How I transitioned into the freelance economy–and tripled my income
Five years ago, I was one year into a salary writing job at a luxury fashion brand when it hit me: I was being grossly overpaid.
You read right.
I was overpaid. As a writer. In fashion.
You can imagine my boss’ face when—at our monthly review – I marched into his office, diligently listed out my responsibilities—and informed him that I was being overpaid.
Through the most unorthodox of professional moves, I began my foray into the freelance economy.
You see, in 2011 I was hired to run a fashion brand’s online magazine and social channels. Having just been laid off from the editorial department at Rolling Stone, I had fantasized about running my own publication and finally had my chance.
Six months in, I noticed that while the magazine was thriving (we had published features with Katie Couric, Jonathan Adler and Andrew Rannells), I was frazzled.
I was struggling to give our designer feedback. I couldn’t find time to diversify our feature stories. It was nearly impossible to plan ahead for our editorial calendar.
I didn’t have any of these problems at Rolling Stone. What had changed?
Each day, I was spending hours in meetings that largely had no effect on my output and only reserved the last five minutes for social media (that’s 2011 for ya). I was constantly pulled into discussions about sales, the website, watercooler gossip—none of which were relevant to the job I was hired to do or to the job I wanted.
Charting the new course
I knew I had to make a drastic change. So I took a hard look at my role and skills—and realized I could do the same job, at half the cost. It would be a win-win, as long as my employer was on board.
During our touchbase, I informed my boss that I was overpaid. After the initial shock wore off, I made my offer.
“I’m starting a social media consulting service,” I began. “Would you like to be my first client?”
I proposed that my employer agree to a one-year commitment and pay half of my salary, without benefits, effective immediately. I would continue doing the same work—running the brand’s magazine and social channels–but only come into the office twice a week.
By time I got home that evening, he had agreed.
I was elated.
The one-year commitment gave me the cushion to start my own business (a life-long dream), while the reduced time commitment gave me freedom to pursue other clients. (Social media was reaching a tipping point and my services were in high demand).
It felt radical at the time, but I was laying the groundwork for becoming an on-demand worker, while my earning potential skyrocketed. In my first year, I earned three times what I did at my fashion writing job.
Sound appealing? To make this transition work, I committed to three key steps:
Reading the market for business trends
The funny part is, this opportunity was staring me in the face the whole time – the hardest part was recognizing it. Once crystallized, my plan made so much sense it would almost have been harder NOT to start my business.
My social media services were in high demand, but before diving in, I had to ensure that social media was a viable long-term career track. So, I researched and paid attention to market trends. I watched as social media positions exploded on job sites like Glassdoor. Five years later, I still pay attention to trends – and celebrated last year when social media advertising surpassed television advertising for the first time.
Isolating my skills and increasing efficiency
Have you ever met a company that didn’t want to save money?
My team knew that writing and social media were my strong suits, so it made sense when I asked to focus on them and cut out less valuable tasks. As part of convincing my employer that my job would still get done, on time, without sacrificing quality, I demonstrated that I would be cutting my time – and salary – in half, ultimately helping my employer’s bottom line.
On my end, I was now free three days a week to take on other lucrative opportunities (don’t believe the myth that on-demand work is less profitable than full-time).
Spotting new business in my existing network
Though my employer gave me the greenlight, I knew this “yes” represented a future of many “no’s.” I wasted no time engaging brands about my newly available services – and even created a list of “soft leads” – folks who, during my full-time job, said things like “Do you think our company could benefit from your social media services?” You’d be surprised how many cues turn into clients.
Five years later, I am a proud small business owner with half a dozen contractors of my own – and a client list that includes fashion brands (Ted Baker, Lafayette148), media brands (Food Network, HGTV) and lifestyle/technology brands (Samsung, American Express).
These brands hire me to write for them, host videos and curate events, while freeing up my time so I can travel. Do yoga in the middle of the day. Give myself a raise if I feel like it. Not participate in the wage gap. (You get the picture.)
And it’s clear that on-demand work is far from a fleeting trend – it’s even necessitated by evolving business models and the 24/7 nature of newsrooms today.
“We make a huge use of freelance labor,” said The New York Times Vice President of Technology Cindy Taibi, during a panel at WorkMarket Exchange last month in New York.
Sites like WorkMarket allow contractors and companies to interface, fill job listings, and dispatch payment. (Disclosure: I partner with WorkMarket to write about the evolving workforce.)
Robin Hilmantel, Site Director at Women’s Health, agreed with Taibi.
“We put out at least 15 pieces of content per day,” Hilmantel said, noting that 60-70% of the pieces are penned by freelancers. “We wouldn’t have been able to scale up without freelancers.”
So whether you’re a business-owner, employee or contractor: Isn’t it time to make our work, work for us?
Natalie Zfat is a writer and social media expert who has partnered with some of the most iconic brands in the world, including Rolling Stone, Food Network, American Express and Samsung. When she’s not engaging with her half a million followers, Zfat loves sharing her entrepreneurial thought leadership at conferences and universities, including Carnegie Mellon, NYU Stern School of Business, The Harvard Club of New York and Internet of Things World.