When copywriters carve a path in life against the odds

I'm starting from the beginning, back when, 5 years ago I decided to start my own business, these are my why's and wherefore's. Hopefully, by getting a glimpse into my story, you'll pick up a few ideas and discard any bad ones. I'll be posting these little gems of historical significance over the next few weeks, and with some occasional deviations along the way into other copywriting topics. There'll still be the usual books recs at the end.

Firstly, why did I decide to leave my job and start a business?


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Why start a business?

It started out like it does for most business owners. I was stuck in a full-time job I hated. It was coming up to 10 years, most of which I'd not enjoyed. Now my daughter was an adult, and while I was prepared to do just about anything to make sure we both had a roof over our heads and we had food in the cupboards over the years, now I could start thinking about me and about what I wanted.

And I'd reached the point where I truly hated my job.

The gods must have been smiling though, because the organisation I worked for was going through monumental changes and there were people leaving, people feeling confused and people going off sick with stress. And there were some who were taking voluntary redundancy. So, I applied and on my first attempt I was turned down, on my second, I was accepted.

Even then, I wasn't really decided on what I was going to do with my life, my initial thoughts were to do an MA in something, so that's what I did, well not an MA in something, I don’t think that particular course exists. I completed an MA in Creative Practice, with a focus on writing. I decided that whatever it was I was going to do after that was going to involve a lot of writing. Yes, it was risky, yes it could be judged as foolhardy, but I also knew that if I didn't do it now, I'd never do it.

So, I did it.

And for a year I studied my MA and then I passed.

And then I spent a few months drumming my fingers and wondering what it was I was going to do after that, and that thing was copywriting. Yes, copywriting. I liked what I knew about it, I liked the possibility of writing full time for a living and I loved the idea of doing this for the rest of my life.

And I'm still doing it, and I'm still loving it, but it's been a steep learning curve, one where sometimes it's felt like I was climbing a greasy pole or treading water, or pushing shit uphill.

And that's enough analogies for now.

I guess what all of this intends to do is track my progress through the past 5 years and hopefully let you see how I got to where I am now, to let you see some of the mistakes I made along the way, share with you my insecurities, my lack of confidence and how I overcame it, how I cope with anxiety and depression as a business owner, and finally share with you what I believe running a business and being self-employed should be about.

It won't be the same for everyone.

I didn't think I wanted a six-figure career (although if that comes along I'll be quite happy to accept it). in fact becoming rich was the last thing that crossed my mind. What I wanted was a better quality of life, a better lifestyle, better diet, more quality time, and to wake up every morning looking forward to getting up and doing a job I absolutely loved.

Of course, there were other things I didn't quite think through before I embarked on my journey, the isolation, the constant worry about work, the financial strain, the feast and famine cycles we all go through at the beginning, and the added stress of suffering from anxiety and depression. All of which I'll talk more about later.

You see there was too much 'laptop lifestyle' craziness on the internet, and it can be a temptation that draws you in. There's more than enough books, PDF handouts and online courses telling you that you can earn a fortune working from home, from the palatial splendour of a villa, from the beach, from a yacht - but the reality is very different.

It takes years of hard work to reach that point, and those who have reached it are now influencers, people who've spent years earning a living, making mistakes, climbing the ladder. I'm not saying that it's not possible, or that you shouldn't aim for it, but if you set your expectations too high at the beginning, you may find the reality almost too hard to bear when you go through a rough patch, as you inevitably will. Aim for earning a living doing what you love, a job that gives you more time with family and friends – and the rest will follow if you really want it badly enough.

What I didn't want was for my story to be about a laptop-lifestyle-on-the-beach because that's been done a million times before. What I did want to do was share some of my experiences so you can learn from them, show you my mistakes, so you don't make them, and share with you the simple joys of running a business that brings with it its own simple pleasures.

Because while being self-employed is hard, it can also make you very happy and content, it can make life absolutely joyous – and that's definitely worth fighting for, even if you don't find yourself on a beach drinking a pinacolato while punching out sharp copy.

I suppose what I'm really trying to say is this, if you don't expect a millionaire lifestyle and just simply work towards changing your life for the better and preparing for the long hard slog ahead, you might just wind up with the six-figure lifestyle, just don't expect it overnight.

Just to wake up in the morning and literally smell the coffee, go outside and look at the trees. Listen to the birds, look at your garden, spend time having a long breakfast with the children, if you have any, before they go to school. It might be a very long time since you had the time to do any of that.

That's what self-employment can do for you, it won't necessarily give you the six figures right away, or the expensive car, but what it will do is give you that precious time we all wish we had more of, and that in itself brings its own rewards.

And that's what I'm talking about, more time, more you, more time with family, more enjoyment of the simple things in life, and no matter how hard it's been, that's has been one of the reasons why I'm glad I became self-employed.

And so it began: The hard climb ahead.

And so it began: The hard climb ahead.

And so it begins....

It's very easy to declare yourself self-employed, but it's another thing entirely to actually do it, live it and breathe it day in day out. Once you've declared yourself to HM Revenue it's real, just you and your newbie business setting sail into an unknown future.

In those early days I didn't know many people who were doing what I did, if there were they were very far away and not in my immediate vicinity. It was just me, a laptop and a desk and very little else, oh and a modest amount of savings in the bank.

But that was all you needed in order to start, a laptop, or a desktop or a tablet even, that and a good internet connection. The internet's a wonderful thing, because whereas there were no local people around who I could talk to, there were plenty of people online I could interact with.

Yes, there were people I could go to for advice and guidance occasionally and ask for direction. However, all of this is all very well, but it doesn't replace face-to-face learning you might think. In many ways it didn't, but only because I wasn't always talking to the right people. Or when I did talk to people about it, it was bite sized chunks of fractured conversation, where I learnt stuff, but incrementally. The rest was up to me. And it was hard.

Yes, the internet, the internet of things, and people. The internet can be the best tool you can utilise if you know how to use it, it can also be the greatest distraction, telling you all the things you don’t want to hear, and showing you things you’d much rather be doing rather than working.

I think at the beginning I spent far too much of my time being taken in by the ‘laptop lifestyle,’ those that would give you the impression that if you weren’t earning far more than you’d ever done working for an employer, then you were some kind of failure.

This is a worldwide phenomenon much endorsed by both freelance copywriters and writers. Overall, I was left with the impression that for most of them, regardless of whether they were copywriters or otherwise, they were successful within 6 to 12 months, they were earning a fortune and they could barely turn round for work. All this had happened because they were obviously far better than I was, or at least that’s how it felt to me.

I often felt I was in a race I couldn’t win.

It made me feel like I was in a rush to the finish line, a rush to catch up with everyone else so I could feel I was a success. When I asked how some of them did it their answers were vague, perhaps I just wasn’t applying myself enough, perhaps I hadn’t listened properly. I realise now there were mistakes I made along the way, but one of them was definitely paying far too much attention to what everyone else was doing. What I should have been doing is getting my head down and getting on with it, and just selecting one or two really good copywriters I could learn from. 

Thing is I have always had my heart on my sleeve, and my failures and struggles, along with my concerns were often shared with other copywriters online because I didn’t understand the golden rule - never tell the truth about how badly you’re doing. Thank god it's changed since then, we need to hear from the ones who are struggling as well as from the 5-minutes-to success-gurus. 

It is important to give the right impression to potential clients, but I’m not a fan of the smoke and mirrors club when it comes to other copywriters, my peers. We're often too afraid to say "I'm struggling right now, what am I doing wrong"? but if we say it to each other, to colleagues, who are the best people to understand what we're going through, we can create a wonderful network of support. And I truly believe that's starting to happen, that's certainly been my experience in the past couple of years.

So what did I learn from this bumpy beginning then?

1 Don’t pay too much attention to how well other copywriters are doing in comparison to yourself, just follow a few influencers you want to emulate, ignore the rest. It’s best to follow copywriters in groups rather than individually.

2 Network with other copywriters, choose a well known platform that’s well-regulated and moderated, a place where you can learn from each other and where everyone gets a say. A place where it’s a healthy cross section of copywriters like yourself and not just one person just endlessly blowing his/her own trumpet.

3 Real success takes years to achieve, anyone who seems like an overnight success probably took 10 years to get there. Any sudden burst of success within a few weeks or months isn’t sustainable in the long-term unless there’s a lot of planning behind it. Anyone who brags the brag may not have walked the walk. Focus on your own path to success.

4 Stop messing about on social media and worrying about how your peers are doing. Follow small business with products and services in your niche, the kind of people you’d like to work with one day, rather than individual copywriters.

Next time: Creating the foundations - and one or two mistakes along the way.

This weeks book recs: The Unpublished David Ogilvy. Notes, Memos and Letters over his long and successful copywriting career. And Persuasive Copywriting, Using Psychology to influence, engage and sell. Andy Maslen.

Till next time....