Masters of Earning More: Why Designer Ben Bleikamp Still Freelances on the Side (with a Great Full Time Job)
July 23rd, 2010 - 21 Comments
Should someone who loves his full-time job STILL try to earn money on the side?
I love today’s Masters of Earning More case study because Ben actually loves his full-time job, but still freelances on the side. Earning more isn’t just for people who hate their job or are in severe credit-card debt. He freelances because he enjoys it. And he’s created several interesting ways to get around his own barriers of self-marketing.
Ben shows us that even if you like your full-time job and lifestyle, you can still turn your skills and time (even 5 hours a week) into significant side income.
Today, Susan Su interviews Ben on why he still freelances, despite a consuming and rewarding full-time job. My favorite quote:
“Motivation has always been my biggest hurdle. I work on a computer. I usually have to be connected to the internet. I can spend hours browsing the web and reading interesting articles. I have to consciously say “Stop. Get to work.” Sometimes it’s painful to sit in Photoshop or write code for even 30 minutes.”
See Ben’s trick to overcome the motivation barrier below.
Some highlights to pay close attention to:
- Ben is on track to make LESS this year from freelancing — intentionally. Why? His answer shows that earning on the side has many complex facets — and it’s not just about cash.
- One of Ben’s biggest barriers is thinking that he’s not very good at design. This is a common barrier: thinking you’re not good enough to charge. Below, read how he’s overcome this.
- Notice how Ben spends on courses and training materials. If you want to earn more, and you’re not investing time and even a little bit of money, don’t expect things to magically change. All my top-performing friends spend significant amounts of money and time investing in themselves.
- Ben hates sales — so he doesn’t do it. Yet he’s figured out a way to generate enough business that he turned down over $100,000 of freelance work.
Susan Su interviews Ben Bleikamp on earning more
Ben, what do you do?
I am a user interface designer and front-end developer – I design and build websites and web applications.
What was your income last year (2009)? What about monthly?
Freelance income last year was ~$15,000. I also have a full time job and doing freelance work is something I do for fun.
Are you on track to make more, less, or the same for 2010? Explain.
Less (from freelancing). I am intentionally turning down work because I want to focus on making more money by developing products I can sell. I also made a decision in 2009 to avoid working with new clients. Plus I am happy at my day job and like working on my own projects at home, too.
A very different answer than most people earning money on the side. So, your goals aren’t the standard ‘escape from my job and make more money’ goals. With a different set of goals like this, how did you get into freelancing in the first place? What pushed you to try it?
My first job was doing freelance work in college at night or on weekends. Someone offered to pay me $5,000 for a blog I had spent 3 months working on and I thought “Wow, someone is going to pay me for this? I just do it for fun.”
After you first got going with freelancing, were the next immediate steps you took? How did you brainstorm additional ideas, and how did you know which were any good?
I made another blog and sold it, too. Most people were impressed not by the blog’s content but by the blog’s design and so people started asking if I could design their blog or website. I started saying yes. I also spent time learning about SEO, getting better at front-end development, and reading about design – if people are paying you, you should make sure you really are an expert.
What was your biggest barrier to getting started? List out the barrier or barriers exactly as you heard them in your head.
“I don’t have time to be a professional designer” ““I want to go out with my friends, not work.” “I am not that great at design.”
How did you eventually crush those barriers?
I realized most great designers are actually busy finding clients, speaking at events, and doing the “office work” of running a small business, and raising families – they are just as strapped for time as I am, if not more so. I didn’t have to spend hours and hours working, I could get most of my work done in 5-10 hours a week – that left plenty of time for friends and a life away from the computer. I didn’t work that much, I still went out with friends. My friends thought my work was interesting. I remember sitting in my room late at night explaining what I was doing to my roommate at one point, he wanted to learn how to do it.
I still don’t think I’m great at design, but I think that’s good. The moment you think you’re the best or you’ve “made it” you stop working hard and stop learning.
A lot of people dream about their ideal independent lifestyle, but how does someone like you connect real, results-oriented actions to the dream? How do you give yourself a sense of urgency, and how do you think about opportunities and opportunity cost (of doing nothing)?
I’ve always struggled with a sense of urgency…
But you still got stuff done. So, explain your motivation process.
Parkinson’s Law says work expands to fill the time available to complete it. So when I set long deadlines to avoid missing them, I also give myself a lot of time to procrastinate and have no urgency. It goes back to mini deadlines.
I also imagine if you’re living off of or need your freelance income, the sense of urgency is there by default – which might be good, but could also lead to a lot of stress.
What about selling yourself? What’s your approach to sales and pitching yourself or your services? You seem to have done really well with it.
I was lucky and early clients were friends or we had mutual friends, so I didn’t have to do much selling. If you can network well and people know your name, the sales take care of themselves. It sounds cliché to say “networking is key,” but it is. Put yourself out there. Even if someone says “no thanks,” they were probably impressed with your pitch and might bump into someone who needs your services and mention your name.
I don’t sell myself. I met a really well connected client really well early on (we’ve since become friends). I made sure to do a great job for him, and after that he was kind of an “agent” – he sent me work and told people how much he loved working with me. I even did his project twice – the first time it wasn’t done well, and I told him I’d redo it for free to get it right.
I hate the sales aspect of freelance work and trying to find clients, that is part of why I have a full time job and only work with past clients or friends on new projects – I make a little extra money and have a great full time job that I enjoy.
What made you think you could try something on the side instead of sticking with your full-time job (which is plenty)?
It’s how I started. Before I had a full time job, I was in school doing freelance. The only major difference is I need to have more structure in how I approach freelance – I can’t do a little bit in the afternoon between classes, so I need to set aside time in the evenings or on weekends to get work done.
What were some useful tools or mental / psychological techniques that keep you going as a freelancer, especially when your coworkers get to just be done after work?
I think a lot of people who do user interface design have people knocking on their door asking for a bit of help. A useful tool that keeps me focused on freelance work when I don’t want to do it is setting mini-deadlines. “Finish this first mock up tonight” or “Get this template coded by tomorrow morning.” It breaks up the project and keeps things moving.
Can you describe your typical day at your last ‘regular’ job vs. describing your day yesterday?
Regular job: I still work at (and enjoy) my day job. I get into work between 9-10am and usually leave between 6 or 7, but sometimes I can stay later (in April I was at work until 4am one night, I think). Primarily I design features for the website, so I spend a lot oftime working in Photoshop or Fireworks doing wireframes or polishing visual design on the site.
Freelancing: I work for an hour or two at night. Actually, the best feeling is hitting “flow” while doing work on the weekend when time does not matter and working for 8 hours straight without realizing it. But usually, 1-2 hour bursts of work a few days a week.
Let’s talk about managing your time and energy — how did you do it with a fulltime job AND your work on the side?
Sometimes I don’t feel like working. So I don’t. I set long deadlines so that it’s harder to miss them. I communicate well with clients – if I’m going to get them something late, I email them (I tell anyone I work with, even friends I am doing a fun side project with, that my full time job comes first – if they don’t like that, they find someone else to work with).
Have you ever invested in a course, books, or other training materials?
Tons of books. I’ve paid for peepcode.com videos. I’ve paid for video tutorials. Be an expert at what you do. In a given month I might spend $100 on books or tutorials?
When it comes to earning more money, what do you think most people are afraid of?
Time, commitment to projects, having to work when they get home.
Ok, so lots of people say the want to earn more, but have a ton of barriers preventing them from moving forward. Typically, the biggest barrier is ‘finding’ the right idea. What do you think about that?
Start working on any idea. As you talk to clients or customers, you’ll learn what they need and be able to alter your original idea to match their needs. Personally, I do something I’d enjoy doing even if I didn’t get paid. If you enjoy what you’re doing, you can go a little bit without making tons of money. If you’re good at it, the money will come.
Lots of readers also get hung up on the idea of time — I won’t have enough time, or I already DON’T have enough time. How do you make the most of your time?
You have more time than you think. If you stay up 1 hour later each night you have 5 hours a week – that is about how much time I spend doing freelance work or working on side projects in an average week. The 1 extra hour of sleep almost never matters
Last question — Sometimes, it’s not just that we’re lacking time. Sometimes we need the motivation to keep plugging on something day after day, especially when it’s NOT going well. How do you maximize your motivation even when it’s getting really tough?
Motivation has always been my biggest hurdle. I work on a computer. I usually have to be connected to the internet. I can spend hours browsing the web and reading interesting articles. I have to consciously say “Stop. Get to work.” Sometimes it’s painful to sit in Photoshop or write code for even 30 minutes. Like I said before, set mini deadlines. I also like to get feedback as fast as possible from clients – if they are happy, it keeps me motivated. If they don’t like something, I am even more motivated to try to make it better.
Ben Bleikamp is a web product manager in San Francisco focused on design and user experience. He built I Will Teach You To Be Rich.
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