Ask the cubicle expat: Can I really make more dough working solo?

July 23rd, 2007

moneybag.jpgElizabeth Cockle writes: Have you encountered any former cube dwellers who left the 9-to-5 world because they could earn more on their own? Making the leap definitely requires guerrilla measures in budgeting and taking second-choice projects to pay the bills, but what about down the line? More women would be inspired to flee the cube with proof that they can be just as financially successful, if not more so, working on their own.

Excellent question, EC! The short answer is, yes, of course you can make more green working solo, and yes, I’ve met many freelancers and entrepreneurs over the years who’ve made as much as or more than their former 9-to-5 selves, in all industries too. But all this depends on your business structure, how far along in your business you are, and what you did in your former 9-to-5 life. For example, last time I was in the cube as a full-timer (back in ’92) I was making under $20K at a book publishing company. Since I already wasn’t earning enough to live on in the greater Manhattan area (yeah, even back then) there was only one way for my income to go and that was up.

I think it’s important to be realistic about the fact that depending on what type of solo venture you’re embarking on, you may not draw much of a salary the first two or three years (despite customer checks pouring in), which experts at organizations like SCORE will tell you is normal for brick-and-mortar businesses with hefty operational overhead and merchandise to make, buy, and sell. But if you’re shifting to a sole proprietorship with minimal business expenses, say as a freelance editor, you should start seeing some green in your personal checking account right away, unless of course you’re undercharging.

Since every industry, solo job, and entrepreneur’s own career path and level of experience varies, it’s impossible for me to say (or even guarantee) that you’ll make X percent more than you did before — and at what point that will start to happen. It’s also up to the freelancer or business owner to negotiate prices and rates wisely (competitive yet commensurate with her experience) so that she doesn’t shortchange herself. And this negotiation should an ongoing process — otherwise, how else are you supposed to get a raise?

It’s also important to realize that just because you make, say, $80 an hour as a freelance copywriter this year and you made $40 an hour last year as a corporate copy monkey doesn’t mean you’re making 50 percent more money than before. This should be fairly obvious, but in case it’s not, allow me to explain: You’re now paying your own benefits; the higher rate should account for that and then some. You’re also not getting paid to invoice clients, market your business, or negotiate contracts; again, the higher rate should account for the fact that you’re working more hours than you’re billing for.

With all that in mind, I think it’s key for cubicle expats to define what “making more money” looks like to them. (You also need a business plan, but that’s a whole other blog post.) How much more do you want to take home? Do you consider it “making more money” if your take-home pay is the same as it was when you were a corporate drone but your billable + unpaid solo working hours now amount to less than 40 a week? (I do!) And how do flexibility, autonomy, and creative control rate? For me and many others, this trio is as critical if not more important than commerce.

Feel free to chime in if you’re making more (or less, or the same amount of) money now that you’re a solo artist or small business owner. What have been the high points? The rough spots? What have you learned? As always, inquiring minds want to know…

Entry Filed under: Ask the Cubicle Expat,She's the boss

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Elizabeth Cockle  |  July 23rd, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    In my experience as a self-employed copywriter and editor, having an industry niche is an important part of financial success in a post-cube work life.

    Like Michelle, I started out in publishing and found that I could earn more on my own, even with a general mix of clients. But developing a niche in professional services marketing has been a major boost to my business, allowing me to earn at least as much I would as an in-house writer.

    While it can take a few years to gain expertise in a niche, the effort is definitely worth the results!

  • 2. Michelle Goodman  |  July 24th, 2007 at 5:46 am

    EC, great point. the more specialized, the more employable… would love to hear what niches others have gotten into. i’ll start: my name is michelle and i often work as a tech writer/editor. my other niches/subject matter specialities: dogs, alt careers, personal growth.

  • 3. Amy T  |  July 25th, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    I left my job several years ago, mid-career, and tried freelance publicity and editorial work. Since I had been working in the book publishing business, I thought I needed to keep book publishers as clients. But the book biz is the lowest paying industry around, dishing up even more paltry paychecks to freelancers. My mistake was choosing clients solely in the book biz rather than diversifying.

    Not surprisingly, I wound up back in a full-time job for financial reasons.That job was NOT in the book biz, and so when I left to relaunch my freelance business, I was able to establish a wider variety of clients .

    I personally like to keep that variety; it keeps things interesting. Yes, I know that specialization is good for business, but I enjoy being a generalist–someone who can tackle nearly any project with enthusiasm. This does mean that I get asked to do some random things sometimes, admittedly….

    All that said, travel industry work has definitely the most enjoyable work I’ve done. If I had to specialize, I’d hone in on travel marketing.

  • 4. Michelle Goodman  |  July 26th, 2007 at 5:46 am

    thanks, amy — another great point! so glad you found your way back out of the cube and are getting paid a better wage.
    i agree with you on juggling a couple of niches (bread-and-butter niche + passion niche = more stable income). i always recommend having 2-3 niches; that way, you don’t get bored, you can balance the lower-paying ones with the more moneyed ones (i do this: publishing = low; high-tech = well, high), and you always have a fallback if one industry experiences a slump.

    i suspect that even as a self-described generalist you have just a handful of industries/subject matters you focus on, no? otherwise, it’s hard to excel at anything if you’re always picking up a new industry/subject with each project…

    [as an aside, check out this interesting media bistro post on paltty publishing salaries for those on the end of the totem pole:

    http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/publishing/what_are_we_going_to_do_about_the_gender_salary_divide_63634.asp ]

  • 5. almostgotit  |  July 26th, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    …don’t forget self-employment tax, which will eat about 30% of your net income! On the flip side, you can subtract all of your business expenses, dollar for dollar, from your gross. In other words, this year (my first, post-cubical) I am deducting my computer, software, peripherals, cell phone, etc… and so will probably end up easily “expensing” away my entire taxable income.

    I think the rule of thumb (forgive me if you’ve blogged about this already –?) is that a self-employed person must earn 140% as much per hour as an employed person to net the same income. A figure which may be low, given all the other expenses (many of which are suggested in this post) that one can have as well… PLUS the fact that most of us tend (esp at first? out of guilt?) not to bill for every hour we actually work.

    Important stuff to keep in mind!

    Obviously, I’ve chosen this route anyway :) For now. No promises, however, and like my hair-color, I always reserve the right to change my mind later.

  • 6. Michelle Goodman  |  July 31st, 2007 at 3:24 am

    AlmostGotIt, thanks for weighing in. Just want to clarify a few things you bring up. The U.S. self-employment tax is not 30% of your net income — it’s approx 15% of your GROSS income. Basically, it’s the money an employer would have put toward social security and medicare for you; but now that you’re your own employer you must pay this. I think people think this tax is 30% because any U.S. worker — self-employed or employee — gets taxed 15% of their gross income toward social sec and medicare already. Here’s what the IRS has to say on self-employment tax:

    http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/article/0,,id=98846,00.html

    As for how much more you need to make as a solo worker, I’ve heard all different percentage rates. I would just go with how much you personally need to make to cover all your benefits and expenses. Here’s a nifty calculator that can help:

    http://freelanceswitch.com/rates/

  • 7. The Anti 9-to-5 Guide &ra&hellip  |  July 31st, 2007 at 4:22 am

    [...] AlmostGotIt’s comment on a recent post of mine raises a question I hear a lot: How much more should I charge as a freelancer? Is there a hard-and-fast rule or formula? I’ve also heard a variety of percentages we freelancers should be charging above the corresponding employee rate — 30% more, 40% more, 50% more, etc. (Here’s one take on what to charge.) [...]

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Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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