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What’s Your “Discomfort Threshold” for Growing Your Writing Business?

During one of my commercial writing group-coaching series a few years back I had a candid email exchange with a participant about a question she’d submitted to be addressed in session. It was:

What can I do to stay motivated during those periods when my business-building efforts yield nothing?

She then analyzed her question—rather dispassionately, I’m proud to say, writing:

I now realize that first question was something a lazy person who gives up easily (my past life) would ask. I’m fascinated by how a lot of what you and your book say dovetails with what I’m reading in one of those books on how millionaires think.

It contains wealth principles like: “If you are willing to do only what’s easy, life will be hard. But if you are willing to do what’s hard, life will be easy.” I guess our comfort zones have to expand to include taking more risks.

I thought it was a very…adult realization. Seriously, we’re all lazy, but if you want a life unlike that of most people—perhaps have a successful commercial copywriting practice?—you’ll have to do things most people aren’t willing to do.

As I’m fond of reminding people, this path isn’t easy, so don’t expect it to be. And if they’ve never built a business before—much less a commercial freelancing business—then building a successful one will entail doing things they’ve never done before in their lives.

Let’s get real: this is the crux of success in most businesses, and certainly ours. We all have our thresholds—the points beyond which we just don’t/can’t (as yet) go.

If your comfort level demands that, you only, say, prospect for commercial writing work by bidding on online job sites, and only communicate with prospects and clients by email, unless you’re a prolific marketer, your income will likely be limited.

Simply put, the better-paying marketing copywriting work takes digging to find and land. And, as a rule, its greater complexity (relative to, say, articles), demands a greater involvement/discussion with clients—by phone, in in-person meetings, etc.

And let’s face it, all that opens us up to having our skills be judged by those paying us—especially if we’re being paid well.* All fertile ground for some pretty serious discomfort.

(*If you started out being paid peanuts—or perhaps are still there—it’s less intimidating, isn’t it? After all, how much can they expect for such low wages? But making more money raises the stakes, the stress, and hence, the discomfort. Interesting, no?)

Hey, I hate being uncomfortable as well, but when I started, I knew that success was going to require stepping out of my comfort zone in a big way, for a certain period of time. But here’s the key: the discomfort I felt was really quite fleeting.

And how can it be not be, when suddenly, you discover, for instance, that cold-calling isn’t that hard after all, that people are actually nice, and that—imagine!– some of them are actually interested? Not to mention that they’re all unfazed by your call, when you thought it was going to be some big uphill battle to explain yourself.

Some writers will move past their blocks, realizing the discomfort not only is never fatal, it’s both fleeting and finite as well. In most cases, you’re left wondering exactly what you were so afraid of in the first place. And, it’s not going to stretch for year after year—unless you’re doing it very part-time, and in fits and starts.

Have you expanded your comfort zones since you started? How so?

What sorts of things scared you to death early on, but are now second nature?

What advice would you give someone still held back by their comfort zones, from making a truly good living as a commercial writer?

Any other thoughts or comments on the subject?

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Might This Guy’s Process Win You More – and More Loyal – Clients?

Had a chat recently with a commercial freelancer with whom I had a long-term mentoring relationship last year. Our goal was to give his business-building efforts some serious structure and discipline (i.e., regular cold calling and ongoing follow-up), as he ramped up a former part-time commercial copywriting practice to full-time and operational.

As of late fall of 2010, he was landing some solid copywriting gigs. He shared with me his process when working with new commercial writing clients, and I was so impressed, I asked if he’d write it up for me, which he did below. Really good stuff:

Peter, I recently landed a new client, and as part of my value proposition, I do a thorough business analysis – all part of the package they invest in. I spend approximately three hours reviewing my client’s web site and marketing materials, as well as the web sites of their major competitors – all with an eye toward understanding their respective businesses and how they’re positioning themselves in the marketplace.

Once I finish my research, I’ve learned a good deal about their business – and, what I want to know more about. In fact, I’ll typically end up with a list of 20 to 25 follow-up questions. Next, I set up a face-to-face meeting (which could be done by phone in the case of remote clients) with the client, during which time we discuss my findings and I ask my questions to fill in any blanks.

I tape the conversation and have the tape transcribed – providing the client with a copy of the transcript as well as giving me a verbatim record of our discussion for future reference.

The end result of all this is a deep understanding of my client’s business and industry, from which I can make knowledgeable recommendations for effective marketing initiatives (and the accompanying written materials) moving forward.

More importantly, it serves as a true market differentiator for me. Few commercial writers delve into a client’s world as deeply as I’m doing (though none of what I do is particularly difficult), and that sets me apart. My clients are typically delighted at my approach, which, in many cases, actually leaves me more knowledgeable about their industry than even they may be.

As a result, I quickly go from being a copywriter to something far more than that: someone who’s made it his business to intimately learn their business, and who can then apply strong writing skills more effectively and strategically. This in turn fosters a longer-term mentality on both our parts, which is, of course, my goal: clients with whom I can work closely for many years to come.

While most commercial freelancers I know – myself included – will study a client’s site and materials, in my experience, few of us – again, myself included – are taking that research to as deep a level as this writer is. In a tough economy, shouldn’t we be grabbing every potential edge we can? Especially, as he points out, when it’s a relatively easy way to set ourselves apart from the pack?

One of the things I like most about the approach, as he notes, is the groundwork you’re laying to build a long-term, loyal partnership. When you start out interacting with a client on such a deep level, you powerfully transform the traditional client-vendor relationship into something much more solid and interconnected.

Put another way, when you can tell a new client things they didn’t realize about their business and industry, based on your research (vs. just following their instructions as to what they want written), you’ll earn a whole new level of respect, and will be viewed radically differently from the writer who didn’t do all that.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do as he does. Most of us don’t, and most of us have built good businesses. Just think of it as a tantalizing “what-if” scenario.

No, this approach isn’t always appropriate with every client (if you’re contracted, say, by a Fortune 500 client to just develop a brochure, they may not agree to pay for a full analytics package as well…). But, for many smaller- to mid-sized entities (50-200+ employees – arguably, THE “sweet spot” for freelance commercial writers – it would absolutely fly.

If you don’t conduct such analyses with new clients, what is your process?

Might something like this give you an edge over your competition?

If you are doing something on this level, can you share your process?

How have clients reacted to your process?

Have you always followed this process, or did it evolve over the years?