Freelancing Is For Suckers

Hierarchy of the Self-EmployedThis is part two of the Hierarchy of the Successfully Self-Employed series.

“Freelancing is for suckers…”

I can still picture the scene clearly. It’s a networking function, with a cash bar. The loudmouth is sitting with a group of people, going on and on about his work.

When I heard the “freelancing is for suckers…” comment, I had to go over to see what this guy was talking about.

I was a freelancer, and I sure as hell was not a sucker.

I listened. I debated. I got pissed off. In the end, I bought him a beer, and we agreed to disagree. He had been a freelancer, but not everyone was like him.

It wasn’t until a few years later that what he was talking about would hit me like a Chuck Norris roundhouse.

freelance pyramid
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Hello, My Name is Tony and I’m a Sucker…

Fast-forward a few years. I’m working on a Web redesign project for a real estate consultant. I had been through about 5 iterations, and he still didn’t like it. It was beautiful. It was the epitome of user friendly.

But apparently it wasn’t bad enough for him. His neighbor made something in FrontPage in a few hours that he liked better. He wasn’t interested in my expertise or my knowledge of good design.

He wanted big fonts, flashing logos, and a colorful background image. He wanted a MySpace page before there was a MySpace.

After 6 weeks of trying to land the project, cutting my price to beat out a competitor, and working like a dog, this was what it came to. I was making about 8 bucks an hour.

Then he said something that made the loudmouth’s freelancing comment come barreling back from the depths of my memory. He said “you’re a vendor, I’m the client. I don’t care what you think, just do it like I ask.” He didn’t want a professional. He wanted a lackey with FrontPage and MS Paint.

A Sucker No More…

I finally realized what the loudmouth at the bar was talking about. He had the same realization years before.

He was doing it just to make ends meet. To make enough to pay bills, and maybe have enough left over for a vacation.

He also said nobody gets rich freelancing.

Here, about 12 years later, I tend to agree. I’ve known a lot of freelancers over the years, and most of them are making the same money they were when I was doing it.

Some have given up and gone back to a regular job.

The saddest part is many of them are awesome at what they do. They have amazing skills and expertise.

Now, here’s an important point of clarification. Not all freelancers feel this way, and of course unlike the loudmouth, I wouldn’t call them suckers. Some like doing work on the side, and really enjoy it. Other have another source of income, and freelancing is a way to make some extra money. The key is to know what you want, and why you’re doing what you do.

But a vast majority are just treading water. Others are doing okay, but really want to make it big, and do more than just make a living. They dream of getting rich from freelancing.

How many freelancers do you know that consistently make well into 6-figures a year?

The problem comes when you have to continually trade your time for money. Eventually you plateau. You run out of time, or hit a ceiling of what you can charge, or both.

Freelancing is a great way to start out, but if you’re just doing it to cover the basic needs, you’ll be scrambling forever to keep up.

There are options though — and I thought I found the perfect solution. Independent contractor.

I’ll talk about that in part three…

Hierarchy of the Successfully Self-Employed Series


  1. Great post! This realization hit me in the face a few weeks ago, thus prompting me to get a job (you can read about it on my blog).

    As nice as it may sound to find extra sources of income which are NOT traded for your time, it’s not always that easy. Like you said, it’s important to know exactly what you want.

    I’m anxious to see what you have prepared for part 3.

  2. So Tony, how would you succinctly define freelancing?

    How would you briefly describe it in a way that someone can read your definition and say to themselves, “yes, that is what I want for now” or, “no… this is not what I have in mind” ???

  3. Alex – You’re right, and that’s considered by many to be the Holy Grail of self employment — passive income. I’ll be touching on that.

    Rosa – I’m actually going to cover the difference in how I define a freelancer vs. a contractor in part 3. But I typically define freelance work as one person working on many short-term projects.

  4. Tony, so I’m curious – did you release this client from the hell of having to work with you? πŸ™‚ Or did you buy a copy of Front Page and give him some blinking logos? I’ll be you got some good fodder for a few cartoons out of the deal anyway. – Janet

  5. Janet – He wasn’t the first client I fired, but my last as an official freelancer. It’s funny, as I moved up the hierarchy, the fewer bad clients I had πŸ™‚

    Kevin – You’re welcome. Chuck forced me to link to the site with his mind control power πŸ˜‰

  6. Tony,

    Thanks for a very insightful post! It is an unfortunate reality that, very often, freelancers, like temp workers, get no respect! (I’ve functioned in both capacities.) Of course, there are many employers who treat their employees with zero respect, as well.

    But, to a certain extent, it’s just as true that other people–at least the difficult ones–treat us the way we allow them to treat us. Bravo to you for firing your difficult former client, thereby showing him that he had no right to treat you with disrespect–whether or not he appreciated your expertise!

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your series!


  7. Interesting read for sure, and I look forward to your follow-up. I’ve been self-employed now for a couple of years and think of myself as a freelance designer and design consultant. You certainly give food for thought, so thanks for that.

  8. Jeanne – Great point. You’ll also find that highly paid experts rarely (if ever) are treated that way. That’s a realization I made, and wanted to cover in this series.

    David – I’m glad I got you thinking, which is the goal of this series. Folks with talent and expertise can do very well, and it all comes down to perception and value.

  9. Great article Tony, I’ll be looking for the next one in the series. Jon from Smarthwealthyrich was correct in saying it was worth reading.

  10. I couldn’t help but smile at your experience with the website re-design. I had the same experience with a guy who wanted flashy instead of attractive and professional. It drove me nuts to no end. This was the second owner after the previous owner liked the site I built and made such a profit that he sold the business to this chump who obviously didn’t have any web sense.

    I finally forwarded him the hosting information and told him to have fun with FrontPage, too. I don’t miss it one bit, and have a good chuckle going back from time to time to check it out.

  11. I have been freelancing for about five years now and it’s true in the beginning I found it difficult to make ends meet.
    How ever I feel that working for a company is like going back into the matrix.

    I would not be opposed to working for a design firm but working in an office position with no real job security makes me depressed.

    If you learn from your mistakes freelancing can be very rewarding. Great post freelancing is not for every one.

  12. Fantastic series! May i add i am also a charter member of Teaching Sells and i am thus far finding it to be amazing and thought provoking!

    I do have a question though, if you have branded yourself a freelancer and your search engine traffic is coming from terms such as freelance web/graphic designer, how to you make the switch to consultant/expert without losing that traffic?

  13. excellent input and blog .. goes into my bookmarks πŸ™‚

    I had such experiences too .. I also worked for 5 years as a freelancer, for small pay and a lot of abuse. From people who wouldn’t even dream what a site was about, but would make sure they tell me how to do my job.

    After this time I realized 2 things: I need to work more serious on this and also I need to become more “professional” in their eyes. I started my own small design firm (am still the only employee) and now I am a “serious” person in their eyes. Now, that i represent a web design firm I seem to have them more willing to actualy let me do my business. It’s unpleasant to have to suffer such things, but the people we work for are not always ideal

  14. My thoughts about Tony is that he is lacking on his argument. He should have convinced his client about how good his design was. He should state which site design are crowded with people, which site aren’t. People will come to a site which is easy to navigate, yes it is. But can he explained it deliberately to his client about the importance of “easy-to-navigate” thing?

    I don’t think the client understand about design at all. Sure, why do you think the client choose a layout in frontpage and mspaint at the first place?

  15. Great Post. I fully agree. Freelancing is great to generate temporary average income. However in the long run freelance isn’t a very smart career path because your trading your time for money directly.

  16. Well, not everyone freelances to get rich. I did it for six years (journalism, mostly of the tech kind) starting at the age of 16 and I did it because of a disability that only allowed me to work about 20 hours a month. I made less than 10K euros a year, but I was able to make my living by working about 1/8 of the amount that most people work. I got excellent hourly wages, up to 100 euros or more, and I loved my job.

    Heck, even if my disability magically disappeared I’d still want to pursue freelance journalism. I care much more about time and freedom than money – I guess that makes me a sucker. The only caveat I had with the career was stress, and there’s no real career without stress, anyway.

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