Freelancing and Product Creation: Paul Jarvis on Creating Meaningful Side Projects

by Gregory Ciotti 10 Minutes

Freelance Earning PotentialImitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a great way to legitimately learn as well.

I know some of my best insights have come from ‘reverse-engineering’ the successful outcomes of other folks. Figuring out the what and why of their methods is just as useful (if not more useful) than reading guides and how-to’s.

It’s for this reason that I tend to love interviews, at least when they cater to a specific topic and actually add value. I’ve talked to talented web designers and freelance writers in articles past, but today I wanted to bridge an entirely different gap with an interview on something many freelancers mull over in their heads—how can a contract freelancer diversify their income with premium products?

To answer that question, I’ve brought on board someone who is able to do both extremely well—Paul Jarvis. With a waiting list months long, enviable clientele and a slew of well-made products, Paul is certainly one of those folks who has successfully made the leap into product territory.

If you’re interested in hearing a first hand interview of how a sought after contract freelancer took his business up a notch with awesome, well-received products (including themes and books), read on…

Enter: Paul Jarvis, Gentleman of Adventure

Greg: First of all, that byline is top notch. Almost as good as mine. But I’m afraid we’re going to need a bit more, so let’s start off with the cut-and-dry “who are you” question… but with a little added flair.

So, who are you and what gets you up in the morning?

Paul JarvisI do like your byline, especially since I actually went to catholic school. Who am I? A lot of things, purposefully. I’m a touring musician in a band, an author of almost three books (third is on the way) and a freelance web designer.

What gets me up in the morning is typically good coffee. Or at least, that’s what wakes me up. Although I do many things, my biggest driver is providing value to the people I serve while providing meaning to myself. It might sound a little new-age or hokey, but I run my business driven by my own values instead of goals.

I’d love to hear about how you got started with being self-employed in general. What about it appealed to you and when/how did you make the leap?

Paul JarvisI didn’t intend on being self-employed and I didn’t always work for myself. I experimented with a real job as a web designer for an agency in Toronto at the very beginning to see how “work” worked. Even though I didn’t like my boss or the job, I learned how I didn’t want to run my own business.

I worked as hard as I could at it while I was there, so much so that the day after I quit, instead of figuring out what a resume was, I ended up spending the day answering calls from clients I had worked with at that job. They kept asking which agency I’d go to next, so they could follow me there.

After the third or fourth call from these clients I realized that I didn’t have to bring them to a new agency, I could just work for them on my own, and do the work in the way I actually wanted to. So I started my own company in 1997, which I still run today.

And I still don’t know how to write a resume…

(Editor’s note: Neither do I!)

One of the reasons I really wanted to speak with you today is that you seem to “get” what it takes to make the client work + side projects thing happen. You recently published a very transparent article on how your side projects performed last year, including how much they made.

What first inspired you to make the jump? What about books in particular appealed to you at first? Later on, when and why did WordPress themes come in the picture?

Paul JarvisSide projects are absolutely necessary for creatives that don’t want to stagnate. Although I don’t like broad, sweeping statements like that, I’ll make an exception here. Clients won’t ever push you hard as you’ll push yourself. When you do a side project, it’s all you, so there’s skin in the game. They push you to really examine things and go for them.

I did my first book, a vegan cookbook, because I had written it dozens of times via email to friends and family. I’ve never fancied myself a writer, but I’ve always been keen on improving the way I communicate with others. A book is a perfect way to dig further into communicating with not just one person (like a client) but a whole group of people. And the value of the book isn’t there unless it connects with a whole audience, instead of just one person. Otherwise all authors would just email their readers one at a time.

For my WordPress themes, I wanted to create something for the folks I couldn’t work with on custom solutions but felt the same way I did about creating a more reader-first web. It’s been interesting since just like myself, people either love the themes and use them, or think they’re horrible and slam them.

As for clients, you’ve have a pretty exciting portfolio with some interesting people. What’s the secret sauce in getting to work for such great people? Was it a slow process or were you able to get into the good graces of exceptional clients quickly?

Paul JarvisThe secret sauce is being relentlessly focused on doing meaningful work—and I’ve spent 15 years working at my web design business. In the beginning, sure I was dealt a lucky break with being able to take my clients with me. But that only came from working as hard as I could at exceeding their expectations. So much so that were willing to chance a new one-man show over an established agency.

Since then not much has changed. I still do my best at doing exactly what I tell my clients I do, every time, no exceptions. I’m also pretty clear with myself on picking clients. Sure they’re the ones that pay me, but that doesn’t mean I have to say yes to every project.

We deserve the clients we get, so I don’t mind saying no to work sometimes because it opens me up to be able to say yes to great projects.

Okay, now let’s take a deeper dive into products. What’s your approach on idea validation and picking a winning idea?

I happen to think this is an incredibly underrated part of the process, but some people have great intuition, whereas I rely on profiling and other customer development tactics. What’s this process like for you? How do you come up with ideas for you books?

Paul JarvisI truly envy your fact/science based profiling and research. While your empirical evidence is based on facts and numbers, mine is based on using myself in experiments and learning first hand what works (and what doesn’t).

I test ideas by doing them.

If I think something should be an article, I write it. Sometimes I lose readers. If I think a design will work for a client, I create it and present it. I routinely spend days on an idea only to have it shot down in a few seconds. If I think a business should exist, I create it. I’ve started several failed businesses and I’m sure there’ll be more. If I think an idea should be a book, I write it. I take a chance that people will buy and enjoy it every time. And so on.

I fail all the time because these experiments are simply based on ideas I have. But the trick I’ve found with my method is to keep trying. It’s a numbers game when you play the way I do, so as long as I keep trying things, eventually something with pan out.

Thankfully two of my book ideas were good enough to publish. And I’ve got my fingers crossed the third is the same—but I won’t know that until I release it.

(Editor’s note: This is what makes a side project as a freelancer such a great thing in the first place—failure is an option, and learning along the way isn’t as crazy as it sounds. So what’s stopping you from launching a side-project / product?)

Business-wise, what are some things you had to learn along the way when you began selling products? Was support and customer service a big issue? I know the themes probably brought some support questions, but I imagine information products generally don’t require too much support.

Any other big mistakes / lessons learned that you could impart on your jump from pure contract work to a product side business?

Paul JarvisWhat I’m glad I realized before I released any products was that I can’t support something that costs $1 or $17 or even $20. I’m just one person and my main business is creating websites in the five figures, so it wouldn’t sense to have to spend more than a few seconds on support per product.

This is why I try and be as clear as possible in the sales copy. And it’s why there are demos or every theme and large samples of writing for every book. I want to be know for sure if what I’ve made is right for them, and I’d rather them realize it’s not right for them before they buy it (where I lose a sale) than after (where I have to support something).

I’m clear that my WordPress themes don’t come with support. This possibly turns people off, which I’m ok with, since it’s not my main business focus. That said (and don’t tell anyone), I’m still just as driven to help people that spend $20 on a theme as I am with my web design clients.

If someone buys the theme and has a question, I still reply as quickly as possible, even though I’m clear about not supporting them. This doesn’t happen often thankfully, probably because how clear I am about what someone gets prior to the purchase. If this was to take off, the first thing I’d do is get someone else to support. Support would be my first hire, hands down.

I’ve also been clear with myself from the start that these side projects are just that, side projects. That way if they fail, I’ve still got my main business to fall back on. Client work comes first, always.

How is promotion / marketing different for products vs. your client services? Did you make extra effort to “launch” or promote your products, or do you tend to rely on word of mouth?

What’s your overall marketing gameplan with content? You do a great job of promoting yourself simply by providing exceptional value via articles and your newsletter, but is there any other advice you’d impart on freelancers looking to create + promote a great book or other educational course?

Paul JarvisWith client services, I rely on my current clients to sell me to new clients. This sounds, on the surface, incredibly passive, but it involves a lot of work on my end to make sure those current clients are so happy that they tell everyone they know.

I try to do similar with products, by making them as valuable as they can be, so that whomever buys them tells others. I also intentionally price them below what I could, because I want more people to have access to them.

For marketing and promotion, I never flat-out tell others, “hey, buy my stuff”. Instead, I create context for it by writing articles on similar topics. Or helping people with issues my products touch on via social media.

I’ve found that simply helping people instead of promoting my stuff works far better. Everyone’s online shouting about how awesome their products are. I’d rather sit back and help people with their problems. Building relationships and real connections creates an audience for life.

This question is almost mandatory: any crazy client stories (good or bad)? Deadbeats? Names can be removed if you really insist… 😉

Paul JarvisIt’s funny how young designers think that once they “make it” they won’t have to deal with sh*tty clients. The reality is that when you do get screwed out of money when you’ve been in the game for a while, it’s typically for a LOT more money.

I wrote an article about not getting paid, and after re-reading it, I still agree (probably a good thing). The main thing is always having clear communication. Does the client know exactly what they’re getting? Do they know when they’re getting it? Are they clear on what your deliverables are and even more importantly, what your deliverables are not?

If things go south, sometimes we have only ourselves to blame because the client expected something we aren’t willing or capable of doing. On the rare occasion that the client is just unreasonable or an asshole, I’ve found it’s better to walk away quickly and cleanly.

Try and get paid, sure, but if it’s going to take lawyers or weeks of time to hope to get the money back, cut your losses.

I’ve fired clients that were completely unreasonable and lost a lot of money in doing so. But I’d do it again in heartbeat because I know how good it feels to have the weight lifted of a client you can’t stand dealing with. You’re free. So use that freedom for learn a good life lesson and move onto new and better work.

What’s the deal with those adorable rats?

Paul JarvisHa, they’re currently sitting on my lap. I have a hairless rat named Ohna’ and a fur-enabled rat named Awe:ri. I even use a rat in my branding on my website, even though rats are typically associated with evil, dirtiness, and backhandedness.

I love my rats because they’re brilliant and social. They’re not what most people expect. If I’m not constantly challenging them with puzzles, problems, mazes, etc that test their mental and physical abilities they get ornery and chew the furniture.

Plus, they keep me humble. Oh boy, I was published in Fast Company? Well guess what, now I’ve got clean rat pee off my office floor. Works every time.

Last but not least, let’s talk about inspiration: where you find inspiration for both your design work, writing, and for creative work in general?

Paul JarvisI’m inspired by being as far away from technology as possible. This is why I don’t have notifications on any device and why I routinely don’t bring a phone with me when I’m out, especially if I’m in nature.

A well-lived life is inspiration.

I’m not backpacking through the Andes in every spare moment, sometimes I’m sitting on the couch watching reality TV with a tub of coconut ice cream. But as often as I can, I like to be out in the world, doing things.

Your Turn

Did you enjoy this interview with Paul? Tweet at him (@pjrvs) to let him know!

What about you: Do you have plans to supplement your freelance income with side projects?

Let us know what your side-hustle is in the comments!

cc photo by Bart

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by Gregory Ciotti
Gregory Ciotti loves small businesses & startups and gets nerdy about behavioral psychology on his blog Sparring Mind.