How I make a living: in detail
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.
Some of this is covered in chapter 3 of Confessions of a Public Speaker, which you can read free online here.
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 and is more valuable than more financial wealth.
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. 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 generally trail off as the books age. 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
$6 $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 visit (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)
Great post. Thanks for this. I’ve always wondered about this kind of thing. I wish more people who have nontraditional careers would be so open about how they really make their living. It’s very helpful for the rest of us, who may some day want to try something new, but have no clue how to make it actually work.
Good post as always tho’ I’d suggest you work with someone in my line of work (exec and team coaching) if you want to push the income number northward. You’ve got some real talents and I have to wonder if / how they’re being deleveraged.
Hi J. Mike: Thanks much for the comment.
The tradeoff mostly comes down to time. I do see ways to earn more money, but they mostly involve sacrificing more time away from writing, a trade that works against my primary goals.
Open to ideas if you have them, of course.
Thanks Sean. The book (Confessions) detailed much of the above, so it’s not much of a stretch for me to post it here, in more detail.
In the book I mention how curious it is that salaries are generally kept so secret. Many fields (military, police, Senators, The President of the United States, etc.) have public salaries that are well known and it seems there isn’t anarchy or Armageddon in those fields.
We talk a great deal about transparency these days, yet this basic transaction, how much do you cost and how much do you earn, is largely kept secret. It’s odd to me. We have a very strange relationship to money, indeed. We all want more of it, but we don’t want to talk about how much we have or don’t have. Isn’t that odd? Not sure where it comes from, or if it’s more of a culture thing here in America or not.
I understand why it’s seen as immodest to talk about money, but so much of what we spend our money on in the U.S. are status symbols of a sort or another, which are intended to communicate how wealthy or cool we are. So we pretend not to want to talk about money, but then spend our money trying to show people, passively, how much money we have. Isn’t that strange?
Great candor. Isn’t speaking just another kind of consulting though, albeit a more general one.
Hi Matt: Thanks.
To answer your question – I suppose it is, but the way the business of it works is different enough that i think of them differently.
To be hired to speak is a fairly discrete act – to be hired to consult nearly always involves several conversations about the situation, the team, the project, the issues, before the engagement begins. It’s much more involved and that’s part of why I do less of it – effectively speaking pays me better for my time, most of the time.
Thanks for the great post and the information that is included in your book (For what it’s worth, I own all three of your books).
My question is on how your “business” is structured. Did you set-up an LLC or corporation, or is everything just “personal” income?
A second question, if you don’t mind. You discussed the breakdown of your income. Could you touch on your expenses running your business. I can assume the basics of having a home office, but I am curious if there some expenses that might not be obvious.
Thanks very much for the post, Scott. I have read and enjoyed The myths of Innovation, and it (unexpectedly) turned out to be quite inspirational when I decided that I, too, could create new products and solutions. This post now is again very inspiring: we are used to finding hype and hyperbole in blogs of this kind, and it’s refreshing to find someone who is committed to speaking the truth, and sharing real, human experiences with others. (I think of the Balsamiq Blog | http://www.balsamiq.com/blog as a similar source of honest commentary).
Hey Scott, thanks for the real numbers.
How did you know to make the jump? I’m having trouble launching!
nice article. thanks for sharing.
It’s funny how we automatically equate fame with riches (the media has trained us way too well). So whenever someone achieves a level of fame in any niche (like yourself), we assume that they must be raking it in. Thanks for putting this idea in perspective for us, it is eye-opening.
It’s amazing how many people place so high of an importance on money that they will trade making more of it in exchange for doing a job they hate. When you really sit and think about how much money you need to get by, $50K is more than enough.
I left a high-paying job a year ago, currently looking at more interesting career options, and happier for it. I get butterflies in my stomach when I sit down to write…I think I’m onto something.
Thanks for sharing, great post.
you should consider using ads (at least one small) to increase your income…….there are many good ad networks also where ads do not look bad but are beautiful….
Hi Scott, Thank you for sharing this with us. Posts like these are a great motivational source for me. As I’m hoping (and planning) to one day too become my own independent one-man army.
Currently, I don’t feel confident enough to take this step just yet.
If you don’t mind sharing a little more of your rational between the career change, I have many questions: What made you “go for it”? Is there a single moment that you said “it’s been enough, time for a change”? Or is it more something that grew over a long time?
Thanks for this extremely useful and informational post Scott. I’ve typically found that most freelancers (or consultants) don’t provide their income details (for various reasons), so it’s nice of you to have provided the information.
Just wanted to say really enjoyed the post. I’ve also enjoyed reading your blog over the last six months. Keep up the good work. Do you plan, or have you blogged on how you structure your working day, or how you prioritize what you need to get done? If so I would really like to read if you could provide a blog link I’d be grateful, or if you could put it as a potential post. Thanks for your candour.
Thanks for this great post. I
Really appreciate the perspective!
I really love understanding what the world looks like for people who sit in different shoes and do things I don’t, but (as you observed) most people find it hard to be so open about how their lifestyle works financially.
Once again a fascinating post. I agree with your comments about the salary stuff. Spent 20 years in the military and it’s a non-issue. I jump to industry and can get fired for revealing how much or little I earn. In this environment there’s this “mystery” stuff going on which still feels funny. But I understand because there isn’t (generally) the fixed hierarchy of grades with everyone of the same grade earning more-or-less the same. In private industry, comparisons get made and people feel hurt or get an unjustified and inflated view of themselves.
Scott, I just stumbled upon your blog from google and am glad that I did. You’re clearly at the top of what you are doing and I’ve a lot to learn from you. Coincidentally or not, I quit my job at a Fortune 100 company a couple of years ago to pursue my passion full-time. I’m a full-time coach and speaker/trainer today. I write at my blog which I see more as a medium for connection rather than revenue, like you.
I’m going to stop here rather than rattle/gush on about the similarities or my positive impression of what I’ve been reading so far. I’ve bookmarked your site and will be sure to read around. Look forward to knowing you better :)
This information is golden. As a future O’Reilly author, it’s nice to see your transparency and your values. You rule.
Belated thanks for posting this, and including numbers. You also got some interesting comments, above. My own consulting situation has been both similar and very different: I also value my time enormously, and that includes vacation and other time off, which I never got enough of in an American employee situation. I can’t stay creative, trained, and productive without my own time to diddle around with new tech and take classes or go to new conferences, etc. Former salary vs. income since quitting have remained surprisingly consistent, despite an incredible improvement in my quality of life and happiness – about the same as your current income. I used to try to speak/publish as resume material, but now I do it when I want to teach something I know, or to make my name visible to people I may want to consult for in the future.
There have been some salary surveys for web/tech consultants, and I did one for user experience/usability consulting a few years ago… maybe out of date now, but the enormous variety of rates was a big surprise to me. A kid right out of school with no mortgage and no concern about health insurance estimates his/her “sufficient income” very differently, I think.
This article was very enlightening and quite challenging for someone such as me. I am in the process of starting my own independent fashion consulting firm and I am a little apprehensive concerning venturing into the unknown. I have so much passion brewing for this venture that everything else seems to be at a deficit regarding satisfaction. I want to make the leap; however, fear continues to remind me of the costs of failure. What advice can you give regarding taking that first step to being the master of your own time?
Wow! thank you for being so open about making a living as a speaker.
I am a RN in my mid 50’s. I find it hard to go to work anymire, because I know I have a lot more to offer the world than what my employer or any healthcare employer expects or wants for me. In order for me to make a steady six-figure income, I will have to give an employer 10-12 hour days. That is not what I want in life. I rather live a lifestyle that I can enjoy, have flexiblity of time to be with family, and still have an income of 6 figures or more per year. That’s my dream, and my goal!