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The marketing secret that will boost your success rate

November 4, 2009

“Success is the sum of all small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” ~ Robert Collier

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There’s a girl at the prom hoping to snag a dance with the most popular boy in school. We’ll call her Sandy. She’s only average-looking. She has a snubbed nose and mousey brown hair that has that slightly out-of-control Ms. Frizzle look. With a slew of other beautiful girls surrounding her, what kind of odds do you think she has of attracting Mr. Popular’s attention? Slim to none, I’d guess.

But what if half of those razzle-dazzle ladies wound up too sick to make it to prom (suspend your disbelief for a moment)? And a third of the remaining girls had prom dates they were glued to? What are her odds now? A lot better, don’t you think?

So what am I getting at with the prom woe-is-me tall tale? Well, I learned a valuable lesson about marketing this past week. You know those job ads so many of us freelancers spend a few hours applying to each day, hoping to land the gig? They’re pretty much a complete and utter waste of time. Yeah, that’s right. Jobs that are advertised on forums and job search engines like Craigslist are being viewed by thousands. And hundreds are applying. With the economy the way it is, you’re facing staunch competition and the person hiring you for the job can afford to offer less money for the project since there are so many applicants to choose from.

As freelancers, we’re all quite familiar with the old proverb about the best jobs being the ones you make for yourself. After all, that’s likely one of the reasons you became an independent contractor. That being said, the best thing I’ve done for my marketing success was to ignore online job postings and sniff out the gigs that aren’t advertised. Let me put it this way…I’ve had zero success with responding to job ads. Nada. Zilch. With the below tactics, I’ve gained a few great clients.

So why not try these on for size? Find better ways to fill your marketing time than applying to dead-end job ads. I promise it’ll help you increase your success rate. I know it worked for me.

  1. Cold call/email – Introduce yourself to potential clients, briefly discuss your services and how they might benefit them, then pull it all together with your credentials and some relevant writing samples.
  2. Mail out postcards, brochures or a personal sales letter – This is another way you can introduce yourself to potential clients. You want to include the same type of information and remember to include your contact info.
  3. Attend networking events in your area – Go beyond groups that cater to writers and get involved in communities that service your writing niche. This will acquaint you with people who might actually be able to use your services. Introduce yourself and give a short and to-the-point ‘elevator speech’ (usually about 1-2 mins).

These are just a few of the many marketing tactics you can use to increase your odds of landing gigs with better-paying clients. The more creative you can get, the better!

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Why business hours matter

October 25, 2009

At the typical company, everyone notices what time someone leaves the office and what time people get in. We’re still stuck in a workplace that was designed around producing widgets on an assembly line. As life moves more and more online, and new technologies are invented that allow traditional offices to be truly optional, the punch clock mentality will slowly disappear. By the time Gen Y is ready to retire, people won’t even know what a punch clock is, and maybe then we will finally be working in the environment that knowledge workers are meant to work in. ~ Ryan Healy of Employee Evolution

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One of the greatest rewards of being a freelancer is getting to determine your own work hours. You have no punch clock or sign-in sheet, no 9 to 5 grind you’re forced to adhere to. You can follow the natural rhythms of your body and work the most productive hours of your day, whether morning or night. You can accommodate your kids and be home for them when they’re sick (or pretending to be), spend more time with your husband, ensure the dog gets enough attention and doesn’t leave you a present on the carpet after being left home alone for over 8 hours. This sounds all fine and dandy on paper. In fact, most day-timers would be pretty jealous to hear we have such a privilege. But with freedom comes responsibility.

Until this month rolled around, I was an ugly mess. After being conditioned to accept and adapt to the 9 to 5 slavery schedule that existed in both my university days and employment days, when I hit the freelance road pavement, I didn’t exactly hit it hard and running. I felt like I just sort of got plopped there without a map or any guiding star to speak of. Talk about utter confusion. I was in completely unfamiliar terrain with no boss telling me what to do and when to do it. So what did I do? I floundered, I treaded muck, I put in too many hours on some days and hardly any on others.  I knew I had to figure out how to schedule my time more efficiently while maximizing my productivity or else I was never going to develop my business the way I wanted to.

Not only that, but to add to the equation I have a night-hawk boyfriend (in other words, he works nights). Trying to find quality time together while I was feeling out this transition stage promised me a one-way ticket to FREAK OUT CITY! Still…I’m not ashamed that it took me almost 3 months just to strategize with time management and get over the mental desire to quit. If you’re new to the game, I can guarantee you’ll experience this too.

As you can see, even if you do own the flexible schedule of a freelancer, keeping business hours is extremely important. In the beginning months, I was horrible at this. I wasn’t putting in enough productive hours, my sleeping schedule was chaotic, and my mental and physical health were suffering. Keeping a schedule is fundamental, but I love having the flexibility to innovate a schedule that works for me rather than have one dictated.

So I started experimenting with a schedule I could keep. This is how it turned out:

4am-Noonish: Sleepy time.

Noonish-5pm: I get up, but my brain isn’t working at its best and I’m easily distracted by MSN conversations with friends and daily going-ons. So I use this time to do non-thinky stuff like admin, invoicing, researching, marketing and interviewing. It also gives my clients a portion of ‘regular business hours’ to contact me. Usually I manage to get a workout in too.

6pm-10pm: Dinner and I usually can spend some quality time with the boyfriend before he has to go to work.

10pm-4am: This is when I do my writing. My concentration is best during this time – nothing good is on TV, the world goes extremely quiet, and everyone is asleep which means my friends aren’t distracting me with YouTube videos of dancing monkeys or juvenile fart machine pranks that I “just have to see”.

Rinse and repeat.

Everyone is different and there’s nothing wrong with keeping a 9 to 5 schedule even as a freelancer if that’s what works for you. Experiment and adapt your schedule to fit your unique circumstances and needs. What kind of schedule do you keep?

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I’m alive…alive!

October 20, 2009

“I’m like a big old hen. I can’t cluck too long about the egg I’ve just laid because I’ve got five more inside me pushing to get out.” ~ Louis L’Amour

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I must apologize for my hibernation. However, I have a good excuse! I’ve been one busy little bee.

My start-up has started to really blossom and take off. After a two-month dry spell at the get-go, I’ve started picking up some regular and steady work. This is a huge relief and revs up my motivation. Not only am I starting to make a profit, but I’m receiving rave reviews. This is the best encouragement any new freelance writer can hope for. I know I’m pleasing my clients, which has promised future work and referrals.

Not only have I managed to secure guaranteed part-time marketing support and copywriting work through a local tutoring company, but I’ve also dug up a few other small corporate writing assignments AND my first magazine article assignment.  I’m genuinely proud of myself and my recent accomplishments.

This is way better than some lousy 9 to 5 office job.

I promise to get my act together with some fresh blog posts very soon!

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5 ways to overcome lack of experience

September 10, 2009

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

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Welcome to my episode of Confessions of a Little Lost Girl, way less chic than the shopaholic variety. I’m not ashamed to say that despite my age, my parents still teach me valuable lessons on a regular basis or remind me of ones forgotten.

As positive as I’ve been about the slow bloom of my freelance writing business, there are times when I feel like I’m suffering a brain fart of epic proportions chock-full of doubt. I’ll catch my poor dad off guard when he’s watching another re-run of CSI and collapse on the couch with a disheartened grunt, embarking on a never-ending string of complaints and insecurities that probably make the gross  autopsy scenes seem not so bad (I promise he still loves me).

I tell him I’m swimming in a pool of pros. I don’t have a track record that boasts of 20 years of experience. How can I set myself apart? How can I make clients choose me? He’s a dude of few words, but he reminds me of factors within my control. And I wanted to share those with you today. Even if you’re just a rookie, there are actions you can take to land promising gigs and overcome a skimpy track record. Because hey, Abraham Lincoln didn’t start rockin’ the political scene right away either!

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  1. Persistence – Persevering is the lifeblood of your freelance writing career. Develop a thick skin and go after what you want. Gigs won’t fall into your lap (unless you’ve got one killer luck gene). So don’t let rejection letters, or worse – silences – get you down. Persistence is what will eventually promote and nurture your talent.  Simply by being persistent, you can put yourself above the gaggle of freelancers that give up over the long haul. Talent may play a major role in establishing a good reputation, but unwavering determination counts for more than you realize.
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  2. Education – If you want to keep a leg up on the competition, you better get used to the idea of life-long learning. Your education will never end – and it shouldn’t either. Reading reference books, joining professional groups and associations, and going to seminars or classes can give you new skills to market or help you brush up on the ones you already possess. This will make you more valuable to potential clients because they’ll feel confident in your ability to deliver on your promises. While education isn’t a substitute for experience, it’ll definitely boost your chances of landing gigs early on in your career.
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  3. Professionalism – You don’t want to stand out as an amateur. Nobody’s asking you to sign up to look like Donald Trump. Conducting yourself as a professional isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Meet your deadlines, be respectful of your clients, project a businesslike appearance when engaging in face-to-face communications, maintain your integrity, provide excellent customer service, keep in touch with clients, listen to feedback from your clients and take it into consideration (good or bad), and always under-promise and over-deliver.
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  4. Enthusiasm – A little enthusiasm can go a long way. Clients will pick up on your positive attitude and high energy. Let me put it this way…if you were looking to hire a freelancer, which of the following would you choose? The one with more experience but a lackluster approach to your project? Or the less experienced one who showed curiousity by asking questions about the assignment and seemed genuinely gung ho about working with you? Point made.
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  5. Honesty – While the desire to beef up your credentials and embellish your capabilities may seem like a good idea at the time, you’re more likely to irritate a potential client than impress them. It’s kind of like false advertising…think the A-cup chick who wears a padded bra that gives off the impression she’s a C-cup. Be honest about you abilities because honesty and good manners are always remembered. After all, no client wants to be left with that cheated, sour taste in their mouth.

Got something else to add to the list? Suggest away!

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I <3 freelancing for rad clients

August 27, 2009

My son is now an “entrepreneur.” That’s what you’re called when you don’t have a job.  ~ Ted Turner

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I got my first official copywriting client. Boo-yah, baby! I’m totally stoked. Were it not for the obvious lame-factor, I’d be jumping around like a squirrel that just consumed an unhealthy amount of Red Bull. Not that any amount would be healthy for a squirrel…

I feel very, very lucky. As a newbie freelancer, having my first experience with a client be a positive one is just as encouraging as it is reassuring. I’ve been given the opportunity to work with a fellow female entrepreneur that faced hard beginnings and now successfully runs her own educational institution. Hello, inspiration! Since she’s local, I also got to come out of my den and partake in a face-to-face consultation with her.  Things couldn’t have gone better. We communicated effectively, she gave me very clear instructions on what she was looking for and I feel absolutely confident with the ideas I’ve been drafting up to this point. Oh yah, and she fed me coffee and homemade banana bread! Seriously, it doesn’t get any sweeter than that (thank you, client of my dreams).

So in celebration, I’ve come up with some ideas for how to appreciate and hold onto those heavenly clients on your list. Even better? I’ve included detailed examples of how I’ve incorporated them into my own practices. Ready, set…go!

  1. Offer a discount, free service or product…sometimes: I know, I uttered “free”. How dare I. But before you turn around and leave, hear me out. I’m not suggesting you write pro bono all the time or undersell yourself. What I am saying is keep your client’s interests at heart and understand that the payoff is oftentimes worth it. It can help you secure a potential client or keep an old client coming back for more. For example, I offer a 15% discount to new clients on their first project. This helps me build credibility and trust. It also means a potential client who might be unsure about investing in my services will be more likely to take the risk. Why? Because they don’t have to shell out as much cash before having proof of my abilities and accountability. I even offer a 5% discount on a future project to clients who land me a successful new referral. This is a win-win situation – your client has incentive and you get new business.
  2. Talent is good. Unbeatable customer service is better: Be honest about your abilities, turn-around time and expectations. No pussy-footing. Clients appreciate a straight-forward attitude. But what’s equally important is that you genuinely care about your client’s needs. Don’t be solely focused on the moolah. If you want to succeed as a freelancer, you must first help your client succeed. It’s called customer service and clients remember their personal experience with a provider – and whether it was a positive or negative one – even more than the quality of the finished product. Listen carefully, suggest positive solutions, share your knowledge and give them the attention they deserve. Once you’ve handed them a totally kickass completed project and they’ve paid you your dues, send them a thank-you. A personalized note to show your gratitude will go a long way and really set you apart from others, but even an email will do. By taking a real interest in my client’s needs and vision, I’ve been able to secure more work. How did I do this? I listened more than I talked, I incorporated her ideas into my own brainstorming and communicated them to her, I made myself available to her at times that were convenient for her since I knew she had a busy school to run, and I was never anything less than professional, friendly and enthusiastic.
  3. Give them what they expect…then give them something they weren’t expecting: This type of business isn’t about exercising your artistic freedom, even if we are creative professionals. Clients have a set of expectations they require you to meet. So deliver on your promises and don’t be the guy who took the horse and ran with it or they’ll just regret hiring you for the job. They may even spread the bad word to others via fire-breathing rage…and you really don’t want your reputation burned (word-of-mouth is a powerful networking tool, after all). Giving them what they want is good, but if you really want to emblazon your Chiclet-smile and impeccable grammar on their memories, give them something they weren’t expecting. Go that extra mile. Throw in a sidebar for free. Finish the project ahead of deadline. Agree to meet them in-person for lunch or coffee to discuss their project rather than communicating solely over phone or email. Make yourself memorable and you’ll become the go-to for future projects.

This industry has some fierce competition. I know because it gives me the heebie-jeebies everyday. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned early on, it’s that how you deal with clients can make or break your freelancing career. And the last thing you want is to lose the golden ones.

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Invoking ‘Buffy-Power’ in the freelance start-up struggle

August 18, 2009

I thought it was gonna be more like in the movies. You know, inspirational music and a montage: me sharpening pencils, reading, writing, falling asleep on a big pile of books with my glasses all crooked because in the montage I have glasses. Real life is so slow and it hurts my occipital lobe. ~ Buffy

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Here’s a little secret. I’m a shameless, obsesso-fan of the T.V. success that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When teenage life was sucking, the campy horror series was what I turned to–blood-sucking fiends included. It provided comfort when gooey, chocolate-chip cookies were threatening my waistline. Buffy was my hero (sorry Oprah). Not only was she athletic and resourceful, but she could be witty and pretty while kicking demon butt. Talk about girl-power!

Lately, I’ve been attempting to invoke that slayer power to deal with the struggle of starting up a full-time freelance career. I’m going to be honest and tell you that starting up this writing business has been hard work. I didn’t realize the perseverance, patience and motivation that would be required to rise up on two feet. I had visions of sipping on my morning cappucchino, bunny-slippers propped up on my desk, projects rolling into my lap. Well, maybe not rolling…more like dripping from a leaky faucet.

Instead, I’m sporting some lovely black circles under my eyes, using caffeine to combat a constant stream of anxieties–am I good enough, when will the next paycheck come, did my email to that editor fall into a black hole?–wearing 5-day old pajamas. That’s the ugly truth.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I certainly don’t regret turning to freelancing full-time after losing my steady office job due to the economy. Especially after reading Ed Gandia’s supportive words today:

So, for Gen Y’ers everywhere, here’s my (blunt) advice: Forget about trying to find a “job.” Forget about politicians’ promises to fix things. Forget about waiting this one out. (Even if you wait it out, you risk having even greater competition when younger rivals start entering the workforce en masse in two or three years.)

Instead, put your faith where it belongs: on your talents, abilities, creative capacity and ability to solve problems. Then, sell those abilities as a freelance professional. You’ll get back to work much faster. And you’ll have the freedom and flexibility you and your generation craves (we all want that freedom, but you guys have taken life-work balance to a new level).

Pretty promising words, don’t you think? And I agree with him. But I’ve also realized that being a freelancer is no easy choice. And even when I’ve been forewarned of the hardships, I always had some niggling doubt. Things will be different for me, I thought. Try again. I got quite the reality check in the past few weeks. Squashing The Sound of Music version of a writer’s life was necessary. But guess what? I’m still just as enthusiastic about pursuing my goals. And you can be too if you’re new to the game, like myself.

Here are some fundamental tasks I’ve completed within the past couple weeks to help launch my personal brand, which I’d recommend all newbie freelancers consider attacking:

  1. Website and business cards designed – Vital marketing tools. I’ve been using the website to start building my own online portfolio and handing out my business cards to family, friends and potential clients.
  2. Revving up the education– I know I’m competing with more seasoned freelancers, so I’ve been doing a bogus amount of reading to further develop and hone my skills. My reading includes blogs and books (check out Paul Lima, Michelle Goodman and the Renegade ladies for some killer resources to add to your shelves). I’ve also been taking a copywriting course so I can get more experience in the field, which is known to be the ‘bread and butter’ of many writers who also contribute to magazine publications.
  3. Setting up a home office– I realized that sitting in front of the T.V. in my living room doesn’t really inspire productivity or concentration. So I found a stylin’ used desk to set up in one corner of my room and purchased some basic office supplies to make it all schnazzy. I’ve got a great work space now that forces me to focus on my work without the typical distractions of home.
  4. Local marketing campaign – I designed a simplistic but professional brochure advertising my services, included a business card and pen (potential clients generally respond well to a small, inexpensive gift related to the services you’re offering), and dropped these marketing packages off at local houses. I’ve only done 50 so far and didn’t expect any response. I got one of my first official clients this way. You never know.
  5. Signed up for Elance – I was avoiding doing this for fear of falling into the rut of low-paying, dead-end gigs. I’ve decided to try it out. If nothing else, it’ll help me flesh out my portfolio and get some diverse samples to show future clients.
  6. Writing and researching queries – I’ve just started to take the query route. I have experience writing for newspapers, but would love to break into magazines. This in itself has been quite the learning curve. I’ve only sent one out and I’m currently in the process of researching and writing two more, so I’ll have to give updates on these as they become available.

This is some of the most challenging work I’ve had to do, I won’t lie. Yet I have faith in my skills and the passion to back it. Giving up isn’t an option. And just like Buffy, I plan on kicking some serious butt…only I’ll be doing it in the real world.

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Why a vacation might be a good idea for Mr. Sanity

July 22, 2009

“She’s turning her life into something sacred: Each breath a new birth. Each moment, a new chance. She bows her head, gathers her dreams from a pure, deep stream and stretches her arms towards the sky. It is here where she must begin to tell her story.” ~ Monique Duval

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One of the hiking trails I adventured.

I’m back from vacation!Given my current funemployment status, escaping the city for a week of hiking, boating, camping and swimming in Georgian Bay was the ultimate treat. Okay, maybe minus the last part. The water is so cold there it’s like a brain freeze in your feet! And when I say camping, what I really mean is staying in a cabin with cable and a real toilet…

But throughout my Indiana Jones adventures, I came to the realization that freelancers really should embrace holidays. Unlike most professions, when you’re working for yourself, it’s easy to hit burnout. Freelancers tend to work longer hours and push themselves beyond their limits. And we’re probably closer to losing our sanity than any teacher I know. I’m sure I won’t be the first or last person to tell you – when you put down the pitches, interviews, writing and re-writings – your world will not end. Your clients will still be there when you get back. And it’s crucial that you recharge your batteries if you want to maintain the quality of your work.

  1. The ‘F’ in freelance should stand for flexibility, not freak-out. One of the reasons many people cite their love of freelancing is because of the flexibility it affords. So why kick it to the curb for the sake of overworking yourself? You might as well return to the cubicle from whence you came, as Shakespeare might put it. Giving yourself a vacation from time-to-time is a healthy habit to get into. Even if you’re not sailing away to some tropical island for a couple weeks, a short-term no-work period or long weekend can do wonders for relieving frustration and revitalizing your spirits.
  2. A change of scenery will perk up your creativity and provide you with a fresh outlook. Sometimes writer’s block can spawn from simply being in the same working environment day-in and day-out. Whether you’re hauling your laptop to Cancun or the local coffee shop, a ‘vacation’ from your familiar writing space can spark inspiration and innovation. Being physically active and outdoors for an entire week instead of doing the zombie slouch in a cramped, musty office space helped me to generate a lot of new ideas.
  3. Sometimes your friends and family could use a little undivided attention. They’re used to your deadpan stare focused on the computer screen, your constant need to surrender to the beeps of your Crackberry, or those late nights you spend frantically typing away when you’ve got a project deadline to meet. Occasionally, they could use a little TLC, without the interruptions of your typical day in the office.

Many freelancers fear taking vacation time because the need for income overshadows the temporary flight from responsibilities. For a busy freelancer, this can take some time management, planning and juggling. But it is possible. Multi-tasking should come easily to you anyways, right?