One key takeaway from a recent conference speaking gig was that, like me, all the most successful travel content creators are not just doing one thing; they’re doing all the things. In 2019, it’s not good enough to just be a writer or just be a photographer, you have to be everything. OK, maybe not everything, but you have to be a lot of things if you want to take your business to the next level and build a sustainable career. Making money as a writer—and good money, I mean—has become increasingly more difficult in the online era, but it’s not impossible.
And if you’re someone who is just scraping by on the bare minimum, or you value lifestyle over career, then girl, I admire that work-life balance, and you keep doing you. Making money in the increasingly competitive, fake and sinuous realm of digital media is not for everyone, and finding that happy balance of continuing to grow while having a plethora of free time to pursue passion projects is something I definitely plan to incorporate more of in the future.
This post was last updated in February 2022.
For years, I’ve been tracking my annual pay and how it ebbs and flows and (mostly) increases year after year, as well as categorizing it by percentage to see where our various income is coming from so I know where best to direct our attention year after year. Maybe this is the year I finally share those charts and graphs in Lola Akinmade fashion; regardless, I wanted to put to bed this myth that our business model is blogging (a part of it is, but hardly the whole pie).
When SVV went full-time at Odinn Media three years ago this month, this extensive charting of our work became even more important, because now we’re both self-employed and relying on supporting our lifestyle and saving for our future without one of us having a guaranteed paycheck to fall back upon should work dry up (it never has, but it’s always the freelancer’s ultimate fear). We have to make sure we have money to pay our quarterly taxes (self-employment tax is a killer), as well as contribute the maximum allowed to our SEP each year. It’s a whole different level of adulting, I’ll tell you!
That said, to give you a better idea of what we’re working with, this year we’ve made money through:
- Traditional journalism (print magazines, online outlets)
- Project management
- Professional speaking gigs
- Teaching workshops
- One-on-one coaching or consulting for other entrepreneurs
- Licensing photography
- Video production and educational materials
- Brand copywriting and ghostwriting
- Graphic design work and website management
- Writing for visitors’ guides
And there are so many more ways we could be monetizing that we aren’t: affiliate sales, e-courses, e-books and advertising networks like MediaVine. (Side note, but have you ever noticed this website is ad free? We both feel like the Internet is teetering on the edge of one massive seizure with the overwhelming nature of banner and video inserts, but that’s a story for another day.) I firmly believe in finding a few avenues where you excel and focusing on those things first, rather than trying to do everything at once. As Kiersten Rich (aka the Blonde Abroad) said at TravelCon: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, but also don’t put an egg in each basket.”
In an industry that’s constantly in flux (and often in turmoil), we’ve always found it’s best to be fluid and nimble, rather than dictating the direction our business will take in any given year. Take 2016 and 2017, for example. We had a handful of clients on retainer and we managed various facets of their marketing as part of that agreement. Back then, we thought that was our future: all consulting and very little project-based work. But times have changed once more, and the blend is richer and more fulfilling. And, while I prefer the former to the latter for job security, we’ve learned to adapt to circumstances on the ground; chameleons, we like to call ourselves.
So how do you diversify?
You lean into your skill set. Are you good at photography? Hone that skill and start selling imagery. License images commercially or focus on B2B. Set up a print shop. Bang out some headshots for friends, family shoots, kid and pet portraits. There are so many ways you can use a creative skill beyond traditional publishing. Don’t have an eye for visuals? No problem.
I posed this question to some fellow veteran journalists in one of my writing groups and they added they make money through: coaching (in person, online and/or in groups), copyediting and proofreading, research, recipe development, teaching, book editing, web development, UI/UX consulting, college essay coaching, resume editing, online community and social media management, tour guiding. The possibilities are endless, the point being that first you need to identify attributes that you are good at and have a marketable skill or talent, then work on being the best you can be in that arena.
You prioritize. I do keep a written day planner—this $20 version is the one I’ve been using for years—but in addition to that, every Sunday, I create a bullet point list on a legal pad (talk about old school!) and list the items I’d like to do in descending order of importance. I also like to reward myself with a “fun” task or two (like video or photo editing) after finishing a laborious one (like a research-heavy magazine article) so I don’t start to feel bored doing the same thing day after day. I’ve found by saving tasks I’m excited about for later in the day, it incentivizes me to get the more mundane tasks done first so I can get to the things I consider the most fun.
You outsource tasks that are going to save you valuable time that can be spent elsewhere. For us, that’s some of our social media (Pinterest management and Twitter and Facebook scheduling) and our own design and development for this website. Could we do all those things? Sure. But in the past few years, I’ve been leaning heavily into subcontracting work out to other professionals who do this work for a living, thus freeing up my time to tackle projects I’m more passionate about like writing and teaching others about media strategy.
Similarly, when we started getting a demand for more video reels, I didn’t have time to teach myself Premiere Pro, so I turned to a professional—Eric Irvin of One Eyed Pop—and asked if he’d consider teaching me. I would much rather pay someone to school me than waste hours of frustration trying to learn the intricacies of a new-to-me, complicated software on my own. At the time, he didn’t offer coaching, so it was a new potential revenue stream for him and a time-saver for me; accordingly, Eric now has started offering one-on-one sessions to other content creators (which I highly recommend if you’re wanting to dabble more in video!).
You take direction from your industry. Rather than sitting around waiting for others to test out the next big thing, take initiative of your own. Look at other bloggers like the Blonde Abroad and Alex in Wanderland who have found their niche in organizing tours geared toward women to places like South Africa, Thailand and Egypt that solo travelers might be scared to visit alone. And they’re both killing it. While I don’t have the time or energy, and perhaps not the right audience, to adopt that model, I completely admire these fellow entrepreneurs for chasing a whim, testing it out and not only finding it works, but also quickly expanding those offerings to truly capitalize on the group travel model.
Similarly, Gemma Armit and Laura Lynch of Make Traffic Happen slay with SEO courses; I am a member of their Facebook group and have also purchased one of their courses. In this day and age, what blogger couldn’t use guidance through the sticky web of SEO? They identified a big need in the industry, and they ran with it.
You consider teaming up with a fellow entrepreneur with a complementary skill set. Last year, we partnered with a photographer and career coach to lead a week-long workshop for entrepreneurs in Portugal, and it was really interesting seeing how our three approaches to business all helped steer our students’ paths.
You look in your own backyard. Some of our work has cropped up because people locally need help: with their websites, with their marketing plans, with designing signage for an event. These are all things that, while they may not be the main source of our business, are easy enough for us to accomplish, and we help out fellow business owners or non-profits who may not have had anyone else to handle critical facets of their marketing. Win-win.
You follow leads. Let’s call the print media industry what it is: flailing about in open water, trying desperately to touch the murky bottom, but constantly slipping beneath the surface, occasionally bobbing its head above the water to gasp for breath, then quickly going under again. While I still write a handful of print stories a month assigned by editors for whom I’ve been working for a decade or longer, I turn down a good 75 percent of the editorial work I’m offered due to the declining pay and increased time it takes. Sure, I could have continued to write 30 stories a month like I used to, but that wasn’t a smart business decision in my case. Instead, I do a select five or six that pay better than most and devote the rest of my time to more lucrative gigs or projects rather than writing round-up drivel for content farms.
Zoom out on the above, and this approach took SVV and me each to a comfortable salary once we diversified beyond just writing, blogging and photography, and each year we set benchmarks for the next; some years, it’s increasing our overall income by 20 percent, while this year, it’s giving even more back to the community (we’ve aimed to raise $50,000 for public art installations and are making a pretty good dent in that goal halfway through the year).
Blog aside, in the past eight years, we’ve started three companies: Odinn Media, our media production company; a real estate group to manage our investment properties and assets; and DMA-events, our for-profit, public-benefit corporation through which we funnel our mural program and community events. We also had a now-defunct events company through which we ran KEEN Digital Summit in 2013.
Our model isn’t perfect—and like I said, it’s ever-changing as we adapt to the times—but it has helped us to continue to grow, increase our income and our assets, and be more valuable as marketers and entrepreneurs.
Have you diversified your business? What was your breakthrough to doing so?
Any follow-up questions for how we’ve done this, drop them in the comments! And for more entrepreneur posts, start here:
- Want to Be More Hirable As an Influencer? Take These Tips to Heart
- Has Your Instagram Engagement Tanked? Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Care
- 11 Lessons from 11 Years of Blogging
- Why I Don’t Work for Free—and You Shouldn’t Either
- So You Wanna Start a Blog? Here’s How
Are you planning another Martha’s Vineyard trip?
I went on vacation three years ago and loved it! If you mean, is Alex planning another Vineyard retreat, I’m not sure, but she did mention doing another one at some point. Their house is also available to rent by the week for a few weeks each summer if you want an introduction.
This was definitely one of the major takeaways I got from TravelCon not only from your talk, but also from The Blonde Abroad. As a beginning blogger and freelance writer, I’m trying to gather a wide variety of income streams because you never know when one is going to dry up. Love this and thanks for the tips!!
I was so glad that Kiersten echoed so many of the things I’ve said over the years and had planned for my own talk. She’s definitely an ace businesswoman, and I admire her drive. Thanks for coming to the talk, and keep on keeping on, Chris!
As a previous lifelong ‘wage collector’ (as my husband likes to call it), I can confirm that diversifying income is the first thing you have to really get your head around when you become self-employed.
I love that you mention tracking. Too many bloggers ignore its importance.
Another vote for outsourcing and finding work in your own backyard. Going ‘home’ was the best move I made for my travel brand.
Thank you for including us at Make Traffic Happen. We really appreciate this kudos coming from someone with such a standing in the creative community.
I love the free resource you guys offer by way of your Facebook group. You really do it right: giving away valuable intel and making people want to purchase your courses as they see how much value they provide before even doing so. For someone like me, who has been blogging 12 years since before SEO was a thing, it’s been really helpful learning where I need to improve, and I’m so looking forward to diving into your course this month! It’s been sitting on my desktop waiting to be used since spring, and I’ve been eager to carve out time to work on that and updating old content.
Keep us posted!
Really great article and points about income diversification. Unfortunately, I missed this years TravelCon’s conference and didn’t get to see you present in person. This write up is excellent and presents the right mindset we need to adapt to be successful in this ever-changing media world.
Thanks so much, Rosemary! I hope to make it to TravelCon in New Orleans next May, so maybe we’ll meet in person then.
You indeed mentioned some valuable tips Kristin. Thank you for that. I would add publishing a book (a traditional paper book) as well. While sometimes publishing houses take the larger piece of the pie, you can still negotiate with them, self-publish your work and then use publishing houses only for promotion and distribution. By doing so, you can bring some 60%+ from the end price home.
The problem with publishing is it’s such a lengthy process! I’ve done about 15 books in the past (luckily, it was always a flat fee and not based on royalties), and I’m not sure I’d do another due to the time commitment alone. Though I do aspire to write fiction someday!