Monday, September 21, 2009

Getting Serious About Your Business

For several years after I started my freelance writing business, I was more or less skating by.

I was good at what I did. But I wasn't actively pursuing growth; I was taking what came. I had several lucrative regulars and a few semi-regulars who dropped in from time to time, and occasionally I'd pick up a new one through a referral. I barely ever marketed. I barely ever networked. I didn't have business cards. I started my business fairly young, and I wasn't putting a lot of effort into it.

But in the past year, I've found myself wanting more than my freedom. I also wanted a more lucrative, stable income. I wanted to think about buying a house. I wanted to bulk up my savings. I wanted clients I didn't have to constantly justify my prices to. I realized that to have all these things, I needed to get grown-up about my business.

No matter where you are in your business, it's never a bad idea to re-evaluate from time to time--and I'm going through a large period of re-evaluation now. Here are a few things to think about when you want to take your business to the next level--whatever that level should be.

Think about how you charge. The more your prices are based on concrete requirements, the better you'll do in negotiations with prospects. If you know why you're charging a certain amount for a certain job, you'll go into negotiations on solid ground--you'll be able to justify strongly. You'll also know when a job is still worth your time and at what price point you have to walk.

Think about how your business is structured. Are you still a sole proprietorship? Is that the best structure for you from a tax perspective? Sole proprietorships may have less paperwork, but they can get slammed when it comes to taxes. As your business grows, question how your business is organized and talk to a tax professional about business structures that may be a better fit for you.

Think about what you're good at. What do you bring to the table that other writers don't? We all start with excellent writing skills--but what is special about yours? Maybe you're a killer interviewer with a background in journalism. Maybe you're a stand-out copywriter with a background in sales. Maybe your prior work experience makes you particularly suited to certain types of clients. Personally, I'm looking to specialize--and I'm considering web writing and resume writing as niches that may be perfectly suited to my prior writing experience. If you know what you do better than your competition, you can also justify your pricing better--because you're not just a dime a dozen.

Think about marketing that. How are you reaching out to clients? When I started (and I admit I still tend to want to do this). I stayed away from phone and direct mail. My marketing was very lackadaisical, and it revolved around cold emailing. I do get business that way--but it's time to move on to more sophisticated forms of marketing. Sending hardcopy mailings gives your business a more legitimate look--and calling prospects on the phone might be scary, but it's not rocket science--and I'm sure that with practice, I'll get better. What could you be doing that you're not doing now to get yourself in front of the better clients?

Maybe the recession is affecting the amount of work you're getting from your regulars--I know it is with me--but freelancers are lean, mean, and flexble. We're the guerilla troops of the job market, and in tough conditions we're well set up to succeed where big companies with high overhead might be prone to fail. So use your flexibility, continually re-evaluate yourself, and hopefully you'll do well regardless of market conditions.


Mike Chen said...

Welcome back!

You know, I'm still don't put as much effort into marketing myself as I should. I do a nominal amount of advertising, and I'd say that pulls in about 1/3 of my work (new clients) while the other 2/3 is comprised of ongoing work or repeat business. I've never actually tried cold mailing, but I think it's because there's a big part of me that takes comfort in the steadiness of filling at least half my time with corporate work. It eats up a big chunk of time (which I might otherwise be able to bill at a higher rate) but it's safe and reliable and allows me to safely project a monthly income.

I think my parents raised me to be too cautious. Either that, or just living in the Bay Area is way too expensive to go 100% freelance.

Unknown said...

Welcome back, hon. We missed you. :)

I like being a member of the guerilla team. ;) Thanks for this post. I think we all need to hear it. It's brilliant, and I love the line "I needed to get grown-up about my business." Don't we all.

I would add that your rates do have to be justified sometimes. I just had an unpleasant conversation with a client over my rates for one particular project. When he said, "I don't see why I'm paying you X for this when you work for Y for this other." I had to explain why that project required more work than the other one (and yes, it does). I'm going to lose that client, but I'm not too sorry about it. They underpay in general. I don't have time for nickel-and-dime talk.

Paul said...

Right on all counts. We have to treat our writing businesses as real, proper, grown-up businesses. After all, if we don't why would we expect clients to treat us like a proper business, paying us on time, communicating with timeliness and respect?

A marketing thought for everyone; I found that regular advertising was too hard. People don't need your skills today, they need them in three months time when the ad or DM piece has faded. We're not FMCG businesses. The most effective 'marketing' I've found is a business referral network which meets weekly. It was slow to start (people had to trust you in order to refer), but it works now. That, and an informative website, has garnered me excellent new clients and ongoing referrals. Try it.

Paul said...

Another thought!

Ring current clients from time to time and ask if they know other companies who might need what you do. Don't do it often - maybe once every six months - but it does work. The call/work ratio seems to be about 1 in 10.

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