What Million-Dollar Entrepreneurs Taught Me About Freelance Writing

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Elaine Pofeldt writes about one-million-dollar, one-person businesses for Forbes.com. Formerly, she was a senior editor at Fortune Small Business magazine. Elaine’s work has been published in Money, Fortune, Inc., Good Housekeeping, Dr. Oz, and Marie Claire; on Medium and CNBC.com; and by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

When I first went into business for myself as a freelance writer in the fall of 2007, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. At the time, I had four-year-old twins and a one-year old. My main motivation for starting a business was to create more freedom to control my schedule than even a very flexible full-time career as a magazine editor would allow.

Winning that freedom, however, meant taking on some new challenges. I needed to replace the income and benefits from my full-time corporate job at Fortune Small Business magazine right away. When you have a family and live near New York City, the cost of living is pretty unforgiving.

Not long after I went into business, the economy started to tank, and the global financial meltdown took hold. With many of my customers paying me late, my husband and I found ourselves in extended debates about decisions like whether we could afford to buy the giant economy size pack of diapers. It was scary at times but eventually the economy started healing and my business grew.

In October, 2017, I passed the 10-year mark in business. And although I think of myself as a writer first and a business owner second, I learned some valuable lessons about entrepreneurship along the way.

One is about the importance of cash flow. We live in a society where bills tend to be due monthly. You can’t just pay them when you have money coming in. That makes the erratic payment cycles most freelancers live with a little inconvenient. After my first year in business, I realized my life would be a lot easier with some income that came in steadily every month and took on my first retainer client, then another.

I also realized I should specialize. There are a lot of things that interest me in life but I focus my writing business on a few key areas, such as entrepreneurship, careers and healthcare. It’s easier to come up with fresh ideas for clients if you know a subject well.

Within that focus, I broadened the type of writing I did, branching out from journalism to ghost writing essays and books, as well. I really enjoy working with my ghost writing clients, who are very smart, successful people who lack the time to write. Even better, the work generally comes from clients outside of the media industry, which gives me some insulation from the financial turbulence there.

It was ultimately my journalism work that led me to write my new book The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business. The book looks at the strategies used by entrepreneurs in solo businesses and partnerships to get to $1 million in revenue.

The U.S. Census Bureau found that 35,584 “nonemployer firms” – those with no employees except the owners – hit $1 million to $2.49 million a year in sales. When I first came across these statistics as a reporter, I was very curious about what the owners were actually doing. I found there were people hitting this level of revenue in businesses as varied as selling organic honey, marketing day-books on Amazon, training people how to cook healthier food in video courses, doing business consulting, and investing in small residential rental properties, to name a few.

What was different about them from the average business was how they think. Instead of getting lost in the minutia that eat up many solo business owners’ time, they look for ways to extend what one person can do in the most efficient way possible. They do this by hiring contractors, outsourcing, and automating routine work. That gives them more time to do other things they love.

As a freelance writer, I’ve realized there’s a lot I can learn from entrepreneurs who think like this. Last year, in a push to outsource, I hired a bookkeeper to tackle work that was bogging me down. I recently began working with wonderful coach, Doug Wick, who is helping me to run a better business and “scale up” my thinking.

Writing will always be what truly inspires me at work. However, running my freelance business more efficiently frees time I’d rather protect for things that matter to me – like spending an extra hour in the sun on a warm spring day with my kids.

Want more on writing nonfiction? Check out Signature’s Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction.