How To Finance a Freelance Passion Project

I’m in Amman, Jordan, this week, reporting on entrepreneurs in the Middle East. As I explained to people that I was going, many of my writer and photographer friends talked about how much they wanted to do similar things. Most of us have passion projects — ideas we’d love to see come to fruition but that just don’t fit in with our day jobs. And nobody wants to be one of those people at age 90 who’s saying: I always wanted to do that, but … You can see the first piece about my trip here: $14,000 and a Determined Entrepreneur Can Seed Change in the Middle East.

First, how it came about: I did a couple of stories about women entrepreneurs in the Middle East last year for CNBC. When I was reporting those stories, I interviewed a Jordanian woman who had helped a Syrian woman start a microbusiness, with the help of CARE. I was in the middle of a divorce at the time, figuring out how I was going to support my family, and their stories stuck with me. Their children worked with them at the bazaar where they were selling baked goods and accessories. I interviewed them at 7 a.m. our time and then on the way to school that morning I told my two girls, 10 and 6, about the women in the Middle East and what their lives were like. I’d been to the Middle East, before, to Iraq, and always wanted to go back. When this summer arrived and my girls went with their dad for a one-week vacation, I had the chance to go again, meet some of the women I’d talked to and do some more reporting on international finance and entrepreneurship, both hot topics in the business press.

Just take the leap: I wasn’t sure I felt secure enough financially until late this spring. There’s no way a trip like this can be anything other than a financial risk if you’re a self-employed freelance journalist, and you have to be prepared for that. But I had a reasonable confidence that I could sell enough stories to pay for a good deal of the trip, but I knew I needed to be able to say to editors as pitched: “I’m going” not “I’m going if you buy one of my stories.” This is my project, not theirs. My tickets to Jordan cost about $1,800. The rest of the trip is on as thin a dime as I could manage. For $50 a night in Amman, you can find a reasonable hotel. The water is not the hottest, but the WiFi works.

Pitch some, but don’t lock yourself in: I sold two stories before I went to two different editors at CNBC, and got indications of interest from two others at the BBC and the Atlantic. That was enough to get me in the door with various contacts and sources in Jordan That’s an important part of the equation, too — it helps to be able to talk to the right people if you can say, “I’m working on a story for CNBC,” versus, “I hope to be able to sell this to … .” But I don’t think it’s a good idea to go with your whole agenda locked into place. One of the purposes of the trip is to push your boundaries and see what you can find on the ground, which is hardly ever what you expect before you go. After I return, I’ll hone a few more ideas and try to get those done. Final note: The process of pitching, though painful, is always worthwhile. Even the editors I reached out to who didn’t buy stories will remember me.

Don’t stretch too far: There are other trips I’d like to take: reporting down the Amazon, for instance. But there’s nothing in my background to suggest that I have the tools or experience to do those stories. Entrepreneurs and international finance are a fit with the rest of what I do.

Do as much legwork as you can in advance: I went up to the UN for a conference, and made enough contacts there to get me in the door at the United Nations, heavily involved with the refugee camps in Jordan. I told pretty much everyone I knew that I was going, and a surprising number of people had connections that they were happy to share with me. The sister of my former neighbor, for instance, went to lunch with me and gave me the scoop on what to wear (perennial concern for women in Middle Eastern countries) and the etiquette for Westerners traveling during Ramadan. Manage your relationships with regular clients: I told my regular clients what I was doing, and found that most of them were supportive. I’ve kept working while I’ve been here, handling various crises, and responding to editors queries, but my regular work was tamped down to about 1/4 of the usual level. Side note: Plane rides are a great time to plow through 9,000 pounds of work at a time. I’ve interviewed Ralph Nader a few times lately. He remains determinedly off-line because, he says, “I want to get work done.” That’s easier for Ralph Nader than the rest of us, of course, because he has the cloak of age, fame and fortune, but the truth remains that email and social media interfere with productivity. I got a lot done on the 14-hour plane ride and expect to do a lot on the 18-hour trip home, too.

Bottom line: I’ll probably end up spending $3,000, but I’ll be able to write the whole thing off as a business expense, and I think I’ll be able to make at least 2/3rds back with the stories I write. More importantly, I’ve made a new round of contacts — always a smart investment — and given myself the confidence to know that I can pull a trip off again. The next time around, maybe next year, will be even easier.

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