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Trying to Make the Transition from Employee to Full-Time Commercial Writer? (Guest Post)

Great guest post from fellow commercial freelancer (and fellow Atlantan), Don Sadler. Don’s carved out quite a lucrative niche in his area of specialty, and how it all came about is a good story. I hope it can serve as a good discussion catalyst, and can spur others who’ve either been there as well (or may be in the future) to weigh in! Thanks, Don! Enjoy!

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It’s probably the most challenging (and scariest) part of becoming a freelance commercial writer (FLCW): Making the transition from a full-time job, with a regular salary and benefits like health insurance, paid holidays and paid vacation, to a full-time freelancer — with none of the above.

I made this transition myself almost four years ago. I wish I could say that I was fearless and brave and decided to make the jump on my own, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I got the dreaded layoff call, letting me know that my position as an editor with a major custom publishing company “was being eliminated.”

Not exactly the best way to start your weekend! But now, nearly four years later, I can see that it was actually the best thing that could have happened to me professionally. I had wanted to strike out on my own as a full-time commercial freelancer for a while, but the (apparent) comfort and security of the salary, benefits, etc. were tough to give up. And I had a pretty good job, so there wasn’t a lot of urgency to jump ship.

What follows is a brief account of how I made the transition from full-time employment to full-time freelance. Everyone’s situation is unique, so my intention isn’t to provide a step-by-step “here’s how to do it” guide. Rather, I hope that by reading my story, you might pick up a couple of nuggets that could help you make the transition if this is something you want to do. Or at least be inspired that it doesn’t have to be as terrifying as it seems!

Going Back to the ‘80’s
My first professional job out of college (where I majored in Journalism) in 1985 was as a staff writer with a newsletter-publishing firm in Ft. Lauderdale. I worked there for 12 years before moving to Atlanta to work for another publisher in 1997, which in turn was acquired by another custom publisher in 2005, for whom I worked until early 2009.

So, I had about 24 years of professional experience as a writer/editor before going full-time freelance. But the biggest factor in the success of my transition was this: I had spent pretty much this entire time specializing in a couple of content niches: business and finance. As a result of this specialization, I was able to immediately “brand” myself as an expert when it came to writing content in these areas. This turned out to be huge for two reasons:

1. There is a high demand for freelance writers who can tackle these subjects without having to be brought up to speed on basics like the difference between defined contribution and defined benefit plans or the nuances of various banking and financial products and services.

2. Therefore, these freelance writers can generally charge relatively high rates for this type of writing.

The second thing that helped me make a successful transition fairly quickly was the fact that I started doing freelance work “on the side” long before I ventured out on my own as a full-time FLCW.

One of the first things I did when I moved to Atlanta in 1997 was start looking for freelance work. It didn’t take long to land gigs with a couple of business magazines, from which I was able to get pretty steady assignments. Over the decade-plus that I did freelance work on the side, I built up a nice little freelance clientele that eventually formed the foundation for going full-time freelance.

In addition to providing a little “mad money,” this part-time freelance work was invaluable in helping me get my feet wet and learn about how the freelance world worked. Just as importantly, it gave me a sense of “entrepreneurship” and what it was like to look for and gain clients on my own. I found it tremendously exciting and rewarding to land new freelance clients, make them happy and get paid for doing it!

What Should I Do?
Due to these three factors—my long history of experience as a professional writer/editor, albeit as an employee; my well-established content niches of business and finance; and my 10+ years of on-the-side freelance experience—I was about as well-positioned as you can be to make the transition to full-time freelance. And since I kind of saw the layoff coming for at least six months, I had even started to think about what I would do if and when I lost my job: Try to go full-time freelance or look for another job?

I got my layoff notice at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon (which is by the corporate textbook, by the way). Since I was a remote employee and worked from home, I immediately fired off emails to two of my freelance clients letting them know what happened and that I was available for as much freelance work as they could send me. They both replied before 5:00 and said they would have work for me Monday morning.

I took that as my sign that I should give full-time freelancing a real shot before looking for another job. And by the end of my first year of full-time freelance, I was consistently meeting or exceeding my old monthly salary.

Are there other challenges to being a full-time freelancer beyond just landing clients and generating income? You bet! Health insurance, for example, is one of the biggest, but that’s been discussed in another post on this blog. But in my experience, if you can get the freelance ball rolling down the hill, it tends to pick up speed if you are diligent and work as hard at building your freelance business as you did working for an employer.

Lay the Groundwork Now
Like I said, I didn’t write this with the intention of providing a step-by-step guide to transitioning from full-time employment into full-time commercial freelance writing. I realize that not everybody out there has more than two decades of professional writing and editing experience as an employee, or has been able to cultivate a profitable content niche like I was fortunate enough to do.

But if going full-time freelance is something you think you’d like to do one day, I encourage you to start laying the groundwork now. For me, success as a full-time FLCW was far from “overnight”; it was actually more than two decades in the making!

The best advice I can offer is to start doing freelance work on the side from your regular job now. This will help you learn how the freelancing world works and start to build up a small clientele that you can expand when you devote your full-time energy and effort into your own freelance writing business.

Oh, and buy The Well-Fed Writer! I read it about three years after I struck out on my own and I can’t imagine a more practical, hands-on guide to getting started as a freelance commercial writer. Peter confirmed some of the things I was doing and offered some great new tips and insights I hadn’t thought of.

And no, Peter didn’t ask me to say that—it’s really that good!

1. What has held you back from making the transition from an employee to a full-time FLCW?

2. If you’ve made the transition, what are one or two tips you can offer to others who hope to do the same?

3. What is one mistake you made during the transition that others should guard against?

Don Sadler is an Atlanta-based freelance commercial writer specializing in the areas of business and finance. He writes content for all different types of media, both print and electronic, and in all different formats — print and e-newsletters, magazines, search-engine-optimized websites, white papers, blogs, ghost articles and books, etc. Visit http://www.donsadlerwriter.com to learn more.

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Where Do You Draw Your “Line in the Sand” with Copywriting Clients?

In the last post, erstwhile copywriter/now graphic designer, Mike Klassen, on whom I can always depend for wisdom, shared this comment:

When I started out, I hated the thought of losing any potential copywriting client. Now, I do little things to weed out the potential problem clients.

One thing I will no longer do is quote a price or a price range without talking to the prospect on the phone and asking questions. I lost all hope of landing a new client a few weeks ago when I got a short email out of the blue asking how much I charge for a certain project. Well, that type of project can have quite a range, so I suggested we schedule a get-to-know-each-other call so I could get some details.

Nope… no call… just wanted a range. When I said I don’t do that because all projects are different (I even have a blog post to point people to that explains things in more detail), he asked what I had charged for the pieces he saw as samples on my site. Had to say sorry, but what I charge other clients is between me and them. I again suggested a free call, or that he should swing by eLance to consider other options. Never heard back from him, and it didn’t make me sad.

If someone can’t be bothered to do a quick chat on the phone, they’re not the client for me. Those questions that PB mentions are crucial. I can’t accurately quote a project until I learn more about the project. But just as important is the personality of the person I’d be working for. You can learn a lot about them on a 15-minute call.

Good stuff, particularly the idea of how much you can pick up about someone on the phone. Not something we spend much time thinking about, but perhaps we should.

Few things top the satisfied feeling you get when you tell a commercial writing client that what they’re suggesting doesn’t work for you. Not in a thumb-your-nose kind of way. But rather, as part of the dawning realization that the client/provider relationship is a one of peers, not lord over servant. Sure, when starting out as a commercial freelancer, you need to be more accommodating, but the sooner you get to that point of realizing, “I have a say in how this goes,” the better.

I recently had a little “line-in-the-sand” moment of my own. I’d given a quote to a new client (a freelance designer for whom I’d done one small project) to brainstorm 3-4 brochure concepts for his not-for-profit client (yes, an unusual project). I offered a pretty reasonable price based on a phone meeting (vs. a face-to-face).

He emailed me to ask if I’d be open to doing a face-to-face instead. With no hesitation, and with supremely untroubled mind, I told him that it really wouldn’t work. All we have as freelancers is our time, and a face-to-face meeting (two hours minimum) would significantly reduce my hourly rate on an already mighty reasonable flat fee.

I think back to how I might have reacted many years back, how I’d have no doubt said, “Sure, of course, be happy to,” or how many writers, living out of “I’m just happy to be here,” would have also quickly signed on. Again, as noted, in the beginning, you DO have to go the extra mile—you do have to prove yourself and be accommodating. But as you get a sense of your value, it’s time to start saying, No.”

And get this: when I told, by phone, that I couldn’t do it, his immediate response was, “Absolutely no problem. I totally get it. I feel exactly the same way. I just wanted to feel out the situation with you.”

He went on to say that he’ll just tell the client that we’re trying to keep things as economical as possible for them, and as such, etc., etc. And it occurred to me, given his reaction, and his immediate understanding of, and commiseration with (after all, he’s a freelancer as well), that had I agreed to the in-person meeting, chances are excellent, I’d have lost some respect in his eyes.

Maybe not a lot, maybe not even consciously to him, but it would have sent the message that I was a bit of a doormat. So, realize that being “agreeable” doesn’t always equate to building credibility in someone’s eyes.

Yes (and as we discussed in an earlier post), you need to balance this new-found power with a generous spirit, but you’ll know which situation calls for which response.

Your drawing-your-line-in-the-sand stories?

How did they unfold, and how to did you feel about it when you stood up for yourself?

Ever not drawn that line when you should have, and regretted it?

Any other thoughts on the subject?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Why Aren’t You Still Working with that Client from 2008 (or Earlier)?

I recently heard from an old commercial writing client for whom I hadn’t worked in probably five or six years. She had a small copywriting project, along with a vague “and we’ve got a few other things cooking we might need your help with.” Always a nice treat when old clients surface, but there’s always a bit of a nagging voice that comes with it…

“How come you stopped working with them in the first place?”

The easy answer? Well, the project you were working on for them ended, you both got busy, and the old “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” thing took over. Never sounds very satisfying, because it points to laziness on my part in the follow-up department. It’s like the natural order of things is that YOU should be contacting them and discovering they have a job for you. NOT them having to reach out to you.

The latter seems to imply that there might very well have been many other commercial freelancing jobs, big and small, you could have done for them in the ensuing years, but you missed out because you weren’t top-of-mind when those gigs came along. And not being top-of-mind also means missing out on possible referrals as well. Sigh.

As confirmation (the self-flagellation now begins in earnest…), she said she was reaching out because the copywriter she’d been using just wasn’t getting it done. Sheesh. And it gets worse. She says, “I need a writer who can write like only you can.”

You know, like he did on that flurry of work five years back, all of which they loved, and after which, he just vanished. What was I thinking? That that would be all they’d ever need? Turn that knife.

I have a dear friend—and fellow commercial freelancer—here in Atlanta who’s been working with one client steadily for about five years. Seems, every time we talk, their name surfaces as part of the “what’s-on-my-plate-now” conversation. They’ve made her multiple offers over the years to come onboard full-time. But, she’s resisted. Hey, why buy the cow, etc., etc.

She gets constant work from them because she knows their business inside and out, is a great writer, incredibly thorough, knows PowerPoint like the back of her hand (along with several other programs; no, you don’t have to be so technically inclined to succeed as a commercial freelancer, but it doesn’t hurt). In short, she’s incredibly capable and versatile.

So, when the workload with a client is steady and ongoing, as it is with hers, it’s easy to not lose touch. But clients like that (i.e., providing a virtually unbroken streak of work) are most definitely the exception, not the rule, in this commercial copywriting business of ours.

Now, I’ve been pretty good at keeping in touch with most of my clients over the years, but if I’m going to be honest here—and Exhibit A above makes it hard to come to any other conclusion—there are a handful of clients who would have been turning to me far more often over the past years had I done a better job of keeping in touch.

Recently, thanks to that blast-from-the-past client call, I reached out to a bunch of those “fell-through-the-crackers.” While nothing’s come of it yet, I’m back on their radar, with an OK to check back in on X date, so that’s all good.

Yes, as we all know, there are a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with us, why we might stop working with a client: company goes out of business; our contact leaves for another company, and the new one has their favorite writer; company hires an in-house writer (or just dumps the writing off on that overworked admin), etc.

But, that’s not the whole story, and we all know it. As the marketing truism reminds (uncomfortably, perhaps?), “It’s far easier to get more work from an existing client than to land a new one.”

Have you had an old client get back in touch after several years, making you realize you’d done a sorry job of regular follow-up?

How do you ensure good clients, even those without steady, ongoing work, keep you “top of mind” for when they do need a writer?

Have you had a steady client that’s hired you for at least 3 years? If so, what do you do (besides write really well) that keeps them coming back?

Have you just thought of a few clients you lost touch with? And what are you going to do about it? 😉

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Speak Up and Grow Your Commercial Writing Business…

About a month and a half before my holiday trip to Ohio this past December to visit family, I Googled “Ohio Writers Groups,” and found one right in my kin’s neighborhood, Western Ohio Writers Association. Shot an email to the executive director of the group (Gery Deer, also a commercial freelancer), letting him know I’d be in the area for the holidays, and would he be interested in exploring the possibility of an event. Absolutely, he replied.

(Funny sidebar if you’ll allow me a vanity moment: In my initial email, per my custom, I didn’t assume he knew who I was, introducing myself as the author of The Well-Fed Writer, etc., etc. Apparently unnecessary. He wrote back saying his wife had recently bought him my book, and he’d been carrying it around with him like a bible since then. Okay. That saved some explaining time…;)

Anyway, in fits and starts, the thing came together. Gery even tapped his long-cultivated network of local contacts and got me five minutes on TV on Dayton’s News at Noon show (slow news week, apparently…). We had 30+ in seats come show time, and all went swimmingly. Sold a small pile of books, possible commercial writing coaching business down the line, and left some goodwill in my wake – always the goal.

Sure, it’s easier for an author of a book targeted to a specific audience to put on events like this (especially with such an involved local ally as I had in this case). But remember this: what we commercial writers do – help businesses boost their bottom line through more effective marketing and communications materials, amongst other things – is something every business potentially needs.

By extension, any business/civic organization made up of businesspeople would be a good target for a speaking offer (though don’t expect to be paid). Kiwanis, Rotary, local business associations, Chambers of Commerce, industry-specific associations, are all good candidates.

Once there, any number of topics could strike a compelling note with this crowd. Right off the top of my head (and depending, of course, on your areas of expertise…):

“The 7 Most Common Mistakes Companies Make with Their Marketing Materials…”

“Five Ways Social Media Can Boost Your Bottom Line (and a Few Ways It Won’t…)”

“The Powerfully Effective Marketing Tool You’re Probably Overlooking…” (about case studies, white papers, etc.)

“How to Do Your Own Writing for Your Business (and Why That May Not Be Wise…)”

I’m sure you could come up with a bunch of others with a little thought. All designed, of course, to showcase your knowledge of commercial writing, marketing communications, and marketing in general (and your readiness, willingness and ability to execute the aforementioned…).

Most importantly, make it Job #1 at any speaking gig to offer truly valuable content, NOT pick up business. Provide enough practical information that audience members could put your ideas in action without your help. And therein lies a seeming paradox: the more you give away, the more of your beans you spill, the more likely many will be to hire you.

By being generous, you accomplish three things – all good:

1) You showcase your expertise in implementing what you’re discussing

2) You get people thinking, “If he/she is willing to give away this much, they must know a whole lot more.” And…

3) You establish yourself as the “good guy” interested in making them more successful and profitable.

Get an okay in advance from your contact person to offer a brief “marketing minute” at the end of your talk, explaining what you do, letting people know you have business cards, and perhaps offering a free consultation, top-line business analysis, report, etc.

Truth, be known, while I’ve done a ton of speaking related to my books over the years, I’ve done very little of the business speaking described above. But a healthy number of commercial freelancers I know do, given its effectiveness as a lead-generation tool. If the idea calls to you, start with some of the ideas above – or brainstorm your own.

Put your storyteller hat on, breathing life into talks with anecdotes and success stories from your own experiences (or those of other writers – with attribution, of course). Or even made-up “picture-this” scenarios to get them thinking about their own businesses.

Just remember, as you put any talk together, always imagine yourself as a businessperson in that audience, and keep in mind what’s most important to them: profitability, competitive advantage, industry reputation, etc. Benefits, not features.

From what I’ve heard, neither the bar nor audience expectations in general are set particularly high for civic/business group luncheon speeches, so don’t imagine it’d take more than you’ve got to make your mark.

Shy? Introverted? Don’t let that stop you. I read a great piece of advice about public speaking once that went something like this: While having good nuts-‘n-bolts speaking techniques down is always a good thing, the two most important attributes of all good speakers is, 1) they’re experts on their subject, and 2) they love sharing it with others.

Some years back, I watched author Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers), speak at a local Borders about Blink. Obviously shy and egghead-ish – wild hair and all – you could tell speaking wasn’t something natural for him. But, because he knew his subject intimately (AND used lots of great anecdotes), and was obviously passionate about sharing it, he had the standing-room-only crowd captivated for well over an hour. Food for thought…

Have you done this kind of speaking, and if so, how did it turn out?

What approaches/strategies have worked for you in the speaking arena?

What types of groups have you found most receptive?

If you haven’t done this kind of speaking, are you getting any ideas from all this?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Take a Customer Service Lesson from this Amazing Company…

So, check this out… I few months back, I finally got around to returning a pair of sweatpants to Lands’ End that I’d bought a few years back to exchange for a new pair. They’d lost their elasticity in the waist, which made them droopy and draggy. And hey, when you’re a work-at-home commercial writer, and every day’s Casual Friday, life’s too short for droopy sweats, right? Right.

So, Lands’ End has this killer money-back guarantee, which, if you’re a regular customer like I am, you can probably recite along with me: “If you’re not satisfied with any item, simply return it to us at any time for an exchange or refund of its purchase price. Whatever. Whenever. Always.”

So, I packed them up, sent ‘em in, and a few weeks later, as sure as the sunrise, I get back a brand-spanking-new pair delivered to my door, complete with fully-stretchy waistband. But, wait, there’s more…

What happened next is what separates the “Serious Customer Service” MEN of the world from the “Lip (Customer) Service” boys. And it’s no newsflash how precious few of the former, and how blasted many of the latter there are…

You ready for this? About a week later, in my mail is a letter from Lands’ End. I open it, and inside is a check for $7.35. Why $7.35? Because that’s exactly what it cost me in postage to send back the old pair of sweats.

Not only will they happily, cheerfully, and with absolutely NO questions EVER asked, let you return/replace anything, anytime, anywhere, for any reason. They’ll even reimburse you for your shipping cost when you do.

These guys are smart. And not just because they have a good guarantee and stand behind like few other companies in the world. But because they realize how little it costs to go WAY above and beyond even really good customer service. They realize how little it costs, in the big scheme of things, to do something so mind-blowingly impressive.

And they know that, when you do, people can’t wait to tell their friends this great, “check-this-out” story about what Lands’ End did (like I’m doing here…). Because LE knows darn well, how monumentally rare such behavior is in the business world, how low the customer-service bar is in people’s minds, and hence – and here’s the clincher – how incredibly easy is to stand out in the crowd.

As a commercial freelancer, I’ve learned how easy it is to set myself apart from the crowd through the service I deliver. I know that just doing what I said I was going to do, and by when I said I’d do it, and by delivering more than the client expects, I stand out. Nothing terribly difficult to do, but what a difference it makes.

As a self-publisher and bookseller, I’ve learned that if someone has a problem with a delivery or messed-up order, or a technical problem, a fast response that solves the problem and then makes it up to them (if it was my fault, and even sometimes when it wasn’t) turns people incredulous, and prone to gush on about how extraordinary – and extraordinarily rare – my service is.

And in most cases, it may have cost me, maybe five bucks (and often nothing, if I’ve sent them, say, an ebook bonus as a “make-it-right” gift) to make them pants-wettingly happy with me, and ready to tell the world.

People are so used to being treated like serfs, they’re downright starved for even halfway decent treatment by the companies they’re giving their money to. And when someone goes beyond that level, and actually seems to, let’s say it, cherish them, well, the word will spread, and by the most credible spokespeople of all – one’s own customers.

And again, those companies or individuals delivering this unusual level of service will be the first to tell you how little it costs them to stand apart. The difference between good and great really is often laughably small. But that small is big.

Which makes this the quintessential secret weapon for anyone, including freelance commercial writers, wanting to put themselves head and shoulders above the pack in the eyes of their customers.

What do you do to be a hero in the eyes of your clients?

What things have worked best to set you apart from the competition?

Would you agree that going that extra mile really doesn’t cost much more than not?

Any great customer services stories you’ve experienced?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.