Masters of Earning More: Why Designer Ben Bleikamp Still Freelances on the Side (with a Great Full Time Job)

Ramit Sethi

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.


I picked this image because it’s so ridiculous
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 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.

* * *

What’s next?

  1. Take the Earn1k course to get a step-by-step program to develop your profitable idea, market it, price it, and grow it. Includes detailed video lessons, case studies, bonus videos, worksheets, and more. Click here to join Earn1k.

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  1. Ashwin

    I can totally see things from Ben’s seat – because I am doing something similar. I have a day job while running a fairly successful Freelance (side) business.

    Good luck to Ben and all other aspiring Freelancers. It is total fun!

  2. Tyler WebCPA

    Hmm, he says he is taking on less freelance work “because I want to focus on making more money by developing products I can sell.” Sounds like, have already had success in the freelance arena, he wants to take the next step in developing his own products. That would make for a fascinating follow up someday, why he is focusing on products and the goal is. You have to wonder is he has seen some clients do well from products that he developed for them and so that motivated him to try his hand at creating his own.

    [Ramit’s comment: Yes, good point. Similar to what I’m doing: I started off freelancing, learned how to understand customers, and now develop products. The skillsets are at once similar and extremely different. That’s why I encourage people to start off freelancing, even though productization seems sexier. More about this here.]

    • Ben Bleikamp

      Seeing clients (like Ramit) have success with products (like Earn1k and Scrooge Strategy) definitely got me thinking about ways I could use my skills to create products that help people on a bigger scale.

      My biggest issue with freelancing is that there are only so many hours you can work and so your income is limited to (hourly rate) x (hours available). With products you can make so much more money.

  3. amandalee

    Thank you, Ben, for being up-front about your attention issues – it’s good to know I’m not alone. My day job is working for a nonprofit and managing the content of a dozen web sites for their various projects, and all the associated PR/newsletters/event marketing. I am connected to the Internet for at least nine hours a day for this job alone [and that’s not counting my own freelance/Etsy/blog/etc that I work on after hours]. Sometimes staying on task is killer. I’m practicing meditation a couple times a day, and it helps a bit, but mostly the deadline of “I have to get this done before I go home so I don’t have to *do* it at home” is the kick in the pants I need.

  4. Erica Douglass

    As someone who’s actually looking to hire a UI person (freelance) right now, my biggest concern is that it sounds like Ben is already using every available moment of his time. I’d be concerned as a potential client that he wouldn’t have any time to devote to my project. I’ve been seriously burned by freelancers with a day job before, so I exercise extreme caution when hiring them.

    I’m sharing this to make sure Ben overcomes that concern when he’s signing a new client.


    [Ramit’s comment: Yes, a good concern. My biggest problem dealing with freelancers (especially designers) is their lack of time management. That’s why when you find someone who’s good, they’re absolutely amazing to have as part of your team.]

    • Tim Rosanelli

      Good point Erica! Any freelancer that starts making money should consider getting ancillary services to help them manage their time and still provide high service levels to clients.

      Some that I’ve used, Answering Service for booking appointments, Aweber for automatically collecting leads, a full automated billing system that downloads everything to Quickbooks, and a marketing system that sends automatic e-mails to new prospects. I used these services to free my time up to work on curriculum and upgrade system development within my karate school.

    • Tim Rosanelli

      I forgot to mention that the answer service was particular helpful when I was working full-time and teaching karate at night. I gave my school the look and feel of a full-time facility and was very affordable.

  5. jim lonner

    Ben, $15,000 a month (freelance) or $15,000 a year!?

    • Ben Bleikamp

      Last year was $15,000 🙂

  6. Rose M

    Really appreciate Ben’s time and honesty with this post. Ben shows us that no matter how “busy” we are, everyone can find at least 5 hrs a week to earn money on the side.

  7. Timothy Moser

    Wow, look at Ben Bleikamp’s website (linked by his name). He really doesn’t try to sell himself. I mean, it makes sense: people either know he’s good or they don’t, and he’s not trying to pull everyone in.

  8. PS

    Before freelancing while on a full -time position, I would just advise to read again your work contract. Some contracts say you cannot have ANY other activity that brings you an income…

    • Martin

      1) make it on the name of your wife
      2) not married-make it on the name of your mother or father
      3) find a friend or partner

      4) find some more excuses not to do it 😉

  9. Tim Rosanelli

    I think that it’s great that Ben gives time to developing a product. Most people spend all their time providing a service and never work on improving their game.

    By leaving time to improve your product, you put yourself in the cycle of improving your product => increase your value => charging more. If you spend all your time, only on your service, you end up on a treadmill of providing a service for the same price.

    Kudos Ben.

  10. Moneymonk

    Same here I have a day job that is so flexible it enables me to freelance on the side. I can have my cake and eat it too. The stability of a day job + benefits and freelance income (more money to save and enjoy an above average lifestyle)

  11. Stanley Lee

    Fairly fortunate situation for Ben to be working in a full-time job that he loves while working on freelance projects for existing clients. I know many people who are just grinding through their “9-5”. However, I think specific boundaries need to be set as a freelancer as far as how much I am willing to sacrifice. For example, staying up an hour later each night may turn into staying up 2 to 3 hours later each night if the discipline is not there to limit the tradeoffs on job performance and health. That’s just my 2 cents.

  12. How To Do What You Love And Get Paid – $1,000 or More a Month

    […] day job (he actually loves it) but simply because he wants to. How does HE manage the workload? We interviewed him to get the inside scoop here.“Wait, first I have to set up my company Facebook and Twitter accounts!” PLEASE READ […]

  13. Cathy

    PS, your contract may say you can’t do other work, but the clause is most likely illegal – that is, unenforceable. At least, that’s the case in Australia. (Ramit, perhaps you could look into this as I’m sure it applies to a lot of your readers?)

  14. Chris (from L.C)

    I am pretty much this guy.

    I work full time for a great company, handling SEO and some PPC for mostly industrial clients. I make pretty good money doing it; easily enough to get by. However, I and another former co-worker and I freelance have been doing web design for a pretty specific niche, and to be honest, we kill it pretty hard.

    The last site we did (it’s actually still in content population, but basically done), we each put in about 8-10 hours of work on it. My partner and I manage the process, and leave the heavy lifting to others. Our equal takes on it were about $1800 each. If we have fast and clear communication with the client, we can turn over a medium-sized site in about 2-3 weeks. I’ve found that getting feedback from people is the biggest timesink, and subsequently, this one particular site stretched out to around 4 weeks.

    That being said, one thing I’ve discovered about making side work go easy is having clearly defined boundries. Whether it’s re-writing your contracts to catch that time-sinking “one little extra thing” that always seems to pop up with clients, or coming up with a very defined process for how a certain thing is dealt with. It’s a constant refinement, but it’s always worth it.

    What I’m getting around to is this: if you actually want to make more money, you will find a way to do it. You’ll stay up an extra hour, or make a call on your lunch break, or whatever. You’ll get it done. If you’re doing it half-heartedly, it’ll be easy to flip over to Hulu and watch back episodes of The Office, and subsequently lose your entire evening.

    @Erica Douglass:
    I know exactly what you’re talking about.

    To play devil’s advocate, one thing that some folks fail to realize is that they aren’t that freelancer’s only client, and that they do NOT get to take up every non 8-5 hour of that freelancer. I’ve quickly cut ties with overly needy clients that chose not to understand this. If you want someone to be available full time, hire a full-time employee. Otherwise, I’ll get done what I said I would when I would.

    It only takes one bad client to ruin your work/life balance. Unfortunately, many freelancers don’t know how to deal with that sort of thing properly, and end up disappearing, or driving themselves crazy just trying to appease every ridiculous request.

    (I’m not saying you’re this type of client, Erica. Just working off of what you said!)

  15. Curious Cat Investing and Economics Carnival #9 at Curious Cat Investing and Economics Blog

    […] Masters of Earning More – “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.” […]

  16. Jpcobalt

    This sounds very interesting. I wish I hadthe money to invest in the course he describes on the link down at the bottom.


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