Desirae Odjick is a product and content marketer, which she says is a formal way of saying she tells stories about software. Desirae currently works at Shopify, and has freelanced extensively for fintech companies as a result of her work on Half Banked — the personal finance blog she started.
In this episode, Desirae and Mohammed talk about how Canadian freelancers can effectively market their business and create opportunities to generate passive income.
Short on time? Skip to the parts you're most interested in.
[01:01] Getting started with freelancing
[05:23] Experimenting with multiple revenue streams
[09:32] Thought process behind building multiple revenue streams
[18:36] Misconceptions around passive income
[21:31] Strategy for marketing your freelance business
[23:56] Potential hurdles to marketing
[25:38] When marketing doesn't make sense for your business
[27:42] Tips for getting better ROI from your marketing efforts
[31:14] Advice on getting started, raising your rates and generating passive income
[34:27] Selling your products and services to other freelancers
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Desirae: I'm so excited.
Mohammed: Hahaha. Yay! I actually am quite excited, too. Let’s get started by understanding how you got started in freelancing and what's your experience been like so far.
Desirae: I got started freelancing by accident. This is a kind of a funny story, but I started a personal finance blog because I was trying to think about how I was going to manage my own money and the next logical step was, of course, to write about it on the internet. I did that for about a year and a half; just for free as a passion project.
I just loved it! I was really focused on blogging and interested in trying to figure out my own finances. As I was writing about [my experiences], I was also trying to promote the blog and make sure it was a helpful resource for people. One day, I got an email at my blog email address saying, “Hey, I run this website that also talks about money. Do you want to write for us?” And I responded, “I guess I do want to write for you! It’s extra revenue and I'm really focused on trying to figure out my money. So, our interests seem very aligned here.”
I think a lot of bloggers will probably identify with [the assertion that] the first freelance client really teaches you what the floor is for freelance pricing. I think I was earning $40 per article. I know. It was years ago. I was very young. Please don't judge me, but also please never accept $40 for an article as a writer. [Anyway], that was really the start of my freelancing journey.
After that, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of different clients in and around the financial writing and tech space. And that's how I got started freelancing.
I was very much [part of] that generation of predominantly women who got into HTML because they had a Neopets account.
Mohammed: So, you wanted to start focusing on [your own money management] and then you decided, “Hey, I should write about it.” Did that [idea] come about because you were already the type of person that was writing a lot and doing other types of writing and blogging? Or, was it more so like, “not only am I going to learn to freelance, but I'm also going to learn what it means to create content online?’
Desirae: That's a very good question, and I probably should have started there! I think, rather than this coming out of the blue, I've always loved writing. Even all the way back to high school, I loved the internet and loved writing. I was very much [part of] that generation of predominantly women who got into HTML because they had a Neopets account.
I had my live journal accounts over the years so writing online was not new to me. I also happened to have studied marketing in school and worked as a marketer at the time. So, I was not new to the concept of blogging or the concept of writing on the internet. So, it wasn't as out of the blue that I thought, “I should blog about my budget” but rather when the question “who really wants to write about budgeting?” came up, it turns out [the answer] was me. I was that weirdo.
Mohammed: And now look at you: You've got a website, Half Banked, and you've got partnerships (or at least affiliates) with Wealthsimple, KOHO, Borrowell, if I recall correctly, definitely EQ, just to name a few. Almost everyone plugging their product who is looking for influential people is working with you.
Desirae: Thank you! Yeah, I've been very lucky, and it's really interesting because Half Banked, the blog, has never been my full-time income. Because of that, I've been in a really lucky place where, on the affiliate side, I've been able to say “no” more than I've said “yes.” The affiliates that I do have are part of a curated group because they have products that I actually use.
I've been so, so fortunate that I've never had to take an affiliate deal or plug a product that I don't personally use because of financial reasons. And I think that that has made me more successful with affiliate marketing as a passive income stream and [freelancing overall] because I can speak credibly to the products since I actually use them.
I started with freelancing — that was the first type of monetization that I pursued. I added affiliates shortly after that.
Mohammed: And, speaking of affiliate income, has that been your primary source of revenue?
Desirae: Yeah. I have experimented with a few different types of revenue in my business over the time that I've been running it. I've been running Half Banked for about five years. And, I started with freelancing — that was the first type of monetization that I pursued. I added affiliates shortly after that.
I tested out a paid product about three years ago. But I found the customer support side of it was too much on top of my freelance commitments and my full-time job. So, I never launched again. I said I would, but I didn't so [the product] is just sitting there. Although it's ready and I could sell it tomorrow. But freelancing was really a nice [avenue] to be able to scale up. I didn't scale it in terms of hours spent on it because it was always on the side of a full-time job, but I was able to scale it in terms of pricing and delivering more value for the time I was spending. Working with some of those clients was really great.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with more sponsored posts and other storytelling projects on Half Banked as well. Not just because of the clients I work with, but those projects have generally been really fun and tell a more interesting story than [something you’d read on a] corporate blog (in my experience).
Mohammed: You mentioned the paid product that's, “Ready to go tomorrow.” How do you define a paid product and what’s yours?
Desirae: I think of paid products as [products that sell information], like an ebook or an online course. My product was called The Quick Budget Fix. It was a 20-day email course that you would get over the course of four weeks and it would give you a 15-minute chunk of things to do to tackle your own budget.
By the end of the 20 emails, if you had done each of the little tasks, you would have a budget that felt good for you and helped you achieve your financial goals.
Now, as I'm talking through this, I’m realizing I just didn't price it properly. And that was the problem.
Mohammed: Wow! That sounds awesome. So, you have this product that can generate income for you, but it seems that the customer success part of it is what's keeping you from wanting to launch it again.
Desirae: Yeah. I mean, I hope a lot of freelancers actually don't identify with the problem I ran into because you'll be a better business person than I was if you don't. But what I found was since this was an informational text product, it was not super high priced.
I don't even remember exactly what I sold it for — I think it was like $39 — not a high priced product by any means. [Usually], the business model of a lower-priced info product is that it's fully hands-off. But the problem I ran into was that I really wanted everyone to have as much success as possible.
[My vision was]: if you give me $39, I will solve your problems. But that was a little bit more commitment than I had priced into the product. I really prided myself on answering any question a client sent me within 24 hours. I was running a Facebook group for the people in my course. It was really intense.
Now, as I'm talking through this, I’m realizing I just didn't price it properly. And that was the problem, but I just couldn't [stop myself from] over-investing in my students' success. That's why it felt overwhelming at the time. I'm literally only just realizing this. It's been like three years since I launched that product and now I'm realizing why it didn't work.
I always had such a hard limit that I had to think outside the box if I ever wanted to freelance full-time.
Mohammed: Maybe we'll change the name of the podcast to “Financial Therapy” or something of that sort.
A lot of the times, when freelancers get started, they think, “Hey, this is the rate that I figured out, and the more hours I work, the more I'll get paid.” A year goes by and they think, “I’ll raise my prices. Then maybe I'll find a client on retainer or something.” They typically just focus on that freelancing part.
How did the idea for you to create a paid product, an affiliate program, and building out additional revenue streams come about?
Desirae: I was really lucky that I had a full-time job. At the time, when I was trying to take interviews for articles from my car in the parking lot outside my work, I didn't necessarily feel that way. But what it always gave me was a really hard stop on the number of hours I could work. I always had to be cognizant of that.
At most, I had evenings and weekends. I always had such a hard limit that I had to think outside the box if I ever wanted to freelance full-time. I [knew I had to] scale my income to a point where it was sustainable with just the time I had available. I couldn’t do that by just selling more hours.
I realized, I either had to raise my prices or my hours. Or, create more scalable forms of revenue that were not selling my time. I did a mix of both because the clients I was working with at the time and who were my regular sources of revenue, only paid so much. Fortunately, I was able to find those clients because I had a content-based business, Half Banked, where I was still writing about my own personal finances.
Between the blog and my clients, I found a balance that worked for me. In the days when I thought I wanted to do this full-time, I knew from my own personal risk tolerance, I needed both arms of my business to be able to support me and pay my bills. And, I needed that to happen within the confines of the hours that I had to work with at the time.
You could be a freelance designer and be an expert at using a very niche design software. If that software is growing rapidly and no one's selling a course on how to use it yet, that could be a really valuable [product] to add to your personal business.
Mohammed: I like that a lot because I think most of us think it's either, “I work more hours to get paid more or I work fewer hours and I don't get paid as much,” rather than recognizing that there are opportunities for them to think, “I will work the same or fewer hours, but increase my rates, my revenue streams, and any other cash flow options.’
Did you identify that affiliate and a paid product was the way to go or were there other passive revenue-generating income streams that you initially identified, but then narrowed down to those two?
Desirae: I’ve touched upon [identifying different revenue streams] already. But, the affiliates was one [stream] that happened organically. [When you’re in the thick of things, you don’t always recognize growth as it happens].
When I started the blog in 2015, I wasn't aware that we were about to see a massive growth of FinTech companies in Canada. Or a rise in importance of robo advisors in the financial landscape. If I had, I would probably be retired by now. But, I was really lucky that as the blog was growing, so were these companies.
[As these companies grew, I began to think that maybe looking at affiliates was the right thing to do]. [On several occasions], they’d reach out to me or I had early conversations with them because I was already writing about finance. [It should be noted that] the Canadian financial blog landscape is, for better or worse, not as crowded as some other countries.
There are a lot of personal finance bloggers in the States; there just aren't quite as many here in Canada. A lot of the affiliate companies that I worked with reached out fairly early because I was just one of the only people that they could work with at the time. So, it worked out for both of us
Unfortunately, I can’t describe [much of the strategy behind] my affiliates streams, but in terms of [my paid product], my original intent was, “if I create this once, I can keep selling it.” And that income won’t be directly tied to my time. [I’d definitely do that again], because I really do think over the next 10 years online education — no matter what you want to teach — will be such an opportunity.
Freelancers tend to be experts in a lot of things that they do. Whatever your freelance craft is, whether you're a freelance designer or a freelance developer, or you run an agency, or you're a freelance writer, there's a lot outside of the actual skill.
[With that in mind], you could be a freelance designer and be an expert at using a very niche design software. If that software is growing rapidly and no one's selling a course on how to use it yet, that could be a really valuable [product] to add to your personal business. One you can sell over and over again, that isn't just selling your design hours and your craft.
Just don't do what I did and plan to be a one-on-one resource for your students, which takes up a lot of your time. If that's your plan, please price it [appropriately]. Please! Please charge more than $39. This probably doesn't need to be said, but it would be a good strategic decision to do that.
Anything under $100 should not come with your time attached to it. Especially when, as a freelancer, your time is typically how you would start to monetize.
Mohammed: Yeah, for sure, I love that. I think if somebody does decide to charge $39 for something that is downloadable for their audience, perhaps they can even upsell them. [They can do that by] making themselves available on an hourly basis for coaching or [to answer questions] at an additional cost or perhaps come up with another program [that addresses these issues or questions] altogether or have a special, paid Slack group, where clients get to meet each other.
Then, rather than you being the person that has to answer all the questions, people in the Slack group just answer each other's questions. You can drop in every now and then to make sure the conversation is flowing and anything that needs attention gets looked after while maintaining the same amount of work that you're putting in.
Desirae: A hundred percent and I've seen so many amazing freelancers do things like this in their business. I recently took a really great $39 webinar where the guy obviously prepared slides for it and was live on the call. So, if you showed up live, he was there. You got two hours of his time interacting with him delivering the presentation.
But then the real business play was that was just a validation for how many people care about this problem. And now he's planning to launch a more focused masterclass where he actually works with people in small groups, coaching them on how to start the project he was talking about in the webinar.
That is, of course, a much higher priced option and a much sustainable business model. Anything under $100 should not come with your time attached to it. Especially when, as a freelancer, your time is typically how you would start to monetize.
But those kinds of products are a quick win: you can deliver real value because you know so much about your field. [Be sure to] test to see if people are willing to pay for that solution. Test to see what your audience actually wants and offer it quickly with a small product under $100. These are things that anyone who has (even a small) audience should be testing.
Mohammed: I really like that. This is also a good time to note that just because we all dream about having passive income [while] sitting at a beach somewhere, there are still misconceptions that passive income means you're not doing anything.
You talked about how you created this product, and then you realized that there was a lot more customer support [than you expected]. One thing we didn't even get into, [is just putting the product together itself takes a lot of time].
What other misconceptions around additional streams of revenue have you come across?
Desirae: One of the biggest things that a lot of freelancers should take into account is how not passive these kinds of products can be. The product that you could teach, write about or create because you know it so well [exists because] you've invested so much of your time in becoming an expert at what you do.
That’s not something that anybody can just pull out of thin air. You've invested time in your craft and in your skills. [Even if it’s something you can come up with quickly before you monetize it], it's still not “passive” because you spent a lot of time learning how to produce something that quickly. Even the [outside research] you put into your educational product or whatever you're going to sell, is an investment.
[Another thing you need to do to maintain a passive income is marketing]. Products won't just sell themselves. [This is an interesting thing to tackle] as a freelancer because you already have a reputation. Your audience might be small [but that just means you have a very] niche community that you serve.
Maybe you work primarily with marketing managers in SaaS (Software as a Service) businesses in Toronto. Among those people, you might be very well regarded. And if you can create a product that solves their needs, they might buy it. But it's because you've built the reputation. If you have a good reputation with those people, that's your audience. And if that's who you're selling to, that's great.
[Let’s say], on the other hand, you have a great reputation with marketing managers, but you want to sell to designers. You need to find out where designers are hanging out, you need to market to those designers, and then you need to build credibility with them.
That is also an investment of time you need to make before you can make passive income selling an informational product or a course. So, there really is a lot that goes into it. Even if you've built up an audience, you understand them, and you're really good at what you're eventually going to teach them.
It can feel easier, but just because it feels easy doesn't mean [you’re not utilizing your skills].
The biggest thing when it comes to marketing is understanding what problem you're trying to solve in your business.
Mohammed: This is a very good segue to understanding marketing a little bit better. Most freelancers (or people thinking about freelancing think they [can dive into it and only depend on their particular skill or experience] only to realize that they actually have to build a business from scratch. And, they either have to network to drive sales or [have a] reasonable amount of marketing experience [so that they’re] able to position, market, and grow their business.
Given that you've been talking about how — even from a product standpoint — you have to go about marketing the product. I'm curious to understand how you went about marketing your business.
Desirae: The biggest thing when it comes to marketing is understanding what problem you're trying to solve in your business. The example that [you used] is really great. If the problem is that you’ve just started and you have no clients, that's a very well defined problem. [In this case, marketing would be defined] as any efforts made to get in front of people who want (and are able) to hire you.
Let's keep the example of marketing managers in SaaS businesses in Toronto. Let's say you have services that they need, start looking at what networking events they go to follow them on Twitter, connect with them, ask your network if they know any [marketing managers they can introduce you to].
Ask if you can interview them, research your audience [so that you can better] understand what their needs are. Try to understand how you can:
[A lot of that is a mix of] business strategy and marketing, but that strategy is going to guide you down the funnel [and help you develop a marketing tactic that is going to work].
[Most freelancers who are thinking about marketing tactics think], “I'm going to run a Facebook ad; I'm going to start my email list; I'm going to start a blog; I'm going to start all these things.” But, before you do any of those things, you have to understand what problem you're trying to solve, who your audience is, and what you’ll offer them.
[Once you get]that core understanding, it'll be a lot easier to figure out where to invest your time in marketing and how your marketing efforts are actually going to help you close a client.
The biggest hurdle is starting. It's getting your feet wet with that first project.
Mohammed: That is a very nice breakdown of how freelancers should be thinking about marketing. I love how you incorporate the business and the overall planning [with identifying the right marketing tactics].
We've seen this happen quite a lot where people put together this really long business plan, and then they start the business and none of it applies. What hurdles have you run into as you've marketed your business?
Desirae: The biggest hurdle is starting. It's getting your feet wet with that first project. My investment in marketing was the money I left on the table writing for $40 an article for a year. I took on other clients during that year using the fact that I understood freelancing and I understood that [if I was spending time on a $40 an hour project, I’d need to charge $100 an hour for the next project] because I only have so many hours that I can sell.
To [avoid coming up with a “perfect” but ultimately ineffective business plan], make those decisions at a high level. [I’m talking about] a one-sentence answer [to the question], “How do I serve my clients, and what do they need from me?” Then, start testing. Reach out to people and see if they're willing to pay for it. It's a lot harder to test a freelance service but, in my experience, every freelance project has taught me something that left me better prepared for the next one. Whether it was understanding that I could ask for more money or showing me a better process for running into a tricky issue that I now know I'm going to avoid on the next project.
Testing and iterating is the best and quickest way to figure out if your plan is going to work and how you can make it better.
If you've got a waitlist of clients, you probably need to raise your prices.
Mohammed: Has there been a time when you've told someone that maybe it's not in their interest to market their business and maybe a sales-oriented approach might be better?
Desirae: Definitely. A lot of us think we have to be doing all the marketing all the time [without asking ourselves], “What problems am I trying to solve with marketing?” [Don’t stress yourself out] because you don't have time to be on Instagram Stories and TikTok and Twitter and running your newsletter and doing a website. [You can’t do all that while you’re] drowning in client work.
If you're getting referrals, etc, the problem is not that you need to market more. If you've got a waitlist of clients, you probably need to raise your prices. And so maybe marketing could help you raise your prices.
Maybe a quick update of your website makes you [more comfortable with being] able to justify charging a higher price when new client projects come in. Then, your problem is no longer, “I need to get clients.” It always comes back to the question, “what problem am I solving?” And if it's not a marketing problem, maybe you don't need marketing to solve it.
Mohammed: I'm taking a moment here to digest all of this. [It] makes total sense. I like how you've structured it and I appreciate your approach being so logical.
Desirae: It's only ever logical when it's not your business. [To me], it seems strategic in retrospect. So, let's just say it was strategic. [Even though I, at one point, believed that] selling my time for $39 was going to be a good business decision.
Mohammed: [Many of the] freelancers that I've talked to have started their freelance business, [realized they needed to start marketing], and started going on every different platform.
They'll be on TikTok; they'll be on Twitter; they'll be on Facebook. Perhaps you’ve also made this mistake as well. I don't know. But, [I'm curious to learn if you’ve noticed any trends or strategic or tactical hacks [for] people to grow or accelerate their marketing efforts].
Desirae: My journey is an interesting one to learn from because I could easily say the most valuable part of my marketing was running my own website. [It was a valuable way to attract freelance clients and other types of freelance work ]. I was freelancing as a financial writer and my website showcased my work, financial writing. It was a very natural fit.
I actually did maintain a lot of social media profiles because driving traffic to my website got me an audience for my financial writing, which made me more valuable as a financial writer. If you have a much more niche, service-based freelance business, then you’re goal should be to get in front of the right people who can hire you.
If you do that, understand where they hang out online. You don't need to be on every social media platform, but if your target audience hangs out on Instagram, you should hang out on Instagram because that's where [can connect with them].
I should also say you need to have your own website. The website is not necessarily just for building an audience or building your [email] list. If I was running a new freelance business today, where I was trying to make it easier for clients to find and hire me, I would want them to find me on the social media platform that they already use.
[Once I] figured out what that was, I’d build a profile there and then build a website so that when they find me on that social media profile, they can click through to my website and they can see examples of what I can do for them. Whether that's case studies or a design portfolio or articles about the thing that I want to write for them about. Maybe I run a business that is aligned with their business and my website shows how I can benefit them. That's how I would use my website.
Those two things are what I would do if I was starting today and I wanted to get in front of the right people and make it easier for them to want to hire me.
The financial space in Canada is a very small world.
Mohammed: How many of your clients currently follow this path? You're definitely at a point [in your career] where any potential client in your industry already knows you, whether it's from your website or from your social platforms. Am I right to assume that?
Desirae: Yeah, the financial space in Canada is a very small world.
Mohammed: What advice do you have for Canadian freelancers who are looking to start their business? Whether they’ve just recognized they haven't been giving their business as much of a marketing push as they could or they’ve been pricing themselves out and are now looking to create more passive income opportunities?
Desirae: I'm going to tackle this in three parts because I think you've asked three really good questions there. There's what should you do if you're just starting out? There's what should you do if you need to raise your prices? And, there's what should you do if you're looking at passive income?
If you're just starting out, be scrappy. Try to get your first client as quickly as you can and learn from that project. And to do that, figure out who is actually hiring you. What value you provide for them and where they're hanging out and go to those places. Whether that's in-person networking or Twitter, wherever it is, just be there and ready to sell to them. Getting that first client is the first step.
If I had to raise my prices, I would probably invest in making sure that my value was obvious before someone reached out to me. So, whether it's a referral or someone who found me on Twitter, when they go to my website they can answer the question, “Should I work with this person?”
It's a lot easier to get a yes to a higher price if, by the time they reach you, they already know you can do what they need to hire you for. As a financial writer, if someone reads my website and thinks, “I want exactly the kind of writing that she does’, and they have money to pay for that? It's a no-brainer for them by the time they've reached back out to me to say “yes” or “no” to a premium price.
Lastly, if you're thinking about adding passive income [to your revenue streams], think about what unique value you can deliver and how people are going to find it.
If you can sell a $500 course that teaches a skill to the clients you already have, that they can [use on a] self-serve basis, it frees you up to not have offer that lower-tier service anymore. Charge more for your premium consulting on top of it and empower your clients to be better at what they do. That's a great win!
And maybe that's how you look at passive income: it's something a little bit lighter weight. Say, there's a tool you really love, and they have an affiliate program. Sign up! If you already have site visitors who are open to taking your recommendation because you're a very credible user of that tool and have written about it a few times, be sure to monetize the links that are already there.
That's a much lighter way to start than a $500 course. Flip those around and try the links first.
Don't ever limit yourself to the opportunities that are just within your specific skill set, because your skill set is a lot bigger than you think it is.
Mohammed: I've noticed recently that some freelancers are creating products for other freelancers because they are further ahead. Let's say somebody is a developer and they are further ahead in their freelancing career, but they recognize that there are now, other developers coming into the mix who want to figure out how to get started.
You'll have freelancers that'll create templates, or some sort of package and market those to new freelancers that are coming into the market. So [your audience is] not just limited to corporate customers. The freelance community itself can buy from you.
Desirae: A hundred percent. I think it's super interesting as well. I've seen a lot of freelancers teaching smaller parts of their skill set so that freelancers who are less experienced can learn from them. The biggest thing that I take away from that is, like in your example of the developer, that you should never limit yourself to just the craft that you sell as part of your freelancing.
Because you know a lot more than that. If you're a freelancer, you're running a business where what you sell happens to be your skills. But as part of that, you're learning how to run a business that is very specific to what you do. You're learning a lot about the companies that you work with and the industry dynamics that you work within.
You're learning a lot about the tools that you work with and how you've set them up to work best for you and your business. You're learning a lot about how to manage your time and how to manage your energy. You've learned how to figure out your accounting and do all of your taxes and you; you've learned a lot.
So, don't ever limit yourself to the opportunities that are just within your specific skill set, because your skill set is a lot bigger than you think it is.
Mohammed: I love that. And I think this is a good place for us to wrap up. Where can people find out more about you and your work online?
Desirae: Thank you so much for having me! First of all, this was a delight, but I will take that plug opportunity and tell you that the personal finance blog that I have been talking about this whole time is halfbanked.com. And you can also find me on my personal website, which is desirae.ca — which yes is a flex that I have it. I'm very proud of that domain.