Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Success Stories: From Downsized Corporate Mom to Successful Consultant

I like to post stories on here about other freelancers who find success after cold calling (so if you have one, please send it).

Piggy backing on today's earlier post, here's the story of Diana Schneidman who lost three corporate jobs after 40 -- and used a variety of techniques (cold calling included) to build a successful freelance writing and consulting biz.

Diana also posted recently about her own cold calling experiences, and she even Tweets. Could be another great resource for us all, and especially for the DMS refugees who are hoping to replace their lost income.

Demand Media Studios: Tips for Downsized Writers

Early in my freelance career, I wrote a few articles for Demand Media Studios (DMS), so I still have access to their forums. And what's going on there is really sad. Looks like Demand is using its new First Look program to effectively lay off about 85 percent of its writers.

Whether we're fans or foes of content mills, I'm sure any of us who have lost a major client can feel their pain. Some of those being downsized have worked there for years, and many of them earn the bulk of their income from the studio.

One thing seems clear from the forums -- the writers who are about to be downsized would love to diversify, but they're not sure how.

DMS writers, please believe me. If you play your cards right, getting cut lose from Demand could be one of the best thing that ever happened to your career. Once you pick up a few high-paying clients and leave behind the clueless CEs, the scorecard and the 412 pages of nitpicky, ever-changing style sheets, you'll wonder how you ever survived there.

It's not improbable for a solid freelance writer with basic clips and experience to work for $.50 to $1.00 per word, $50 to $75 per hour -- and even more. It just takes time to seek out and cultivate those high-paying clients.

Some thoughts for writers looking to thrive in a post-Demand world:

1. Stay away from cheapskates.

There's a lot of chat on the forums and members' blogs about jumping ship to other content farms. Job boards like CraigsList and eLance are frequently mentioned.

Why should you avoid these? Because each job posted on teh Interwebs attracts hundreds to thousands of applicants. That's why 99 percent of the time, freelance job boards pay third-world wages.

2. Approach clients directly.

To find clients that pay real wages, skip the job boards and reach out personally. Send query letters to paying magazine markets. Contact health systems, universities, marketing companies, web service providers and other businesses who work with writers.

3. If you've never queried before, it's time to learn.

Queries are one way to sell your work to magazines, websites and trade publications. A great book on the subject that really helped me out is Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer by Jenna Glatzer. And here's a link to Diane Benson Harrington, a great coach whose querying classes I'd recommend.

4. Business writing pays the bills.

When I started out in 2010, I thought I'd mostly write for magazines. However, a year later, I find I get the bulk of my income from business writing.

It takes a lot of time and effort to locate steady, high-paying business clients, but once you get a few, it's like it's your birthday every day. They hand you regular assignments, pay fast and on-time, and you get paid for the time you put in -- even if the project gets killed.

This entire blog is actually about my personal quest to seek out and win over those rare, high-paying business clients. I did it through cold calling, which worked fairly well (and fast). And yup, post number one is from cold-calling day one -- the most terrifying day of my freelance career. (Don't worry, after I made about ten calls, it got way easier.)

To plan my cold call campaign, I closely followed the advice from this book: The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman.

Cold calling isn't for everyone. Others prefer to network in person or send "Letters of Interest" to prospects. Here's a transcript on the subject from the International Freelance Academy.

5. Hang with the pros.

DMS has a great social writers' community, with forums (and now Meetups). However, it's pretty rare that I see anyone posting advice who seems to be a high-earning freelancer. That's not a slam on the DMS writers at all, and I'm sure there are exceptions. But in general, it's not a place where folks making $60,000, $75,000 and even $100,000 a year hang out.

If you want to make a real living freelancing, it helps to connect with people at the top of the business. In my experience, successful writers are super generous souls when it comes to helping each other up to the next level.

Where can you find these folks? Local writers' groups and classes are a good start. Also, you can Google around to locate freelancers near you. If you like the work they're doing, shoot them an email and take them out for coffee.

Another idea: check out Freelance Success (FLX). It's a pay site, but I've found it to be a great investment in my own career. You'll get access to forums, newsletters, job leads, career advice, etc. aimed at writers targeting high-paying markets. You can even get a free trial.

Another networking idea: If you've got the clips, consider joining ASJA.

6. Learn new skills.

If you want to survive and thrive as a freelancer, it's good to invest in your career. Successful writers teach classes in copyediting, book proposals, magazine queries, grant writing, green writing, blogging, social media, and you name it. The more kinds of writing you're trained in, the more assignments you'll generally land -- and the more financially secure you'll feel.

Just a few writing classes that have worked for myself or folks I know:

Crafting the Query/Kickbutt Queries -- Diane Benson Harrington (link above)
Grant Writing -- Diane Silver
Book Proposals (nonfiction) -- Jennifer Lawler

Back when I was a newbie, I also took a nonfiction course from Writer's Digest University that was very helpful.

A caveat: Before you sign up for a class, it's a good idea to check out the instructor's credentials and talk to former students. Because frankly, any dumbass out there can get online and offer a class.You want to be taught by the best, someone who's had success in the kind of writing you hope to break into.

Well, dear DMS writers, I hope that's been helpful, and sorry again that it's turned out this way. I'm hardly the most seasoned writer on teh Interwebs, but having spent awhile in the studio, I really feel your pain. So if you need marketing help or advice (for what it's worth), hit me at sarah (at) zipline agency (dot) com.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lessons Learned: Get It in Writing

It's 7 o'clock and I'm rewarding myself with wine and McDonalds (hey, stop looking at me like that). For what you might ask? For having an awesome writing day and making lots of money? Oh, don't I wish! Nope, it's for forcing myself to address a thorny payment issue that's cropped up.

Now I can't exactly give case studies on here (I maintain a strict no-client-talk policy), but what I can do is share what I've learned over the past few months about the importance of contracts.

Reflection #2: Don't write/edit until you've agreed to terms and signed a contract.

Yup, I'm going to be a stickler about this one going forward. Sure, it might rub some new clients the wrong way (what, you don't trust me?) but in the end, I'm really doing us both a favor. Because a good contract protects the interests of both parties.

My (shiny, new) rules:

1. CYA.

When you get a bonanza of new clients through cold calling, it's all very exciting. You may even think some of them are really great people that you'd love to drink a beer with.

But this isn't a love fest -- this is business. And in business, a little paranoia is healthy. Especially when you're relying on new, untested clients for your livelihood (and they're likewise relying on you).

Ask questions, clarify, negotiate, and above all, work with the client to create a strong contract that protects you both.

2. Know your deal-breakers.

Here's a little gem I learned in counseling school -- every healthy relationship has deal breakers. In other words, if there's nothing your child/partner/client could do that would make you turn your back on him/her/it, you're both in trouble.

So if you receive a contract that has confusing or unfavorable terms, it's healthy and necessary to say so and ask for what you need.

During the negotiation phase, it's helpful to break down your desires into "must haves" and "would likes." No, negotiation doesn't mean you get everything you want. But don't back down when it comes to your deal-breakers (which will vary from person to person).

Here's a breakdown of my own personal must-haves when working with brand new commercial clients (these vary a bit based on the situation). Keep in mind, I am not a lawyer, and this is by no means legalese:

* Copyright clause -- copyright transfers only upon full payment.

* Acceptance clause -- if client makes no reply within 30 days of submission, the work is deemed accepted and the client can be billed, with additional work performed on an hourly basis.

* Detailed description of the work -- Scope and length of the piece, number of meetings, number of interviews, photos, captions, research to be conducted, reimbursement of expenses, number of rounds of revisions included. For editing, specify the number of passes included, the style manual to be followed, internal style sheets to be consulted, and fact-checking requirements.

* Detailed description of client's responsibilities -- what support the client will provide and when (setting up interviews, researching keywords, submitting work for editing, etc).

* Scope clause -- all work outside the scope of this agreement will be billed at your hourly rate.

* Termination clause -- if either party terminates the agreement, the writer will still be paid for all work completed.

* No implied warranty clause -- client is responsible for proofreading and fact checking the finished product.

* Indemnity clause -- client holds writer harmless for any legal action resulting from use of the work.

* Down-payment clause -- 30 to 50 percent is the industry standard.

* Project time line -- with relevant deadlines specified.

Standing up for yourself in contract negotiations doesn't make you pushy or difficult. While some clients may not love the process, especially if writers past have signed quickly and quietly, they'll ultimately respect you for it, especially if you show them that contracting is in their best interests as well. If they resist after you've made your case, acknowledge the red flag.

Do I demand all of the above from every one of my corporate clients? To be honest, no. I've got several regulars that I've never even signed a contract with. (Mostly because in the beginning of my freelance career, I was much more timid about contracts, and it now seems strange to demand it of them after a year of doing business together.) Might I ever come to regret this? Possibly. But for now, I'm going to call it an acceptable risk.

But for new clients, and especially those I find through cold calling, contracts are now my rule.

3. When the scope begins to creep, it's time for a new contract.

Ever had a project that appeared to be simple, but turned out to be way bigger than either party anticipated? It happens all the time.

The moment you realize that the project you're working on is beyond the contracted scope, stop immediately, alert your client and either amend your current contract or draw up a new one.

Got that? Now hold up your iPhones and repeat after me:

I will be as courageous in contractual matters as I am in marketing.
I will be as courageous in contractual matters as I am in marketing.
I will be as courageous in contractual matters as I am in marketing.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Lessons Learned: Go For The $$$

Hey there, cold call aficionados. Sorry I haven't been posting much lately -- I'd like to say it's because I've been so busy with all the work my cold calls rustled up, but that's only part of it.

The good news: since about June 2011, I have only had a handful of days where I haven't hit my daily billing quota, which is a pretty good feeling. And when I start to run out of projects, I only need to email a couple of my "warm" prospects to refill the pipeline.

However, being busy with lots of new clients at once has definitely steepened my learning curve expo-freaking-nentially. I've found there's more to running a business than courageous marketing. And I've pinpointed a few of the flaws in my original approach that I'll be reflecting on in my next couple of posts.

So let's start with reflection #1: Quality, not quantity.

My little cold calling strategy, as outlined in this blog, is definitely designed to get you in front of a large number of prospects in a short time. In this respect, I think it works pretty well.

However ...

If I were to do it all over again, I'd be way more careful about the kinds of prospects I target -- and those I choose to work with.

When I started connecting with all of these new clients, it felt so good! Finally, I thought, I've crawled across the freelance desert. And so I said yes to just about any and every project -- even when the terms, fees and contracts offered weren't all that great.

Well, adieu to all that.

I soon found myself working for way less than my going rate. And resenting it like hell.

Generally, I was doing it for lovely, honest people who just didn't have much experience working with a writer. They were "newbies" as much as I was, and they really did not have a firm grasp of the time and money involved in producing a great piece of writing.

Then the payment issues started. Or rather the non-payment issues. One was worked out amicably. The other -- well, it's so touchy at this point I don't even dare discuss it in cyberspace.

Here's what I'd do differently -- and what I'll definitely do when I get around to making those other 550 cold calls:

* Invest in the Book of Lists. Contact only large companies that have a history of working with freelancers.

* Discuss fees early. When in doubt, quote high. Share examples of past projects you've worked on and the fees involved.

* If prospects balk at your fees, you can try some education. Remind them of the going rates for this type of work and that they're saving on payroll taxes, health insurance, benefits, etc.

* If the prospect is clearly never going to pay your fee, move on. Consider it a blessing that you've reached this sort of agreement.

Cold call pals, I know when you're a starving newbie, it can be really tempting to drop your rates. But I for one will be fighting that temptation tooth and nail from now on.

Charge what you're worth, period. That's a whole new aspect of courageous marketing for you.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Worthless Products for Freelancers: MacFreelance

Okay, I know this is supposed to be a blog mostly about cold calls, but I'm noticing lately that there are a lot of horrific products and services out there being marketed to writers and other freelance professionals, so from time to time I'm going to diverge a bit and post about them.

Granted, these are my experiences and mine alone. That being said, I will not to post until I have been using a product for a reasonable amount a time (6 months to a year) -- unless its truly a scam of some sort that should be avoided at all costs.

Today, I'll talk about the product that inspired me to post reviews on occasion -- a quirky little piece of accounting software called MacFreelance.

A quick overview: MacFreelance is supposed to be a billing and accounts receivable-only software. One nice thing that it's supposed to do is time your projects (good info for us writers). It also supposedly produces some basic AR reports.

My one-star review, posted on Amazon today:

I'm a freelance writer and bought this software rather impulsively when I got tired of making my own invoices. I've had it about a year now. It has been nothing but an enormous headache that rarely does what it's supposed to do. If I could give it negative stars, I would.

Take the reports feature, for example. I have NEVER (not for lack of trying) been able to produce a report with date parameters. I set them, but MacFreelance ignores them and just shows all-time statistics, which are worthless.

The email invoice feature also screws up -- if I try to email an invoice directly from the invoice book, it sends it to the LAST client I emailed, not the client who's name is on the invoice. (Very embarrassing).

It inexplicably "loses" time, which means you have to watch it like a hawk, because if you accidentally close the wrong window, or even switch to another client while it's timing something, the timer will stop and the accumulated time will be wiped out.

It's pointless for tracking overdue invoices -- deadlines are supposed to go on the iCal, but I'd say it's about 50/50 that they actually show up.

The makers -- and some reviewers -- giggle coyly and say, well, it's quirky, you have to have the settings exactly right. I would posit that it's so quirky as to be functionally worthless, unless you have hours of free time to wrestle with it, try new settings and make it perfectly happy.

I could go on and on.

There are never any updates, so the problems never get fixed and it never gets more user friendly.


It's also pointless, in my opinion, to have software specifically for accounts receivable. For accounting purposes, I'll be upgrading to Quicken next month, which does everything this software does and much, much more. I wish I would have skipped MacFreelance and gone straight to Quicken to begin with.


If I could give MacFreelance negative stars, I would. If I sold a product this worthless to a client at any price, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. Seriously thinking about trying to get my money back from the merchant.

Monday, September 12, 2011

@ColdCallWriter on Freelance Writers' Den - Weds. Sept. 14

Hello writers! I'll be participating in a cold calling webinar with Carol Tice at Freelance Writer's Den. If you're a member, or considering it, please definitely check it out!

Please note that FWD is a member's only site. If you're not a member and really dying to hear the webinar, please give me a shout through my business website at sarah@ziplineagency.com.

Sorry I have been really bad about posting here lately. Hopefully this appearance will jumpstart me into a more regular routine.

Friday, August 5, 2011


If you're a regular reader, you've probably noticed the little meter to the right has been hanging tough at 461 calls for a couple of months. So where has cold call writer been?

Well, not to bore you with the details, but basically swamped with work. Since I started my cold call campaign in April (when I literally had no work and was chewing my fingernails down to the quick), I've been working with six new clients and am in negotiations with two more. One of those looks like it will turn into a year-long contract, and another is talking about forming a long-term relationship.

Things have just started to slow down a bit (phew), so hopefully I'll be resuming this blog in the next week of so. But for today, I'm going to go hiking and see if I can enjoy what's left of the summer.