How To Build A Dependable Freelance Business Model



Words by Reese Hopper


I’ve known the anxiety that comes when freelance projects dry up. I know the gut-punch feeling when a client drops me. I know what it’s like to look at a dwindling checking account, hoping I’ll get hired before rent comes around again. 

Being a freelancer is tough. For every sip of freedom and flexibility, there are two gulps of inconsistency and anxiety. Meanwhile, we see freelancers online who make a solid living working on projects that they love. How do they do that? They have a diverse business model.

Here’s a model I’m developing to help freelancers diversify their revenue streams, so when tough times come, they have multiple options. 

1. Monthly Retainers

The most effective way you can reduce your freelance anxiety is to lock in monthly retainers that cover your base monthly expenses. When I scored my first consistent monthly retainer client, I felt like I did the day I turned in my last college paper. A weight was immediately lifted off my shoulders. I felt light and free. 

The reason it’s important to have your monthly expenses dependably covered is not just because it reduces freelance anxiety. It also puts you in a better frame of mind to negotiate rates on other projects. During my first year of freelance, I had to take every project that came my way because I needed the cash. This led to me doing too much work for too little money on projects that I wasn’t very excited about. When you don’t need the money someone is offering you, you can stick to your rates, negotiate with a clear head, and be realistic about whether the project is something you really want to do. 

One note about monthly retainers: it’s ok to lower your rates to lock in consistent monthly retainers. In most cases, the reason a brand or agency will hire you on a retainer is so they can get a deal. Working for a lower rate is a fair trade-off for knowing you’ll be able to pay rent for the duration of your contract. 

2. One-Off Specialized Projects 

A solid way to make good money semi-consistently is to work on one-off specialized projects. For me, these are day rates I get for producing videos. For these, I charge a premium. I have a small group of creator connects I occasionally produce for, and they happily pay my solid day rate. 

In order to do this, you need to make sure your offering is differentiated from the masses. This is what lets you charge a lot. My fiancé Marian is a graphic designer, and she has scored a number of last-minute design gigs at a premium. How? She’s talented and she works fast. For these two things, brands in a pinch happily pay extra. For me, my creator connects know I’m not just an organized producer. I’m an organized producer who can trespass-hike 2 miles to a location, hang with A-list artists, and can make clients feel taken care of. 

Charging a premium is important because these projects aren’t consistent. You need to account for all the things that make your specialty possible. Don’t just consider the time you spend on the one-off project. Think of the education, the gear, the software, the promotion, and the perception management it takes to be available for these projects. 

3. Owned Projects 

The best way to make great money occasionally is to manage larger projects that you own. While this begins to dip into an entrepreneurial business model, it’s still a solid approach for freelancers if done correctly. 

For example, you could write copy on a day rate for websites. Or you could pitch the entire website project, and hire other freelancers to help you build the site. The reason this can make you great money is because you get to keep the profit from the project. If 70% of the work on the project is in your wheelhouse, and 30% can be handled by your other freelance friends, you can hire them for 15% of the budget, and keep the 15% on top for the trouble.  

The main idea behind this is simply offering something that costs more money. I once produced a video for MVMT, and we captured b-roll of an LA-based artist named Kim Rose. Rose told us that she started incorporating 24 carat gold into her paintings. She wanted her work to be worth more, so she simply created paintings that cost more to produce. This raised the perceived value of the paintings in-kind, and now she’s routinely selling paintings for tens of thousands of dollars. 

When you pitch a larger owned-project, make sure the project is largely centered around your skillset. This doesn’t mean you have to be able to accomplish every single task, but being responsible for a majority of it helps you keep most of the money in your pocket. Additionally, freelance and entrepreneurial business models often conflict. It’s tough to build both at the same time. By keeping most of these projects in your freelance wheelhouse, you’ll grab some extra profit off the top without compromising your monthly retainers or one-off offerings. 

Show Me The Money

Tomorrow, I’m going to break down each of these pillars into a spreadsheet, so you can see a few samples of how the numbers net out. Freelance success is ironically often more dependable and sustainable than a full-time job. If one business drops a freelancer, they still have 90% of their revenue. But if one business drops a full-timer, they lose 100% of their business. But keep in mind–freelancing is only more dependable if you have a diverse client base. 

Good luck out there. 

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