things down that way doesn’t feel useful anymore.
What feels like it might be useful is giving you a list of the types of work I took on. This quarter, that included:
:: Writing long-form articles for SEO
:: Writing case studies
:: Managing social media
:: Writing blog posts on tech topics for non-technical audiences
:: Crafting white papers on tech topics
:: Ghostwriting LinkedIn articles
:: Drafting slide content for presentations
Sales & marketing in Q1 2020
In Q1, one of my clients had a change of leadership and their marketing budget went by the wayside (long before the pandemic and not connected to it). I knew early on and kept working with them as long as I could, but I also started reaching out to my networks to find out if anyone else needed help come March.
Three of my existing clients said hell, yes, and either hired me for more work or made introductions that turned into new client work. I was back to being fully booked within about a week and didn’t have to do any real marketing or sales work – just a handful of outreach emails.
New business: how I actually got new clients in Q1 2020
This quarter, I signed two new clients. The first was someone I’d worked with in the past who’d moved onto a new role with another company and needed some content help there. The second was a new agency client who I was referred to from an existing client.
This has really been the secret to my success: I focus a lot of energy on making sure my existing clients are happy. You’d be surprised how hard people say it is to find someone reliable, someone who always meets deadlines. I find that when my contacts move onto new jobs or meet others who need a writer, they reach out. Because they know I’m a safe bet.
Now, this might not work for every business. If you want to grow substantially, referrals probably won’t be enough to get you there. If you work on projects that are usually one-off and don’t need ongoing support, it’s going to be hard to keep a pipeline full on referrals alone. But because marketing writing is something most companies need on an ongoing basis – and pretty much every company needs sometimes, for me, referrals are by far the #1 way I get business.
My location-independent freelance schedule
In the early part of the quarter, my schedule stayed pretty reasonable, probably around 20 – 30 hours per week on average. By mid-March, I was working a lot more, not because my workload greatly increased but because my productivity was down as the crisis started to unfold. I’m already starting to see some productivity gains again and am hopeful Q2 will be back to true part-time.
Location independence: where I worked
If you’ve followed this blog awhile, you already know that I’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2012. I typically live in one place for anywhere from one to four months, working from Airbnbs and coffee shops and occasionally co-working space.
Of course, in Q1, as stay-at-home orders started to fall like rain, that changed drastically.
When the quarantine dropped, I was in Florence, Italy, soaking up some much-needed sunshine. As soon as those orders came down the pipeline, Chad and I rushed back to Estonia, where we have our visas. We’re now sheltering in place and working from a very nice apartment about five minutes from the big fresh market here. I imagine this is where we’ll be for all of Q2 and into at least Q3, if not longer.
Need some content, strategy, or web help?
I’m currently fully booked, but you never know if that’ll change. If you need someone like me, please reach out.
I’m particularly great at:
:: Writing content about technical topics for a a non-technical audience
:: Inbound marketing/content marketing
:: Developing writing guidelines for your team
:: Organizing navigation and site content
:: Helping experts translate their knowledge for the layman
:: Coming up with headlines, taglines, and brand campaigns
:: Making your website clearer, simpler, and more strategic
:: Optimizing content for SEO
:: Managing blogs
Tech businesses I’ve worked with include Dell, BestVPN, ComplyData (oil and gas compliance software), miiCloud (face recognition software), Atlassian, Amplitude, and Lytics Customer Data Platform. Agency clients have included Atlas Advertising, Fractl (the infographic masters), Animalz, and Catalyst Marketing.
If you’d like to chat about what I can do for your business, drop me a line.
Are you a freelancer or business owner? Tell us about your quarter. Feel free to drop any questions you might have in the comments.
Is there something you wish I’d cover in these quarterly reports? Please let me know. I want them to be as useful as possible, so if you have a suggestion, drop it in the comments or reach out to me on Facebook anytime.
I really appreciate your point about work taking longer. I have worked from home for the past year, and I have been so happy with my ability to become more and more productive – until this all hit. Now I find that there are hours/days when I honestly can’t face the work. Then I end up working so much for a couple of days that I get a too-much-screentime neck ache. Argh. Anyway, so glad to know I’m not the only one. And I’m glad you are well.