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The Confidence Conundrum: How a Newbie Writer Builds Enough to Succeed…

In my first commercial freelancing group coaching series, one of the participants said: “I think my biggest problem is uncertainty. I prefer feeling confident about what I’m doing – to be able to do it with authority, and I just haven’t been able to reach that point so far. I’m always afraid I’ll do it ‘wrong.'” Welcome to the human race.

Not at all surprisingly, that statement resonated with all the other “coachees,” and the same issue has been brought up by many folks in every series since. When you’re starting out in a new field, and often, as one’s first foray into self-employment, to boot, it’s easy to get mighty wigged out by this Big Unknown (a.k.a. commercial writing).

Sure, I’d like to think that commercial copywriting resources like my book can demystify the business-building process quite a bit, and it no doubt does. But still, until someone takes those steps for themselves, everything they read about in my book (or any other) is still untried, unproven – to them – and hence, still theoretical.

So, how does one develop the confidence necessary to make it as a commercial freelancer? How do you know you’ve got what it takes to succeed? How do you get yourself to a place where you can boldly go where you’ve never gone before?

Well, the bad news is if you’re a newbie, chances are, you’ll have to deal with this. But, that’s also the good news: most commercial copywriters starting out deal with this. Sure, if you’ve left a corporate position, and carry experience, clients and work from that industry – or ex-employer – with you, you’ll likely have an easier transition. But, that’s not the norm.

I see the confidence-building game as three-fold. Arguably, a lack of confidence is driven by a lack of mental adjustment, a lack of experience and a lack of knowledge. The mental side? Get comfortable with the fact that you likely won’t be comfortable for a while (one reason this field pays so well…). Just the nature of the beast, and knowing that’s the case should make it easier to deal with.

The experiential side? Self-evident. You gain confidence by doing. Every new commercial writing experience you have, every copywriting project you work on and complete successfully, is a brick in your own personal Confidence Wall.

You learn a little more about the commercial freelancing process, you understand a little more about copywriting clients – what they expect, how they are to deal with, and how to make their lives easier (your goal, by the way…). Sure, all situations are a little different, but there are always some commonalities in every scenario.

String enough successful commercial writing projects together (translation: growing respect, competence, portfolio, testimonials, and bank account), and one day you’ll wake up and realize that this gig is for real, and so are you. That’s where confidence is born. But it takes time.

The knowledge side? Along the way, of course, you can hasten the process by reading books on copywriting, marketing, sales, etc. The more you know, the more tools you have at your command when talking with clients about their challenges. In addition, study the work of fellow commercial freelancers. Visit their sites, see how they position themselves, look at their samples (starting with mine) to get a sense of the required skill sets.

How did you build confidence in your abilities when you were starting out?

Was there one particular project that stands out as a big confidence booster for you?

Do you remember the moment when you realized you had what it took to make it in this business?

Run Into This Promising (and Increasingly Common) Client Scenario Out There?

So, I was talking the other day with one of the graphic designers I’ve collaborated with in my commercial writing business for years. She’d recently picked up a new client – a big company selling something people have to have, and targeted to a specific demographic – one that’s been making money hand over fist the past few years.

While happy to get the new work, she’s been frustrated with them of late. They’ve been so busy growing they haven’t had time to sit down and discuss strategy, despite having a ton of projects (some of which will require copywriting) they need to get done. They just rented a huge booth at an industry trade show and told her they wanted her to redesign all their signage – along with direct mail and promo materials.

She wants to bring me in as soon as she can sit down with them and get a laundry list of projects (and accompanying commercial writing needs). Oh, and they’ve got plenty of money. Folks like these are dream clients for solo practitioners (i.e., commercial freelancers and designers). They’re out there and market realities are having them show up more and more on my radar and that of folks like my friend.

Prior to contacting my friend, the client had been working with a small ad agency going through meltdown. They couldn’t get ahold of people at the agency – which had laid off a bunch of folks – and the work wasn’t getting done. Now, if there was ever a situation where a talented freelance writer/designer team could save the day AND save them a bunch of money, time and aggravation, this was it.

This is becoming a more common tale in this economy. Even if an agency isn’t going under, just the fact that their high-overhead economics require them to charge far more than a copywriter/designer team would, is enough to have clients question those bills and try to find lower-priced alternatives. But, they have to feel they can get the same or better quality from a few solo operators in order to feel comfortable making the switch.

So, the opportunities exist. But they won’t drop in our laps and those we do find out there will require solid writing skills, strong marketing chops, buttoned-up presentations and absolute professionalism. But we have one BIG thing going for us: these clients WANT to believe we can solve their problems – they don’t want to hunt any longer and harder than they have to.

Have you run across any scenarios like these? New clients who’ve dropped sinking (or pricey) agencies to go with freelancers (you or someone else)?

If you have, how did it unfold?

What did it take to give them the requisite comfort level to move forward?

If you haven’t landed any new clients in this way, can you see some possibilities in your network?

Are you partnered with a graphic designer or two, and hence, positioned to capitalize on opportunities like these?

Simon Says: “People Don’t Buy What You Do; They Buy Why You Do It…”

A little intellectual gymnastics – with possible real-world application to the commercial freelancing business….

So, I was clicking through a few links I found on a writer friend’s web site the other day, and came across this guy, Simon Sinek (pronounced, unfortunately, “cynic,” though he’s anything but that…), whose site is “Start With Why.”

Very provocative stuff, methinks. Check out the video on the home page of Simon speaking (next to the words, “The Golden Circle”). It’s 18 minutes and change, but well worth it for the mind-buzz factor…

Simon’s philosophy can be summed up in this statement on his site:

All organizations and careers function on 3 levels. What you do, How you do it and Why you do it. The problem is, most don’t even know that Why exists.

True enough. And when you have a powerful “Why,” it drives the “How” (the actions taken to realize the “Why”), which in turn, yields the “What” (the tangible end results). Along around minute 11 of the video, he says the following (aggregated from several places in the video):

People don’t buy from you because you have what they want; they buy from you because they believe what you believe. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you’ll attract those who believe what you believe.

I like it. He cites Apple as a company with a core belief in innovation and being first, and predictably, appealing to similar “firsters” (i.e., the people who stood in line for hours to buy the first iPhones at $600 a pop – with bugs and all).

Now, this stuff goes beyond features and benefits. Though, let’s be clear. If you run your copywriting business focusing on benefits (i.e., those things that matter to your clients), NOT features (i.e., those things about you and your business), that’ll generally be enough to set yourself apart from most of the pack.

But, he’s going deeper here. Now, I’m not saying this is The New Answer for the commercial writing field. Rather, that there simply may be some cheese down this tunnel for folks like us. So, how is his philosophy relevant to us? Well, mapping it on to what we do…

Clients don’t buy what we do (i.e., writing services); they buy why we do it (i.e., ________??).

What might be that compelling “Why” for us to share with our clients and prospects? Sure, we could all have ones specific to our businesses, but nothing wrong with a little brainstorming. So, what would be a powerful belief on our part that would draw to us those who share that belief and do business with us as a result?

Would it be, “I believe in the power of words to dramatically influence buyer action”? Too superficial?

Maybe, “Writing has changed history, so it can certainly change minds.” Closer, but perhaps a bit obtuse?

How about, “Speak honestly and the world will listen to you.” Better, though a bit lofty. Thoughts?

Could this strategy be a way for commercial writers to set themselves apart from the pack?

Do you have such a core belief for your business?

If so, how do you share it? Is it outlined on your site? In marketing materials? Shared in meetings?

If not, what core belief or “Why” could you come up with for your business? Or for commercial writing businesses in general?

Ever Had to Sign a “Non-Compete” Agreement Like This One?

Got an interesting note from a commercial freelancer recently:

Recently (and perhaps because of the recession) I’ve been asked to sign non-compete agreements from agencies I work with. The first time I was asked, I said no—and lost the account. Now I’m being asked again, and it happens to be a fairly substantial client.

I have no problem signing a confidentiality agreement, but this non-compete states:

For two years after the date your relationship with (agency) ends, you may not solicit any contractor, independent contractor, or agent of (agency) to work for you or on behalf of any competing business; or solicit any client or customer of (agency) to purchase from you any product or service which competes with any product or service provided by (agency).

My client is obviously paranoid; I think he has been burned in the past. While my town is a reasonably major metro, we only have a handful of large household-name corporations. Essentially, if his clients are one or more of those big companies, then I wouldn’t be able to do any copywriting business with any department in those firms – even those the agency isn’t directly working with.

Some of these companies probably use six different agencies in town. If I sign this agreement, and get a call from one of those other agencies (quite possible), I’d have to turn down that work. Or, if one of the companies themselves wanted to hire me to write, say, internal communications (work outside the agency’s scope), I’d have to turn that down as well. Help!

PB: Maybe I’ve been lucky in my commercial writing career, but I’ve never been asked to sign anything so draconian as this, so in my experience, it’s not at all common. Non-competes are typically used for employees who leave a company and, understandably, that company is a bit hesitant to have them go to work for a competitor for at least a few years. But to require a contractor to not solicit work from their clients or even competing agencies that might work for those clients, for two years? That’s downright preposterous.

Now, I have encountered the wrath of a copywriting client who thought I was going around them to solicit work directly from the client – a BIG no-no, and I get that (talk about paranoid; they saw me swapping cards with an account exec from the client, and made the totally wild leap that I was soliciting work directly from them).

So, this is similar but exponentially more far-reaching, and in a much more locked-down form. I wouldn’t sign it unless you’re okay with being shut out from doing any commercial freelancing jobs for any of these other companies, which I kinda doubt you are. My first instinct is to tell them to go jump in the lake. After all, according to this agreement, you do one $250 job for them, after which they drop you, and you’re shut out from all this potential work for two years. That’s laughable.

But, there’s definitely something else going on here, and a little digging ought to unearth it. You need to craft some sort of win-win. Ferret out their real concern and get to some middle ground. In addition to the quite conceivable inanity of the “one-$250-job” scenario described above, explain that each of their clients might have dozens of people/departments who could potentially hire you, and to do work THEY (the agency) had zero interest in (like collateral, internal communications, etc).

As such, how fair is that they put this blanket rule on ALL business? That’s heavy-handed, greedy, and not at all acting in good faith (just an editorial aside; I probably wouldn’t say that to them, but then again, I just might…).

Why not say you’ll get permission from them before taking on any other work from any division of any of their clients? Or, as a last resort (and not a habit you should get in), if you really want to work with them, and feel the upside potential with them is great (a gamble, obviously), why not offer, say, a 10% “royalty” on any work gotten from within that company?

Assuming their main concern is that you might poach work from them that would be up their alley, if they KNOW they won’t be interested in X kind of work, under the royalty situation, they might actually be motivated to get you in those doors so they make their piece. Not an ideal situation, and if they don’t agree to either of those, I’d absolutely walk.

By the way, I got an update from the freelancer recently:

“My client has agreed to let me propose some changes to that part of the agreement. I have done that, and now I’m waiting for his reply. He is clearly fearful that I am going to solicit his clients, which I think is the result of some past experience he had that is totally unrelated to me. However, I think there is generally a growing paranoia as competition has escalated in the days since the recession hit. I’ll email you with a full update as soon as this is resolved.”

Have you ever run into this situation before?

How did you handle it?

What would you suggest she do?

If crazy-restrictive agreements like these are indeed becoming more common, why do you think that’s the case?

Growth in Temps: Bad Sign for Employees, Good Sign for Freelancers

Saw an interesting bit in the Associated Press this morning entitled: “Use of temps may no longer signal permanent hiring” (link).

Here’s an excerpt:

When employers hire temporary staff after a recession, it’s long been seen as a sign they’ll soon hire permanent workers. Not these days. Companies have hired more temps for four straight months. Yet they remain reluctant to make permanent hires because of doubts about the recovery’s durability.

Even companies that are boosting production seem inclined to get by with their existing workers, plus temporary staff if necessary.

“I think temporary hiring is less useful a signal than it used to be,” says John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo. “Companies aren’t testing the waters by turning to temporary firms. They just want part-time workers.”

All of which bodes well for commercial freelancers like us. Now, don’t get me wrong. Certainly don’t want to get gleeful about an ominous economic sign – one that appears to argue against a speedier bounce-back to the economy than perhaps originally anticipated.

That said, I have little control over the speed of the economic recovery, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned through the business ups and down over the past few decades, it’s this: what’s a bad sign for those seeking full-time employment is often a good sign for temporary/contract workers like us.

Fact is, the economy taketh away and the economy giveth. As the above article highlights, if you’re a temporary worker these days, opportunities are rich. And bottom line, that’s exactly what we freelance copywriters are: temporary workers.

And temporary workers like us offer some sound bottom-line pluses to those who hire us:

1) Buy only what they need and only when they need it
2) No salaries, benefits and vacations to provide
3) Fresh “outsider” perspectives
4) Access to a wide range of talent

The rise in temporary worker hiring underscores the growing workload these companies have, but as the article points out, in an uncertain economy, workers like us represent a darn good solution. And companies know it. The clincher: this is nothing new.

Over the past few decades, when the economy hit rough patches, and downsizing was the order of the day, I and others noticed the increased use of copywriting folks like us by companies who’d shed full-time staff (or pricey creative agencies), but still needed to get work out the door. And sure, once things turned around, as the above article points out, many companies added back full-time staff where it just made sense to do so.

However, many small-to-medium-sized companies (say, 50-200 employees and $5-$50 million in revenue; i.e., the business “sweet spot” for commercial writers), having seen, firsthand, the real bottom line advantages of the freelancer model over the full-time employee model – never went back. And it’s happening again as companies realize a lot of the services they need can be delivered by contract workers. And simply put, it’s changing the face of the workplace forever. Note the line in the excerpt above:

Even companies that are boosting production seem inclined to get by with their existing workers, plus temporary staff if necessary.

And heck, companies aren’t the only ones falling in love the idea of independent workers. Freelancers themselves have been discovering the joys of working for themselves for years now. And these days, you can’t spit without hitting yet another article about the rising trend in self-employment.

Sure, for many, it wasn’t their first choice, and in many cases, they had no choice. But, I know plenty of folks who started out as reluctant freelancers out of necessity some years back, got bitten hard by the bug, and like the companies that hire them, they too will never go back. Not just because of the dramatically enhanced quality of life, but because they finally “get” what us long-termers realized a log time ago: there’s far more job security in self-employment than there’ll ever be in a J-O-B.

Have you seen this scenario play out in your business experiences?

Have you had clients contact you to fill the work gap left by departing full-timers (or the dropping of an expensive agency)?

Did you start out as a reluctant freelancer only to be converted forever?