When copywriters create the foundations of their business

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.

Today. Creating the foundations - and one or two mistakes along the way

Carving that path towards success isn't easy is it?

Carving that path towards success isn't easy is it?

Content mills, bidding sites and how to avoid them

When I started out I had no portfolio, no samples of work and like in any job, it’s hard to convince someone you’re worth hiring if you have no experience. So, I tried content mills. Content mills aren’t quite as prevalent as they once were when I started out. I certainly don’t hear as much about them as I used to. Hopefully, this is because they’ve been stumped by long-form copy and the need for decent writing with less emphasis on keyword stuffed content.

As you can see, I’m not a great fan, but back in the day I was desperate for work, I knew my savings wouldn’t last for ever and I needed to gain as much experience as possible. I told myself it wouldn’t be for long but once I started it was pretty hard to tear myself away. Eventually I got myself some real clients away from these types of sites. Bidding sites are another bone of contention for me because there's always someone willing to do it for much less than you are, so in the main, the work is low paid and you don’t get the deposit upfront, (it’s kept in an Escrow account until you’ve completed the job) so you’re waiting a while before you get paid. Last year I wrote about the 5 myths of working on content mills and bidding sites as part of a guest blog on procopywriters UK, and I’ve included them below:

Myth 1: it’s safe way to earn money and the client will settle your invoice in full.

No, not necessarily. So you should always insist on a deposit before you start and, whatever you do, don’t give your clients the final draft before they’ve done this.

But clients can still disappear without settling the full amount. This didn’t happen often to me, but it does happen. It means you may spend weeks on a job that wasn’t very well paid to start with, with no money in your account to live on until the client settles up, and even then you still don’t get the full amount. You’re no more guaranteed a client will pay an invoice in full than outside a content mill.

Myth 2: you’ll be guaranteed lots of work in your area of expertise

Yes, possibly but only if you’re willing to work for very little, so it’s a false economy. You’ll do poorly paid jobs and rush to finish them because you need to be paid, then you’ll start the next one and you’ll have to rush that one too. (Because you’re skint after the last job, and you have no money left in the bank because you’re being paid so little.)

You won’t necessarily get loads of jobs either, unless you’re on those sites from sunrise to sunset competing with other copywriters who are always willing to do the job for even less. So, in the end, you’ll just be treading water.

And while all this is happening, your confidence is ebbing away and your self-esteem is taking a nosedive. It’s just one poorly paid job after another, with no sustainable income and no long-term clients. That takes me to my next myth.

Myth 3:  you get to know the clients and develop a good working relationship with them

Because jobs are done and paid for so quickly, it’s hard to develop a long-term client relationship. This means it’s also hard to get to know the brand or their audience in any meaningful way. And how can you know whether or not your work’s achieved what it was supposed to when the client disappears and you never hear from them again?

Yes, often clients will work with you outside of the site and you can work with them for longer. But the main disadvantage of doing this is that your mindset is already set in concrete. You were willing to work cheaply on the site, so why would you start charging more now? And if you’re cheap on the site, then they’ll expect you to be cheap when you’re working outside of it too. So you’re permanently stuck working for very little.

I’m not suggesting this is everyone’s experience. Content mills can be great when you’re a newbie, and when you’re experiencing a fallow period in those first few shaky years. Or if you’ve had some time away from work and you’re returning to the fray. They have their place and they provide a service – of sorts.

What you can do instead of using content mills

If you’re seriously thinking of building a full-time career as a copywriter, getting to know your craft, and having long-term, rewarding working relationships, you’re not going to do it on content mills. They’re merciless conveyor belts of cheap work and short-term relationships.

Yes, everyone does short-term jobs occasionally and they can be great fun. But you should be looking for retainer clients and long-term work that pays you what you’re worth. As Andy Maslen says in his post Why are female copywriters paid 29% less than men?  even his window cleaner can clear £300 on a good day. You should be aiming higher.

So how can you get off these spirit sapping conveyor belts of poorly paid jobs, and find better work and better clients?

By networking. I’m painfully shy, so I’m not a fan of networking in person. If you’re not keen on offline networking either, there are plenty of platforms, Facebook groups, and other online groups and forums where you can meet like-minded people who may be able to pass on work to you at some point. And networking can include video, such as Zoom, FB or Skype. It's often easier and far more cost effective to speak to clients this way, so you're saving on travelling costs.

LinkedIn is a great one. It’s not one of my favourite platforms, but it can be extremely useful. So reach out, because there are clients there.

Guest blog and get your name out there so people can see what you can do. Look out for referrals from other writers, because by networking and guest blogging, people will remember you.

Try podcast appearances where you can talk about your copywriting, goals, achievements, career highs so far and what you specialise in, if anything. It’s all about reaching out and finding the type of clients you want to work with.

I also found that I didn’t have enough time to market myself because I was stuck in the treadmill of low paid work, so use them if you have to, but constantly market yourself at the same time, and try to find work with clients off bidding sites and content mills.

Another mistake I made in the early days was that I didn’t charge enough, my excuse being that I was at the beginning of my career and I couldn’t charge a lot, no one would pay it . However, although you might not really want to charge as much as someone with several more years’ experience than yourself (although there’s nothing stopping you, you’d just need to prove you’re just as good), you should be charging a fair figure for the work you’re providing. We’re talking value here, if you don’t place a value on what you do, no one else will. And I charged far too little for far too long and that had a lot to do with confidence (there's a good blog about confidence in the link by Tom Albrighton you may find useful). I had no self-confidence and it took a while to build it up enough to believe in myself. 

There's another good post about content mills on Procopywriters UK here

So what did I learn from all of this?

1 Don’t spend too much time on content mills and bidding sites. Yes, it’s important to get work experience and a portfolio under your belt, but the more time you spend on them, the less time you’re getting yourself out there and marketing to the kind of people you want to work with who will pay you what you’re worth.

2 Have more confidence in what you do and in yourself. Place a value on your work and the services you provide and charge appropriately for it. If you don’t believe in yourself, if you don’t place value on your business, no one else will and you could lose work as a result.