Let’s say you want to earn $150,000 this year.

Okay. Can do.

Here’s the math:

To pull in $150,000, you need to attract at least 150 clients who spend about $1,000 a year on your stuff. (Every week, you must snag three new clients. They need to arrive on a conveyor belt.)

Or, you need to land 50 clients who will use about $3,000 of your services. (One new client a week.)

Or, you can find 5 clients who can send you about $30,000 worth of work during the year.

Or maybe just one client with a $75,000 budget, plus a bunch of others who buy a lot now and then.

The point is, the realities of freelancing overwhelmingly favor bigger-paying clients. Higher-fee projects. Repeat work from busy customers.

There is no Walmart model for freelancing. There is no freelance equivalent of the $1.99 iPhone app.

Every freelancer I know always makes more money working with big spenders, heavy users, and high-ticket projects. Repeat, always.

You want to clamber ever higher on the food chain.

If you’re getting, say, $2,000 for given bit of work now, the goal is to attract people who will pay $5,000 for for that sort of work. And up and up. That is the only way to scale.

It means that eighty percent — no, make that ninetyfour percent — of our hunting energy should be aimed at the big fish, the cash cows, the frequent flyers, the folks with the deliciously plump budgets.

Yeah, even when you’re starting out. And yes, even if you think you suck (like I did), or you have no portfolio, or you’re just a coward (like I was.)

Always have your eye out for the whales.

Picasso didn’t get famous by selling paintings to shopkeepers at $2.37 a pop.

Where the money is

Me?  I wasted entirely too much time where the money isn’t: with the smaller, onesie-twosie clients: the local entrepreneur, the spunky start-up, fledgling rock band, the trendy new restaurant in town, a two-man insurance agency.

I told myself I was being smart, carving out a niche in an underserved market. I figured I could be a guru to these folks, with few competitors to worry about.

And I had a fantasy that these little enterprises would miraculously grow and start buying more work and paying me more handsome sums.

(If you’re laughing aloud at that, good for you. You are already savvier than I was.)

Sure, working for small clients can be creatively satisfying. Like an artist friend told me, there’s a certain buzz in seeing your logo writ large, driving past on a bakery truck.

But there is simply not enough tonnage among the small companies and infrequent users. And not enough hardcore, do-or-die need.  You are always tangential.

And I discovered, duh, that I couldn’t feed myself writing cutesie ads for a balloon delivery service at $51 each, fun or not.

So if you’re doing something like that now, cut it out.

(Okay, you can play around down there for a while, just to limber up, just to break in your invoicing software. So give it a month, then cut it out.)

And keep your radar tuned to the kind of clients you can build a career on, clients that can afford you.  Clients who actually need you.

So who are these big-money clients?

People who need a lot of what you do

I’m thinking of the marketing manager for a company that makes software for purchasing managers.

She’s responsible for a 90-page web site, a pile of product demos, some webcasts, a bunch of whitepapers, and a lot of downloadable ‘how-to’ info. She buys copy, design, and web programming every day of the week. She has to.

If you forge one relationship with her, you can feast on work for months. Or years.  And you don’t have to start from scratch each time.  She is worth $20,000.

And when she moves onto a bigger job next year, she’ll take you along.

But the guy who’s opening that Asian/Mexican fusion restaurant across town?  No.

He buys one identity, one website, then he’s done until 2014. Nice guy, maybe, but small money.

It’s far smarter to chase that creative director of the advertising agency/design firm/web development shop. He hands out freelance assignments all the time. Illustration. Specialized copy. Conceptual photography. Somebody who can work magic over a weekend. He needs to get stuff done.

Even if he doesn’t pay the highest rates on the planet, his lush volume is worth a busload of one-shot clients.

I know a photographer who grows positively tumescent when viewing a website with 1,204 product shots. There, he knows, is a client worth wooing.

Clients whose job is to buy stuff like yours

If you build content for a living, hook up with people who buy content for a living. There is money there.

Are you an illustrator? There is an editor at a publishing company who commissions 300+ illustrations a year for textbooks or children’s books or promotional posters. She’s looking for and talking to illustrators all day long.  You want to know her.

Find the producer at a video/animation firm that creates multimedia for high-profile companies. He orchestrates scriptwriters, shooters, animators, CG specialists. And he spends two hours every Friday afternoon authorizing invoices.

The project director at a development shop, a game developer. He has code crying to be written. All the time.

These people are professional buyers. You don’t need to hold their hands and explain every little thing. And you can usually reach them somehow. It’s their responsibility to keep an eye out for talent, for people who can deliver. They get it.

Yes, these folks can be tough, opinionated, capricious. They may blow you off, or keep you waiting in the wings forever, alongside nine other hopeful freelancers. But if you win them over (and you can), they can be fiercely loyal. And profitable.

Companies that live and die on what you do

The closer your work affects the core of a company’s business, the more money there is.

Example.  Crate & Barrel spends lavishly on design, photography, UI. It is what they do. They will talk your ear off about design and user experience.  They have budget for that.

So does Nike, Apple and Ikea. And all the eager companies trying to be the next Nike, Apple and Ikea.

The CPA firm? Nope. They don’t care. You’ll always be ninth priority. You might as well be selling copier toner or carpet cleaning. You are an expense.

A designer friend invited me to meet with the owners of a concrete company who needed a website. These guys made piles of money. They were wearing wristwatches that cost more than my car. They ran a fleet of huge trucks that delivered concrete all over the state. They had just spent $4.2 million for some fancy rock crusher.

But they were pinching pennies on the website, and spent most of the meeting checking their iPhones. They just didn’t give a shit about design and content, which to them, were no more important to the business than brake linings or having the parking lot restriped. They would never be big-money clients unless we were selling rock crushers. We were too far from the core.

We left.

Appealing to the bigger clients

It’s all about dependability

In the small-client world, you’re working with the owner, the founder, the sole proprietor.

But with bigger clients, you’re working with someone who has a boss. And that changes everything.

Your creative director or webmaster or editor or design director has to answer to a higher-up,  someone who can ask where the hell the project is, who hired that idiot, or why does this look like crap?

And your client will usually have people downstream waiting on the content, or the pages, or the shots, or the code. They will have their own ‘clients’ within the company, who will be all over their ass if things go south.

They do not want to go to their bosses and say, um, well, it’s not finished yet, or it came out lame, or it’s all wrong, because, well, some freelancer gave me a hard time.

These busy, bigger-money clients are looking for people who can deliver. People who will make them look good, relieve pain, make stuff that everyone likes.  End of story.

Which means everything about your web site, your emails, your portfolio, your phone conversations must scream “Pro,”  “Reliable”, “Gets it”, “Will not crap out.”

No, you don’t have to become a dry corporate drone. Be quirky if you want. Or wildly creative, edgy, distinctive. Keep your personality. Take a point of view. Stick with your style. But you must come across as pro. As reliable as the sun. (No, saying you are ‘reliable’ doesn’t cut it.  Been there, doesn’t count.)

They must see you as someone who can put the goods on the desk, no matter what.

You want the client to consider you an ally, a co-conspirator, the go-to guy who can make them look like a genius and/0r pull their nuts out of the fire on demand.

Do that and you will have a die-hard client for life.

They have their own definition of ‘good’

As a writer, I look at Cisco’s website and drool at the 1620 metric tons of technical content packed into their web site.  And I know for a fact they have a slew of writers on their freelance roster.

But I also see that their definition of ‘good’ copy is turgid, pompous, abstract marketingspeak. Techno-paradigm gibberish. Which means, if I wanted to work for Cisco, I’d have to write their version of ‘good’. No matter how painful and embarrassing it might be. (My notion of ‘good’?  They don’t care.)

What one client considers tacky, another thinks perfect.

Sometimes the mission is to give them something entirely and utterly different.

Sometimes it’s a matter of giving them something entirely different, provided it looks pretty much like what they have now.

Sometimes it involves tuning into their house esthetic, doing something ‘new’ but still making it sound like ‘us’.  Sometimes you’re charged with thinking way out of the box. Breaking rules, or challenging assumptions.  (But, usually not.)

The point is, ‘good’ is what they think it is. And the better you can tune into that, the better.

It’s still personal

I’ve worked for maybe a dozen Fortune 500 companies.  And often made a ton of money at it.

But truth is, I have no real relationship with any of those corporations.  They have no freaking clue who I am. Nor do they care.

But what I do have is relationships with Ruth, with Bob, with Kathleen and Kevin. When they move on, I can go with them.