And the lessons I learned

Let me introduce you to an unhappy woman

  • She’s up at dawn commuting to a job she loathes.
  • Her boss is an aggressive arse.
  • Her colleagues are exhausted and flat.
  • Her clients are demanding and irritating.

As she turns on her computer, sips her second coffee of the day and watches a tsunami of emails hit her inbox, she holds back a scream of misery and frustration – and then it hits her.

Maybe there’s another way.

That woman was me – about six years ago. I’d tried to break free from the advertising rat race several times. (I even trained as a masseuse but it wasn’t for me.)

So here I was – bored with my day job and longing to do something I loved that also paid the bills. I’d been doing some copywriting work on the side for a few years – but could I really go it alone?

Facing the fearKate Toon

But the fear was strong. I was fretting about the stuff most sane people fret about before going into business on their own:

  • What if I’m a wretched failure?
  • How will I pay the bills?
  • How will I deal with the competition?
  • Where will I find clients?

Then I got preggers and, since I was contracting, there was no chance of paid maternity leave.

As the primary breadwinner in the house I needed a new way to bring home the (veggie) bacon.

And so my copywriting business was born.
(Just three months before my son.)

What I did

In the first year of business here are a few things that I think helped me get off on the right footing:

1)    Built a kick-arse website: From the start my website has always been my most prized business tool. I’ve poured hours / weeks / months of time into it. I’ve redesigned it several times to keep it current and I constantly tweak and update it.

2)    Became a Jacquie of all trades: I did a bit of everything: copywriting, web design, information architecture, email marketing, project management – you name it. Whatever earned me money. (It wasn’t until several years later I became more focused in my offering.)

3)    Worked on my LinkedIn profile: I made sure my LinkedIn profile was schmick. Nothing earth-shattering but a clear, concise outline of my skills.

4)    Approached friends: I let everyone know I was now for hire – I emailed everyone, I whored myself out on LinkedIn and generally got the word out there with anyone I vaguely knew.

5)    Reached out to other copywriters: I had no shame in contacting other copywriters. I read their sites, I followed them, I emailed them. Now some of my best buddies are my competitors!

6)    Blogged like crazy: I blogged and blogged and blogged. Whenever I had a spare moment I’d be blogging. I realised even then that writing articles on my own site was the best way to showcase my writing skills.

7)    Did deals: I hooked up with designers, developers and other associated businesses and offered to refer work. Not only did this increase my network, it brought me referrals in return.

8)    Worked bloody hard: I started my business when I was five months pregnant and worked up until the day my lovely son popped out.
I was back at my desk when my son was just 6 weeks old (admittedly in my PJs) – doing five minutes here and there when I could.

What I didn’t do

And here are a few things I didn’t do in my first year:

1)    Make a big investment: I didn’t take out a business loan or borrow money. I DIYed everything to save money. And probably spent less than $500 on ‘business stuff’ in my first year. (Thankfully I already had a laptop.)

2)    Order business cards (or any kind of printed marketing material): Frankly it didn’t even occur to me – all my connections were online, so why waste the cash?

3)    Stress about my ‘brand’, ‘tone of voice’ or values: Since day dot I’ve pretty much focused on being myself – love me or hate me. I find it’s an easier and less stressful and contrived way to approach your marketing.

4)    Network: Again I had the advantage of many years in the industry so I had a fairly big connection base. But equally the thought of attending ‘Women in leadership’ breakfasts made me gag.

5)    Rent an office: I didn’t join a co-working hub, rent a room or even renovate a part of our (tiny) house. My office was the kitchen table, the library (free internet – yay), the corner café, the park and the back garden.

6)    Charge heaps: Although I didn’t really have a good idea what my competitors were charging, I knew that, when starting out, the less I charged the more work I’d get.
Of course I wasn’t eLance cheap (no way) but I was reasonable.

NOTE: One of the biggest faults I see with new copywriters is charging too much for your level of experience. Although it would be awesome to start out charging $200 an hour – be realistic!

How it all panned out

My first year was a struggle. Not really because of needing to find clients but more juggling of a new baby and my growing business. I put my child in day care a few days a week when he was two and things got easier.

What did I earn?

In salary terms it went something like this:

  • Year one: 50% of what I earned in my agency job.
  • Year two: 80% of what I earned in my agency job.
  • Year three: 100% of what I earned in my agency job.

Now, I probably earn about 20% more than I earned working as a Head of Digital in a mid-sized agency.
But the plus is I manage this in three to four shortish days rather than in five to six 14+-hour days.

What I learned

The reality is that anyone can be in business.

Technology is cheaper and more accessible. Going it alone is seen as brave and exciting rather than rash and foolish. You can manage an entire enterprise from your kitchen table.

Realising that I didn’t have to work a miserable 100-hour week has been the biggest epiphany I’ve had in the last 20 years (second only to realising that I would never ever look good in hot pants).

I think back to that miserable woman and compare her to me now.

Yes, I’m still sipping my second coffee at my desk as a tsunami of emails hit my inbox. Yes, my boss can still be an aggressive arse (that’s me by the way) and yes, my colleague (my dog Pomplemousse) is still exhausted and flat (because I took him for a long run on the beach this morning).

  • But my clients’ demands no longer irritate me. (I get choose who I work with, which helps.)
  • My commute is a one-minute shuffle down the hall.
  • And I wake up (nearly) every morning excited to start my day.
  • Starting my copywriting business was the best move I ever made and it could be for you, too.

Over to you

How did your copywriting business start? What challenges did you face in the first year, what did/didn’t you do that you now regret? Or if you’re about to take the plunge – what frightens you most?

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