As an independent professional, you want to make a great income, control your schedule, enjoy the work you do, and eventually, free yourself from trading time for money.
In other words, you want to be truly independent.
For many, this seems like a far-off dream that is more fantasy than reality. But in reality, it’s just a series of steps you can climb.
Yes, it will take time. No, you can’t skip to the end without putting in the work. But you can build a roadmap and you can work the process until you get there.
So, without further ado, here is the path of the Independent Professional, as I see it and have experienced.
My hope is that it inspires you to find the path that’s right for you.
When you first start your career, chances are you still have a job. Maybe it’s not anything to do with your core skill.
It’s just something to pay the bills while you figure out what skills you have that are even marketable.
For many years, I thought my skills as a web developer weren’t really super valuable. I started building static HTML websites in about 2001. I started treating it like a “business” in about 2006. Every job I worked in, I ended up designing a brochure or building a website for them.
But it wasn’t until much later did I realize it was an actual marketable skill. My career was largely in the hospitality industry after university until I suddenly found myself in a corporate job as a web administrator.
Then it clicked—not only did I have extremely valuable skills, but I could also sell them to people and make even more money than my corporate job.
I started taking my freelance web design skills seriously when I got my corporate job in marketing. I had just finished a post-grad certificate program in Entrepreneurship and I knew I wanted to be doing something of my own, but I wasn’t able to support myself with it full time yet.
So, I did what I advise most people to do: freelance on the side.
I probably broke a few rules by not disclosing the fact that I had a side hustle, but the way I saw it, it was after hours, on my own time, and I was sharpening my skills which I immediately used to improve my work.
I wasn’t competing with the firm I worked for (different industries) and frankly what I did on my own time for my own personal contacts was up to me.
Anyway, the side gig eventually started paying what my corporate gig was paying, but I was getting exhausted doing both.
I worked… a LOT.
So, I saved all my money from freelancing, had a few clients and some momentum behind me, and eventually went out on my own.
I charged by the hour ($50, then $75, then $100+). Way better than my corporate job, right?
Well, I eventually ran out of time in the day, and frankly, my skills were being pushed to their limits. So, I hired a sub-contractor. A web developer in the Philippines, with whom I still work today.
And so, life as a “contractor” began.
Sure, I was always a contractor in the eyes of the client. A freelancer and a contractor are interchangeable terms. But now I had a sub-contractor working beneath me.
This was my first taste of leverage.
I would find the clients, scope the work, get an agreement, then hand off the instructions to my developer who would work opposite hours from me at ~$15/hour.
He was—and still is—amazing at his work. This helped enormously.
Now, I would hand off the work, it would be done by the next day without my involvement, I’d pay him a fraction of my hourly rate, and suddenly it felt like I had a business!
I was “making money while I slept”! Or, at least kinda.
My margins would get eroded over time if I did a lot of fixed-work projects and under-scoped.
Eventually, I was doing a range of digital marketing work and had an entire remote team of sub-contractors working for me.
Money was a bit better, but boy did I have to do a LOT of work. I was making about 30% “profit” at the end of the day (aka income).
I wasn’t confident enough to raise my rates (another issue entirely), which meant I needed to do a fair amount of volume to make a good living.
But revenue was recurring, so I had a relatively stable base amount of income to work from each month, which helped.
I managed to end my first year with a similar income to my corporate salary (~$60k), and it went up from there.
For me, a consultant works on projects, produces deliverables, and generally implements complex solutions with a combination of their hands and their strategic expertise.
It’s like a freelancer mixed with an advisor. A higher level engagement than a typical freelancer but still using “hands” and not just the “head”.
In about 2017, I was doing ~$250/year in revenue but working way too hard for the money I made at the end of the day.
I read a book called Profit First by Mike Michalowicz and it changed everything.
Actually, the book itself didn’t have much of the info that changed my perspective. But the idea of building guaranteed profit into your business from day one was what changed things for me.
I had a wave of inspiration based on two factors:
- I only wanted to do what I was best at—which I felt would lead me to success.
- I wanted to build my profit into every engagement UPFRONT instead of hoping it shakes out in the end.
I knew what I did best (and love doing) is matching business goals with marketing strategies. I’m a natural strategist. Some people love to code, I love to solve business problems with marketing.
So, I started selling just that. I sold a “fractional CMO” service to my first client in 2016 or 2017 and that began a path away from “implementation” to “advisory/oversight/management”.
The clients would pay me a fixed fee, I would basically bring in and manage the other suppliers, and they would charge the client directly for their work without my markup.
I’d win because I built a sizeable margin into the engagement for me ($4k/month with no sub-contractors).
The client would win because a) they didn’t need to hire a marketing manager yet and b) they could benefit from direct supplier pricing (like my web developer who was under $20/hour).
I ended up taking on a second client like this and suddenly it became too much. I realized that “managing” the implementation was not scalable.
Managing the marketing of two big clients was like having two jobs. I had no more room to do work for others.
Which brings me to the next part…
Advisory is where I live and spend most of my time today.
I basically removed the “managed” part from my scope of work, putting the task on the client to push projects forward and handle the back-and-forth (which is hard but low-value work).
They still got my advice and oversight. I still made intro’s to freelancers and specialist consultants to implement the work we did (avoiding the need to get stuck on “who’s going to actually implement this?”).
I became a trusted advisor. Neutral about who we chose to work with or how we got the results. Similar to a fiduciary financial advisor, for a fixed fee I would help the client get results and was not incentivized to “do the work” for more money.
It’s a bit like comparing a butcher to a nutritionist. If I ask a butcher what to eat, they will say meat. If I ask a nutritionist (who doesn’t sell the food and therefore has no financial interest in the answer) they will suggest a wide range of options to keep me healthy.
Or, like when you go to a car mechanic and they tell you you need a new “Johnson Rod” (Seinfeld reference).
You have no idea whether you can trust them or not. They’re financially incentivized to “do more stuff”. It doesn’t make them unethical, it just puts the responsibility to make a good decision back on you, the buyer, who is not an expert at cars.
It works the same in marketing.
And this has worked quite well for me. Pre-pandemic I was able to generate about CAD$30k/month (USD$~20k) consistently in pure advisory retainers.
Ongoing, month over month revenue. Stable and consistent.
I was (and still am) able to work on client work mostly after 12pm and be done by 5pm each day, even with up to 10 clients.
I work on my business in the morning and with clients in the afternoon. It just works.
I’ll get into this more in future articles, but a big help in achieving this success was having a two-pronged strategy: specializing in an industry while maintaining a more general position here on this (separate) website.
Specializing allowed me to guest on podcasts, speak at conferences, build a niche audience on my email list, sell workshops, coaching, membership program, you name it.
Specializing is a life hack.
But having a general site (this one) to bring people to at the same time helped me buy the time needed to build up my specialization and client base in the process.
I was still specialized “horizontally” as a marketing strategy advisor but also vertically by industry. It worked well for me, even if it’s against conventional logic to have two positions in the market. I still do this.
Onto the next phase.
6. Educator (leveraged info products, paid subscriptions, memberships, workshops, and group coaching models)
Specializing helped me become a known industry expert where very few exist.
As a result, it helped me begin to sell info products and membership subscriptions. This is an area I’m still learning, but it’s the most exciting to me so far.
Having a membership (with about 30 members) forces me to create webinars and a “system” I can produce once and leverage many times. It’s scalable.
It allows me to take some of that content and package it up into smaller chunks, such as a mini-course on web design for coworking spaces. More leverage and scale.
I’m now in the process of creating additional small products to see if that sells better than my membership program. My hope is that bite-sized products are more convenient for people to buy than bigger products, so that’s my plan. We’ll soon see!
I also had some success running a group coaching cohort of five coworking spaces, which is where my focus has been since the pandemic. It’s a lower-cost option for clients and I can design a curriculum that is easy to repeat next time. It also sold right away, which is a good sign.
I’ve also started to sell workshops to groups of coworking spaces, which has been another interesting way to use the content I’ve produced before. I can sell it in 4 one-hour segments, and create a high return on my time.
My goal is to eventually live off information products and membership subscriptions so that my time is highly removed from my income. At this stage, so far it’s mostly been about removing mental blocks around what is possible and getting out of my own way.
7. Advisor Equity
This step is what I imagine will come at some point in the future, especially if I continue specializing in the coworking industry.
The idea that your skills are rare and strong enough to get paid in advisor equity shares is something that is totally realistic, but I have not yet tried to do it.
This would allow me to remain at the advisor level—to be a trusted and valuable guide—but without being in the trenches every day dealing with the minutia of marketing (which is something that drains me).
The strategy piece is what I am good at and gives me energy. That’s all I want to do.
True wealth comes from equity, so I imagine this level being fun and challenging when the opportunity eventually arises.
If you figure this out, let me know!
There are many steps and nuances to this that I did not cover. Things like selling mostly recurring revenue engagements (which was important for me), productizing your services, and various other details along the way that helped in this process.
I’ll cover that another time.
In the meantime, I’d like to know what stage of the journey you’re at.
Leave a reply and/or tell me what you are up to on Twitter.