Once freelancers make a little bit of money, the pressure eases, and our dreams of varicolored plumage come out of hiding:
- What do I want long term?
- What would my dream business look like?
- How many angels can fit on the head of a pinscher?
We start thinking beyond the conventional freelance business model, which relies on transactions: selling X number of hours for X number of the client’s dollars. We start wondering how to weaken the relationship between time and money.
Making more money in less time enables us to do other things we care about. My wife and I love to cook and have people over, and my grandmother always had a beautiful vegetable garden. Oddly enough, when I think of what I’d do with more time freedom, I think of meaty tomatoes and the mouth-watering aroma of fresh basil.
Such mental roadtrips naturally lead to the desire to diversify income streams (and caprese salad).
Those of us accustomed to being the product—creators, freelancers, consultants—have three main strategies:
- Pivot to value-based pricing. Say adios to hourly rates and “competitive” flat fees. Say hola to charging a premium for solving expensive problems.
- Scale up into a lean agency. Sell other people’s time and skills to your clients for more than you pay for them. Play the arbitrage game.
- Create digital products. Turn what you know into a DIY treat. Diversify your income streams. Make money while you sleep. Shoot, catch up on sleep.
I’ve pursued all three with some success, but ever since getting my first taste of making money while I slept in 2013, I’ve nurtured a healthy obsession with digital products.
In this post, I’m going to share four short stories about my early products, along with key takeaways, and then I’ll close with what I believe is the best plan of attack for those of you eager to diversify revenue streams with digital products.
Product #1: Mustache Bash
In 2011 my then business partner thought my idea for a mustache-themed photo booth app was silly, and it was. Or at least, it was a gamble.
It became obvious we needed to part ways, and I fronted the $4,200 in design and development costs myself.
Mustache Bash made about $1,400 on the App Store in its first month, April 2012, and eventually paid for itself.
The next year, my friend Ryan asked me if I had considered packaging up the Mustache Bash source code and licensing it, with a tutorial, to other app developers. It was another gamble. I’d be making it easy for other developers to create competing apps. Even so, I thought it was worth a shot. Kostiantyn, the iOS programmer I’d hired, created a tutorial in Word for me.
Another piece fell into place, thanks to another app entrepreneur. Carter and I had spoken on the same panel at an event, and he already had an audience and was selling code products to them. I emailed Carter and asked if he thought my code would sell.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Thanks to Ryan, Kostiantyn, and Carter, the Mustache Bash source code morphed into a product, and when Carter launched it to his list, he made us both $10,000 ($20,000 split equally) over a weekend.
I kept waiting for a knock at the door: “Police! Open up!” Making that $10k was too… easy. Surely, I’d done something wrong.
Most of us believe our entire lives that making money is “hard,” yet when you get the right kind of leverage with a self-serve product, it can be easy.
Takeaway: Other people’s audiences are the right kind of leverage, and with the right incentive, such as a 50% sales commission, your joint venture partners have as much to gain as you do.
Product #2: Appiness, an app marketing guide
That Mustache Bash code opened a new world to me. New paradigm is probably more accurate: Instead of just prospecting for gold, I could sell shovels (or denim?) to the other prospectors. Call it the Levi Strauss business model. All those gold diggers in California needed durable pants, right?
After Mustache Bash I developed other iOS and Android apps, so I washed, rinsed, repeated. Kostiantyn made other tutorials. I found other Carters. Every customer who bought a single code product became a potential customer for all the others.
At its largest, my email list of app developers was just over 1,000 subscribers. These days, that doesn’t sound like much, but get this: Over the next two years, I sold over $200,000 worth of source codes and app-related products.
One of the non-code products was a guide—that is, a PDF. A member of my Mastermind group planted the seed for it when she asked, “Why don’t you embed a Google form on the Thank You page?
At first, I scoffed. Does anyone ever fill those post-purchase surveys out? I certainly don’t.
Turns out, I was in the minority! Over 50% of my customers actually took the time to answer my questions, and when I read the responses, I noticed a pattern: At least 80% of app developers cited app marketing as their #1 problem.
I had a marketing background, so I wrote down a bunch of ideas, as well as my most successful strategies and tactics. Then, I reached out to some industry experts and asked to interview them.
The cheapest package was just the Appiness marketing guide, and the two more expensive packages included the interviews, as well as various marketing templates and tools I’d created for my own use.
All told, the Appiness product did about $20,000 in sales.
Takeaway: People in your audience will tell you what their problems are if you find a way to ask. Once you get a statistically significant number of answers, look for patterns. If you create a product which solves a problem that is common and painful enough, people will buy it.
Product #3: Freelance Cake (first launch)
Fast forward to 2019. I’m finally committed to finishing my freelancing course, Freelance Cake. I put so much time into this course – approximately 250 hours (outlining, transcribing, recording the audio, creating all the supporting materials, etc).
On the launch, I sold like 10 spots. It was disappointing, considering how much time I’d put into it. So what was the problem?
I know there’s a ton of value in the course. I know what I’m talking about with freelancing. So, what gives?
Too much information?
Maybe it’s a little bit overwhelming?
Based on how courses have evolved, I believe the courses that are doing well now are those that focus on a very specific outcome. Not “Make your freelance business more profitable,” but something like, “Here’s how to create a portfolio in 2 weeks that you’ll be proud of.”
Specific and time-boxed.
Takeaway: If you’ve had successful products in the past, it’s easy to get cocky or overconfident that you can skip the process of validating the product before building it.
What’s the difference?
With the Mustache Bash, I already had the source code. It didn’t take a lot of money or effort to turn it into a product. And someone was willing to launch it to their audience. There wasn’t a lot of risks if it failed.
What was heartbreaking about the Freelance Cake launch was I put all this time into it, and it didn’t pan out financially.
Did it start me on a new trajectory in my career? Sure.
Did I learn valuable lessons? Sure.
But several methods can be used to validate your product ideas so that you can be confident that once you build a product, you will be able to sell it before devoting too much time to it.
Product #4: How to Sell Strategy
Last year, I sent Ed Gandia an email asking him to let me be a guest on his podcast on a topic where I thought I could bring a lot of value.
The topic was “How freelance writers can pivot to not selling words but to selling strategy.”
A lot of writers have really good strategic minds. They employ several competencies, and those same competencies can serve you well in helping a business owner achieve their goals.
I’d been on several podcasts at this point, but I had no reason to think that that episode would be any different than the other ones. But that topic deeply resonated with Ed’s audience (freelance writers)!
Several people reached out to me on LinkedIn. They were so enthusiastic about the topic that I thought, “Clearly, there’s a demand here.”
So I replied to some people and asked them if they’d be interested in a paid workshop. And several said yes.
I then created a structure for the workshop in a simple Google Doc containing the value proposition (“If you come to this workshop, I’ll send you away knowing X, Y, and Z and feeling confident that you can do A, B, C.”) and set the price at $250.
I went back to all those people who messaged me and sent them a link to the Google Doc and all the other necessary details.
6 people paid. And now, I’ve just gotten paid $1,500 to create the workshop material.
After 2 sessions of the workshop, Ed Gandia reached out to me, saying the episode struck a chord with many people, and asked if I wanted to speak at his high-ticket mastermind group.
And because I already had the workshop, I proposed that I turn the workshop into a program that he could then sell to his audience.
He loved the idea.
We launched the program in February of this year, and it went really, really well.
Now we plan to launch it again in September.
Takeaway: The products that your audience wants to buy from you may not be the ones that you think. And so you have to devise different ways to test ideas, and the ones that get warm receptions, you just keep pursuing those.
The Best Way for Freelancers To Create and Sell a Product
I shared the story about my How to Sell Strategy program because I think it represents the least risky path to developing a digital product.
If people aren't willing to pay $29 to attend a 1-hour training, why would they pay $299 for a fully fleshed-out course that you'll create 3 months later? The same goes for a $249 workshop and a $2,499 coaching program.
The least risky way to create products is to validate them first – whether through a series of blog posts or social media posts, podcast episodes, or a variety of other methods. Before you sink dozens or hundreds of hours into creating a product, first determine whether or not the product is something people really want.
From there, create something inexpensive and get paid to create the prototype. If everything goes well, only then do you spend your valuable time turning it into more of an evergreen product that sells even while you’re asleep.
I give this piece of advice so often that I finally took the time to develop a Product Launch Blueprint.
You can get it for free here: Product Launch Blueprint.
When you’re ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:
- Freelance Fixes. This short guide walks you through 6 small but important “fixes” that you can make to raise your income without working longer hours. People really seem to like it.
- Morning Marketing Habit. This course will help you build an “always be marketing” practice, become less dependent on referrals, and proactively build the business you want with the clients you want. My own morning marketing habit has enabled me to consistently make 6 figures as a freelancer.
- Clarity Session. It’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I've done well over 100 of these 1:1 sessions with founders, solopreneurs, and freelancers who wanted guidance, a second opinion, or help creating a plan.