In this post I’m going to tell you how much money I’m making and how I’m making it. I’m doing this because I think it’s important to have conversations about money, especially among freelancers. I want to help potential business owners learn more about the process of starting out, and I share my own experience in the hopes that it helps other beginner solopreneurs, too.
I’ve been self-employed since I finished my PhD. I did freelance and informal contract work in the months following my defense and then began building my own coaching business about a year after my graduation. I didn’t apply to any jobs in that time, though I did consider doing so on many occasions.
My excuse for not applying was that I had a good amount of personal savings. This is an uncommon situation for doctoral graduates, and I thank both privilege and choices I made over many years for my financial cushion. Without the absolute necessity of earning money, I could afford not to apply. At first that generally meant not applying for a postdoc or academic position; later it meant not stressing out too much about not applying for other jobs. And even later, after a particularly awful work experience, it meant I decided to quit freelancing entirely.
Well, quitting turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. Two or three weeks later I signed up for a coaching course. A month after that I had my first paying client — $10 a session. That was in the summer of 2013, and I’ve since taken more courses (with MentorCoach) and worked with well over 100 paying clients, raising my rates along the way. I’ve also earned money from writing and blogging, the Beyond the Professoriate conference — coming again in 2016! — and, increasingly, from speaking engagements on campus or at academic conferences. Here’s the approximate breakdown by year, including all sources of income related to From PhD to Life:
2013: $3,000 net income.
2014: $10,000 net income.
2015: $20,000 net income (so far).
I’m hopeful that I can get to $30,000 in 2016. That’s the minimum I need to cover living expenses.
Here’s how my earnings break down by income stream: Just over 10 percent of my earnings thus far in 2015 come from writing, blogging and speaking combined. That number should rise in 2016. About 25 percent is thanks to the online conference, which is a major undertaking. The bulk of my earnings come from one-on-one coaching work with clients. My business expenses — not including phone and internet — will come to about $4,000/year, including professional development, books, and online services such as ScheduleOnce and Edgar.
I work full time on this business, and I think I’ve made good progress given where I started and the work I’ve put in. I launched my coaching business as I was learning how to coach. This is, I think, unusual. Most people will do freelance work on the side for several years before going solo full-time. Katie Rose Guest Pryal did this over the course of 8 years, for example. Or, they’ll build up expertise and a reputation over years of employment in an industry, which is what Melanie Nelson did before quitting her last job to work entirely for herself.
My plans for growing my income are two-fold: First, continue to increase the number of clients I have (I’m nearly full nowadays) and continue to book paid speaking engagements (now booking for 2016!). Second, build other products and services, particularly ones that don’t rely on me trading my time for money. As you know, I’m drafting a short book, and aim to turn that content into other products, such as an online course. Having offerings that will scale, that is, products that I can sell 10 times or 1,000 times without putting in that much extra work, is the key to sustainability for me. There’s only so much I’m willing to raise my coaching fees given who my preferred clients are, and I only have so much energy and time for paid work. Not much point in a stressed-out life coach, eh?
If you’ve got a side gig that you hope to turn into a full-time job one day, know that you can absolutely accomplish this! Or, if you want to jump mostly head-first into a new industry, as I did, you can also do this. But in either case, it might take you a few years. In the meantime, you’ll want to keep your day job or rely on savings or a partner to cover your living costs.
Was this useful? I’d love to hear from others who are starting their own businesses or working freelance on the side.