Is Working for Free the Best Way to Start Your Business?

working for free stairs to nowhere

The idea of doing projects “on spec” (without pay) came up in one of the few Facebook groups I participate in.

To be more specific, a woman launching a new service business was offering to work for free in order to get testimonials and build her portfolio.

Is this a good way to start your business? Or is spec work a flight of stairs leading nowhere?

In business (almost) nothing is true across the board. What works for one entrepreneur may flop badly for another. In this Facebook conversation, I felt qualified to chime in and express my opinion, based on my extensive, often painful experience in a field closely related to the one being offered for free. Here is a slighly modified version of my comments:

I’m going to do something relatively harsh here…by recommending you seriously limit this offer (to work for free).

Having testimonials is great, but absolutely not necessary to launch your business. In a way, you’re postponing the launch of your business by clinging to the idea that you need “proof” of the value of your services.

Your time is extremely valuable. Especially since you have a family who likes having you around and “present.”

In all likelihood, doing content marketing for yourself will advance your business more than doing free work for other people, no matter how good their testimonials will be.

The thing is, there’s a huge need for the service you provide — but most of the people/businesses who need your skills do not fully appreciate that need. They don’t feel pain, so it’s hard to pry money from their hands, especially at a rate you deserve.

You would do well to seek people who already feel that need, that have a bleeding neck problem, to use the words of John Paul Mendocha.

See if you can get testimonials from colleagues and friends who already know you and are familiar with the quality of your work. Build up your portfolio working on your own website and marketing materials.

It’s also well worth your time to connect with people who might already be in touch with your target audience. Maybe you can work out a referral arrangement or a way to bundle your services together. Or subcontract work from other established people in the space you want to occupy (or an adjacent one).

Think graphic designers, etc.

And remember, don’t sell your services, as such. Instead, define the transformation you produce for your clients. How will their lives and businesses be different, better than before they hired you — or anyone else for that matter.

Define what you’ll do for them — and what you won’t. Specialize, if you can.

BTW, I’m not always right. This just advice based on my experience.

— — —

What about you? How do you feel about spec work?

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How Do I Land My First Copywriting Client? Aspiring Minds Want to Know

Steps to get copywriting clients

“I’m an aspiring copywriter; How do I land my first client?”

This is a question I’m asked on a pretty regular basis. I’ve typed out responses more times than I can count, and I’ve even addressed this topic in a previous post. But since I’ve been approached 4 or 5 times over the past month or so, maybe it’s time to revisit.

Below you’ll find the slightly modified/depersonalized body of an email I sent to a new copywriter a few days ago. Forgive me if you’ve heard this before…unless you’ve heard it but haven’t done anything about it.

And remember, this is my personal experience-based advice. I’m not saying this is the one and only way to become a copywriting pro.

When I started learning to write copy, I was an assistant manager at Kmart, working 50-80 hours a week and studying copywriting on my lunch breaks and after work…then harassing people who I thought might hire me, until some of them started to.

Step 1, I think, is deciding to make a real go at this. Regardless of what you read anywhere, copywriting is about helping people SEE:

  • See the reality about their current condition
  • See the hidden truth about whatever you’re talking about
  • See what the future holds, both the good and the terrifying
  • See what they have to do now. It’s a skill that has to be developed, but one you’re probably already familiar with as a professional.

Building your business will probably take some time (it does for pretty much all of us), which is why you have to be resolved to put forth the effort.

You’ll probably have to “feel your way around” the copywriting world before you make too many big choices as to niches, mediums, etc.

As a freelancer, you’re going to want to exploit every form of leverage you can get. That includes your formal or informal experience in an industry, contacts you have and stages where you are already recognized. For example, you may be able to leverage your current job expertise and connections to get your foot in the door somewhere. That may be a great way to start finding your rhythm, figuring out how you like to work with clients, and building a portfolio. Oh, and earning some money. Not to say you want to get pigeonholed there, but it’s a start. Or, maybe you’ll love it and find all the business you can handle.

Step 2, Put a website together immediately.

This step took me FOREVER. I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t feel like I had anything impressive enough to say publicly. Then, once I finally got started, I spent over a year using a free WordPress blog. (HA! It’s still there, 6 years after I abandoned it. https://donniebryant.wordpress.com/)

Believe me, come up with something and just get it up. Something simple will do the trick. The site will take shape and grow as you do. The longer you wait, the more you’ll kick yourself later.

Let Google start getting familiar with you. Start sharing your stories, your perspectives. Share what you’re learning. That will help you develop your skills AND your confidence as a copywriter.

Plus, you need to have someplace to send potential clients to when they’re researching you or after you reach out to them.

Step 2b, While you’re at it, make sure you have a decent LinkedIn profile, too. I don’t love my profile, but you can borrow inspiration from me if you like –> https://www.linkedin.com/in/donniebryantjr. Or, just search “direct response copywriters” and analyze the profiles that rank high.

You’d be surprised how many people are looking for copywriters through LinkedIn. I earned in over $60K in 2015 from a single client who found me on LinkedIn.

Step 3, Start searching for prospects. As I mentioned, you’ll do well to at least try reaching out to people you already know who need to promote themselves, their products or services.

I started out searching the Writing Gigs section on Craigslist. It can be grunt work, but it’ll get you moving. You’ll have to filter out a lot of crap, but may be some good opportunities there. I found a couple great clients there, and I still use one of the sales letters I wrote for a Craigslist client in 2009 as a sample sometimes. I graduated to bugging sellers on Clickbank.

You can also search writing/copywriting job boards (there are quite a few).

Step 4, Connect with other professionals. This has been huge for me, too. Purposefully engage with people who may someday become 1) clients, 2) referral sources, 3) joint venture partners and/or 4) hosts of “shows” you’d like be on. Always be generous and genuine, and the seeds will reap a bountiful harvest over time.

Not every connection will “pay off.” A lot of them will never become relationships. But some of them will. Some could be goldmines in terms of remuneration or camaraderie. Again, one colleague I connected with years ago (via semi-cold email)  has gotten me in the front door of 2 dream clients and several others who were pretty darn good (and one who became like a brother to me). That one connection will end up being worth multiple six-figures to me when it’s all said and done.

Step 4b, Start looking for ways to appear in places of authority as a guest blog writer, podcast guest, expert source, etc.

Step 5, Do your research. You learn as much from watching other pros as you do from just about anything else. They’ll also give you raw materials to create your own content from.

Step 6, Ask for what you want. If you need advice, if you’re looking for introductions, if you want to write for someone else’s website/blog/newsletter, be courageous and ASK.

I hope that this is helpful.

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10 Tips for Copywriters in Training

Copywriters Write

A few days ago, I received an email from one of my newsletter subscribers. We’ll call him Paul. He’s taking a copywriting course and wondering how long he should wait to start seeking clients.

Here’s my slightly modified response to him. I think it’ll be helpful for any copywriter near the beginning of his career.

—–

Good morning, Paul. Thank you for reaching out.

Let me ask you a question: when you look at a website, email, even a TV commercial do you know — almost instinctively — what the advertiser was trying to do, where he went wrong and how you could make it stronger?

Now, I don’t know you, but I’d be willing to bet that the answer is an emphatic “yes.”

With your studies of Hopkins, Kennedy, etc., you’re probably already good enough to be very helpful to 75% of the business owners in America.

So my answer to your question is, YES, you should begin looking for work now.

Let me share a few thoughts:

1) Copywriting, like any other discipline, requires continual study and learning. You’ll never know it all. So there’s no need to wait until you’re done “studying” to launch out into the deep. Or at least stick your toes in the water.

2) Freelancing can be tough. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not bringing in Bob Bly-level fees in the first year. Realize in advance, strengthen your resolve and go for it.

I spent my first 2 years or so as a moonlight copywriter. I worked as many as 80 hours a week in management at Kmart, then came home to prospect and work on projects. I tell that story in some depth in an interview I did with Michael Zipursky in 2012 –> http://www.consulting-business.com/direct-response-copywriter-and-consultant-interview-with-donnie-bryant.html. If I recall, it’s about 30 minutes long. If you have the time, it might be an encouragement for you. I get lots of good feedback.

3) You’ve probably heard it a hundred times, but you should spend a good chunk of your time promoting your services. 50% promoting, 50% doing client work and improving your craft, or something like that.

4) Most copywriters start out as generalists, but the sooner you find a niche (and maybe you already have experience or deep knowledge of some particular industry) the better. Position yourself as an expert in that niche and focus your efforts there.

5) Get some copywriter friends. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to have the camaraderie. You’ll come to cherish those relationships.

6) It’s also helpful to build relationships with people in other industries. Especially people with bigger audiences and established authority. These are people who can interview you and put you on their websites or in their newsletters, recommend your services to their people, do joint ventures, make valuable introductions, give opportunities for guest blogging, etc. Proactively seek out and nurture those kinds of relationships. If you’re looking to provide mutual benefit (and not just be a self-seeking mooch), you’d be surprised who will be open to connecting with you.

7) Be generous, but do your best not to undervalue yourself or your work.

8) Try to get paid upfront, even if it’s just a deposit. Save yourself from getting burned. And watch out for bad barter deals. Sometimes they’re worth it, but a lot of times you end up frustrated with what you get out of the deal.

9) Start building your email list ASAP. Even if you don’t know how you’ll keep in touch with them. Someday, maybe sooner than later, you’ll be glad you did.

10) Read a lot, but don’t let reading stop you from writing. I suggest reading non-marketing stuff and stuff outside of your area of expertise to continue giving your brain more raw material to build creative ideas with.

Curiosity is one of the characteristics of most, if not all, great copywriters have common.

People are often amazed by the stuff I know. From pop culture to ancient history and from biology to philosophy, I know a lot of random stuff. I have a “swipe file” (if I can call it that) of quotes I like about anything, everything. Never know when a powerful idea will spring forth from one. They make good writing prompts, too.

While you’re reading, please add the Bencivenga Bullets to your list: http://www.marketingbullets.com/archive.htm. Now that I think about it, I’m going to work my way through them again…

Here’s the big one:

10) Almost no one wants a copywriter. Almost no one even knows what copywriting is, as you’ve probably noticed.

That means 2 things: A) look for clients who know what copywriting is and how much it’s worth, and B) don’t position yourself as a copywriter, per se, for people who aren’t familiar with it. Focus on your own benefits versus the “feature” of being a copywriter.

I think that’s about enough to start out.

Thanks again for reaching out. I pray you have more success than you dream of.

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What’s your best advice for a starting a successful copywriting career?

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