Austin L. Church


The Antique Shop Model is your way out of freelance feast-or-famine.

Photo Credit: Justin Greene via Unsplash

Freelancing Fundamentals

You probably don’t have enough stuff to sell.

You’re probably inserting yourself into an tough scenario where, month after month, you have to sell enough hours or fixed-price projects to meet your revenue target.

But if you only selling writing — that is, your own skillset — and the majority of your clients only need you a handful of times each year, then you always have a shortage of clients. Each month resets the hustle clock.

When will you finally turn the corner and be able to enjoy this supposed “freedom” that everyone talks about?

Right now, you’re working longer hours than you did at your last 9-to-5.

My friend Dick Harrison’s witticism is so apropos it hurts:

“As a freelancer, I could decide when I worked—any sixty to eighty hours a week that I wanted.”

Is freelancing some kind of cruel joke?

No. Incessant hustle is all too common for freelancers with only one thing to sell — for example, writing or design.

It’s high time you got acquainted with the Antique Shop Model.

When I was a kid, my grandparents would take me on what they called an “Uncle Wiggily” adventure to Bell Buckle, Tennessee.

Bell Buckle’s downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places, and you visit for one reason and one reason only: antique shopping.

Martha and Joe Legate weren’t exactly pickers, but with little Austin in town, they loved to drive the fifty miles to Bedford County and spend browse a day browsing the farm antiques.

The nice thing about farm antiques, at least from a bright-eyed boy’s point of view, is that you can touch them. They were made to last. I could trace a finger around an old horseshoe. I could work a wooden milk churn worn shiny by years of strong hands. I could barely lift the cast iron skillets, blackened by thousands of meals’ worth of grease.

My grandmother explained why no two patchwork quilts were alike. Like all the women in Fayetteville, Tennessee, she and her mother would cut the seams of empty feed sacks and use the cotton for dresses and quilts.

They repurposed whatever odds and ends of fabric they had on hand instead of buying new. Thus, each quilt told a story about a family’s resourcefulness, their needs and their handiwork, their land and animals.

“Where does all this stuff come from?” I thought. “How do you sit all day in an antiques shop and still find antiques to sell?”

Years later, I learned about consignment.

The owner kept a ledger. Carrie Hatcher dropped off this quilt that belonged to her great-grandmother. She has others and is willing to sell if the price is right. The antique shop puts the quilt on display. If it sells, the owner earns a commission, and Carrie does too.

You will find this same consignment model at flea markets, neighborhood yard sales, and pawn shops.

A bigger pile of stuff attracts a bigger crowd. It makes sense too: More variety means that more people are more likely to find a bauble or treasure they suddenly can’t live without.

I’d like for you to fix in your mind this idea of consignment: peddling other people’s stuff and earning a sales commission.

The antique shop model comes into play in freelancing.

Let’s say you are a freelance writer, and to make $5,000 per month, you must piece together enough hourly work, fixed-price projects, and productized services to get from $0 to $5,000.

By the middle of a good month, you have made excellent headway:

  • $500 — Blogging retainer with Acme Corporation
  • $750 — Web content for a friend
  • $1,250 — New nurture sequence for CPA firm
  • $1,500 — Sales page for e-commerce site
  • $250 — Press release for local Chamber of Commerce

With $4,250 in sales and two weeks to go, surely you can hit your target.

And maybe you do. Maybe most months you sell enough of your own stuff to pass the $5,000 mark.

The challenge, as I have mentioned before, is that your own inventory will always be limited. You only have so many hours in the day, and you can only leverage your own productivity up to a certain point before you risk burnout.

You certainly don’t want to burn out, and if you’re like most freelancers, you like the idea of making more money in less time.

I have a solution for you. Adopt the antique shop model. Sell other people’s stuff.

Your own skillset and services will occupy one corner, and as each new client comes into your domain, you can inquire about their full range of needs.

Take a second look at the list above.

Aren’t other potential needs represented there? You can identify them and sell into them without being personally responsible for performing certain tasks.

  • Acme Corporation — You make write blog posts for Acme Corporation, but logs into the WordPress dashboard, formats each new post, and publishes it? Who tracks down free stock photography? Who takes the salient points, rewrites them as social posts, and gets those tweets and Facebook updates scheduled?
  • Friend — You’re already providing web content. What’s the plan for design, development, and photography?
  • CPA Firm — Once you deliver the content for the new nurture sequence, who will set it up in MailChimp? Who will split-test subject lines and monitor open and click-through rates? Who will use that data to optimize each email and increase conversions?
  • e-Commerce Site — Who will design the sales page? Will the company create more than one version and send traffic to both? Who will take the results from that split-test and rethink the content strategy? Who will talk to the customers who did buy and gain insights from them?
  • Chamber of Commerce — Who will distribute the press release? Who will contact local news stations and journalists? Is the goal bigger than creating awareness? What does success look like and who will take point?

I have my first job out of grad school to thank for this sell-more-stuff way of thinking. The owner of a local creative agency offered me a position as a copywriter, but we never had enough writing work.

I became a general factotum of sorts and filled my time with odd jobs like developing our branding strategy, social media management, creating and editing proposals, and sales and account management.

Both the agency’s principal and the creative director delegated random tasks to me: “You’re the new guy. Do this thing I don’t want to do. Clean up this mess. Solve this problem.”

Being the low man on the totem pole was a blessing in disguise.

Six months later, the economy tanked, and I lost my job. By that time, I was already wearing different hats. I was accustomed to thinking and acting like a problem-solver, instead of just a “writer” with a narrow set of responsibilities.

To sell a variety of services to each freelance client seemed obvious. That’s what the agency did.

The antique shop model differs from the agency model in two distinct ways:

  1. Agencies sell their employees’ time to clients. Freelancers must sell other freelancers’ time.
  2. Agencies lump all their services into one bill. But one freelancer selling other freelancers’ skills may structure payments in other ways.

How you bill clients for other freelancers’ work varies based on your relationship with that client and each freelancers.

Sales Commission — The client trusts my recommendation and says, in effect, “Go hire that photographer for me.” Then, that photographer might pay me a 10% commission as a token of gratitude: “Thanks for doing my marketing and selling for me. I appreciate you.” This doesn’t happen all the time, and I have gotten my freelance friends hired many times without receiving compensation.

Referral Fee — In this scenario I refer someone to a freelance friend. If my friend ends up winning the project, he or she may decide to send me $500 or 10% or whatever seems fair. These fees never come from some contractual obligation: “I won’t introduce you to this client unless you pay me.” They are a small acknowledgement of a valuable relationship — closer to a gift freely given than fee attached to penalties.

Project Management — My clients typically want a done-for-you service, so whether I introduce them to other freelancers or not, they still want me to bring the project to completion. Managing other freelancers adds a layer of complexity and risk to any project, so I tack on a fixed amount for project management to cover the extra time and make up for the extra value I create. Whether or not you put your freelance friends directly in touch with your clients is up to you.

Markup/Arbitrage — Sometimes, you may play the middleman in earnest. You pay $50 an hour for graphic design. You turn around and sell it for $75 an hour to your clients. Your clients want a positive outcome. They don’t care how the sausage is made.

Many of your clients would love to spend more money with you.

You sold them two cast-iron skillets, but were you to track down a handmade quilt, they would gladly pay you for that as well.

Why? Because you made their lives easier by saving them time. Many business owners don’t want to do their own quilt shopping.

They want you to act like the owner of an antiques shop who curates a collection — in your case, a roster of talented freelancers. As for your financial arrangements with your roster, your clients could care less about that.

And you will find it easier to get from $0 to $5,000 each month if you can sell more stuff to fewer clients. To be sure, keep selling your own skillset, but be on the lookout for other needs suggested by each project.

The Antique Shop Model is your way out of freelance feast-or-famine. You can sell $4,250 worth of writing each month, or you can sell $8,500 worth of writing and other creative services.

The only thing missing is your roster of talented freelancers.

Now, for some homework.

Do you have freelancers whom you trust to do excellent work on time, on budget? How deep is your roster?

I keep a running list of freelancers in each specialization so that I can confidently say yes to more projects and fulfill them quickly.

Click this link to share your name and email address, and I’ll send you the download link for my Freelancer Roster spreadsheet template.

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