Today’s Mailbox Monday question has a ton of value to give on three levels…
— First, for anyone starting any new business venture (no matter whether you sell products or services), there is one really big core lesson to be had, so I’ll start there…
— Second, part of the question is really relevant to any and all service business, and I have an observation that really fits at this level before we narrow down to specifics…
— And third, because it’s asked from a new copywriter perspective (the question’s about the juggling fee and workload conundrum that many new copywriters face), I’ll make sure to answer it in the context of copywriting as well…
Before I get to the question, a reminder.
Every Monday is Mailbox Monday. Where I dig into the ol’ inbox, and answer YOUR questions on the topics of marketing, selling, business-building, copywriting, and more.
To have your question answered in an upcoming issue, just hit reply or email to me at [email protected].
And now for our question…
What an honor to email someone who’s done so much of what I hope to do (Though of course not in the financial industry *shudders* I’d rather stick with what I know – health).
My biggest business problem is understanding the timing and execution. I’m envious of people who sell information or physical products, because they can sell as much as they want with no cap. When you sell services, such as copywriting, You have only so many hours in the day that you can sell, and as a beginner, those hours are perhaps too unproven to be worth the amount necessary to make a full living.
As a brand new copywriter, I’m juggling learning my craft (The Gary Halbert way) and actually having the time to pitch new customers and take on projects. I’m not sure how much time to realistically budget for projects because I’m still new to the business.
Consequently there is a challenge to either work fast (because I can’t charge much as an unproven writer) which may lower the quality of my work, or work at a slower pace, leaving me chained for large stretches of time to projects that are not financially rewarding.
I also wonder, if freelancers that have never worked for an agency are at a disadvantage in the eyes of potential clients (that question may serve your readers better than the first portion of my email as I’m sure a good many people wonder the same thing.)
A big breakthrough for me would look like knowing I’m on the right track to being able to support my family as a copywriter and not simply wasting time holed up in libraries devouring classic copywriting books and ads day after day. (I’ve just finished hand copying the 6,540-word Stocks and Bonds ad by Louis Engel! That thing makes most blog posts look like they were written by a used car salesman with an arm full of fake Rolex watches.)
As always, thank you for being an inspiration Mr. Furr, and I look forward to seeing if anything in my email gets carved into blog-fodder down the road!
Answering this on the broadest new business level…
First, I want to hit this one really important point. Starting ANY new business is all about experimentation.
Experimentation will often take longer, be messier, and lead to more failure than any of us want or expect.
But, that’s also a good thing. Because every time you get knocked down… Every time you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again… You can smile inside, knowing someone else gave up when they hit that obstacle…
New businesses are about testing and trying new things.
If you have a testing attitude and you find something that didn’t work, it can hurt. But ultimately, you look at it, and you say, “Hmm. Guess I won’t do THAT again.”
I know, because I once took a project, on referral, to sell supplements that, if I tried to describe them, would probably trigger your spam filter. (Yeah, they’re what you’re thinking.)
Bad move. My copy came up pretty limp. (Sorry.) And I never took another project in that market again.
In the moment, it was painful. But it was also a really good lesson about writing in the right markets for me.
With this noted, I believe most entrepreneurs should go the “Chicken Entrepreneur” route. I think I first read about this in Mark Ford’s book, Seven Years to Seven Figures (published under his Michael Masterson pen name).
Basically, he advocates NOT going full-time into your business venture until you’ve done it on the side long enough to prove it has some traction.
I’ve always done this. Sometimes to a fault.
I discovered copywriting in 2005, and realized that freelance copywriting was in my future as of the pretty much the day I discovered the field.
But I didn’t go freelance right away. In fact, I got a full-time job in marketing that I stuck with and grew in for almost five years.
By the end, I had total cabin fever. I probably could’ve been out in three. But it was a great way to get a lot of the early learning curve out of the way before I went freelance. And while I worked that full-time job, I started my freelance business on the side, doing client work in the early mornings, late nights, and on the weekends.
In fact, by the time I made the decision to launch my copywriting biz full-time, I had so much demand for my services I basically stepped into it without interruption in my schedule or income.
And — if I can be candid — I’m doing the same thing right now with the next iteration of my business.
I’ve been writing Breakthrough Marketing Secrets since 2014, and haven’t monetized it that much, because I’ve had plenty of freelance work (writing this has only helped).
But quietly in the background, I’ve developed this and have launched BTMSinsiders plus have other projects in the works you don’t even know about. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it will become dramatically harder to hire me as a copywriter, because I’ll just be too busy with my own projects.
But in the mean time, I’m paying all my bills and then some with the copywriting gig.
That’s Chicken Entrepreneurship — and you’ll get no negative connotation from me (or Mark Ford) using the word chicken in this context.
(An exception: Most VCs and other investors will only back a company where the founders are working full-time. I get this, from their perspective. If their money is on the line, they want you to be committed. And full-time equals committed, in their eyes. There are some pros and cons to that, but this isn’t the essay to address them. So with that exception noted, we move on…)
Answering this for new service providers of any kind…
First and foremost, I want to underscore this point for all service providers, especially but not limited to those who provide valuable business services…
DO NOT UNDERVALUE YOURSELF!
One of the nastiest things you can do to yourself and to your client is to charge too little.
If it forces you into cutting corners, your client’s results will suffer, and so will your reputation.
In Gary Bencivenga’s interview with Ken McCarthy, I distinctly remember one important point he really emphasized.
He had clients that were mailing profitable two-page letters. He thought, if I could share even more great information about this product by writing a four-page letter, maybe I could sell enough more to justify the extra printing and ink. He did, and four-pagers became the new standard. Then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two.
But it took more time — a lot more time.
So he thought, if I could make sure my bills were covered for an extra month, maybe I could invest that time into really writing even better copy, by spending more time researching, writing, editing, and really polishing the copy to make it shine.
He did, and he started writing more winners.
Basically, he found that by only working with clients who valued him enough to buy more of his time to finish the same project, he could create even bigger winners that would more than make it worth it for those clients.
“But he’s Gary B!”
I know. Fair objection. But when he was starting, the name Gary Bencivenga didn’t mean anything. It’s only because he did these things that direct marketers around the world know him as a legend today.
The biggest, most dangerous trap for any service provider is to under-value your work to the extent that you’ll take less money than you actually need for the time it will take to complete the work.
At a minimum, estimate the number of hours it will take to complete the work. Double it if you suck at estimating. Figure out how many days, weeks, or months that will take. And figure out how much you need to earn in that time.
Then, set the fee based on how much you need to earn in the time you expect it to take. And tell the client what that fee is.
If they balk, walk away. If they don’t come after you, that’s fine (many will come after you — they were bluffing because it works on people who don’t read my essays).
But don’t budge. If you budge, they will NEVER pay you what you want or need for that time.
And that’s a financial death-knell.
Ultimately, good clients are on your team, and they know your success is their success. They want to see you succeed. They will work with you to make that happen.
They do have to be conscious of risk. And if you take twice as long as you expected, that’s on you, not them.
But they want to see you succeed on all levels.
So a good client will be happy to pay you what you’re worth.
Oh, and also — create a standard service “package.”
One of the biggest time-sucks is to do fifteen different things. It will slow you down, and be hard to estimate.
My standard for pretty much every direct response project has been the sales letter, order form, emails, and a handful of minor pieces of supporting copy (banners for web ads, etc.).
I’ve done other things. I’ve occasionally done very different projects.
But for the most part, I know exactly how long that one package takes, and have gotten really good at estimating it. Plus, I’ve gotten really good at it, so I can charge enough to more than cover my time and expenses with plenty of extra cash left at the end of the project.
It’s hard to do that trying to be a jack-of-all-trades.
Answering this for new copywriters…
Specifically when you’re getting started as a copywriter, it’s tempting to start out by trying to follow the advice to specialize on one specific niche.
I don’t think that’s great advice when you’re really new.
When you’re brand new, I think you should focus on the niche you think you’ll fit in, but not specialize in it to the exclusion of all other work.
Be willing to take projects in outside industries. You may fail. If you’re honest that you’re newer (but a relentlessly-hard worker), the clients who hire you will factor that into their hiring expectations.
But there’s a distinct possibility you’ll find a fit somewhere you didn’t think you would.
So focus on what you think will be your main thing, but try a few things.
With that, also consider my irresistible offer letter example, or even — gasp — spec work.
Now, I’ve seen people trashing spec work within the last 24 hours, so let me clear. I’m not talking about work to “get exposure” that you have no chance of getting paid for — which is what they were really trashing.
Rather, I’m talking about the standard spec assignment common in direct response companies. Where you write a small portion of the final project to test with the client to see if you have a fit. And if you do, they hire you to finish the job. For a long-form sales letter, you often write the first 500 to 1,000 words of the lead, and if they like it, they pay you to write the rest.
I wrote a few of that kind of spec assignments in my time, and they got me into places I worried I wasn’t qualified for at the time — and worked out great for me and the clients.
The other benefit, these often come from serious clients, and if they pay, they offer at least a good livable income for early-career copywriters.
You’ll never get rich on just these assignments, and they should be seen as a way to get started, not a long-term strategy. But they are a great way to get started.
Finally, there was a comment in the question that seemed to imply writing slowly was the way to write well. In terms of direct response, often the projects I’ve finished fastest have created the most revenue. Other copywriters I know have noticed the same thing.
Generally, fast copy is inspired copy.
There are things worth taking more time on. Such as research, and really nailing the right big idea. But when you write, no matter how much time you have for the complete project, you should try to get your first draft out in as much of a fury as possible. I only add this last point as an aside because it came up in the question, but it is important.
One more thing. Royalties change the entire equation. Because when you start making royalties for your copywriting successes, the dollars-for-hours equation shifts then disappears, and it’s the best way to make the most money as a copywriter. Want to know how to add royalties to your copywriting projects? My new video series over at BTMSinsiders, Copywriting Royalties and Pay for Performance, will tell you exactly what you need to do.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,