Monday, February 20, 2012

The Conversation on Getting Started

I was having lunch with a friend recently. I asked him how his job was going—not good, apparently. After telling me a few hair-raising stories about his boss and coworkers, my friend told me something I’ve been hearing a lot of lately—“really, I want to be doing what you’re doing.” And then it came—the “how can I get started?” question.

I get that question a lot. From friends and strangers alike. It’s a question I’ve gotten a bit frustrated with in the past, as I feel like the answer is huge—and I can’t just give someone the magical formula for starting a freelance writing business. Because the truth is, everyone’s start-up story is different, and mine can’t really be replicated. I got my start on Elance, and they’ve changed their payment structure to the point where I no longer felt like it was viable to keep going. I’m not sure what it’s like over there these days—it’s been a long time since I used the site—but last time I checked, it was a much less hospitable place for newbies than it used to be.

Here’s what I usually tell people who want to get started as a freelancer now. This will get you going—but you’ll have to do some research yourself.

Get some samples ASAP. You really only need three or four to get started with, but they need to be specific to the type of writing you want to do. If you envision yourself writing web copy and brochures, don’t use poetry or short fiction as your business sample. If you’ve never written a brochure or website or other piece of sales copy, write one—do it for a friend’s business. Do it for a group you’re involved in—your yoga studio, your religious group, your community theatre company, whatever. Do it for a friend or family member’s business. If it’s free, they won’t say no. Or, if you want, make up a business. Prospective clients won’t know the difference.

Also, presentation counts. Unless you’re reasonably good at graphic design, don’t do it yourself. Get a graphic designer who’s just starting out to collaborate on a sample with you—you do the copy, they’ll do the graphics. It’s a win-win for both of you.

Get a website up as soon as you have samples. Your website is your storefront. It doesn’t have to be fancy—a Home page, an About page, a samples section, and your contact info is all you need to start with. But you need an online destination to point clients to. Try to make it professional, too—if you don’t design yourself, barter with a web design company.

Read a lot for marketing ideas. How to get clients is usually what people want to know the most. But the thing is, marketing is very much an individual thing—it has to be something you’re great at and that you can stick with. Some people thrive on networking events and cold calling, while others would prefer to just send a few emails and postcards now and then—and you won’t know your style until you’ve done this for a while. My advice on this is to read copywriting and freelance marketing blogs and books, try a bunch of ideas, and find out not just what works, but what will work consistently for you.

Figure out your niche—maybe. If you have a background in a particular industry, you have a head start. Some people find a niche after a while, some people never specialize, and others start out in a certain niche right away. If you can start out in a niche, you’re lucky—so think about your employment history and see if there’s a no-brainer industry you should be targeting.

The thing is, “how can I get started?” isn’t a simple question. People have filled books with the answer. Go read them—and then come back to me, or other bloggers who write on the subject—with more specific questions. Chances are, the answers you get will be a ton more valuable.


Lori said...

Oh, that's the biggest question and the hardest to answer, isn't it? I've come to loathe it.

I think your approach to the answer is great. Of course we can add to the answer - it's a huge question - but I think you've outlined a great starting point.

I LOVE your advice to come back with specific questions. That's what I do - I offer help once they've done the initial legwork. In reality, it's a lazy question, but it's not that people asking it are always necessarily lazy. Sometimes they just don't know what else to ask.

Jennifer Williamson said...

Yeah, I think it sometimes comes out of laziness and sometimes out of a sense of being overwhelmed. People want quick and easy answers. If I tell someone something like "there's no one right way to market, you'll have to figure out what works for you--read a bunch of books, try a bunch of things, and get back to me with specifics"--and then they actually do it, I'm impressed. Funny enough, very few people who've kept me informed have actually done that.

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