Friday, February 20, 2009

When Your Business Grows

I recently entered into discussions for major content for a very specialized client. The workload and commitment is large--but luckily I have a secret weapon: another writer who also happens to be licensed in their industry, and who's been offering to take on extra work for me for months.

The opportunity dropped in my lap this week, and hopefully this will be a great opportunity for both of us to profit. Outsourcing writing can be a profitable way to grow your business--you take a percentage off the top and leave the bulk of the work to your outsourcee. Potentially, you could see income for a great deal of work you ordinarily wouldn't have time to handle. But I'm assuming it won't just be a walk in the park. Here are some things I'm considering in anticipation of starting a project with a new partner.

Contracts are everything. I'm contracting between my business and the client, but I'm also writing up a contract between myself and the writer detailing what's expected, pricing and delivery. Even if you're working with a friend--and I am--it's crucial to make sure all project parameters are in writing and agreed to.

It won't be work-free for you. Especially in the beginning, I'm expecting to take an active role in training, proofreading, fact-checking, and overall ensuring everything is up to standards--even though I trust this writer's work and quality standards. I'm also communicating with the client and project-managing. So yes, I do take a percentage--but I work for it.

There will be a certain amount of letting-go involved. I'm not sure how I'll deal with not being in complete control of all facets of the project. I've never done it before. Hopefully I won't be an annoying, micro-managing boss. I'm pretty sure I won't be. But I won't know until I do it.

Can you handle it if your writer flakes out? Always have a contingency plan. At this point, if my partner suddenly couldn't work on the project, I'd have to handle it myself--and I was careful to schedule it so that I could do it, although I'd be stretched for a few months. Until we've got a strong working relationship I'm not sure it's a good idea to stretch myself beyond what I could handle alone, if I had to.

I'll follow up with a new post on my advice for outsourcing once I've had a few months' worth of experience. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Watching Your Back in the Recession

Maybe your business is booming, despite the recession. I've heard from several freelancers who are in this happy situation, and I think it is true that in times of trouble, many companies can't afford to scale back their marketing initiatives. But some companies also can't afford to pay for their marketing initiatives. In this economy, are you seeing an increase in late payments, haggling and deadbeat clients?

I'm starting to see it. One large client I've worked with regularly is starting to get later and later on payments each month, while I completed a project with another regular client weeks ago--a client who usually paid same-day--and haven't heard a peep about payment. The bottom line? Your business might be doing well--but don't assume the same for your clients. This raises your risk of doing business with them.

In these economic times, it's more important than ever to watch your back and make sure you get paid. Here are a few precautions to take.

Ironclad contracts. Contracts are important no matter what economic conditions you're working in. But now may be a good time to have a lawyer look over the contract you're using to make sure it will stand up in court. Consider your contract delivery system as well; I recently had a lawyer tell me it's better to have an original signature on a contract than to rely on a faxed or pdf-emailed version. This can have an impact on businesses that operate primarily online.

Contact information. Make sure you have valid mailing addresses and phone numbers of all your clients. If someone goes deadbeat on you, you have more likelihood of putting pressure on them to pay if you know where they live.

Communication. It's easier for someone to decide to stiff a person they've never met or spoken with in person--they humanize you less. In these economic conditions, make sure your clients know there's a real person behind those emails. Conduct more phone calls. Visit offices in person when you can.

Up-front payments. I've started implementing a policy of 100% up front payments for new clients on smaller projects. This lessens my time spent chasing after little checks delivered months late. When I already have the money, the project is less stressful and as far as I'm concerned, clients can take as long as they like with revisions.

Be wary of everyone. Even your regulars may be suffering financially, putting your paycheck at risk. Watch your regular clients for signs of impending trouble. If your checks are starting to be delivered late on a regular basis, you may want to discuss an upfront payment policy or more rigid payment schedule.

What signs are you seeing that the recession is affecting your clients?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Announcing Catalyst Website Overhaul!

Well, we're really overdue for this: I've officially overhauled my website. Check out the new design!

The site's now much more professional looking than my old website--which I designed myself. It's a much better reflection of my business as it is now--the old website concentrated mainly on content creation. There's an expanded portfoliio section, which I got to organize by both industry and project type. I uploaded some testimonials and have more on the way. And--I'm really excited about this--I now have an article library of online copywriting tips and a monthly newsletter to send to subscribers. Overall, this site will do a MUCH better job selling me than the old one did.

The best part about this website is the ease with which I can set all this stuff up myself. The site was designed by LucidCrew, an extremely talented group of people--seriously, check out their portfolio; it's awesome. They have a content management system called MediaStove that lets you set up your own blogs, e-blasts, forums, and all kinds of other online marketing tools with pretty much zero effort and no programming knowledge. It's a great way for non-tech-savvy website owners (that's me) to use all these great online marketing techniques we always push--without going through a webmaster all the time or teaching ourselves code and Dreamweaver.

Next item on the agenda is an overhaul of THIS site. I've been wanting to do this for a year, and hopefully soon I'll get that done.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Do You Take Ownership of Your Writing Projects?

I was cruising the blogroll the other day and came across this post on Peter Bowerman's blog about what clients want--and how to go above and beyond with your services. One of the things he mentioned was taking "ownership" of a project--if the client isn't giving you what you need to get it done, go out and find it yourself.

It occurred to me that I do this all the time--and it wasn't something I saw as a big benefit to working with me until now. Here are a few ways I take ownership of every project I do--and how you can add value to your services.

Do the research on your own--even if the client's supposed to do it for you. I call myself a writer, but at least half the time I spend on a project is spent on research. And some of the time, a client will tell me he's going to send me all the source material and either a). it doesn't have the specific information I need or b). he sends it a day before deadline. Good thing we have the Internet. I use web research to supplement client-delivered information on a regular basis. For commercial writing, I use it to check out how competitors are positioning themselves. Sometimes this research takes minutes, other times it takes hours--but it always adds to the quality of what I do.

Get your own sources. Got a feature article to write for a client? Sometimes they'll give you the names and numbers of people to interview, and sometimes they won't. Don't let that stop your article from being the best it can be. I gather my own sources when I need to. I use Craigslist, industry forums and websites, industry bloggers and authors--the last two are often delighted for an opportunity to get word out about their book or site, and can be very willing to do interviews. I also use Peter Shankman's excellent Help a Reporter Out site. You can query for the type of source you need, and an email is sent out to its network of professionals. I've used it many times in the past and got dozens of responses from industry experts--easily more than I needed.

Deliver above and beyond. If I find little things I notice a client needs, I'll usually help them with it--even if it's not in the scope of the project. For instance, I was writing copy for a large website project--almost a hundred pages--and I noticed the company didn't have a consistent tagline. I sent off some concept ideas for new ones, even though it wasn't part of the scope of the project. I realize a full tagline project would be a big endeavor, probably more than I could offer for free, but some initial ideas weren't too hard for me to come up with--and it added to the value of my service.

Help clients figure out where to go from here. With some clients, I spot opportunities where they could be promoting themselves better or more efficiently. After completion of an initial project, I'll draw up a "Next Steps" document outlining different ways they could take business to the next level--including things such as writing different brochures targeted to several niche markets, developing a report or e-book for giveaways, or starting an e-blast campaign to keep constantly in touch with customers. It's usually not included in the scope, but it does help clients out--and it's pretty effective in turning single-project clients into regulars.

So how do you take ownership--of projects and client relationships?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Are You Competitive or Cooperative?

Are you a cooperative or competitive businessperson?

If you're a freelance writer, I'm supposed to think of you as my competition. If you're my competitor, I'm supposed to try to one-up you. I'm supposed to try to get more work than you, position myself as a better alternative than you, and generally outbid you for clients. In competitions, there's a loser and a winner, and being a good businessperson means being the winner--right?

Not always.

I've noticed that in the freelance writing industry, competition isn't really the dominant mood. Just look at Peter Bowerman and Bob Bly--two highly successful copywriters who could've just gone on being successful and landing high-profile clients, but decided to share their secrets with the rest of us. Chances are, at least one of their books got you started and provided you valuable advice along the way.

Of course, these guys don't do it from the goodness of their hearts. Both have now diversified their businesses by promoting their own information products to a new market: aspiring freelancers. It's a business plan that benefits them and the writing community as a whole. Competition isn't the only way to play the game.

I've found my business has benefited a great deal from a cooperative approach. If a project isn't a good fit for me or I'm overwhelmed, I refer to a colleague. I know they'll refer business to me when they're in the same spot--so everyone benefits. If I wanted to be competitive, I could try to hold on to each and every client. But I want to make a good impression, even when I'm not the one who gets the job--and referring to a qualified colleague will make a client much happier than taking on a job I don't have time for.

I'm also something of an evangelist for the freelance life. Nothing makes me happier than telling people about what I do and helping them figure out how they can do the same thing. Am I creating competition? Maybe. But I may also be creating a helpful colleague. I feel that helping others succeed can only benefit me in the long run.

So what's your approach--are you competitive or cooperative?

NOTE:I got the idea for this post from someone else who wrote a post on competitive vs. cooperative businesses and industries...and how cooperative freelance writing tends to be. It was a long time ago and now I can't find it anywhere. If it's you, drop the link here and I'll make sure I put you in the top paragraph.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cultivating Profitable Partnerships

Clients are good for your business. Partnerships are great for it. As a freelance writer, your services perfectly complement a variety of different businesses--people who need your writing to make their own client services better. A good partnership can be like an ongoing client, bringing you stable work month after month. Here are a few partners out there who are just waiting for you to get in touch--so they can take their businesses (and yours) to the next level.

SEO's. SEO's need writers to deliver ongoing content to their clients--because good white hat SEO doesn't happen without a steady stream of relevant writing. Approach SEO firms with your relevant web writing experience--maybe you're used to blogging, got your start writing for other people's article marketing campaigns, or can do some killer keyword research. Send some samples of articles or a link to your blog. They're looking for dependable writers who do quality work and who can incorporate their own optimization best practices and standards.

Graphic designers. Nobody likes to see their beautiful design soiled by a poorly-worded, misspelled headline. Graphic designers design print and online communications including brochures, websites, ads, blogs, white papers...the list goes on. An independent graphic design firm can raise their own profile and offer more to their clients by partnering with a strong writing firm. Having a writer on call sets them apart from other designers who leave clients to fend for themselves when it comes to copy.

Web designers. The pitch is the same for web designers, except they'll be working exclusively on the web. You'll need to know a range of web writing skills to be good partners with web designers--be proficient in web copy that sells and typical marketing writing like developing taglines, as well as web copywriting best practices, web content and SEO writing, and online marketing methods like e-blasts, blogs, and so on.

Ad agencies. Ad agencies big and small work with freelance writers on a regular basis. Get in touch with them either in print or online--they are sometimes more traditional than SEO's and web designers, although a few specialize in online marketing. A good ad agency in your client stable can really boost your business.

So who are you partnering with these days?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What's Your Contingency Plan?

Yesterday I was reading an article in the New York Times about the economy. The article wasn't primarily about freelance writers, but the person who wrote the article (Ben Stein, randomly enough, although I didn't realize it til the end) had this to say about the freelance writing life:

"This is the most insecure existence imaginable. It mandates saving, ingenuity and nonstop work and creativity. Freelancers never have a day off. Never. They know that they can go months without a check. They absolutely have to save. They have to have five different levels of fall-back plans and financial escape hatches."

He was writing about being a freelance scriptwriter in Hollywood. But there are definitely parallels between this and the freelance copywriting life. As a contract worker, I don't worry incessantly about money (I used to, but into my third year as a full-time freelancer, I've finally allowed myself to have faith in the fact that my business is pretty stable).

But that doesn't mean I'm not obsessive about saving. I am. If I don't put money into my savings account every month, I feel like the whole thing could unravel at any minute. And it takes a serious crisis to make me take money out of that account. I also have a separate account for tax savings...I have to put a high percentage of every check I get into that account and never look at it again, or tax season will be a nightmare.

But my contingency plan goes beyond savings. If I start to run out, there's always a freelance writing staffing firm I've been eyeing for a while...they hire mainly writers for on-site projects, so I haven't actively pursued it, but it's there if I feel like I need it. There's an all-out campaign for a full time staff copywriting job at an ad agency--I could do that, if i really needed the stability. I have options.

In this economy, even full-time employees need contingency plans. Full-timers are often completely destroyed by a firing because a). all their eggs are in one basket and b). they haven't thought ahead to when the basket tips over. Stability encourages complacency. As freelancers, we know that relying on one or two clients is an unstable situation and diversifying our client base actually leads to a more stable situation; and you have to have plans on top of plans for when you lose regular clients, because you will.

So what's your contingency plan?