In a series of posts, called reader’s choice, I write on topics people submit. This week, the topic is: how do you manage your business as a speaker, author and consultant.
My primary business is writing books. It’s writing good books that led to everything else I get paid to do. Oddly, speaking and consulting are more lucrative than writing books, but I’m not driven primarily by money. I make decisions with the primary goal of being able to write books for the rest of my life and live comfortably while I do it.
I’ve been willing to earn much less money to have much more control over my time. I love my freedom of time: I can stop working for a few days, or work very hard, whenever I want, and that is a feature of my life I don’t want to lose.
The result is I’m one of the freest people I know. I’m not obligated on a daily basis to work for anyone. Most days I don’t have to be anywhere at any particular time. When I’m working for hire I’m often paid to travel to interesting places, meet smart, passionate people and see things few get to experience. This lifestyle is more interesting than any amount of money could compensate me for. I feel very lucky and happy and I protect my lifestyle accordingly.
In terms of ballpark revenue, it goes something like this:
- Book Royalties & Freelance writing: 40% of income
- Speaking fees: 50% of income
- Consulting fees: 10% of my income
- For the last two years I’ve earned between $100k and $120k a year.
- But these numbers are ballpark – it fluctuates every year – it’s not a salary.
It’s worth noting:
- When I quit Microsoft in 2003, my salary was higher than the above figures.
- My goal when I quit was to earn $50k a year, a number that covered my expenses. The idea of making a living independently was terrifying as I started with $0 income. I think of $50k as the low mark for sustaining this lifestyle (See should I quit my job?)
- My income varies year to year. The primary risk I have is uncertainty. I have no guarantees this will continue.
How the business works: It’s very simple. I write books. I go out on the road and work hard to promote them. When I speak, and do well, people tell others about me and the books. I have some very popular videos on youtube and that helps too. The books, if they are good, get good reviews, and sell. Requests to speak for hire or consult come in through email or the web site and I prioritize and schedule them, or turn them down if they doesn’t fit the calendar.
Unless a new book is coming out, I do little active marketing or promotion, as the frequency of speaking gigs, and the popularity of this blog, does much of that for me. If things get quiet I might tickle people who have hired me to speak before, but that has almost never happened. Things were much harder when I started, but the success of each successive book catapulted things forward.
On Book Royalties / Freelance: I have four successful books that continue to sell, but there’s no guarantee this will continue. Book sales trail off. Some fans don’t buy the books, and just read the blog. This is an external motivator that helps drive me to write the next one, and as I mentioned my primary love and ambition is writing books. I get occasional requests to write for magazines and take them when I can, but it’s not a consistent income source.
On speaking fees: Keynote style lectures are the most lucrative activity I do based on time. I’m typically paid
$7k $8k, plus travel, for keynote style lectures. This is in the mid-range for what pro-speakers charge (see Chapter 3 of Confessions if you wonder how on earth anyone, me included, is worth this much or more). I take many of these gigs as it makes up for the less lucrative time spent writing.
I used to teach workshops & courses but there has been enough demand for lectures that I rarely do this anymore. I do speaking engagements for free when it’s for a good cause, if I’m a fan of the company and want to go there (e.g. Netflix) or it’s a good opportunity to promote myself and my work (Harvard, MIT, Google, etc.) and I have new book to promote.
On Consulting: For years this was much of my income, but the last years I rarely do consulting. I have the luxury of being picky about clients – often my consulting engagements are follow-ons or additions to speaking gigs. This makes sense as people know me and the trust required to be effective as an outsider is there. I little UX/design related consulting anymore, which is funny if you knew me pre-2003.
I think of consulting as ‘brain for hire’- I sit with teams, review plans, critique projects, and advise leaders on what I see based on the hundreds of other work environments/cultures/projects I’ve seen and learned from. Speaking is preferable in that it’s easier to give clients a sense of satisfaction. I can finish a lecture and know exactly how much value I just provided. When I leave a consulting gig it’s difficult to measure value (despite what major consulting firms claim) and that makes me feel less good about taking people’s money. I do like money, but I also like feeling I earned every penny of it.
On Blogging: I have rarely viewed this blog as marketing. I’d always seen it primarily as writing and connecting. Good writing markets itself, and me. So I write here mostly as an exercise in short form writing, as a way to connect, and to help get my work out there. That’s part of why there are no ads here and why I try to avoid most of the annoyances you find on other blogs. It’s just me, you and a good, honest, intelligent discussion (at least your half is – hahaha :)
On Agents: I don’t have one and never have [Update 2014: I worked with David Fugate on The Year Without Pants]. I’ve looked for one with each of the last two books, but couldn’t find one that I liked or that was interested in the particular book I was working on (or was interested in the long view of representing me). I’d like one, but so far it’s been way more work and frustration than writing the books themselves. I haven’t needed a speaker bureau (e.g. agent), but now and then requests come in from them for gigs I would not get otherwise and I say yes.
Secret to my success: I attribute my success to working at this for years and taking a long term view. There is no secret. Without the successful books much of this would not be possible – (good) books still provide a credibility in the world that most blogs do not (and if you want advice on writing a book, this is for you). I am an army of one, not part of consulting firm, so I only have one calendar to fill which makes me lean and agile, which helps. It’s no secret, but it does seem unusual, that I feel intensely grateful to the universe I can make a living doing what I love, writing, in this era.
But the real secret is all of the people whose name I never learn who recommend my books, blog posts, and lectures to their friends, bosses and coworkers. I wish I knew more of you, but in lieu of that, thank you. I think about you often as I depend on you – I’ll try to keep up the good work. Please let me know if I don’t.
Also see: Should I quit my job now
If there’s more you want to know, ask a question below. Hope you appreciate and respect my candor here.
(Hat tip to Lynn for suggesting this topic)