The best way to run a freelance business

jake poinier keynote speakerI was honored to be the keynote speaker at Communication Central in Rochester, N.Y., in late September, and I was struck, as I networked with the assembled writers, editors, designers, and publishing experts, by the myriad ways people successfully operate a freelance business. (If you’re interested in attending next year, there are roundups of the event here and here, with lots of good tips from various presenters in the links.)

So, yep, that headline is intentionally misleading, because the truth is: There’s no best way to run a freelance business.

On this blog, I strive to offer a balanced approach—outlining the pros and cons of various strategies for your consideration. Here are a few of the key differences of opinion that I noted during private conversations and workshops at various points in the conference:

  • Generalist vs. specialist. This gets debated all the time in the freelance-o-sphere, sometimes quite contentiously. My take? Either way can work. Don’t feel guilty or stupid about your choice (and there’s no reason you can’t change it). Do what makes you excited to sit down at the computer every day. Don’t ignore the advantages that the other might offer.
  • Hourly rate vs. project rate. As I’ve discussed on many occasions here and at some length in The Science, Art and Voodoo of Freelance Pricing and Getting Paid, my preference is to use an estimated range, which maximizes your sales persuasion, negotiating leverage, and potential revenue. That said, if a prospect or client wants you to work on an hourly rate or firm bid, you’d be a fool to be a hardliner about it.
  • One set price for all clients vs. variable pricing. I’m solidly in the latter camp, because you can take advantage of the prices a given market will bear. To keep things simple in my own head, I never use different prices for services within a particular client account; I know, however, that there are freelancers who do it successfully.
  • Business name vs. your own name. Maybe it’s because I’ve endured a lifetime of people botching my last name, both spelling and pronunciation, but I’m a business-name guy. Nonetheless, I heard an industry veteran make a passionate case about writers and editors being different from other businesses, and that using anything other than your own name is downright foolish. (I respect him, but we’ll need to agree to disagree.)
  • Many clients vs. few clients. To me, having a diverse roster of clients and industries serves as an insurance policy against a catastrophic account loss or a downturn in a particular sector. Well, during the Q&A segment toward the end of my presentation, a developmental editor asked how she was supposed to accomplish that, since she needs to devote 100% of her time to a single project at any given time. I’m not sure if my on-the-spot answer was a good one or not: I basically said that as long as she’s got her next job lined up well in advance, it’s kind of a “serial diversity.”
  • Write a book vs. don’t write a book/Blog vs. don’t blog/Social media for business vs. social media for fun. Just because you’re a word person doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to write a book or a blog, or strive to be a Social Media Super Genius. It’s a business decision, so treat it like one.
  • CreateSpace vs. BookBaby vs. traditional printers. After doing quite a bit of research, I chose Amazon’s CreateSpace division as the vehicle to publish my books. Nonetheless, hearing a panel discussion opened my brain to some of the other options out there and the advantages they might offer. So, further research needed.

In essence, a lot of opinions on how to run a freelance business come down to highly individual circumstances, dependent on skill, experience, target audience, risk tolerance, work style, and financial aspirations. (I’m surely leaving out a bunch more, but you get the idea.)

Even so, I’m not a total wet noodle about it—I do believe that there are some universal truths about what makes a freelancer successful, most notably these: 1) the effort you put into it is going to approximately determine the results you get; 2) making decisions on any of the above items should be based on your business, not on what everybody else is doing or recommending; and 3) if you don’t experiment and stretch your capabilities once in a while, you may not know what you’re missing.

In the comments: What’s your favorite freelance Hatfield vs. McCoy debate, and where do you stand?

Photo courtesy of Katharine O’Moore-Klopf.

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  1. says

    I’m going to link to this under the title of “lies and wet noodling on freelance practice.”

    Your concluding points are spot on. That is why you are “Dr. Freelance.” Your presentation was highly entertaining, by the way, and valuable too. Even after years of freelancing, I had something to learn from you and I really appreciated the sailboat analogy.

    I’m with you on not using my own name to market my biz, because it’s 19 letters long and no one gets it right. Either name. Ever.

    Cheers, and thanks for the shout-out.

  2. says

    Wish I could have been there, Jake. What I like best about your approach is summed up in this line ~ making decisions…should be based on your business, not on what everybody else is doing or recommending.

    Amen. If we buy into one way of doing business, we’ve lost our unique gift. And I’ve lost nearly my whole brand. LOL! 😀

  3. says

    Thanks, sharknado, and I appreciate your kind words (and the work you put into your roundup…so I didn’t have to). I know you didn’t ask for more advice, but I highly recommend changing your avatar to something more sharknado-esque, because that would be awesome.

    I totally agree, Cathy. Tom Peters was correct way back in ’97 when he coined “Brand You.” A quick followup on his thoughts here: “Brand You Survival Kit”

  4. says

    First and foremost, THANK YOU, Jake, your insightful and fun keynote presentation at the 2014 Communication Central conference. It was – and you were – everything I had in mind when I invited you. That doesn’t always happen!

    My “favorite” Hatfield vs. McCoy debate is whether to be an individual/sole proprietor vs. a business, because – as you say – no one model fits everyone, and a sole proprietor can be just as business-like as someone with employees or subcontractors.

  5. says

    First, sorry to miss you in Rochester! Never been there, but had I been home, it would have been a nice weekend away.

    Second, AMEN. I get so tired of the “You must do it this way” crowd. It does depend on who you are, how you run your business, and who your clients are.

    Funny that you should hit on some of these points right now. I’ve had discussions with other writers about how to charge, and in a few cases I was taken to task for charging a few clients $1/word where charging hourly/per project didn’t fit. Ironically, that “flawed” decision netted me about $1,200 more than I usually get, but still I’ve been told it’s a bad model. Right.

    I’m leaning toward using the business name, though I still operate under my own name. My reason — I’ve had one client act like a total ass when I gave him my rate, and I’m not entirely sure it wasn’t because I didn’t look “big” enough. Also, I’ve seen a bit of low-balling, and again, I’m not sure it’s not because I’m of the female persuasion. Still testing that theory in hopes I’m wrong.

    I’m a variable pricing fan, too. Some clients’ needs just aren’t as large as the fee other clients might pay. Sometimes the guy in Poughkeepsie isn’t able to pay what the corporation in Philadelphia can pay. It’s what the market will bear, as you say.

  6. says

    Thanks for the comment, Lori. If you are willing to divulge (or even give a hint), who are these people telling you it’s a “bad model” to base an assignment per word?

    Yeah, trying to do everything in a one-size-fits-all manner, you’re probably going to have to squeeze some. I personally don’t think that’s very prudent, nor is there much fun, creativity, or flexibility to it!

  7. says

    Can’t divulge, but it’s more a case of “Well, you should do it this way” than anything else. We all think we have the Big Idea, but little do we know, eh?

  8. says

    Interesting points. And I like your heading precisely because, as you write, “the truth is: There’s no best way to run a freelance business.” Gets your attention!

  9. says

    I’m going to bookmark this post. Great information for someone seriously embarking on freelancing full-time. If this were a book, I would definitely have this page dog-eared.