Passion or profit: tips to grow your freelance business

Freelance web designer (and Webflow support team member) Micah Johnson shares how he grew his freelance career by pursuing passion and profit.

Mariah Driver
July 23, 2019
Freelancing

We’ve opened pre-enrollment for The Freelancer’s Journey: a free, comprehensive course for freelancers that’s coming soon to Webflow University. To prepare the course, we sat down with freelancers from all walks of life to get a better understanding of their journeys. One theme that cropped up again and again: striking a balance between turning your passion into profit.

In this interview with Micah Johnson, a freelance web designer and current Webflow team member, we explore one of the greatest challenges he faced as he grew his freelance career: pursuing passion or profit. 

Spoiler: he found a way to choose both — and shares tips for how other freelancers can too.

When did you first face the choice between passion and profit? 

I faced that choice even before I began pursuing a freelance career. After graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in animal science, I got a job as a veterinary technician. But I was also running a photography business with a friend on the side and realized that my real passion was not becoming a veterinarian. I wanted to do something more creative. 

In 2014, I chose my passions — both professionally and personally — and moved to St. Louis to be closer to my then-girlfriend. I had to let go of a lot of security. I moved out of my parent’s house, quit my job, and hopped off of the career path I’d gone to school for. 

It was terrifying, and certainly not the last time I’d choose to pursue my passion down a very unknown path.

Did you immediately start working as a freelancer when you moved to St. Louis? 

Not immediately. When I got there, I realized how lucky I’d been to have connections in my previous community, because those connections gave me access to a steady stream of clients. 

In St. Louis, I had no connections. And no guarantee of clients or income.

My options were: pursue my passion as a freelance web designer in a new city or find a full-time job to support myself and my family.

I chose both. I found a job at Enterprise as a content manager that afforded me a steady income and sharpened my web skills. This was exciting because I knew — even though I‘d successfully grown a photography business in my hometown — that the web was my real passion. 

I didn’t pursue my freelance career in the traditional sense when I moved to St. Louis, but I continued to nurture and grow freelance opportunities while I worked a full-time job, taking on web design work and building my portfolio on the side.

Did you eventually leave your 9–5 and pursue freelance full-time?

I did, and not to spoil anything, I failed! My job at Enterprise was no longer fulfilling and I craved a creative outlet. I gained enough confidence to quit and pursue a full-time career in web design. 

Despite having been in the community for some time, I couldn’t get enough clients to maintain a steady income. Eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches got old, so I accepted an offer from Maritz to work as a front-end developer. I didn’t see this as the end of my freelance career in web design. In fact, it gave me hope that the job would help me learn more about front-end development and grow my freelance career. 

And I was right! I ran my freelance business on the side and saw immense growth. I took on new clients, increased my prices, and began to enjoy the freedom of saying no to work and clients that didn’t align with my interests. 

So taking a full-time job at Maritz allowed you more freedom in your freelance business? 

Exactly. I found that because I wasn’t relying on income from my freelance work alone, I was able to say no to clients I didn’t want to work with. As a freelancer, that’s rarely easy — and in some cases, not even an option.

For example, when I ran the photography business with my friend back home, we decided to shift our focus away from weddings. Saying no to those clients meant a lot of lost income.

We knew that if we continued to take wedding clients for the profit alone, our portfolio would continue to attract projects we had no passion for. 

So we used this shift in focus as an opportunity to increase our rate and take on fewer clients. Charging more allowed us to make up for profit losses from the gigs we turned down. 

How did you manage to stick to your new rate — especially if it meant forgoing opportunities with new or past clients?

Great question. It’s certainly difficult to raise your rate as a freelancer, especially when so much of your business relies on word-of-mouth and repeat clients.

Charging more allowed us to make up for profit losses from the gigs we turned down. 

We raised our rate after a couple years to reflect the higher quality of work we were delivering. When friends or former clients came to us, it wasn’t easy to ask for more money. After all, they perceived it as the same work we’d done for less in the past. 

We faced the difficult choice between making a profit — saying no to friends, family, and former clients unable or unwilling to pay our new rate — or making exceptions. So, again, we did both. We offered smaller packages for former clients and friends. But we only offered these packages for a limited time so they wouldn’t detract from our full-rate work. 

For old and new clients who weren’t interested in these smaller packages, we stood firm on our new rate — even at the risk of losing work. Luckily, our work was being shared and distributed by happy clients, making new ones more willing to pay our new rate. 

Increasing your rate as a freelancer not only benefits your business, it benefits all freelancers in your industry and community. Rather than competing with the lowest rate, we honored our work and our industry and charged our worth. 

I’m hearing another recurring choice between community and competition. How does community, and the support for other freelancers in that community, play into the decisions between passion and profit?

Another great question. I was lucky enough to have a mentor in photography who was dedicated to growing my career — even if it meant I became a competitor down the line. This showed me the value of community over competition and I committed to paying it forward. 

I think a lot of freelancers worry that if they support other freelancers, specifically locals offering the same services, they’ll lose business. But while you may lose one or two clients, you stand to gain so much more from your community. 

What you stand to gain from a supportive community far outweighs any potential loss. 

When I was growing my freelance web design business, I joined the Webflow community and began to connect with and learn from other members. I was inspired by their work and brought that inspiration to my own client work. The Webflow community also helped me improve my portfolio, which I shared and received feedback on in the Webflow Forum.

What you stand to gain from a supportive community far outweighs any potential loss. 

So you figured out freelancing — then went full-time at Webflow. What drove that decision?

I decide to go full-time because I wanted to be a part of a company that valued their community and customers, in addition to having a lofty product goal. Webflow is just that, and I was so honored to get an opportunity to help. 

When the opportunity to work for Webflow came up, I was working at a company where I had become comfortable in my workflow, was enjoying my colleagues and teammates, and looking forward to the future with this company. As good as that company was, I felt that Webflow was aiming to do — and be — something extremely special. 

I wanted to be a part of that. The Webflow community had already done so much for my career by enabling me to complete amazing projects, and I wanted to help do that for others like me. That’s exactly what excited me about helping out on the Webflow Forum in the first place: giving back in the same way others had given to me. It was a no-brainer.

Webflow is changing how web design gets done, how projects are handed off to clients, and how workflows are implemented. Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that? 

Do you have advice for freelancers starting or growing their freelance career?

Have fun and play! Trust your passion. It’s the reason you became a freelancer in the first place and it will be the reason you continue to be happy and successful. Let that passion drive you and shelter you from the distractions of money or competition — it’s the most powerful thing you can do. 

Above all, enjoy your here and now. There were many times I had to work jobs I didn’t enjoy or make decisions that didn’t make sense to loved ones. I learned that there are ways to learn and grow wherever you are — that lesson led me to hold onto my passion. 

Find the things you enjoy, love the present moment, and invest in your community.

Mariah Driver

Fancy meeting you here! I’m a Content Producer at Webflow and a dog enthusiast. The bigger the dog, the better. Find me on Twitter.

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