The Freelance Institute
Join an exclusive Slack community for freelancers dedicated to learning and professional growth.
Join the Community

2018 Year In Review

Hi, I'm Matt Olpinski

I teach thousands of freelancers how to get more clients, raise their rates, and create a better life for themselves.

Updated: December 30, 2018

2018 was thrilling from day one. It was packed with the highest highs, the lowest lows, and countless exciting changes.

I hired a lawyer, fought off legal battles, fired my accounting firm, and worked with my worst client ever.

But I also worked with my best client ever, launched a new product, updated my newsletter, and pitched my most expensive project to date.

I upgraded to the iPhone X, bought a tripod, and recorded 6 product intro videos – my first time on camera! I made all the products on my website paid and nearly doubled the pricing for each one.

This year I added Marriott International to my list of clients and retained a contract with Bloomberg for the second year in a row.

My wife and I traveled to Texas to visit Chip and Joanna’s Magnolia Market at the Silos. Later in the year we took a road trip to Martha’s Vineyard and rented our first Airbnb.

I’ve now been an independent web and mobile design consultant for 3 and a half years. That’s a big milestone. My freelancing success isn’t a fluke. I’ve figured out how to sustain a life of full-time self-employment.

Author's Note: This article contains dozens of images and links. Get excited!

Designing My Office

The first thing I did in 2018 was build myself a new office desk. My old desk was only 4ft wide and constantly cluttered. It had a black glass top so I could always see the dust and smudges. It was impossible to keep clean and had no shelves for storage. That little side cart was total junk collector.

This was the reason I worked from coffee shops a few days each week.

old office

Small, dusty, and cluttered. Not a productive work environment!

I felt like a champ after conquering so many home renovation projects in 2017, so I decided to build myself a new desk.

Here’s the finished product after one week of hard work:

Much more organized and conducive to long days of hard work. The results? I only worked from coffee shops a few days the entire year.

I love waking up early and getting to work. The space is inviting, clean, and relaxing. Having the right work environment boosted my productivity!

Work Inquires & Paid Projects

This year, I worked on 9 paid freelance projects out of 124 serious inquiries that landed in my inbox. That means I only accepted 7% of the projects I was contacted about. I worked on fewer, more high-value projects and earned almost the same income as 2017.

2018 – 126 Work Inquiries (+1)
  • 44 Form Submissions (+7)
  • 4 Dribbble Inquiries (-1)
  • 58 Direct Emails (-25)
  • 20 Core Talent Job Opportunities (+20)
2017 – 125 Work Inquiries
  • 37 Form Submissions
  • 5 Dribbble Inquiries
  • 83 Direct Emails

Website Traffic

I don’t look at my Google Analytics often throughout the year. When I checked the stats before writing this post, I was amazed by what I saw.

My traffic doubled. Over 20,000 users and new users. Almost 30,000 sessions. Over 63,000 page views from 168 countries and 86% of the people browsing my site had never been there before.

That’s amazing and humbling. Thank you all for your support!

Somehow I always accidentally delete my tracking code in the Spring…

2017 Total Numbers:
  • Users: 20,346 (+98%)
  • New Users: 20,000 (+95%)
  • Sessions: 29,776 (+75%)
  • Sessions Per User: 1.47 (-11%)
  • Pageviews: 63,873 (+28%)
  • Pages Per Session: 2.15 (-27%)
  • Avg. Sessions Duration: 2:12 (-20%)
  • Bounce Rate: 69% (+37%)
Top 5 Traffic Sources:
  • Google / Organic: 58.3%
  • Direct: 31.7%
  • Social: 3%
  • Referral: 3.6%
  • Other: 3.1%

My website also continues to rank at the top of Google for key searches such as “freelance ux designer new york” and “freelance ui designer ny”.

I rank #2 on Google above paid ads for “freelance ux designer new york”

Website Updates

Last year I set a goal to refine my services and add landing pages that helped me rank even higher for more search queries.

I’m happy to say I did just that! Check out my 3 new service landing pages, all showcasing work I completed in 2018.

I also completely redesigned my newsletter page and added a link to my global navigation. The call to action is now much more clear and enticing. Most importantly, it tells my story.

Since making those changes, I’ve seen a noticeable boost in conversions.

I also made some important upgrades to my products landing page. It now includes a sidebar which introduces me, validates my authority, and offers a way to follow me on social media.

I re-organized all the topics on my blog, which had gotten totally out of control. That list is now paired down to just 11 categories instead of 32.

I also created a new author widget that lives at the top of each article (including this one). This was inspired by Ryan Waggoner’s article design. It adds a huge level of trust and interest over a blog with no author image or data.

New Client Intake Form

Perhaps most significantly, I overhauled my client intake form. In the past, I used 4-5 open ended questions to learn about a clients business.

However, it often took multiple emails before pricing was discussed and clients frequently pasted pre-written responses that didn’t sufficiently answer the questions.

I needed a better way to get the info I needed from clients quickly and without overwhelming them. Using GravityForms, I was able to create a dynamic form that only asked relevant questions based on the clients previous input.

The form starts off with just one question, and continues to ask more as they complete the form. I decided to include price range and timeline dropdowns which I had been avoiding for years.

Lastly, I included warning messages if the client selects the least expensive price or shortest timeframe so they understand we may not be a good fit to work together their selection.

Now when a client contacts me, I have everything I need to know upfront and won’t waste time with the wrong clients for my business.

Try the New Form Here

🔥 New Headshot

Perhaps the most important thing I created in 2018 wasn’t a website, but a photo.

I had been in desperate need of a new photo for years. One afternoon, I set my iPhone X on a tripod and snapped this picture.

I knew instantly this would help me level-up my authority and show my personality. People love seeing who you are and there’s so much of my personality captured in this one image. I couldn’t be happier with it, so I put it everywhere (sorry not sorry).

It’s now been almost 3 years since I’ve re-designed my website. Yet, I continue to get compliments from people saying it’s one of the best portfolio websites they’ve ever seen. Thank you for the kind words of encouragement people!

Key Clients

I took a deep dive into the travel industry and worked on a huge project for Marriott International. While I can’t tell you exactly what I did, it is related to the booking platform and it will compete with other popular booking platforms.

I was fortunate to continue working with the team at Bloomberg to redesign a major internal system used by thousands of people that run the media departments of the company. Repeat business is the best business.

In the final days of 2018, I closed the two largest non-retainer projects of my career for a total of $153k.

These will be in my portfolio here and on Dribbble in 2019. They will be my best designs yet and I can’t wait to show it to you!

Milestones

This year I surpassed $675k for all-time freelance sales (5 years total). Looking back, there’s no way I could have done that without establishing long-term retainer arrangements with multiple clients such as Bloomberg and Cinematique.

My goal is to have my first $200k year in 2019 and surpass $1M in all-time freelance sales by the end of 2020. Based on the last 5 years, that’s completely doable.

Learning Lessons

Just like last year, I took on a few projects that I ended up regretting. Unlike last year, it was my fault. I saw the red flags flying a mile away.

I fired both clients. It wasn’t worth the stress and I’d rather spend the time finding better projects. I got to put one project in my portfolio though, so it wasn’t a total waste.

Like I said last year, sometimes you have to work on projects you don’t love and aren’t excited about. Not every day is going to be emotionally fulfilling. When you’re a freelancer, you have to do whatever it takes to make money.

I also had two clients threaten me legally. I didn’t sign contracts with either one. I’ll spare you the details, but the bottom line is that these were empty threats.

Nonetheless, it prompted me to take some action, which I’ll share more about below.

Articles

I wrote 12 new articles this year and stuck to my promise of sending more exclusive emails to my newsletter subscribers. Here’s a list of what I wrote:

Newsletter, Books, and Courses

My goal this year was to grow my email list from about 630 subscribers to 1,000. I was thrilled to exceed that goal and finished the year with 1,180 subscribers.

That means I hit the 1,000 subscriber milestone and was able to use that as a new sign up incentive: “Join Over 1,000 Freelancers…”. Nothing like social proof!

I didn’t create any new courses. In fact, I retired 5 Days to a Better Freelancing Career. I originally created that free course hoping it would lead people to buy my book. That wasn’t happening at all and since most of the content was the same, I decided to retire the course completely.

Newsletter Updates

Not only did I redesign my newsletter landing page, I also made some big changes to the newsletter itself.

For starters, I gave it a name: Kickstart Your Freelancing Newsletter. Now you’ll have something to reference it by. I also updated the rocket ship graphic to give it more color, depth, and life.

Instead of every 10 days, emails now go out every morning at 7am.

It’s much more predictable and consistent. It’s also when I think most new freelancers are working on their own business.

Another major change was re-writing the majority of my newsletter emails. Each one now has a unique emoji in the subject line to help it stand out in an otherwise stagnant and text-dominant inbox.

More importantly, I deleted irrelevant emails, wrote brand new ones, and made sure the entire newsletter was focused on freelancing. That’s what people are signing up for, so that’s all they should be learning about.

Join My Freelance Newsletter

Products

One of the biggest decisions I made this year was to make all my free resources paid. People were finding my website, entering their email to get the freebie, then leaving and never buying anything else. Not good.

I had to adjust my strategy. Now the free entry points are my newsletter, articles, and Twitter account where I exclusively share freelancing advice each week. All my products are now priced at a value I think is fair for each. That structure makes logical room for premium-priced courses and coaching:

  • Free: Newsletter, Articles, Twitter
  • Paid: Books, Guides, and Templates ($5 – $50)
  • Premium: Courses & Coaching ($100 – $500)

For example, I raised the price of my proposal template from $9 to $39. Guess what happened? Sales tripled. I sold more copies at $39 in the last 3 months than I ever did before that at $9.

I sold more in the last 3 months than I did in all of 2016 and 2017 combined.

Perceived value is critical. Cheaper is not always better.

The Freelance Institute

I launched a brand new subscription product for freelancers this year. It’s called The Freelance Institute – a global Slack community for freelancers to connect 24/7 in a real-time chat room.

I started this community because I have been personally answering subscriber emails for years. Everyone’s situation is always so unique. Generalized advice from blogs and newsletters isn’t always the best prescription.

I always wished everyone on my newsletter could benefit from the personalized answers I was spending so much time writing. That’s when I got the idea for a private forum, which later evolved into this Slack community.

Here are the top 5 benefits:

  1. Meet people just like you
  2. Share stories, experiences, and ideas. Not just advice.
  3. Get answers to questions you can’t just Google.
  4. Learn faster and make better decisions.
  5. Find inspiration from members on the same path.

Visit The Freelance Institute

Transitioning from 1099 to S-Corp

This year, I finally said goodbye to 1099 contracting and created an S-Corp for my business. There were a few main reasons for this:

  • Tax Savings
  • Legal Protection
  • Client Perception

By forming an S-Corp, I separated myself from the business. The business is it’s own entity and I’m an employee of it.

That means I can pay myself a fixed salary and take the rest of the income as dividends, which aren’t subject to the 15% self-employment tax. Combined with the new tax code, I’ll save tens of thousands in 2019.

Another benefit of separating myself from the business is legal protection. As a 1099 contractor, all my personal assets (house, cars, etc) were up for grabs in the event of a lawsuit. With an S-Corp, only the business assets are exposed, which are minimal.

The last reason I switched to an S-Corp was client perception. I turn away $30-50k of work each year for lack of time and resources.

I’d like to subcontract that work instead, but when clients hire me, they expect me to do the work. Not pawn it off on someone else.

With an S-Corp, my clients will technically be doing business with the business, and I’m the employee managing the project. That means it won’t feel as strange or unexpected if I bring on other people to complete a project.

Additional Changes

I want to make an important distinction here – this doesn’t necessarily mean I need to rebrand myself and my website as a business. That’s something I might work towards, but the big change comes in the conversations and the paperwork.

I also purchased $1 million of professional liability insurance and bought a virtual office space so I don’t need to use my home address on legal paperwork.

I hired a new accounting firm to guide me through this complicated transition. My old firm had become very unreliable, but it worked out because my new accountant actually hired me for a huge project!

Personal Projects

When you’re a home owner, “personal projects” takes on a whole new meaning.

Over the summer, my wife and I hired a local landscape company and close friend to renovate our front porch and walkway and add a patio in our backyard.

This was an expensive project, but one that required professional care and attention. I’m glad I didn’t try this one on my own!

Front Yard - Before

Front Yard – Before

Front Yard - After

Front Yard – After

Back Yard - Before

Back Yard – Before

Back Yard - After

Back Yard – After

Last year we adopted a Golden Retriever puppy named Lily. She’s now 1.5 years old and fully grown. Click here to see puppy photos in my 2017 year in review post.

Having a dog forced me to break a terrible habit of waking up too late each morning. Now I wake up around 7:30am every day to feed her, I take more breaks, and I get outside more.

I’ve been much more productive overall. Thanks Lily!

Smile for the camera!

New Car! 🚗💨

As some of you might know, I own a Mustang GT. It’s a really fun car, but totally impractical during the winter in upstate New York.

mustang gt

Not the new car…

Since I work from home every day, sharing my wife’s car for a few months has been doable in the past.

But this year, my wife got a new job across town, she’s starting cosmetology school in January, and I’m teaching a college course 3 days a week for the Spring semester.

Sharing a car just wasn’t going to work. So we decided to buy a Honda CR-V!

honda

New car!

It looks new, but it’s actually 8 years old with 120k miles. We got a great deal, it’s fully loaded, and these things last forever! Now the Mustang can hibernate all winter in the cozy garage far away from all the salt trucks.

Traveling

My wife and I took two exciting vacations to places we’ve never been before. In April, we visited Chip & Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia empire in Waco, Texas.

We ate at their restaurant Magnolia Table, drove around looking for houses from the show, stopped by their bed and breakfast, and explored the Dallas/Fort-Worth area.

We’re huge fans of their hit show Fixer Upper on HGTV. It was a great trip and staying with friends made it even more special!

View Photos of Our Magnolia Trip on Instagram

In October, we took a road trip to Martha’s Vineyard and rented our first Airbnb. It was an incredible secluded cottage and we had to take our car on a ferry boat to get to the island!

On our way home, we stopped at Plymouth Rock where the pilgrims landed in 1620. It was cool to see, but the rock was a bit underwhelming.

View Photos of Our Martha’s Vineyard Trip on Instagram

Plans for 2019

2018 was incredible. It was a year of tremendous progress both personally and professionally.

In January, I’ll be teaching a web design and development course for the third time at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

While I’m teaching there, I plan to convert the course material to an online format and make it available to you. It’ll be an HTML/CSS crash course for designers, created by a designer.

I also plan to grow and expand The Freelance Institute as much as possible. Lastly, I plan to start offering 1-on-1 coaching and portfolio website audits.

As far as my business, I don’t plan to redesign my website in 2019 or make any other major changes. Instead, I plan to release one amazing course and make small, iterative improvements to my own website.

I also want to double down on my Twitter account as a resource for freelancers.  I gained 250 new followers in just a few weeks after being stuck at 720 for several years. All because I’ve dedicated my account entirely to freelancing advice.

If you’re interested in seeing how my business has grown over the years, check out my annual reviews from 20172016 and 2015.

I hope some of this information gives you some insight into my life and business that can be beneficial to yours. As always, feel free to send me an email!


To say thank you for following me along this adventure, I’m giving you 30% off any (or all) of my products. Just use the code HAPPY2K19 at checkout!

View All Products