This post is by staff writer Honey Smith.

While I believe that focusing on your day job generally has the possibility for greater payoffs than side gigs, I am currently under-earning based on my education and experience. I do keep an eye out for positions that would enable me to advance in my main career. However, in the meantime I have also been making a conscious effort to seek out freelance opportunities.

In order to keep as many options open as possible, I deliberately cultivate my personal networks and foster my social capital. For example, several alumni from my Ph.D. program live nearby. I make a conscious effort to meet them for happy hour or lunch once or twice each semester. It helps maintain a sense of community.

A couple of months ago, one of these friends, Shawn, posted something interesting on Facebook. He said that at the end of this semester, he would be leaving his job as a full-time adjunct at my institution (where he has been teaching for five years or so). Instead, he is taking his side gig full-time.

What he does
Shawn’s side business is doing SEO for law firm websites. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and is basically the trick of writing copy for websites that is both 1) appealing to real people, and 2) strategically composed so that the website comes up more often in search engine results (i.e., Google or Bing). Probably almost all of you already know that, but I was shocked that almost none of our mutual friends had any idea what he was talking about.

My friend started doing SEO because his brother is an attorney and has a lot of contacts with various law firms, and it just took off. Like any freelance work it is sporadic and uncertain, but then again, so is adjuncting for a large university. However, unlike teaching, SEO work will allow Shawn to stay at home full-time with his small child (his wife is the primary breadwinner). Win-win.

I hadn’t come across any interesting job postings recently that were in the salary range I am willing to accept, so I posted a comment on his news: “Teach me SEO — I am sure we can work something out!”

No interview necessary
In response, my friend offered to pick me up at work, pay for my lunch, and give me a small project right away so I could get my feet wet. As he said while we enjoyed our food, “I already know you’re an excellent writer, so I don’t have to interview you. I just have to show you the nuts and bolts, and you’ll pick it up fast.”

He offered to pay me $20 per page, with the assumption that each page would take about an hour. “Obviously,” he explained, “in the beginning it takes longer, but the more projects you do, the faster you are able to work and the better your effective hourly rate becomes.”

I assume that he charges the law firms more than that, and keeps some money as a sort of referral bonus. Additionally, he will be editing my work for the first few projects. That works for me.

My first project was five pages, good for $100. When I asked how I’d be paid, he said he’d be writing me a personal check. I asked him to make it out to my LLC (limited-liability company) instead, and then I asked him about his business structure. Turns out he was doing business under his name and not drawing up contracts with the firms he was working with (or with me, since I was technically freelancing for him in this scenario).

My contribution
“I’m not sure that’s the smartest way to run your business, especially if you’re going to be doing this full-time,” I told him. Then I explained that if you do business as a sole proprietor and get sued, whoever is suing you can go after your personal assets (and your spouse’s, if you’re married). However, if you do everything through an LLC, only the business’s assets are at risk. An LLC is a way of keeping your personal finances safe.

At first, Shawn didn’t see the point. His view was that it was pretty unlikely that something would go so wrong that he’d be sued at all, let alone for an amount of money that would significantly impact his life. I mean, how badly can you mess up a website, especially if the customer reviews and approves the changes before they go live?

However, I pointed out that since Shawn’s customer base consists exclusively of law firms, he’d be at a significant disadvantage if something ever did go wrong.

“Let me talk to my husband,” I offered. “I’m sure that we can work out a trade.” Since Jake changed the name and structure of his law firm in August, he had bought a website but not done very much with it. I thought that Jake might be interested in trading LLC formation for SEO work on his new site.

Turns out I was right. Jake’s getting feedback on his website from someone with SEO experience; Shawn is getting his LLC formed at cost. There are some fees involved with setting up the business, which Shawn is paying, but Jake is doing all the incorporation work as well as writing the articles of organization and helping with some contract templates.

Note: Technically, barter is a form of taxable income. The IRS requires that you fill out a form 1099-B if you engage in barter for business purposes.

Going forward
Since that bit of neighborhood exchange, Shawn has given me a second, slightly larger project, and I anticipate that we’ll continue to collaborate in the future. You know, with contracts and formal agreements — the way business is supposed to be run.

Once I’ve gained enough experience, I can start building my own client base. Shawn mostly works with firms in the state where his brother is an attorney. Since my husband is an attorney, I would have a lot of leads in Arizona. By working with law firms directly, I would also be able to charge market rate (rather than the reduced rate I am getting through Shawn).

SEO is a rapidly growing field, since so many people work and play online now. And while the barrier to entry for basic SEO services is relatively low, there are many more advanced and technical aspects that command higher prices. If I start building my skill set and reputation now, the sky’s the limit.

How do you foster your social capital? Has networking improved your life in a meaningful way?

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