How NOT to Start a Copywriting Business
In 2016 I started a copywriting business after leaving a toxic job.
I spent months second guessing my work and struggled to make the improvements a perfectionist manager demanded of me.
I was exhausted and verging on burn out when I left.
There was no way I’d ever have a corporate job again.
No, instead, I was going to make a living with copywriting.
This was my big break.
I was going to thrive, not just survive.
I was absolutely up for the challenge.
Two years on, I can tell you that I approached it all wrong.
Everything I learnt the first time about freelancing just didn’t translate into running a profitable copywriting business.
To save you from from repeating my early mistakes, this is how NOT to run a copywriting business.
Don’t romanticise it
You can sit in a coffee shop and you can work the hours you want. It sounds pretty romantic doesn’t it?
But it won’t be enough to get your business off the ground if you want to make decent money.
In reality, you need to strictly manage your time.
When you approach a business in a dream-like state with no eye on the long term, you’ll get caught in the extreme highs and lows of freelancing.
This is both thrilling and soul-destroying.
You’ll be a copywriter who drifts through a projects in a haze.
You may find yourself landing clients and projects that are hard work.
These kinds of clients can be a drain on your time and your emotions. They may not pay on time, or pay at all. They may not value the work you do.
If you want to go from scrambling about for gigs to landing contracts that actually make you money, you need to think like a business owner.
You can’t be a creative soul at the mercy of your occasionally visiting muse.
Don’t have a plan
I drifted through copywriting for a quite a while, cranking out poorly researched, poorly written, and haphazardly edited blog posts.
I didn’t have a real plan of what I wanted to do—I just kept writing without really learning much about one industry or the real art form that goes into writing a good blog post.
A clear plan for your copywriting business is the same as having a clear plan for your holiday.
Where do you want to go?
How do you plan to get there?
What routes can you take?
What will you do when you get there?
Sitting down to plan will save you time and energy in the long run.
Setting revenue targets and what services you’ll offer gives you clarity on what actions you need to take to achieve your goals.
It’s good to review your plans as something you want to achieve today can change tomorrow.
I’ve found being flexible and adaptable helps you create a business that makes you happy and brings in money.
Go to a crowded, underpriced marketplace
It’s very easy to set up as a freelancer on many freelancing websites.
Sign up, create a profile, start bidding for your first job. Done.
I did this in 2013 and started bidding on low rate jobs on PeoplePerHour. I earned £15 in my first gig for two 1000 words blogs. I was thrilled.
I speak from my own experience when I first started several years ago: it seemed easier to land work as a budding copywriter. However, many of these websites are flooded with underpriced freelancers and poor quality clients who don’t really know what they want.
I highly recommend networking locally and on platforms like LinkedIn.
Word of mouth and a few personal introductions can open more doors to better paid gigs than spending hours trying to bid for work when someone else is charging $10 for a 1000-word article.
There are many freelancers who make a killing in these marketplaces. If you’re willing to invest the time into making your profile work then go for it.
But for me, I’d rather network locally and meet my clients face-to-face.
Don’t take advice and feedback from someone who knows better
One key thing not to do when starting a copywriting business is to ignore advice from experienced copywriters or mentors.
You will only get better with practice and objective feedback.
But your writing is your baby, your muse, your soul on the page, I hear you say.
You’re writing copy, not romance or fantasy fiction.
You need to take your emotion out of the writing (which I know can be extremely hard as a creative writer).
Feedback and reflection are essential steps to becoming a better copywriter.
Find and work with someone who can give you constructive feedback.
Your copy and your business will improve no end if you can embrace feedback.
I didn’t take feedback very well when I first started. An unhappy client meant I was obviously a bad person and I couldn’t write decent copy for toffee.
But I wasn’t a terrible person. I needed to improve my approach to copywriting and my processes.
Manage your money poorly
Freelancing—especially when you’re starting out—can be tight.
If I was to do it again, I would have at least three to six months of living expenses saved up.
I’d also highly recommend going fully freelance when your freelance income is close to matching your salary, or the minimum costs you need to live comfortably.
Cashflow is a difficult concept to grasp—as well as manage—and at times I struggled to pay my subcontractors and pay my bills, leaving me in a never-ending cycle of juggling money, and eventually, debt.
You need a healthy attitude to your incomings and outgoings.
If you currently have a lot of debt to clear down, or can’t say no to a sale, you need to get your spending habits under control before you seriously make the leap into starting a copywriting business.
I’d highly recommend keeping your outgoings as low as possible (for the first few months at least), which links to my next point.
Spend time and money on non-essentials
When you’re starting a new copywriting business you don’t need much: a laptop with a word processor and internet browser, and a reliable internet connection.
As a new business, it’s so easy to get caught up with the latest trends. A slick website that you’ve paid a lot for, expensive networking membership, and fancy business cards. The list is endless.
I jumped into my business in 2016 with really only the last paycheque in my back pocket and a bit of savings.
I did everything as cheaply as possible for a few weeks, then the allure of paid networking events, monthly subscriptions, and coffee snuck up on me.
Coffee out is my downfall. I love the experience of going into a coffee shop and being a regular. Making coffee at home just doesn’t feel the same, but I know now to make sure it’s a weekly treat, not a daily necessity.
When you’re getting a business off the ground, you need to focus all of your effort and energy on getting paid work and clients.
The fancy stuff comes when you’ve worked for it.
Outsource because you’re bad at managing expectations and time
Don’t outsource because you’re bad at managing your time and clients’ expectations. You won’t make enough money. You’ll be responsible for paying another freelancer’s invoice on time, even if your client doesn’t pay you on time.
Now, you can outsource if you have priced it into your services, and if you can guarantee it’s going to be high quality.
Outsourcing is a business model that many people adopt, but starting out you’ll need good-paying clients, a good idea of what they want, and an idea of how you’ll deliver it.
How to actually start a copywriting business
Be prepared to work at it. HARD. You’ll learn so much about yourself and what you really want to do.
Running a real business takes guts.
You have to become comfortable with risk.
But when you run a business that’s on your terms, it’ll be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do.
Have a plan and idea of what you’re going to offer potential clients
Figuring out your services and then finding your clients is your biggest challenge when running a copywriting business.
The typical steps to finding your clients and closing a contract are essential.
You need a good plan to achieve this, so I recommend spending time researching the kind of client you want to work with.
Remember, you’re not offering copywriting services. You’re helping solve problems for your clients. You’re helping them to make more money. This will resonate more and you’ll have more success in your copywriting business if you adopt this approach.
Manage your cash flow well from the start
Getting a business of the ground is hard but it’ll be easier if you’re savvy with your money.
Managing your cash flow will mean you have to do things you’re not comfortable with, like chasing late-paying customers.
It also means being on top of your invoicing at the end of the month or the project.
I’d highly recommend adopting a 50% up front fee—this means you’re compensated for the start of the work—and then 50% upon completion.
This will take the pressure off your cash flow and commits both you and the client to the completion of the project.
Learn to take feedback onboard
Feedback makes you a better copywriter.
Feedback used to make me shut down (I once stopped talking to a friend who gave me pretty critical feedback on my first novel). Now I see it’s essential to improving.
But it’s who you get feedback from that matters.
I highly recommend pairing up with someone who has experience in copywriting, particularly the area you’re interested in.
There’s a wealth of resources and communities for copywriters out there.
One of the best I’ve come across is Café Writer on Facebook. It’s active and full of people who really know their stuff when about copywriting and running a business.
It’s pretty easy to start a copywriting business. What’s difficult is making it sustainable.
You can work from a cafe all day and you can command good prices with dream clients…
…But only if you go into it with your eyes open and have a plan.
Have you ever started a copywriting business? What was your experience?