Name: Emily Guy Birken
Location: Milwaukee, WI
Bio: Emily Guy Birken is a Milwaukee-based former educator and freelance writer specializing in personal finance. She is the author of four books, including End Financial Stress Now and The Five Years Before You Retire. You can find her work at www.emilyguybirken.com.
How long have you been doing freelance work?
More than 5 years.
Tell us about your freelance business, in 200 words or less.
I am a freelancer and author in the personal finance sphere. I write about anything and everything money, which means I can be quite a jill-of-all-trades. My favorite topics to write on are behavioral finance, retirement, and Social Security.
What do you consider to be your specialty. How does it help you in your business?
One of the things I love about writing in the money sphere is how different all of my clients are. I’ve written for mom-and-pop blogs, major insurance companies, corporate clients, college alumni magazines, industry sites, and personal blogs for certified financial planners and other industry professionals. Each type of client has its own benefits and drawbacks, which is why I love having such a mix of different clients to work for.
What made you become a freelancer?
Freelancing is my accidental career. I am a high school English teacher by training. I taught for four years, but my husband and I moved to a new state after my fourth year of teaching, when I was also expecting our first child who was due at the beginning of the following school year. Since I knew I wouldn’t find a teaching job, I planned to take a year off to stay home with the baby.
I decided to start looking for some freelancing clients so I could keep a little money coming in to continue paying my student loans. One of my first writing clients was a financial blog. The blogger loved my work and passed my name along to his friends in the financial blogosphere. That first year was more lucrative than I expected, so I decided to continue freelancing rather than return to the classroom.
What do you love most about freelance work, and why?
There is a sense of daily accomplishment that I get from freelancing which I did not have with any other career. When I get up from my computer every afternoon, I can point to what I have done that day. Even if it’s been a frustrating day (because they certainly happen), I have newly-written words, new contacts, better editing, a new byline, or something else that I can point to as the result of my day of work. That kind of visceral sense that I have done something with my work day is really satisfying.
What do you hate about it?
I sometimes hate the fact that hustle never ends. We all have down days, and when you are working at traditional employment, you can have an off day and still get paid for being there. Seeing people take advantage of the ability to phone it in was one of the reasons I got frustrated with traditional employment. But as a freelancer, there are times when I wish I could coast a little.
Tell us about your first paid job. How did you land your first client?
My first paying job was for a short-term luxury apartment-rental site, writing about Paris, France. I majored in French Literature in college, and spent six months in Paris, so I knew the various neighborhoods they needed me to write about. The fact that I also spoke French was a bonus. I can’t remember how I found their call for writers, but once I got in touch with them and let them know that I had knowledge of the city and of the French language, they asked me to write an audition piece about Christmas in Paris. The post was published in late November, 2010, and the site asked me to write 3 to 4 pieces a month for the next year.
Do you think aspiring freelancers should take unpaid work to gain experience? Why or why not?
This depends on what kind of background the freelancer has. If you have no clips or writing samples to provide to potential clients, then taking a few unpaid gigs can be a good way to start building your portfolio. But if you have already established your writing bona fides somewhere, then taking unpaid work is unnecessary. Writing is a skill and even new freelancers deserve to be paid for it.
Do you feel you’re charging what you’re worth?
I am charging the maximum amount I think the market can bear for my expertise. But deciding how much to charge is a notoriously difficult decision. For instance, I know that I can charge a premium for writing about Social Security, because I am one of the few freelancers who has expertise in the subject matter.
However, I earn far less from clients who want me to write about other topics that do not require as much research or expertise. Getting to this level was a long road. It helped when I started talking to other freelancers about their rates. I also started increasing my rates every January for long-term clients, and I include the fact that I increase rates annually in every contract or agreement I offer to new clients.
Describe your process for finding new clients? Where do you look?
Networking! I know that’s a cliche answer, but it’s absolutely the best way to get new clients. My career took off after my first personal finance client passed my name along to his friends in the blogging community. I have since used a mastermind group, friends, conferences, and other connections to find new clients. You never know when you’ll stumble across someone who could use your services, so always carry business cards with you and be prepared to tell people what you do.
Have you ever had to ‘fire’ a client? If so, why and how did you do it?
I have “fired” several clients through the years. In general, I do so by raising my rates. With the higher rate, I am either willing to put up with their shenanigans because the money is much better, or I have priced myself out of their price range.
Name 3 tools (apps, equipment) that you can’t live without. What makes them so great?
The Freedom app–this application blocks websites of your choice on your computer, phone, and/or tablet. I can get easily distracted sometimes, and this app ensures that I stay focused. A supportive desk chair–I have poor posture, so having a desk chair that supports my back means I’m more comfortable and productive. My bullet journal–I spend time each week plotting out my week ahead in my bullet journal/calendar. Having my journal keeps me on track and ensures that I meet my deadlines and remember my priorities each day.
What is your #1 productivity hack?
Recognize your natural productivity rhythms. I am much more alert and focused first thing in the morning, and my brain officially turns off by 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Before I realized this about myself, I’d try to force myself to write at night, which would take me three times as long and resulted in sub-par work. So I try to clear my schedule to work earlier in the day, and recognize that forcing myself to work outside of my natural rhythms is less productive than getting the rest I need.
Do you outsource tasks? Why or why not? If so, which ones?
I do not outsource any tasks, although I think I will need to hire a VA at some point soon in my career. Dealing with invoicing, answering emails, and scheduling media interviews all take up time I could be writing.
In your opinion, what is the most important skill required for freelance work, and why?
I don’t think there’s any one skill that every freelancer needs. We each bring our own unique knowledge, skills, abilities, and preferences to the job. What you need is an understanding of which skill set are yours alone.
Do you consider yourself a strong time manager? How do you stay organized?
I struggle with time management, and that’s why I commit to plotting out my week in advance every Sunday, and putting together a daily to-do list for the following day every evening.
Do you also work a 9-5? If so, how do you balance it with your freelance business?
No I do not.
Where do you do most of your work, and do you use a co-working space?
In my home office, and no, I don’t.
Name an entrepreneur/freelancer/influencer who inspires you. What is it about their story/message that resonates?
Kristin Wong really inspires me. She writes very honestly and openly about her own experiences, and I love how that helps her to reach her audience.
Name 1 thing you would do differently, if you were starting over today?
I would ask for more money earlier. I fell into the freelancer trap of thinking I was lucky to land any paid gigs. But I undersold myself for quite some time. It does take time to build up your portfolio so that you can request more money. However, you can increase your rates incrementally, even early on. I wish I had done that because I definitely earned less than I was worth for a few years.
What is your #1 tip for aspiring freelancers?
Write in a topic area that you are passionate about. This will help keep you invested in the job even when things are tough because you will be fascinated by the subject and your research.