How I use loss-leader projects to up my freelance game

Something I realised when I got in the swing of freelancing was that I’d have to do some loss-leader work if I wanted to up my game.

This work requires a lot of upfront and unpaid effort that is supposed to reap financial compensation further down the line. You do this in staff jobs, it’s called “trying something new.” But the risk of it not panning out isn’t felt directly in your pay cheque.

To an extent, pitching articles is kind of a loss-leader itself. You put a lot of effort into researching a pitch that has no guarantees of landing. But the pitching dance is a tried and tested routine by this point. I know roughly how long it takes me to put them together and how much they’re going to bring in if I secure the commission.

If your goal is to make a living just through freelance writing, this might be the extent of your loss-leader work. It’s pretty low risk once you’ve got the hang of it. Plus, if you’re at it for long enough and you’re good, you should be able to turn ad hoc gigs into anchors and you’re all set.

So why bother with loss-leader work? I do it for various reasons. Firstly, forme, the whole point of being freelance is being nimble enough to make stuff myself. I’ve had too many good ideas quashed or diluted by the cogs of the corporate machine to not try out new things now that I’m the boss. If they amount to nothing, the lessons I learn along the way are worth it.

The other reason is cold hard cash! As I've written about in my newsletter about taking corporate writing gigs, the rates offered by traditional media outlets just aren’t enough to keep the lights on. I’m always on the hunt for ways to diversify my portfolio (how many business jargon terms can I slip into one email?)

This very newsletter is a loss-leader. It takes time and effort to put it together and right now doesn’t really make me any money (I get some work off the back of it but nothing by way of a steady income source). My long-term plan for it, however, is to make it revenue-generating.

That’s because at the moment, even though I write for lots of different places, my money comes from that same routine of pitching an article, having it commissioned and then being paid (usually a fluctuating word rate) upon publication. Even though this does work for me right now and I do think there are viable ways to continue making it work, I think it makes better business sense to have an additional, different, revenue stream. A new dance routine for me to learn.