BY NATHAN COLLIER
It was summer, July of 2013, and I was sitting in the back row of my MBA capstone course, ready to take the last final exam of my academic career.
Four pages, 50 multiple-choice questions, and a blank Scantron sheet stood between me and graduation. I wasn’t worried about the test; multiple-choice questions have always been easy for me, and I was prepared.
I was worried about other things.
It Started Because of Money
I was 32 years old, married to the love of my life, father of one child with another coming soon. I had good job that mostly paid the bills, but my wife was (and is) a wonderful stay-at-home mom. So while we had enough to get by, the end of the month was always tighter than I wanted it to be.
What troubled me was my college debt. My company has no tuition assistance benefits, and I had gone through the MBA program entirely on student loans.
That meant, six months after graduation, I was facing a new, $300 per month payment on those loans. It wasn’t enough to bankrupt us, but it was enough that it was going to hurt.
The classic move here would have been to find a new job with a better salary. I suppose I could have done that, but I hadn’t been in my job long, and the prospect of being the “new guy” again just wasn’t appealing to me.
So began my freelance journey, since that seemed the most likely way I could earn that extra $300 per month I needed.
I had six months to get there.
The Sweetest $4.36 I Have Ever Made
Choosing a business model was easy. I’m a copywriter and marketing pro by day, so I had a skillset already in place. All I had to do was offer those skills up on the freelance market.
I chose Elance as my starting point, not for any real strategic reason, but just because it was easy to set up a profile and get started.
I wrote a few basic proposal variations and started applying for writing jobs. It took a few weeks of experimenting, but eventually I hit on a strategy that worked.
I originally called it my “small job, small price” strategy, but when I told the story to professional copywriter Ed Gandia, he called it “Grouponizing” my services, which is a good way to look at it.
Basically, I offered a trial. I proposed to do some small bit of work for a small price as a way for the clients to get a feel for me and my work, and as a way for me to get a feel for them and their needs.
By late August, I had my first client, a recruiter in the financial services industry. My first assignment was to edit three job listings that were very similar to those you see on Monster.com or similar sites.
The price? $5.
My client paid that invoice promptly and immediately asked me to do further work, which I was happy to do.
There are fees when you make money on Elance, and those get taken out when a client pays your invoice. After these fees, the total profit from my first freelance job turned out to be $4.36.
It was, without a doubt, the sweetest $4.36 I have ever made.
The Difference Between Corporate Work and Freelancing
The moment I saw the first $4.36 come through, something changed deep inside me.
You see, in a day job, you have supervisors and managers and vice presidents, all of whom have the job of overseeing your work.
In that environment, I find it tough to know whether my actual work is creating value, or if the value comes from all the changes that get made during the review process.
As a freelancer, it’s totally different. You do your work, you give it to the client, and it’s either valuable, or it’s not.
Of the 12 clients I’ve worked for as a freelancer now, 11 have hired me for additional work, and 8 have left me unsolicited, across-the-board, 5-star reviews for the work I did for them on Elance.
My favorite review said this of my work: “simply brilliant.”
Confidence: The Biggest Surprise of Launching My Side Business
I know something about myself that I didn’t know six months ago.
I have something valuable to offer the world—skills that others are willing to pay me reasonably good money for. With that comes a completely new outlook on life.
Last fall, when I had my annual performance review, I didn’t get a promotion I had been working toward and expecting. I was really upset about it, and I certainly didn’t do my best work during the next week or two.
But now I know that it doesn’t matter. My future is no longer tied to a mysterious promotion schedule or the financial state of the company I work for.
These days, I stay at my day job because I want to, because I like the people I work with, and because I like the work I do. It isn’t perfect, but no job is–not even freelancing.
My work is better too, both in my side business and in my corporate job, because I no longer feel that all-consuming pressure that comes from tying your professional success or failure to one specific company. There, if you work hard, you might get a raise in a year. As a freelancer, if you work hard, you can give yourself a raise tonight.
It isn’t arrogance, but a calm I’ve earned only through the trial of starting a side business, of putting myself out there and letting the market judge whether or not what I have to offer is valuable.
That’s what my side business is about now: not a dollar amount, but about freedom to do the work I want, about experimenting, and about putting myself out there to see what the world actually thinks of my work.
It is the emotional side of things that was a complete surprise to me. I got into the freelance game as a way to make a little bit of money.
Now though, I realize it’s about way more than just money. My side business has become an adventure that’s meant far more than anything that’s happened in my bank account.
I’ve read more than my share of the thousands of articles all over the Internet about how to make money on the side. They are all valuable to a point.
But although they may offer a good technical approach, few of them talk about what, to me, is the most important part of making money on the side. So here’s what I want to leave you with:
Starting a side business is a journey of self-discovery.
There is nothing more inspiring than getting paid for your work, and I don’t mean paid through a salary. When you sell a product or service, people only buy it if it’s truly valuable to them.
That’s the most important thing: figuring out how to create real value for other people.
So take heart, be courageous, and just put yourself out there. I can’t promise you instant success, but I can promise the journey will absolutely be worth it.
Nathan Collier is a part-time freelance writer from Dayton, Ohio. Read more about him at www.nathancollier.net.