How Diversified Is YOUR Work “Portfolio”?

The economy is teetering. Huge financial institutions are crashing and burning. The government, afraid of the ripple effects of their demise, is debating a huge bailout. Unemployment is at its highest level in years. A lot of people struggling out there. And, through all this, happily, I’m busier than ever and enormously grateful I’m a freelancer. My feeling of “job security” is mighty high right about now. Why? Because I have income coming from many, many directions.

Good financial planners live by the mantra of “diversification.” Spread out your money across a broad array of investment vehicles, and you spread out your risk. Same with your work life. Put all your eggs in one work basket (i.e., a full-time job), and if tough times hit, you could lose all the eggs. Hence, the innate logic of the freelance model with its “multiple-clients” feature (and, yes, I know, freelancing is neither feasible nor a psychological fit for everyone, but I’m just sayin’…)

Those with income from a variety of avenues will simply weather economic storms better than most. Right now, I’ve got about 10 commercial writing clients I’m working with. Some big. Some small. But between all of them, they’ve kept me hopping. Love the variety. And I love even more the fact that each client doesn’t have to provide me a bunch of work for me to eat well. Add to that income from my book-related ventures – much of it of the blessed passive variety – and offshoot businesses: coaching, speaking, seminars, articles, etc., and life is good.

Yes, this has been a 15-year process – though the book side of things only the last eight – but it all starts somewhere. And I’m here to tell you: Life can be pretty cool, varied, interesting and lucrative when you’ve got lots of pots boiling on your professional stove.

Not surprisingly, it usually starts with having some specialized expertise or knowledge that’s valuable enough to enough other people to make it worth “monetizing” into books, ebooks, coaching, speaking, seminars, etc. Or simply a skill/talent that can command a healthy price on the market.

If you have multiple stream of writing-related income, what are they and how did they come about?

And if so, any suggestions/cautions/gushing reports to those considering it?

If you aren’t diversified as yet, but are pondering it, what possibilities have you considered?

14 replies
  1. Susan Johnston
    Susan Johnston says:

    I write, I blog, I proofread on occasion, and starting in November, I’ll be teaching a course on writing for the web at the Boston Center for Adult Education. I agree with you, Peter, diversification is key to having a sustainable writing career. Even if you’re afraid of spreading yourself too thin with too many different skill sets, diversifying across industries ensures that if one industry suffers, your bank account won’t.

  2. Alan Stamm
    Alan Stamm says:

    Thanks for this timely reminder that our niche can provide “market-beating” performance, in effect.

    My balanced portfolio includes small-cap clients (mostly), mid-caps, one international firm and three “blue chips” — ad/PR agencies I serve as a consultant (fancy word for sub-contractor).

    Those latter “holdings” are steady performers with reliable dividends from their marketing and 30-day payment courtesy, whether or not end user stays current with retainer or project fees. Plus, diversification of their workflow adds to my financial balance.

    So yes, Peter, being master of my domain sure beats feeling squeezed in an Incredible Shrinking Newsroom where the mission statement seemed to become “Doing More With Less.”

  3. peter
    peter says:

    Thanks Susan and Alan,

    Good points all… And from what I’ve heard from folks who teach adult ed courses, it can be an exceptionally rewarding experience. May consider that myself… And as Alan points out JUST doing commercial freelancing but working for a broad mix of clients is often diversification enough. In my case, it’s probably more a matter of feeding my ADHD.. 😉


  4. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    I want to key into something Peter said:

    “Right now, I’ve got about 10 commercial writing clients I’m working with.”

    This comes as a (pleasant) surprise to new people I talk with. For whatever reason, they think they’ve got to have hundreds of clients to be successful. Yet if you have about a dozen solid clients (give or take), you simply won’t have time for any more clients.

    Granted, it takes time to get to those “solid” clients who pay well and have on-going work. But it doesn’t take too many to keep you busy. Personally, I’ve got two clients who, coming up soon, will keep me pretty busy the rest of this year.

    Speaking of Adult Education, I did teach a commercial writing course at a local college a few years back and enjoyed the experience. It’s a cliche, but as a teacher you end up learning a lot from your students. (Side note for PB… the person you sent my way recently regarding design was actually one of my first students from that writing course I taught.)

    As for other strategies, I’ve set up a separate website that focuses on one area I want to specialize in. The attempt there is to position myself as an expert in that niche without the clutter of the other things I do. Without even trying, my Google rank on some keywords is very high. That’s drawing people to me who probably wouldn’t have otherwise found me. (At least not as easily.)

    I’ve dabbled in eBooks by writing my own story and selling it, but the next project is a more traditional book that would reach a wider audience. I’ve always tried to encourage writers to not just write for other people… be your own client, too.

    And while it can’t be classified exactly as diversified work, I’ve taken articles from my own blog and placed them in various places, most recently Scribd. It’s difficult to get clients if they don’t know you’re out there. So in addition to direct marketing, I like to do some “passive” marketing where I throw articles into the wind as it were, and pull in new folks that I might not have thought to market to. Bob Bly is an expert in this type of thing where you take some content you’ve written and repurpose it.

    For example, you write an article for your blog. Then you sell the article to a magazine or even give it away. After a number of articles on a similar topic, you’ve got the makings for an eBook that you can sell on your site, or translate into a full-fledged print book.

    I think the key is to take advantage of your freelance status. You’re free to venture off in other directions as you see fit. In a typical business, you’d have to go through endless hoops to diversify.

  5. Susan Weiner
    Susan Weiner says:

    My specialty is financial services–especially investment and wealth management. I’ve diversified somewhat between corporate clients and writing for publication. It’ll be interested to see how my clients hold up in the current environment. But my goal is to let no one client account for more than 20% of my income, so I won’t be devastated by losing an individual client. Like you, Peter, I have income coming from many directions.

    I’m developing a sideline in public speaking and corporate writing seminars. For example, I was recently hired to develop a customized half-day seminar on on “How to Write Effective Business E-mails and Letters” for a family office, a financial firm that manages financial affairs for the wealthy.

    I think that Susan J’s adult ed class may also be a good way to advertise her services. Back in the days when I taught adult ed classes on “How to Do Business with the Japanese” I snagged some Fortune 500 clients from publicizing those classes in the Japan Society of Boston calendar.

  6. Michael Temple
    Michael Temple says:

    I completely agree, what a wonderful topic given the meltdown occurring in the economy these days. I do a lot of work around the Internet marketing industry from developing new web sites, copywriting (web sites, email marketing, landing pages), hosting, seminars and speaking, consulting, affiliate income from other companies, and info-marketing. Some of these are much larger than others, but all of them help contribute to my overall income and more importantly come from a variety of sources, industries, and businesses which helps me make sure a hit to any one of them won’t put too big of dent in my overall income stream. If I see a couple of them taking a dip that worries me I work to boost up other areas or find ones to replace them.

    I have also been able to build up a nice diversified portfolio in many of these areas over the years so it isn’t super difficult to expand any of them because I am not starting from scratch each time. I have proof I can show the reluctant prospect, which goes a long way to moving me into a pay day. Personally I feel this is the only way to manage a freelance business.

  7. Devon Ellington
    Devon Ellington says:

    I publish under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction, my plays are produced all over the world, I write for anything from calendars to anthologies to lit mags as well as running a freelance business writing business. I’d say I’m diversified!

    I’ve always said, “pfft” to all that niche-marketing/branding stuff. You need a good writer? I can do it. Doesn’t really matter what the topic is (unless I find it offensive) or what style you need. I can do it.

    I’ve got a fast learning curve and I like trying new topics.

    To me, one of the reasons I freelance and one of the joys of being a freelance writer is I can follow anything that interests me and find a way to get paid for it.

    Do I make as much as people who focus solely on large, corporate clients? No.

    Do I care that I make less? No. I earn what I need, and more, and I have a great time. I’ve noticed, especially in the past six months, a slew of ex-cubicle slaves who quit cubicle-dom and then set up their so-called freelance business on the same model that suffocated them in the office. What’s the point?

    I get paid to have adventures. What’s better than that?

  8. peter
    peter says:

    Thanks Mike, Susan, Michael and Devon,

    Appreciate all your contributions and great ideas for spreading around the time and risk… And Devon, I loved what you said. You put into words what’s sort of been my unspoken philosophy for years. I do fine financially, but I’m sure I could do better if I chose to focus on ONE arena and become an expert, but I have no interest (at least not as yet…). Like you, I’m having too much fun doing a variety of things. And yes, what could be better than that? And that gets at an important conversation: if you’re going to be a freelancer – then milk that model as much as you can. I’m with you – no point in leaving the cubicle and then creating just as stressful a freelance life. Though, that said, I think the freelance life is ALWAYS going be less stressful than ANY cubicle life, by definition…


  9. Steve Rainwater
    Steve Rainwater says:

    Hi Peter,

    This is a great topic. I was just talking to my wife about this subject a few days before. While many are crying the blues, and very concerned at potential economic uncertainty, I am waking up each morning and starting at the top of the pile! I have been freelancing since 2000. I currently have 3 clients that are steady for commercial writing, and I fill in the gaps with other writing that comes up from time to time through a referral. However, I have actually not marketed my writing services in a couple of years, and I began to get proactive about that last month, just to make sure I keep all avenues for opportunity open. I am sending out 5 pieces of direct mail to select business targets each week, then I will follow up with each on the phone, to qualify opportunities. My goal is to have at one / two more steady clients of the larger variety by the end of the year. I now spend about 15-25 hours per week in heads-down client writing.

    Since my writing is focused about 80% on industrial companies, I also have developed a marketing and sales business representing 4 industrial product lines in the entire state of FL as an independent manufacturer’s rep. I dedicate about 1 day per week to this business on average (sometimes all at once and sometimes over the course of the entire week), and have made at least 50K in commissions over each of the last 3 years as a result. None of these companies gave me a book of business to represent them. When we began our relationship none had previously done any significant business in FL, so all has come from my current efforts.

    As an industrial PR writer, I have developed a good rapport with quite a few trade publications, which has allowed me to freelance in several. For a couple of the higher paying editors, I have tried to become a regular. Earlier this week, sensing an available income gap in November, I sent out a couple of e-mails and had a project the next day.

    To continue the forward movement, I am beginning a new venture with a couple of friends. About 10 years ago we all worked in a consulting firm together and today we each find ourselves as a freelancer. These two guys are top notch management consultants. We just began last week to work together to market their services under the umbrella of my industrial sales business. Anyone can keep an eye on this as it evolves on ( – am I allowed shameless marketing on the blog?) Working with friends, making a few bucks, fun stuff!

    I also see more than one book in my future and will aim for commercial success. Bottom line…I get to work the way I want to and do work that I enjoy. I have a 40-50 hr week job at the end of it all, and make a pretty decent living. The days ahead seem worth aiming for. No cubicle for me!

    Can anyone do this? Perhaps not…some may need a little more structure around them. Am I especially creative? Maybe a little…but I like to think I just recognize opportunity that is a fit for me and act on it.


  10. peter
    peter says:

    Great stuff, Steve,

    I love this bit at the end of your comment: “Am I especially creative? Maybe a little…but I like to think I just recognize opportunity that is a fit for me and act on it.” That’s really the key here. You don’t have to necessarily be super-creative (though it helps). But you do need to be able to recognize opportunities that are fit for your skills. I’d say that’s even more important than being creative. A lot of starving “creatives” out there…

    Always interesting the multi-faceted lives that people are carving out for themselves with writing as a part of it. Thanks for the contribution and I’ll let you slide on the plug for new venture… 😉


  11. bill
    bill says:

    Too often, when I hear writers talk about “diversification,” it means they are doing a bunch of low-paying activities.

  12. peter
    peter says:

    Funny! And Bill, I think you’re right. In my case, I do a lot of things, because I find it interesting, and each contributes nicely to my income. But, I agree that many writers cobble together an existence out of necessity because no one activity can make ends meet for them. And THAT reality starts out with the belief, fostered everywhere it seems, that the words “starving” and “writer” truly are eternally joined at the hip. Hence why the concept of “The Well-Fed Writer” is such a novel one… 😉


  13. bill
    bill says:

    I think you’re wrong there, Peter. They do it because they seek the path of least resistance. It’s fairly easy to find low-paying jobs. If you ever use the phrase “cobble together a living,” you’re doing something wrong.

    –Funny! And Bill, I think you’re right. In my case, I do a lot of things, because I find it interesting, and each contributes nicely to my income. But, I agree that many writers cobble together an existence out of necessity because no one activity can make ends meet for them. —

  14. Lauri
    Lauri says:

    At the end of each year, I make a pie chart showing the distribution of my work over the last year. I break down my clients by the percent of work they give me. For example, in 2007 52% of my income came from Client A; 29 percent from Client B; 7% from Client C; 6.8 percent from Client D; 2 percent from Client E; and 1.2 percent from Client F.

    I like this b/c it helps me see if I’m relying too much on any one client – or, conversely, spending too much time working for a client when they provide very little of my annual income.

    In 2008 I expect to see my pie chart even more well-balanced, because I’ve added a couple new clients to stay diversified.

    Having multiple clients is very important. While many of my clients are in the same industry – educational publishing – the breadth keeps me afloat and feeling confident when 1 or even 2 of my clients have to cut back.

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