Bloggers (and Freelancers): You must diversify.

As I write this, there is a storm of controversy blowing up in my blogger community. Many of my colleagues contributed their time and talents and credibility to a parenting site that went from indie darling to corporate machine seemingly overnight. Other colleagues were editorial and marketing staff at that same website. And along the way something happened – no one seems quite sure what – leaving former staffers without jobs and former bloggers without gigs and a lot of people confused and stressed about paying the bills.

I’m not taking sides. It’s a mess all around, and I hate that people and their families (whether on the staff/executive or blogger level) are under strain because of it. I have no idea where to place blame or even if there is blame to be placed.

But here’s the part I want to get across loud and clear: this – all of this – was completely, totally, 100% predictable. 

This is what happens with media companies: they merge with other media companies. They get sold and bought and acquired. They change ownership, leadership, and staff. Sometimes they completely disappear without warning. Sometimes the people in high-up positions are just as blindsided as everyone else. Sometimes they know something is up, but can’t talk about it. Other times they choose not to because they need or want to figure out their own next steps first. This is all true even if you are friendly with those people, or believe them to be your actual friends.

I learned this the hard way myself when I began freelancing back in 2003. After working my tail off to create a strong connection with an editor at a national magazine, she left the company abruptly while thisclose to assigning my first big story. She passed the pitch on to her successor, who never – and I do mean, never, never, not ever – responded to a single one of my follow-ups. Other magazines I slowly, steadily, persistently courted disappeared. The website where I got my start as a parenting writer folded. Others stopped paying contributors. Sometimes a story of mine would be killed and I’d go from regular writer to persona non grata for no reason except that the new “guard” wanted to wipe the slate clean and bring in all their own people and ideas.

In 2010, right in the middle of the editing process with my book The Happiest Mom, which I wrote in partnership with Parenting magazine, 3/4 of the magazine’s editorial staff was let go…including the editor-in-chief who had championed my idea in the first place. Her replacement was not nearly as enthralled with the book – or, I believe, me –  and I can only say the launch experience was not quite what I’d hoped for. (Parenting, incidentally, has since folded.)

This is the reality of freelancing today. It requires a certain comfort level with risk, an ability to bounce back quickly from loss, and the foresight to see what’s coming next. It also requires – demands – diversification, so that when one leg of your stool breaks you’re left with a few others to support you.

So I’ve watched with discomfort as bloggers I know have poured themselves into their work for one company at a time, giving this one company their best ideas, driving huge amounts of traffic, and aligning their professional fates with the fate of a single media entity.

Here’s the thing: no matter how hard you work for it and how much you love it, a media company won’t love you back. It’s not a human being, no matter how many perfectly lovely human beings work there. And your loyalty might very well not be rewarded, because the people in a position to reward your loyalty may very well find themselves powerless or without a job.

I’m not saying not to give your best to the companies you work with. As a freelance content creator, the quality of your work is your professional integrity and your calling card all in one.

But you can’t give it all away, your brand and your identity and your time and all your best ideas, to a single company unless that company is paying your benefits and has you on the payroll. We must recognize that all gravy trains eventually run dry, and that when they do, all we will have is the connections we’ve made and the brands we’ve established for ourselves.

So what, as a freelance blogger, can you do?

Well…

You do your best work and you keep an eye on the horizon at the same time.

You look for subtle clues that a publishing empire is changing, floundering, or failing and shift the percentage of time and energy you invest in that outlet accordingly.

You focus just as much on building your own brand on your own platform as you do lending your brand to somebody else’s.

You read industry news, network like crazy, and make contacts in all different kinds of roles at all different kinds of media companies (you never know where those people will end up.)

You learn the difference between a friendly business relationship and a true friendship (and man, you hold those true friends close.)

You don’t ever burn a bridge unless it really, really needs burning.

When people move on, you stay in touch and see where they land. You think of ways you can help them in their new role – not new ways they can help you, (though in the best-case scenario, the relationship remains mutually beneficial.) 

You plan for at least a month – no, two months – without getting a check, because in reality, that’s what’s going to happen to you at some point.

You pivot.

You hustle.

You stay on your toes.

You do all this because this is what it is to be a freelancer. 

Not everybody is cut out to freelance, and that’s not a value judgement. Sometimes I think those of us who are might be a little unstable, to be honest. But the truth is that contributing articles to a website on a 1099 basis – even if it’s fifty posts a month and your fee is referred to as your “salary” – is not the same as being a contract employee. (Not that contract employees’ jobs are necessarily any “safer,” but it’s a different kind of uncertainty.)

I’ve made a go of this crazy life for going on eleven years now, earning a full-time income for most of those years. But I’ve never had fewer than five or six irons in the fire at any given time. I earn money from websites and magazines I write for, yes, but also sponsorship income from my lifestyle and family blog, speaking, coaching, mentoring and teaching, editorial consulting, spokesperson work, books, and other gigs I cobble together to make it all work. And often all at the same time.

If you’re one of the bloggers who’s feeling blindsided, used, undervalued, or financially stressed right now, I feel for you. I’ve been there, and I know it feels awful. But here’s your wakeup call. This situation is not unique to a single corporation or leadership team. It’s the nature of this business and it requires us to buckle up and take thoughtful, bold, and strategic control of our own professional destinies.

It requires creativity and bravery. It requires a lot less Monday-morning quarterbacking and a lot more proaction. It requires us to think and act in many directions at once. It requires us to diversify. 

Use those freelance gigs to support you as you create your own empire. Because in the end, the only thing that you can control is the brand you’ve built for yourself.

Comments

  1. says

    Well written and I could not agree more. I had this experience last fall and it hurts but it is a wake up call and when you fall you hopefully learn to walk or run more carefully next time. Well controlled rant. :)

  2. Sunny says

    Great, great, great article! I was one of those who wrote almost exclusively for that one website you are alluding to, but I figured out a while back that I had to diversify and I so so did. I am so less stressed knowing I have options and other streams so my eggs aren’t in that one basket.

    • says

      Thank you for the wonderful reemndir. Last year as a freelancer I spent most of my time in quadrant #3. However in 2010 with the start of my own business, it’s important more so now than ever to play and make friends in quadrant #1.

  3. says

    So, so true, and very well said. It’s similar to what happens when a blogger pours all of their time and energy into a Facebook presence instead of their actual blog, and then Facebook changes their algorithm.

    I’m so grateful to have multiple streams of income going, even though it makes things a little nuts at tax time!

  4. says

    Great advice, Meagan! Sometimes I feel that my sister and I spread ourselves a little too thin with an etsy shop, outdoor fun blog, and now, a podcast. However, as we continue to grow each aspect of the business, there is security in knowing we’re not dependent upon just one stream for our livelihood. Thank you for your wise words and personal encouragement for me to keep plugging away at all of my businesses!

    Beth Anne

  5. Kathy says

    This has happened to me. Twice. Once my champion was transferred; once I was just lied to.
    Your explanation helps. Lots
    Thanks.

  6. says

    I am absolutely not cut out to be a freelancer. I need a regular day gig. I’ve done a little freelancing on the side, but building business is just not something I enjoy doing, or want to do.

    That said, I have worked with freelancers–and relied on them–my entire career. I just know what my strengths are, and while the directly work-related aspects of them can be used in-house or as a freelancer, I don’t have the other strengths that I would need to be successful working for myself.

    (On the other hand, I can take an incredible amount of crap from a boss and still turn out excellent work. Sad that this has to be a strength, but it is one.)

  7. says

    I’ve only started blogging a little over a year ago on a PT basis and I really enjoyed reading your advice. Something to keep in the back of my mind as I grow my brand.

    Thanks again!

  8. says

    WORD. I’ve been thinking EXACTLY this for a while. I’ll keep cashing checks as long as I can, but I have spent the last two years actively diversifying my work for just this reason. Regardless of what happens next, I’m going to be fine because I’ve worked hard to move far outside just the unstable world of online writing.

  9. says

    It’s interesting that Crystal Paine, a blogger I hugely admire, recently talked about Facebook dropping her (HER!) like a hot potato. This is one reason I refuse to even BE on Facebook. I will not build someone else’s platform for free.

    I wrote about this topic recently too. In over 10 years of blogging, I’ve seen crap like this happen to people again and again. For me, the mistake was relying too much on Google for my traffic. I learned my lesson when my AdSense income tanked (it used to pay all my bills).

    Great post…

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