What Successful Freelancers Know About Earning Six Figures

UPDATED: October 19, 2016
PUBLISHED: October 7, 2016

What’s in a number?

I’ve held three job roles—freelance copywriter, journalist and author—for 12 years. Only in one of those years did I ever earn close to six figures. I’m OK with my numbers, and my earnings, because I did not choose self-employment to slay it in the financial department; I simply wanted to make a stable living doing what I love.

Although I can’t discount that earning upward of $100,000 a year sounds wonderful, I often wonder why so many full-time freelancers are fixated on this number. There are countless courses and books about how to be a big earner—most packed with awesome information. Sometimes, though, I cannot help but think that many of these resources make self-employment seem like you’ll automatically earn big—or that if you do not, you are not “doing it right.”

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am not knocking anyone who earns six figures. I admire someone who can do that! I just want to explore the notion that being self-employed is all about earning big bucks. There are so many other reasons why people go solo, and I fear many of them might be developing an inferiority complex of sorts when they see others who say “If I can do it, so can you!”

I don’t think that’s exactly true. Earning six figures is no easy feat; it requires the right blend of skills in your talent as well as the ability to develop business and sell yourself. Making bank as a freelancer also might be easier for people in profitable markets—in my case, say a medical writer compared to a blogger.

Related: The New Normal: Why We’ll All Be Freelancers One Day

Six-Figure Earners: Snobby or Savvy?

Debra Gordon, a medical and health care communications consultant from Illinois, believes all freelancers can earn six figures. Gordon, who runs a course on six-figure freelancing, says there’s a growing emphasis on big earning because so many freelancers are accustomed to earning less. As such, they view the six-figure mark as the Holy Grail.

“Earning potential isn’t unlimited—we’re not corporate CEOs—but it is far higher than most freelancers think,” Gordon says.

The most common obstacle to earning more, Gordon finds, is putting value on one’s talent and product.

That said, if you’re afraid of marketing, you probably shouldn’t be a freelancer.

“I’m continually struck by how many freelancers tell me they hate marketing, are scared of it [and] don’t want to do it,” she says. “My answer is always the same: Then you shouldn’t be freelancing. If you can’t embrace marketing in all its forms—passive, active, extroverted—then you are in the wrong field.”

Cathie Ericson, an Oregon-based writer, has been able to earn six figures throughout the past few years by finding jobs that hit her target billable rate, instead of taking hourly work. Weeding out lower-paying projects was key to making bank.

“There are no secrets [to earning over six figures], it’s just a matter of being marketing minded and then doing great work so you get more of it… and referrals,” Ericson says.

Ericson believes that earning six figures can, in a way, solidify a freelancer’s position as someone who does real work instead of just dabbling in it. Anyone who wants to work toward earning six figures can likely be fruitful at it, but she thinks writers have to have some innate assets to succeed.

“You have to be Type A, a salesperson, as well as a writer, and that’s not necessarily everyone’s personality,” she says.

When Ilima Loomis, a freelance writer from Hawaii, worked as a staff writer or editor, she could not have earned six figures. As a freelancer, though, approaching six figures gave her a sense of empowerment that leaving a full-time traditional job paid off. Still, she is not sure why people are so focused on six figures, particularly.

“People treat it as some kind of milestone or indicator that you’ve ‘made it,’ and I don’t think that’s always fair,” she says. “Feeling that you ‘should’ be striving for six figures can add to the pressures of what’s already a stressful business.”

Loomis says not all freelancers can earn six figures, as it depends on their field, location, availability and business development acumen.

Related: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Freelancing (That You Should)

Chunky paychecks have come from having a few larger, multi-month projects outside of journalism.

“I think you need that big cash infusion a couple of times a year to take you over the top, it’s hard to get there just by pulling together a lot of smaller assignments,” she says.

Diversifying your skills is vital for writers, who oftentimes pigeonhole themselves into different niches or types of writing, such as blogging or copywriting.

For David Geer, a technology writer from Ohio, his specialty—along with high demand for writers in the area—has made it easier for him to earn big.

“Not all freelancers have to earn six figures,” he says. “Many freelancers who want to grow as writers and as business owners set goals, including financial goals. Six figures seems to be the established, reasonable, doable goal that writers accept.”

What People Earn

In a 2015 survey of more than 23,000 freelancers globally, Payoneer found that freelancers work 36 hours a week and earn $39,000 a year on average. According to an analysis in Time, 49 percent of freelancers earn anywhere from $25,000 to $75,000; 27 percent make more than $75,000 and 24 percent earn less than $25,000.

The “Freelancing in America: 2015” survey reported that 34 percent of (not all full-time) freelancers instantly earned more than they did at their traditional job income, 23 percent said it took six months to do so, and 21 percent out-earned their old jobs within the first year of freelancing.

As a freelancer who has had profitable and not-so-lucrative years, I’ve learned not to place so much focus on money.

Making six figures a year sounds great, but don’t forget to focus on honing your skills and building relationships. When you do that, you’re cultivating a solid business that will thrive regardless of how much you can earn.

Related: How to Start a Freelance Business