Teen who made $10,000 in a year at his first side hustle: Here's how I got successful fast

Rainier Harris is a high school senior and freelance journalist who started his dream career at 15.

Rainier Harris is a high school senior and freelance journalist.
Courtesy Rainier Harris

Last year, when I turned 15, I started thinking about what I wanted out of my career. I have a passion for writing and knew the media industry was for me. But I felt a little lost. 

I'd read countless stories of professional writers, even those with graduate degrees in journalism, struggling to get jobs. I wanted to give myself the best shot possible at not having to go through that. So I decided that the best way to jump in and start building connections in this fast-paced and constantly shifting industry was to start freelancing

A little over a year later, I have had work in The New York Times, Business Insider, and Medium's Elemental, among other local and regional outlets. In addition to school and my other responsibilities, I now usually work on two stories per month with about two different publishers. 

Now I'm a high school senior who runs a successful freelance writing business — over the last year, I've made approximately $10,000 — and developed a system that works for me. My goal is to continue to freelance for national publications and break into new ones over the next year. 

Knowing my worth has been my greatest asset. This summer, there were a number of news stories about people of color being mistreated in media industry jobs. While it hurt to read about, it also inspired me to make sure that as I pursue my dream, I don't get degraded or devalued simply because I am young and Black. 

Here are the lessons I've learned.

Figure out your ultimate goal and work backwards 

While I had ambitious goals, I was also realistic. I knew I had to build some kind of portfolio before approaching editors at larger, national publications.

So I read my local and regional newspapers, looked for where they could use some extra coverage, and figured out how I could fill in that gap. I wrote about everything from video games to food, to local politics, to subways, to sewage floods for publications like the Queens Eagle, Bushwick Daily, and City Limits, among others. 

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While I was gaining paid experience on the local level, I still kept working toward my goal of landing in more national publications. So I read virtually every article I could find on how writers did just that.

The majority of those writers said that it took them years. I had this feeling of urgency, though, that I didn't have years to spare. I feared that if I didn't achieve success early on, I would struggle to get a job when I was an adult. 

Find the resources that can turn your passion into a business 

One of the resources that has been so valuable to me over the last year has been "The Writer's Co-Op" podcast, hosted by journalists Wudan Yan and Jenni Gritters. In it, they talk about the business of freelancing, and topics like how to network, what should go into a pitch, and dealing with burnout and time management.

I had always known that writing was something that I loved but I had not viewed it through the lens of business until one day in June of this year when I listened to the entire first season of the podcast all in one sitting.

My biggest takeaway: I had to start networking

Up to that point, I had never done any networking before, and it seemed pretty daunting. How do you make good connections? Who can introduce you? How do you maintain relationships with editors?

When Yan and Grittens explained it, I realized the process was not as complicated as I thought. 

What it really came down to was sending a short, two-paragraph email to the editors at my favorite publications, introducing myself and asking if they were available for a quick call or Zoom meeting. They were cold emails, but I made sure to include links to my website, portfolio, and samples of my writing. 

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I sent about a dozen of these emails. Three of them didn't yield a response, but most of the editors did reply. In our meetings, I talked about why my ideas and who I was as a person would be a good fit for their publications. Afterward, I thanked them for their time and sent them full-length pitches.

I may not land every pitch I send, but the connection is still there. As I kept sending fine-tuned pitches, even if they were rejected, my editors became more accustomed to what I liked to pitch and what I tend to write about. Some started to commission me for future assignments related to that topic. 

As you grow your career, I've found that there are so many free resources out there that can help you develop your skills. For example, I attended free freelance Zoom panels hosted by The New York Times Smarter Living Editor Tim Herrera. The panels covered topics like pitching, starting a podcast, what it is like working as a person of color in media, how to write a book, and more.

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Know your worth and create a system that works for you 

As a young freelancer, I've learned quickly how important negotiation is. The hosts of the Writer's Co-Op podcast often say that freelancers deserve livable pay, and having their affirmations in the back of my mind has helped me advocate for myself.

I know that while I may be young, I deserve pay that is equal to my more experienced colleagues for equal work. I do not need to do unpaid internships, which serve as a barrier to lower-income writers. I did not need to "write for exposure" or "work my way up," as many editors advise on Twitter. 

I know that while I may be young, I deserve pay that is equal to my more experienced colleagues for equal work.

Because I knew my worth and aimed high without doubting myself, I got a byline in The New York Times within a year.

I maintain a Google Spreadsheet to organize my pitches, invoices, and due dates for pieces. For invoicing, I use PayPal and I set aside my tax forms like the W-9 in a folder in my computer for easy access. I also keep copies of my signed contracts in that folder for future reference as well. 

I am excited for my future in the media industry and I feel that I've learned fundamentals of pitching and networking that will serve me well going forward.

I also know that more challenges await me. I'm still a teenager, and I know that not every editor may take me seriously. But my belief in myself has gotten me this far, and I know that through hard work, I am capable of achieving my dreams. 

Rainier Harris is a senior in high school and a Queens native. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Business Insider, and Medium (Elemental), and his Twitter is @harris_rainier. 

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