The Essential Item You Need for Freelance Success That No One Dares Name

Carol Tice

Asian woman keeps a secretRecently, I began asking new subscribers to this blog to tell me their top obstacles as freelance writers right now.

The responses have been interesting, and in some cases surprising.

Quite a few of them are like this one:

“I enjoy your blog & I find it informative, but I’m still left with questions or uncertainty. I can’t afford your mentoring program, Freelance Writers Den, or even to hire/create a website (for now).

I would like guidance, so I can be sure I’m doing well in starting my business, as well as have any questions answered. I want to start off on the right foot, so to speak. How can I connect with other successful freelance writers & ask them to mentor/help me?”–Kay

So. This is awkward.

I have bad news for Kay. Even if there was a mythical free awesome professional writing coach who’d take her on as a charity case, and she got the mentoring she wants, her freelance writing business would still fail.

Why? Kay lacks an important — no, critical — thing you simply must have to launch a freelance business, of any kind.

I’m going to tell you what it is…even though I know it may make some writers hopping mad.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this uncomfortable issue discussed on a freelance-oriented website before.

But I think it’s not fair to delude writers who have no chance of making it as freelancers.

It’s going to be a dream-crusher for some. I apologize in advance.

Here’s the thing you need to know if you’re embarking on a freelance career:

What’s in your wallet?

To start a freelance business — or any kind of business, really — you need money.

But you wouldn’t know it to read most websites about writing, or freelancing, or building an Internet business.

There’s a disease going around about this right now that I’m going to call “no cost syndrome.”

The popular myth is that running an Internet-based business — a blog, or a freelance business — doesn’t cost anything.

Chris Guillebeau’s $100 Startup book is only the most recent tome to promote this idea.

Writers keep trying to start a freelance or Internet-based business…not on a shoestring, but on flat nuthin’. And then wondering, why they failed to make it work and had to give up and find a day job.

Here’s the reality: Ramping a startup business until it pays your bills — especially, making it take off quickly — takes money.

Whether it’s opening a shop on Main Street or putting out a shingle as a freelance writer, you have to invest in your business to make it succeed.

I get the sense it must be bad manners to mention this. Everyone wants to hear that freelancing is the awesome, magical business that defies all laws of ordinary commerce. And that you can start dead broke and you’ll skyrocket to amazing riches.

But boil it down, and freelancing is like any other business — it takes money to make money.

And meanwhile, your rent is still coming due.

How to be a freelance success

At this point in the 21st Century, if you want to present yourself as a professional freelancer to any reputable publication, website, company, or nonprofit, you need a decent-looking website. For starters.

If you’re really smart and want to stand out and get some quality clients right away, you may want to do some creative marketing, like a direct-mail campaign that costs money to produce.

You should have a professional outfit to wear in case an in-town client meeting comes up.

And of course you need a computer, an email provider, paid Internet, a web host, a printer, toner, paper, pens, business cards, and more. Each dollar you put in will hopefully be repaid many times over, as  you get great clients because you seem so pro.

But the uncomfortable truth is, it all costs money.

The corrollary: As soon as your newborn freelance business starts making money, if you really want to build a solid income, the first thing you need to do is plow a lot of that initial money right back into your startup.

That initial money is not for paying your light bill. It’s for building your business.

You’ll improve your website. Join professional organizations and networking groups. Get on a plane and attend conferences.

Meanwhile, you need some other money to live on.

Why your no-money launch will fail

Beyond the realities of needing to invest in your business to make it thrive, there’s yet another harsh financial truth of freelancing.

The freelance life is often plagued with cash-flow problems:

  • The computer hard drive dies and you need to buy a new one. Immediately. So you don’t miss deadlines and lose clients.
  • Your client stops returning your calls and takes an extra month or two to send the check.
  • Your pants rip and you need a new professional outfit to wear to meetings.
  • Your car breaks down.
  • You have an unexpected health issue, which your private insurance’s high deductible leaves you mostly on the hook for.

And so on. You get the picture.

As a freelancer, you are responsible for a lot of costs you didn’t have as an employee. Also, starter clients new freelancers tend to get are often the very type that give you the b.s. about how the check is in the mail, and leave you hanging for months.

Meanwhile, how will you eat?

I’m going to say the unspeakable: If you have no resources at all, you are too broke to make freelancing work.

You will get caught in a desperation cycle of taking any crappy client you find on Craigslist. Then, of being even more broke and desperate when that client screws you over, as lowball clients often will.

You could easily end up homeless. I know writers where it’s happened.

I realize it behooves me as someone who earns some of their living helping writers learn how to freelance to tell everybody, “Hey, you can do it!”

But I won’t.

You shouldn’t try to freelance if you are teetering on the financial brink. I won’t pretend that’s going to fly.

How to freelance when you’re broke

OK. So that was harsh. But some truths of the freelance life that need to be acknowledged.

Onward to the big question: If your bank account is empty, do you have to give up your freelance writing dream?

Not necessarily.

There are several ways you can overcome this “I’m too broke” problem and create the cash reserves you need to build a thriving freelance business:

  • Get a side gig. I’ve known writers who pumped gas, worked as a bar back, sold Avon, and more when they started out. I worked as a legal secretary for years, to support my songwriting habit. Stop buying the starving artist mystique and figure out how to put aside some money to support you as you transition into freelancing.
  • Get a full-time day job — for now. It’s also feasible to freelance on the side of a full-time gig. Takes a lot of discipline, but it can allow you to pick and choose good clients and build a quality portfolio a lot faster.
  • Find a sponsor. Maybe your spouse’s day gig will cover the bills and give you some ramp-up cash to work with.
  • Lower your expenses. Take a look at your costs — could you live in a cheaper dwelling? Take on a roommate? Stop buying lattes? Cut out cable? Most of us have optional expenditures we make and could lower our basic monthly costs if we got creative.
  • Fill the gap with credit cards. I once had a screenwriter friend who would calmly charge her groceries between gigs, confident she’d soon be writing for another TV show. If you have a high risk tolerance, this might work for you, too.
  • Liquidate assets. Got a second car you could live without? Some collectibles you could sell on eBay? You might be able to turn some possessions into cash.

If you’re not willing to do any of this to get a cash cushion you could use to bankroll your freelance writing startup, then I have a question to ask you:

Do you really want to do this?

Reaching for dreams usually involves sacrifice — read any fairy tale you like.

What are you willing to give up to never have a boss again?

If you can’t make any sacrifices to find some cash to get started freelancing, then it’s probably not going to happen. Even with the best writing mentor in the world.

What do you think — can you start freelancing with no money? Leave a comment and give us your take.



  1. Lucy Smith

    I need to find me some Jewish clients, stat!

    • Carol Tice

      Excuse me?

  2. Melissa

    I’ve been visiting your site for quite some time and I never commented, but I feel that I must comment on this one.
    Writing, unlike other businesses doesn’t really need money to get started. Even if you do not have a site for your freelance business, there are many sites such as odesk and elance that allow you to sign up for free. I have found regular paying clients there. Many freelancers like myself have found great success freelancing without having to pay out of pocket.

    I also wanted to say something about the comments that followed. I don’t know how this post immediately brought forth Christian bashing comments, but they really have nothing to do with the post. As a Christian, I don’t expect anything for free and I have worked for Christian clients that have paid well and on time.

    I was very surprised to see a string of comments about Christians. We are all not like that and wanting something for free is not a “Christian” quality, it is a “human” quality that crosses every religion, race and sex.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Melissa —

      I’m not hear to bash Christians, but to support their efforts to be fairly paid for their work. I’m just reporting the experiences of hundreds of writers I’ve worked with who aspired to write for Christian markets for a living, only to discover they were too low-paying to sustain them. I personally wish these markets would pay more! I think if you reread my comments, you’ll see that.

      Certainly, there are any number of places that want writers to write for free…I just find it notable (and unfortunate) that the magazines for other religions pay well, but Christian ones often don’t. I’m an advocate for fair pay for writers — so that’s my point, is simply to report that these aren’t currently good-paying markets, in the main.

      As far as your contention that you can *start* a freelance business without money…well, sure you can, especially if you already own a computer, printer, car, and all the other basics you might need.

      But I hear from very few writers who succeed in building a major income from freelance writing without investing in their business, or having cash reserves to fall back on in case of problems.

      If you’ve been able to do that and find great clients on oDesk, all I can tell you is from my experience with thousands of writers, you are an unusual case. Glad you were able to make it work, but the number of zero-investment freelance success stories I know are very few.

      I come at this from 20 years of reporting on business and watching businesses rise and fall, and my observation is that unless you are a one-in-a-million fluke success, you’re going to need money. Otherwise, you’re often trapped in a cycle of low pay, end up going broke, and have to go get a job.

  3. Jonah Cozeek

    I totally agree. I’m just starting freelance writing and I’m using income from another online bussiness. Guess what? I started that online business, which cost $600 at least, with money I earned working food service. I continued working food service the first 3 months I was doing that bussiness to support myself and have capital for my other online business. This entire time I’ve also kept expenses low by living with my parents all but 2 of the last 14 months. It looks like my nonwriting business is going to be successful, but I’m still prepared to go back to doing food service if I need to.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s an attitude that should help you launch your freelancing for sure, Jonah!

  4. Julie

    Carol may have a point. However, I actually did start from almost nothing and made as much as $1800 per month. That may not be a lot of money to some people but I would say its an excellent start. I did at times have to work extra jobs, but my primary income in the past eight years was mostly from writing.


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