I’ve been freelancing for five years this month, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. So to celebrate my five years as an independent writer, here are my five secrets to a successful freelancing career.
1. Do Good Work
It sounds simple, but so many people don't do it. A freelancing business is built on referrals and networking, and delivering bad work is the fastest way to sink your ship.
So I’ll say it again: if you want to be successful as a freelancer, you’ve simply got to be a good writer. That means learning to research, edit, rewrite, redo, tear up, whatever…until you get it right. Over time you’ll gain the ability to do this more quickly, but it’s always going to take some time. And you need to be prepared to work hard.
2. Be Organized
You can’t be a successful writer if you can’t keep your commitments straight. Before you even start freelancing, figure out a system to keep yourself organized. Whether it’s plain old pen and paper (I'm quite partial to my day planner) or something more sophisticated like Outlook reminders or a smartphone app, figure out what you need to do to keep on top of your work.
You will lose clients if you miss deadlines, fail to communicate, or forget about projects. Don’t be one of those people. I’ve met some terrific writers who come across as flaky or MIA, and they can’t succeed in the business.
3. Cultivate Relationships
Nobody wants to work with a robot (ok, most people don’t want to work with a robot!). Yes, we are writers and introverts. But we are also business people who are forming relationships with other people in order to get a job done.
How can you fully understand a client or a company if you don’t get to know them? How can you develop trust and rapport if you don’t move beyond rote greetings and churning out of content? How can you create a great feature story if you don't understand the publication or the deeper goals of the people running it?
Don’t be a writing service, be a writer. Be a human being. Be someone you would want to work with.
4. Specialize Without Limiting Yourself
If you’ve got an area of specialty, use it. When a company seeks outside help with technical writing, they're more likely to hire someone who says "I specialize in technical writing" over someone who says “I’m a general freelancer.” So figuring out what type of writing you're good at or what particular industry you excel in is to your advantage.
With that said, don’t limit yourself either. I have found a lot of value in being flexible and in cultivating a wide range of writing styles. So I think the ideal balance is to have a couple of specialty areas, but to still maintain diversity in your work. Not to mention it keeps your job fun and challenging.
5. Don’t Accept Low Rates
If you want to go bankrupt in about a month, go ahead and accept those $2 fees for a 500 word blog. Heck, go ahead and accept the $15 or $20 fee. You'll quickly learn that you won't be able to buy groceries or pay your electric bill, and you'll be left searching for a new job before you lose the roof over your head.
Low rates devalue the entire market and are the fastest way to job burnout, low quality work, and an inability to manage your time. Any client should pay you enough money to do the job well (that means researching, writing, rewriting, editing, etc.). The fee should also cover your taxes, allow you to pay yourself, and let you take time to do the administrative tasks necessary to stay in business - stuff like invoicing, communicating with your clients, networking for new business, etc.
It may take time to find the clients that pay, but take the time. Don’t settle for anything less.
Freelancers, do you have a helpful tip you'd like to add? Please leave it in the comments!
Being an entrepreneur takes a certain type of person and a big dose of tenacity. Here's what I've learned along the way.
1. It's Hard Work, Sort Of
If you thought you worked hard in your old job, be prepared to work even harder as a business owner. While that might sound like the opposite of what you were going for (weren't you trying to get a handle on that life-balance thing?) it's actually not as bad as it sounds.
The thing you get as an entrepreneur that you can't really get as an employee is a sense of illusion about it all. That hard work doesn't actually feel like an energy drain. It's usually enjoyable and rewarding, which makes it feel completely different than any other job you've ever had.
2. You'll Want to Quit
Even the most ambitious, determined, confident people will have moments where they will wonder what they got themselves into. Those first few years equate to a highly questionable income stream and feelings of almost constant instability.
Eleven months out of the year you'll be ok with it all. But there will be those 30 days or so, conveniently dispersed during times of high stress or financial hardships, that will cause you to question everything about yourself and your dreams.
3. Customer Service is Key
If ever you needed to aim to please, now is the time to do it. When you're getting going with your business even one negative review or interaction can set you back weeks or months. Get enough of them piled up and you're completely done.
I've seen some fairly talented entrepreneurs struggle to stay afloat because they have a terrible bedside manner. They come across as disorganized and flighty or, even worse, inconsiderate and rude. Talent doesn't rule when it comes to small business - relationships do. So make sure you know how to manage yours.
4. Processes Are Essential
This is a business, remember. That means you need processes for everything - for maintaining records, for soliciting prospects, for tracking projects or sales, for backing up data, and for invoicing (to name just a few).
Don't launch your business until you have implemented ways to keep yourself on track. Otherwise you're going to fall victim to customer service problems because you'll be flustered (see #3 above). Some of my favorite process helpers are CRM applications, a good filing system, spreadsheets, and automatic data backup services like Carbonite.
5. It's Not a Level Playing Field
The truth is that some businesses are easier to start than others. Some have very high capital expenses and will take years to turn a profit, while others have very low start-up and overhead costs and can become profitable in the first year.
It's also true that depending on the sector, it may be hard to compete. Some industries are very saturated, some require specific niche skills to even play the game, and some require so much initial cash investment that they are out of reach for many people.
My advice if you're going to start a business? Create a business plan. Do your research. Educate yourself. Prepare financially for a tough couple of years. And create a reserve of confidence and determination that you can pull from on a rainy day.
What are your thoughts on being an entrepreneur?
As Facebook continues to make marketing activities more cumbersome (and expensive), have you tapped into Google+ for your social media activities? If you haven't checked it out yet, here are some reasons to take a look:
Much like Facebook used to be for businesses, Google+ is completely free. All you need to do is set up your profile and get started. You can post for free, promote links for free, promote products for free. Everyone who follows you will see everything you share without you having to dole out any cash.
A free way to extend your market reach? I'll take that!
Perhaps the most annoying part of Facebook is its new way of censoring news feeds. Your customers only see what Facebook decides to let them see, not what you want them to see and certainly only a fraction of what you actually post. (Unless, that is, you pay for it.)
Google+ goes back to the days of information being available to everybody. No censoring, no selective sharing, no feelings of having your activities controlled and skewed by a social media company. If you post something for the public to see, well by golly there it is! It's almost like a breath of fresh air to realize you can post something and people will actually see it.
Grow Your Network Through Communities
Just as social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook have set up discussion groups that you can join, Google+ has done this as well (they call them "Communities"). Targeting small businesses? There's a community (or 20) for that. Targeting artsy/crafty folks? There are general and niche communities for that too.
Communities are open to everyone and so far I've seen no restrictions on joining. So go out there, find some virtual communities that are most relevant to your industry and marketing goals, and get to networking. Building relationships is always the best way to grow any business.
A Great Platform for Content Marketing
Facebook used to be a great way to share blog posts and other content marketing initiatives. But now you have to pay for the exposure, and it's only gotten worse over the last six months.
Google+ lets you share content freely with your network - no fees, no restrictions, no funny business. The only restrictions you are subject to are the restrictions set forth by individual group moderators. So if they say no promotion, be a good human being and don't post promotions there. Instead, use the group to connect with people on a more personal level and then share your content within your profile that they follow. Simple as that.
Thinking About Joining?
Is Google+ able to dominate the market in the same way as Facebook and Twitter? No. Will it work for everyone and every type of business? No.
But are there people using it? Yes! And these people are pretty strongly devoted to it, and may not be on your other social networks. So why not give it a shot and see if it works for you?
I've had a great experience using Google+ to grow my network and reach more people. It's a simple interface that is easy to use, ad free, and one of the few remaining open communities where you can still control where and how your information is shared. And besides...if nothing more, you'll just have lost a few hours of your time trying out something new.
Have you had a good experience on Google+? I'd love to hear about your tips and tricks in the comments!
Need to write some website content, emails, or marketing materials for your business? Here are 10 quick tips to get you going.
1. Know Your Audience
Are you writing to a group of scientists or to stay at home moms? This is the first question you should ask yourself before you get started. Think about how differently the brains of these two groups of people operate, and be sure to compose your content accordingly.
2. Be Clear and Concise
Nobody wants to wade through a bunch of embellished fluff to try to figure out what you mean. Say what you mean, and say it well, and then stop writing. Extra fluff doesn't sell. That's why it's called fluff.
3. Know Your Output
Are you writing a brochure or website copy? Are you writing instructions or a press release? How you format and write your content will vary widely depending on the final output. Take a look at a marketing brochure and then take a look at a press release for that same product, and you'll see the difference.
4. Watch Your Tone
Every business has a tone. An amusement park might have a whimsical tone while an IT company would have a professional one. Make sure you choose the right words and construct your sentences in a way that conveys the tone you're after. Do you want to say, "We bring top quality service straight to you!" or do you want to say, "We pride ourselves in providing the highest quality service to our customers." There's a difference, isn't there?
5. Don't Plagiarize!
Why risk your credibility or even a lawsuit? While it's easy to plagiarize these days, it's equally easy to sniff it out in seconds using free tools online. So just don't do it. Period.
6. Be Engaging
In an age of sound bites and tweets, you only have a few seconds to draw your audience in before they close their browser or trash your email. Make sure your content is engaging, especially in the first sentence or two, so that they'll stay for more.
Hint: Writing engaging content starts with Tip #1 (knowing your audience).
7. Write with Purpose
The worst thing you can do is put words on a page just to have words on a page (to somehow give the appearance of authority or knowledge without it really being there). Everything you write needs to have a purpose, both for SEO and for your marketing strategies. And don't forget that "be engaging" thing. You can have all the purpose in the world, but if it sounds terrible (or worse, is illegible) it won't sell.
8. Don't Inflate Content
Google's crawlers don't need you to artificially inflate your copy with keywords or links. In fact, they will punish you for it these days. So be smart, not superfluous. If you aren't sure how to properly use keywords for SEO, do some research or hire someone to help you.
9. Edit Your Work
If you want to almost guarantee a disaster, write something up quickly and just send it out the door. As a professional writer I will tell you that the first draft is never good, the second draft is often not good either, and the third draft usually still needs some work. And don't forget about grammar mistakes. Typos are a no-no! So be sure to take the time to read and re-read whatever you write. Maybe have someone else read it too.
10. If You Can't Write, Then Don't
Let's face it, not everyone was cut out to write. Some people are brilliant at math, others are brilliant at sales. If you aren't a writer please hire someone to do it for you. Your business will thank you for it, and you'll spare yourself a painful undertaking that will likely not produce any ROI.
What are your best tips for writing when it comes to business? Is there anything I left out? Please leave them in the comments below!
How many of your visitors are viewing your website through a mobile device? If your website isn't optimized for mobile viewing, you may be losing customers.
Do I Really Need to Optimize?
Yes! These days it isn't enough to have a website that displays beautifully on the web.
With the invention of smart phones and tablets, more and more people are viewing web pages on a device other than a computer. And those devices don't have a mouse, can't display Flash, and don't have the screen real estate of a regular computer.
Have you ever tried to view a non-optimized website on your tiny smartphone screen? How easy is it to click links, read text, and use the functionality? Not very.
How Many Mobile Users Are Out There?
If you haven't checked in a while (which I hope isn't the case), take a look at your site visitors and what technology they are using. Roughly one third of my visitors view my site from a mobile device. And depending on the industry you're in, you may have even more.
Let's put this into a real-life scenario. Let's pretend your website doesn't have a mobile version yet.
...and that's only if your mobile viewing percentage is at 10 percent! What if your website mobile viewing is at 40 or 50 percent? At 50 percent you may have lost 1500 potential customers.
Good Mobile Optimization vs. Bad
So you've got your website set to display on a mobile device. Great! Have you gone through this checklist of common issues?
Bottom line: Your website needs to cater to the mobile viewing trend, or you're bound to lose out. If you've built your website using a tool that doesn't automatically create a mobile version (or simply don't have a developer to help you), look online for assistance. There are many tools available to create a customized mobile version of your site, or many companies that can be hired to do it for you.
How many times have you gotten the job because you followed up at just the right time? Do you have a good system in place to remember all of those people who you needed to circle back with? If not, consider a CRM application.
What Is a CRM Application?
CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management. To put it shortly, it's an application that helps you manage your current and potential customer base. You can use it to manage your marketing efforts, your relationships, your conversion data, your contact information, and even your internal team and how they distribute work.
Why Should I Use One?
CRM applications are typically used by sales teams in established businesses and organizations to work their pipeline, maintain connections with prospects, and track conversions. They also use them to report out data as needed.
But I believe a sole proprietor or small business needs the same level of efficiency and organization if they want to be successful. The great part about a CRM tool is that you don't have to purchase all the parts you don't need. And it doesn't have to be expensive.
I have had great success with Salesforce.com, so I'll be touting that one in particular here. For only $5/month I get functionality that lets me manage all of my new and prospective clients, make notes on marketing efforts, schedule follow-up activities, document projects, and run reports. And it's all stored on the cloud. So if my computer dies, my contacts (and the lifeblood of my business) live on.
A Day in the Life of a CRM'd Sole Proprietor
So how do I put my CRM application to use? For every new person I interact with that is either providing me business or could provide it in the future, I create an account that links that contact with any others related to it. I enter their job title, email, phone, cell phone, address, website, you name it. I then create a note about our interaction, and copy any relevant email text into the record that I might want to remember.
Once that's done, I set tasks for myself. And I do this everyday for both new and existing contacts depending on what happens in my business.
The beauty is that when when I log in everyday, all of my tasks are conveniently listed for me by date without me having to think about anything. Everything I need to do for that day is right there, and I can click on it to view more details and review the history on the account. It's like an instant refresher, and it allows me to follow up in a more personal way.
Where to Get a CRM
I highly recommend Salesforce.com. For contact management for up to 5 users it's only $5/month. Plus it's web-based, easy to use, and has just enough functionality to help you manage your clients. If you want a little more functionality you can go up to the $25/month package. It goes up from there depending on your needs and how many people you want to be able to use it.
Sound good? It works well for me. Click here to view Salesforce.com's pricing information, and welcome to the world of CRMs!
I was recently spammed by someone who accidentally revealed the email addresses of every freelancer on the spam list. What did I notice? That less than five of those people had a business email (most had Gmail or Yahoo accounts). Cringe! Here's why you, the business owner, don't need to be in that crowd.
Even a sole proprietorship needs a professional email address in order to be taken seriously. I recently saw a start-up company searching for a blogger on Problogger.net, and they asked prospective writers to respond to a Gmail address rather than an address with the company's domain. Need I ask what your impression of that post might be? I know what mine was. And I didn't respond to it.
Here are my top three reasons for investing in a business email address.
So if I've successfully convinced you to get a new business email address, let's talk about how you can do it.
Where To Get a Business Email
Business email addresses can be purchased through your website host (think GoDaddy or Weebly) or can run outside of it. So if you like bundling your costs into one payment, check with your hosting service to see if they offer email as an option that you can pay for every year at renewal time. You can then ask if it can be configured to run through Outlook (if you want to use it that way) or if it is available on the web only.
If email isn't offered through your web host or if you want another option, you can get a business email through Google or a similar provider. The service runs in the background, but you get to customize the email address and the domain name. So in the example above, Dave Smith logs into Gmail to access his email@example.com email, but nobody else sees that it's a Gmail account. Any outgoing emails use his marketingbeat.com domain rather than gmail.com.
I have had good luck using Google to run my business email and I can view it on my cell phone as well. The best part is it works seamlessly with Microsoft Outlook even if you choose to use it on the web (like I do). So if someone sends me an Outlook meeting invite, I can accept it and it will not only send the acceptance to the sender, but it will also sync with my Google calendar automatically.
If you need web-based email hosting, here are a few links to some good business email options:
Google business email
Yahoo business email
Microsoft business email
Take a look at the different costs and what each has to offer, and decide what's best for you.
One final piece of food for thought. Did you know you can't get a LinkedIn page for your company without a business email address? Just one more reason to get one, even if your business is a party of one!
Being great at what you do doesn’t always equal success as a freelance writer. In fact, good writing is only part of the formula. Today I want to share what I feel makes a freelance writer successful as a business owner - meaning steady work, happy clients, and a comfortable income.
Maybe you already know how to write, but do you know how to work as a freelance writer? Do you know how to manage your clients, report your taxes, and invoice properly? Do you understand how to write for websites and to optimize content for search engines? Do you know how to format a press release?
Step one is to educate yourself. I highly recommend reading some books on the business of writing, my favorite of which is The Well Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman. You can visit his website here. Other good reads are The Anti 9-5 Guide by Michelle Goodman and An Insider’s Guide to Building a Successful Consulting Practice by Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. Any techniques that you are unfamiliar with, like SEO or press releases, can be learned via the internet. Just do a quick Google search and you will be ready to meet the needs of all of your potential clients.
If you want to be successful, you have to stay organized. Find a way to manage your work and clients that meshes well with you. I personally rely heavily on a CRM tool (I chose Salesforce.com) to manage my clients and marketing efforts, as well as a physical day planner, an electronic calendar, and Excel.
It’s also a good idea to get a filing system in place so you can organize your projects while you work on them. I have a manila folder for each client or project, and two separate filing spaces – one for current projects, one for completed projects. Successful businesses of all sizes have processes in place, and your writing business should be the same way.
Have a Portfolio
Every writer needs a portfolio even if it’s a small one. If you don’t have samples, get some. Today. Well, yesterday! One sample of each type of writing you want to do is enough. Remember that if you’ve done it once, you can do it. Sites like Elance, Freelancer or Guru are good starting points if you just need to get something published, but I wouldn't stay here long. You can't live off what they pay on those sites.
I find that online portfolios are used 99.9% of the time. I have mine on a tab on my website, but you can also build a portfolio using a number of websites. One example is Contently. Personally I like to have my portfolio available right there on my website so potential clients can see everything in one place. Do you need a physical portfolio? Yes, for those just-in-case scenarios. I have used mine only once, but I sometimes bring it to meetings with new potential clients. It should be professional, but doesn’t have to be expensive. I simply printed text on really nice letterhead, put them in paper protectors, and assembled them in a matching binder. Instant portfolio.
That whole “you snooze, you lose” concept really applies in the freelance world. You have a lot of competition so if someone reaches out to you via phone or email, respond promptly if you want to win the job. Very few businesses have the patience to deal with a writer who is unresponsive or hard to get a hold of. So when that phone rings, answer. Because that may be your one shot at the project.
So if I had to list out my rules of availability, the first rule would be to answer emails quickly. I try to respond within 2 hours during regular business hours, and sooner if possible. Second, pick up the phone when it rings. Answer even if you don’t feel like talking, because they might not call back. Third, be responsive. Don’t let clients ever feel like you are a black hole reincarnated on the earth. And finally, provide good customer service. This means being available to answer questions, being on time for calls and meetings, and proactively updating clients on status.
Market Yourself – Constantly
Many writers dread the idea of marketing because so many of us are introverted by nature. But the deal is, if you want to get clients (and eat and have electricity) you have to go find them. And this means marketing.
Do you have to do cold calls? No. So if this doesn’t appeal to you, don’t do it. But you do have to reach out somehow, whether it’s through emails, direct mailings, networking on sites like LinkedIn, or applying to freelance postings. You can’t just sit back and expect projects to drop into your lap. The books I mentioned above provide some good tips on marketing yourself and finding new clients. So check them out, and do some research. Find what works for you.
Find a Niche
Yes you can be a jack of all trades writer. And maybe you are. But it’s to your benefit to find some sort of niche and try to develop clientele there. You will be able to command higher fees for something you specialize in, and eventually your network will broaden because like-minded individuals like to collaborate. And part of that collaboration might just be passing your name along to a colleague.
I don’t think you have to limit yourself if you truly enjoy writing about lots of things (like I do), but I do think you should find a niche to serve as your primary source of income. Then you can supplement as you want with interesting projects. So for example, my specialty is commercial writing. My niche within commercial writing is IT. But I also have a consumer magazine I write for, and a dental chain. So I don’t limit myself but I do try to focus most of my work.
Have a Contract and Deposit
Nobody wants to be the writer who is staring at their mailbox waiting for an overdue payment. The solution? Have a contract. You are a business so treat yourself like one. You can likely find samples of contracts online (this is what I did) and then tweak your favorite one to your liking.
Always get 50% payment up front and have stipulations around meeting cancellations, project cancellations, and overdue payments. It’s not being tough, it’s just a fair business practice. Will this prevent all unpaid invoices? No. But at least you’ll get some of your money by requiring a percentage up front, and will have some recourse if you need to take the client to small claims court.
Speak professionally, interact professionally, but don’t be afraid to have some fun with those clients who have a sense of humor. Be real. You are a human and so are they. Bringing humanity and a personal touch to the job will help set you apart from the rest of the writing masses.
Is Your Freelance Business Ready?
Once you have properly established your business, if you can produce exceptional work (on time!) then your client list will flourish and your income will grow. Great writing is essential, but running your operation as a business is the key to success.
There are millions of professional freelance writers across the globe. These are people who make their careers out of writing words for a living and selling those words to others. And to anyone working seriously in the writing profession, I would pose this question: Do you want to be valued as a professional, or do you want to be a commodity?
Content mills have portrayed writing as a laughable field requiring few skills, and only the basic ability to complete a sentence. The consequence of these mills is the perpetuation of the idea that writing is not worth paying for, and the false belief that it can be done by anyone who speaks English. If you don't believe me do a quick search on a site like Elance or Craigslist. You will find people offering (and expecting) to pay a measly $10 for a 500 word article, or maybe $100 for a 20,000 word manuscript. Or people who expect a robust, SEO optimized website with 20+ pages of content for the "fair" rate of $300 for the project.
Do the math on this (as all freelance writers have) and you will find that it's less than minimum wage. In fact, in some cases you're talking about making a dollar or two an hour. What's worse is you will find people actually accepting this pittance and performing the work, but then struggling to buy a loaf of bread and then bemoaning their circumstances.
Do you have to work for those rates in order to survive and thrive in a freelance marketplace? Is this the only way to compete? Many newbie (and some established) freelancers come from a place of fear. Fear that nobody will hire them, fear that they can't compete, or fear that their skills aren't good enough. And their answer to this question would likely be, "Well that's what I see out there, so that's what I have to take."
My answer is an emphatic and forceful, "No."
Knowing your worth as a writer means running your operation like the professional business that it is. You are offering a service to a person or company, and that service is often worth substantial money once it is put into place. The return can be enormous. And when you run your writing operation like a business - maintaining top notch customer service, providing error-free copy that meets deadlines, and really partnering with your clients to meet their needs - for you to not insist that those businesses pass a fair share of that ROI onto you is devaluing your profession. And yourself. Because the fact is, good writing makes businesses money. Period.
Knowing your worth as a writer means being firm with your rates and demanding compensation that is fair. It means requiring that potential clients pay you as the professional you are. Will it be harder to find work this way? Yes. But which would you rather be? The content writer working 10 hours a day, churning out lackluster content (because you simply don't have time to make it good), struggling to buy groceries, and building a portfolio of lackluster samples? Or the professional writer spending 4 hours a day with a handful of clients, writing stellar content that pays your bills and brings in hard cash for their business, and building your network and future opportunities in the time you aren't wasting writing for $2/hour?
Always remember that serious clients will recognize the value you provide and will pay you accordingly. You choose what type of writer you want to be. It's all up to you. I choose to be a professional. What's your choice?
For a small business owner or someone trying to start a business, don’t forget that YOU are your biggest sales tool. What does this mean exactly? First it means that you have to actively get out there and sell your business, interact with your target market, and invest the time. But it also means that the following things can make or break you when you are interacting with a potential customer:
But you also have 30 seconds to make a good impression and draw in your potential employer . This includes your dress, your mannerisms, and your quick sale of yourself (who you are and what you do). The rest of the time you have to skillfully sell yourself as the best person for the job. Or at least sell yourself in such a way that they feel you might be a good candidate for future positions.
If you blow it, you blow it. It’s the same way in business sales.
As you try to grow your business, remember that even if you don’t make an immediate sale with a person, you are your biggest sales tool for ensuring that maybe this person will come back to you in the future. Make sure you speak articulately and with confidence. Make sure you have thoroughly prepared answers to all potential questions. Make sure you have a rote answer prepared for questions you don’t know the answer to. And make sure you have some materials to give them that they can reference and take with them.
Sometimes it takes potential customers time to process your offering(s) and to actually solicit your services. In fact, many times people will not purchase your product or service the first time they see it. But that’s ok. Just leave a positive impression in their minds and be sure to follow up.
But also make sure your marketing materials are strong, so that your prospects have an incentive and a means to circle back with you if they so desire. This is why sales and marketing go hand in hand, although that’s another blog topic (click here to read it).
Need help growing your business or nonprofit organization? Browse my website to learn about how I can help you with your particular needs.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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