Working Without a Marketing Budget Isn’t the Same as Working Without a Net

“I can’t start a business without money! I may be able to bootstrap the company, but I still have to pay for advertising.”

I have heard variations on this theme for years. I even heard a version from a family member attempting to convince another family member to invest in her business when I was about ten. Maybe it was true fifteen years ago, although I don’t remember enough about the pre-web world to say.

But a marketing budget isn’t all that necessary these days. It’s rare that paying for marketing is the only way to get a product or service in front of the right customer. Odds are good that a single honest review on the right website will get you a lot more business these days.

A Short Case Study: reddit*

I had the pleasure of hearing Alexis Ohanian speak about entrepreneurship last month. Ohanian, who co-founded reddit, noted that the company’s entire marketing budget when starting up was $500. That was spent exclusively on stickers. He notes,

After we were acquired, Condé Nast funded an openbar meetup tour (Drankkit) for redditors and also prize money for a build-a-subreddit contest I ran early on to encourage folks to create & grow subreddits.

That’s been the extent of any marketing dollars we spent on growing reddit and they all came post-acquisition.

To give you an idea of the enormity of that statement, here are some figures.

  • In February 2011, the site received one billion page views.
  • I found conflicting reports of the number of active reddit users at this point (ranging from 8 million to 20 million), but that same announcement in February showed over 13.7 million unique visitors.
  • Condé Nast, the company that bought reddit in 2006, is also the publisher of The New Yorker, Vogue, Wired Magazine and a bunch of other big name publications. (For the record, earlier this year, reddit was split off from Condé Nast and now operates as a subsidiary of Condé Nast’s parent company, Advance Publications).

But What About Viral Videos and All the Rest?

There’s a certain sense that we’re living in an age of amazing marketing: Old Spice can create a series of amazing videos that become a part of our culture overnight. Social media, content marketing and all the rest make it possible for marketing materials to rival the winners of Pulitzers, Emmys and other creative awards.

I’m a fan.

But this age of amazing marketing also has opened up opportunities for new businesses to get by without spending any money. It seems counter-intuitive, I know, but hear me out. Marketing is no longer wholesale. If you can slide an absolutely fabulous product in front of one right person, you’ll get the right coverage on social media, through word of mouth or wherever else you need it. You just need to think retail — making that one perfect sale or, rather, connection.

The Old Spice videos were fairly retail, when you get down to it. Here, watch one:

I promise: this post did not start out as an excuse for me to go watch Isaiah Mustafa. But the fact that I enjoy watching these videos over and over again is interesting. I’m right in the group that Old Spice was reaching out to with these videos. I’m nerdy enough that I can navigate my way through a throng of response videos on YouTube. My sense of humor is just a tad quirky. I’m firmly in favor of Isaiah Mustafa walking around without his shirt on. I’m not an Old Spice user, but I encouraged my husband to try out Old Spice after seeing this series of ads.

I’m certainly not the only person who meets that criteria, or the video above wouldn’t have reached 37 million odd views on YouTube. But it’s still not everyone. My dad doesn’t fall into that description, despite being a potential Old Spice customer. My granddad certainly doesn’t, either. Old Spice went retail, in targeting younger consumers who meet a certain set of qualifications. They have other promotions to get their products in front of other demographics.

Don’t Worry About the Marketing Budget

If you have a trust fund or other giant pile of money that you’re just itching to spend, I’m all in favor of devoting some of it to marketing. That is, of course, assuming that you have something great to market.

For those of us starting with a little less backing, coming up with a little cash for a marketing budget is not going to offer any sort of safety net. Rather, you need to build something fabulous. Write the best book possible. Design the best web app on the face of the plant. Whatever you want to sell, knock it all the way out of the park. When you know you’ve got a home run on your hands, start thinking in terms of specific connections you can reach out to or build.

For the best children’s books ever, start reaching out to big name mommy bloggers and book reviewers. Send them emails, follow them on Twitter and — preferably without being a suck up or pain in the posterior — build a standing connection with them. When you’re ready to start selling, then it’s just a question of asking to send such folks a review copy. If you’re shooting for a small business web app, a sports shoe, a non-profit fundraiser or anything else, the type of person you’re looking for changes, but the strategy does not. Think of the individuals who are going to be interested in what you’re offering and go from there.

*reddit is uncapitalized. I’ve got some great editors in the audience and I don’t want to give anyone a heart attack when you see how many times I’ve left this business name uncapitalized.

Image by Flickr user Freddie Brown

Why Can’t a Freelancer Be a Millionaire?

You just don’t hear about millionaire freelancers. The big thing these days — the status we tend to aspire to — is the six-figure freelancer. There’s a big difference between earning six figures and hitting that seventh figure, but is it enough of a difference to keep freelancers out?

The short answer, at least as far as my own anecdotal experiences and annoying questions to creatives with especially lucrative practices seem to show, is that freelancers just don’t break that sort of barrier. Few enough can hit six figures, let alone keep going up.

Running the Numbers

The problem is the number of billable hours in a year, along with a ceiling for rates that freelancers hit.

Assuming that you take off two weeks a year for time off, you’ve got fifty weeks left in which you can earn a million dollars. That means you have to earn $20,000 every week without fail. (If you’re not going to take any vacation or sick leave or anything, you only need to earn $19,230.77 each week.)

Going with an expectation that you’re earning $20,000 a week simply because the math is easier, you’ve got to earn $4,000 a day, five days a week. That means an hourly rate of $500.

Oh, and I’ve very generously assumed that all the hours we work are billable — that some how we’ve created a magical marketing machine that brings us clients immediately as we’re finishing up with each project.

Who Can Charge $500 per Hour?

The simple truth is that while I know many freelancers who have broken the $300 per hour mark, I can’t think of anyone I know that actually charges $500 per hour. I’ve seen a couple of websites for freelancers who charge that much, but based on their clientele, I’m not sure that they’re really getting that rate on anything resembling a consistent basis. That fact, combined that when I ran the numbers, I was really optimistic — basically assuming 2,000 billable hours when most freelancers actually bill closer to 1,500 hours in a given year — puts that millionaire mark out of reach for us.

There just aren’t that many clients who value freelance work enough to pay $500 per hour. You might be able to make that number work if you bill per project and work both fast and well. But a lot of the clients I work with would laugh in my face if I quoted that high a rate. It takes a celebrity level of branding (or at least some internet fame) to get that number.

Just How Out of Reach is the Million Dollar Mark, Really?

There are some ways to bring it back into reach, though. But they require straying from pure freelancing: you can’t just offer your personal services on an hourly basis. You may even need to change your title from freelancer to something a little fancier.

When you can subcontract out parts of projects, you can add up more billable hours without working them yourself. When you can sell products that don’t require you to spend time with every customer, you can earn money beyond your services. It’s only when you’re limited to the number of hours in the day that you can’t make the math work.

Of course, reaching that seven figure mark will require a hell of a lot of work. But it’s not something that I believe is out of reach any more. And I’d like to think that a lot of the problems that go along with working for yourself — like figuring out health insurance — get a lot easier when you’re making that kind of bank. I’m going for it.

Image by Flickr user Michael Lehet

5 Ways to Get Training Wheels for Your Creative Business

So you’re waiting on something to get your business off the ground. Maybe you’re waiting until you’ve got a bigger savings account just in case the whole thing blows up in your face. Maybe you’ve got a kid you’d like to get to the age that she can be left alone without something exploding. Maybe you have some nebulous idea of the perfect time to strike out on your own.

Okay. That’s fine. If you’re not ready to get out there and do your own thing, that’s not a problem — provided you’re at least doing something in the direction of getting that business eventually up and running.

The Dream Killer Also Kills Businesses

It seems like everyone has a dream or two that they just never get around to. And if you just keep not getting around to, time will eventually kill that dream — making it entirely impossible to actually complete a dream. Time can kill plans for businesses just as easily.

But if you keep doing little things that help move your business to be along, time doesn’t wear so heavily. Not only do those little steps mean that whenever you’re actually ready to go whole-hearted into running your business, but it also means you’re more likely to get to that point. Tell me which person you think will really be likely to start up her business: the guy that just talks about how he wants to write a book, self-publish it and sell it, whenever he has time, or the gal that wants to sell prints of her work to create a living and makes a point of finishing a new painting once a month.

Training Wheels Aren’t Just For Bikes

Those little move forwards are like training wheels for a business. They keep you motivated to keep working towards your ultimate goal of actually starting your business, whether that means you save more for your start up fund or you think about how to make the break from an employer that much faster. And there are so many different little steps that you can start from.

  1. Build a creative habit. If you’re going to have a business based on one of your creative skills, that means you actually need to be able to regularly create new things — pieces of writing, website designs, giant sculptures, whatever. So get in the habit of creating for a set period of time every day.
  2. Blog with an eye towards the audience you eventually want to sell to. If you’ve got a clear idea of who will eventually be buying what you create, start blogging regularly about something that audience will find interesting.
  3. Take a business class or two. I don’t know how many business owners I’ve talked to that tell me that they just wish that they knew a little more about bookkeeping and other business topics before getting started. If you’ve got the time to learn more about running a business before you jump into it, why not take it?
  4. Network! There’s no rule that you already need an open business in order to go to events and meet new people. So go see who you can get to know and how they might be relevant to your soon-to-be business.
  5. Make the systems and habits you need to handle the business end of your creative efforts. If you know that you’re going to need to keep track of receipts for tax purposes, get in the habit of sorting out your personal receipts now. The more habits you can build around doing the work your business will require now, the less likely you are to get into trouble with paperwork when you open your doors to customers.

Image by Flickr user Dottie Mae

Young Entrepreneurs May Be Idealistic But Are Also Effective

There’s a conversation that has happened a couple of times when I’ve met a client in person for the first time. Because of the types of clients I actively look for, many of the people that I work with are a generation older than I am. We generally get to trot out a few words on how I’m younger than they expected, maybe a few comments about how they wish their own children were pushing towards their own goals with a little more excitement.

Especially when I hear that last bit, though, I’m always a little irked. Not only do I feel that I’m not really young for entrepreneurship, I don’t know anything about these wayward offspring I’m being compared to. There may be a very good reason that they aren’t ready to be entrepreneurs. In my experience, there are an incredible number of young entrepreneurs out in the world, and the people our age who aren’t entrepreneurs are well aware of their opportunities. On top of that, I’m no where near the youngest entrepreneur I know. I’ve met some phenomenal CEOs who have to be home by curfew, let alone can’t even get into the bar with the rest of us. In general, age has nothing to do with it.

In Specific, Though, It’s All About Youthful Idealism

The big difference between younger entrepreneurs and those with a few more years on ‘em is a question of idealism more than anything else. It’s not energy, new ideas or anything else that someone might like to ascribe to a younger business owner.

It’s absolutely a matter of youthful idealism. While I may joke about it as much as anyone else, that youthful idealism is a big deal. While many organizations devoted to entrepreneurship, small business and the like have big memberships, they aren’t known for moving particularly quickly at lobbying and the like. There’s a certain slow and steady mentality at work. That’s all well and good; the organizations in this category do accomplish many things.

But they don’t pivot on a dime to respond to new situations. The wide eyed young entrepreneurs at work in organizations like the Young Invincibles and the Young Entrepreneurs Council are using that idealism to jump start the legislative process on creating rewards for young entrepreneurs who create jobs, in the form of relieving student loan debt. (Read the full article from MSN and, for full disclosure, I’m a member of the YEC.)

A Million Dollar Business or Something that Keeps the Lights On

Whether you’re creating a few hundred jobs with your business or you’re getting your own bills paid, do what you can to hold on to your own youthful idealism. It’s what makes you effective, even if you don’t have twenty years of experience under your belt.

There’s plenty of truth to the suggestion that, if you don’t know something can’t be done, you can go out and accomplish it, after all.

Image by Flickr user Mathstop

Melissa Breau Goes Full Time Freelance and Tells Us About It

The entire idea of going out on your own full time can be thrilling and scary, all at the same time. Melissa Breau is making the leap right now and agreed to answer a few questions for us about how she’s making the process work.

Why did you want to freelance full-time? Just to play devil’s advocate, I’d like to point out that a lot of people would tell you you’re crazy to leave a full-time job in a recession.

Isn’t everyone who starts a business at least a little crazy? Although I’ve always wanted to freelance full time eventually, a number of different factors came together recently that made it the right choice for me right now.

First, my long-time boyfriend joined the navy and relocated from New York to South Carolina. Second, he volunteered to help me make ends meet while I get my business off the ground. And third (and probably most importantly), I hit a point at my full time job where I was no longer being challenged professionally and there was no room for advancement; I needed to make a change.

What did you do to prepare for working for yourself full-time? Were there any financial steps you took to make sure you’d be comfortable with the transition?

Freelance full time meant making a lot of changes. I knew from my research that it generally takes about 6 months before freelancers are making a living wage. So I had to prepare for that–and there was no way that was going to be possible living in New York City. I needed to be spending significantly less a month (I was spending $800 a month on rent alone).

Fortunately, cost of living is much less in the south. I figured out a reasonable budget and saved about 4 months of living expenses (figuring that over 4 months I should be able to earn an additional 2 months of expenses) plus money for a car and the move. I stressed over numbers and set up an excel document to chart how much I needed to make a month for that to work. I also asked my grandmother (who lives in NC) if I could camp out in her spare bedroom for a month or two until I find an apartment down here, which helps further reduce costs.

It’s only the second week now, but due to some unexpected expenses (namely, car issues after I purchased a vehicle) I’ve gone through a bit more of my savings than anticipated. Despite that, I’m fairly confident I’ll be okay.

I arranged with my old boss to continue working for the magazine I just left, as a monthly columnist, which will provide some regular income. He has also assigned me a number of additional pieces, which will also help patch holes. And I pitched a few assignments before going freelance that I’ve managed to land.

Additionally, I’ve got a TON of ideas for products and services that I’m working to bring to fruition that will establish regular income with a fairly minimal amount of work (more info on this below).

What sort of plan do you have in place for making sure your freelance business grows? Where do you want it to go in the future?

First, as I mentioned, I have monthly financial goals. These step up slightly every month for the first 6 months–starting at a fairly low number, and climbing to what I’d like to be making monthly for my first year.

Second, I have a number of writing projects planned. Since for the last 3 years I’ve been in the pet industry, I’m working on a product that offers various animal service providers with content for their newsletters for a low monthly fee. The trick is finding service providers in different areas, so that I can re-use the same article, but without them having to worry about their clients receiving the same information from two sources. I’ve decided to offer it to one service provider in each state–so 50 clients paying monthly for one article (which takes me a minimal amount of work to write). If the first one of these is successful, I’ll probably branch it out to other types of companies and perhaps eventually other industries. I’m still writing for magazines and have a whole list of publications and article ideas I need to pitch–as soon as I do the research to write a solid pitch letter.

In addition to my writing projects, I’m working to become more involved in editing ebook-length projects. I have my masters in publishing and my resume includes time working for Columbia University Press and Manhattanville College marketing department, in addition to my years as an editor at Pet Business Magazine. I’ve worked on a few projects like this for various clients, but I would really like to grow this aspect of my business over the next 6 months and am working on a marketing plan to allow me to do that.

Finally, I plan to continue offering copywriting services, which I’ve done as a part time freelancer while working full time at the magazine for the last year and a half.

What’s the most exciting thing for you about going out on your own? What are you really looking forward to?

It’s funny, but the thing I’m most looking forward to is the one thing so many entrepreneurs worry about. I love the concept of an integrated life–doing something you like enough that you can’t put it down. I’m a bit of a work-a-holic and one thing I hated about working for a company was the push back whenever I wanted to really dedicate myself to something. I love the sensation of throwing myself into a project; while at a number of my previous jobs, that was discouraged–my coworkers tended to believe in putting in the minimum and if I did more than that, it was chalked up to youthful over-enthusiasm. And nothing is more discouraging that doing extra work just to have someone be amused that you bothered.

I’m also looking forward to the location independence; I’ll be living in a number of different locations in the near future and my navy boyfriend will be traveling a lot–it’ll be nice to be able to fly out to visit him on location (when allowed) and to just be able to bring along my job. I won’t have to worry about finding new work in each location he is moved to; I’ll just have to worry about building a new in-real-life network.

Overall, I’m as terrified as I am excited; only the next year will tell which emotion is more justified.

BIO: After a year and a half of freelancing part time, Melissa Breau recently left her full time job as a magazine editor to take her part time freelancing business to the next level. She is a freelance writer, editor and a cheesy romantic who likes long walks on the beach and arguing about comma placement. She is blogging about her freelance journey over at Jargon Writer — or learn more
about the services she offers on her website,

The Role of the Creative Entrepreneur

The role of the creative entrepreneur is becoming increasingly important: creative entrepreneurs are one of the greatest edges that the American economy has and plenty of other countries are working hard to catch up.

A creative entrepreneur, in this context, is someone who is building a business based on their creativity. We are talking about both crafters who are selling scarves they’ve knitted and coders who are building a piece of software that they can sell over and over again. Those businesses may sound pretty different, but they both come down to making a living from creativity.

The Creative Edge

If you listen to discussions about the economy, you’ve probably heard complaints about outsourcing, immigrant labor and all sorts of other ways that ‘someone else’ has taken away a job. But those complaints are focused on the wrong ends of the equation.

Yes, certain jobs have a way of always going to wherever the labor is cheapest. But that doesn’t mean that there are no other career paths left. Over the past century, creativity has become more and more important in terms of jobs and businesses — and we’ve still got plenty of road to walk in that direction.

In the early 1900s, the odds that you could find work as a graphic designer, as a writer, as a clothing designer or any other creative pursuit were pretty slim. Sure, there were a few, but compared to now, creative professionals and entrepreneurs were a tiny fraction of the general population. You were far more likely to earn your living as a farmer or factory worker.

Today, though, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were more than 220,000 artists in the country as of 2008 — and that doesn’t include creative professionals like writers, architects, entertainers, software developers and all sorts of other careers that require more creativity than you can shake a stick at. The number is projected to go up, albeit in line with the projections for the entire U.S. job market to expand in general.

I think the numbers aren’t exactly spot on, though: I think that creative professionals will grow in numbers more dramatically than the rest of the labor market. Part of that fact is due to the fact that about 60 percent of artists (and similar numbers for other creative professionals) are self-employed and the number of new businesses is booming, even if the job market isn’t.

Image by Flickr user Amie Fedora

The Future is in the Farms

I have a theory about where the future of creative work is headed, at least in the U.S. I think it’s headed to rural areas, including farming communities.

It used to be that if you wanted to make a living as any type of creative professional, you had to go where the work was. The big cities had magazine publishers, ad agencies, film studios, art galleries and so on. There wasn’t exactly a way to ship around a catalog of the three sculptures you’ve done recently or offer up a self-published copy of your latest novel to anyone but your nearest and dearest.

But technology has absolutely changed that. Provided that you have an internet connection, you can be a freelance writer from a farm in Nebraska. You can sell sculptures from a mountain in Colorado. You can animate your own video out in the panhandle of Oklahoma. You can earn a living from your creativity from anywhere you want.

It’s All About the Connection Speed, Baby

Alright, I can admit that there are still some places where that isn’t quite as true as we’d like it to be. Sending out videos over the type of satellite internet connection you can get in the Oklahoma panhandle is not really all that feasible. Right now, the trend that we’re really starting to see is creatives of various stripes working from small cities and large towns in the Midwest, where it’s far cheaper to live than either coast — but you can still get a high-speed internet connection.

There won’t be quite as many creatives out in truly rural areas — if you can see your neighbor’s house from your porch, you aren’t in that rural of an area — until there’s high-speed internet access available out there. If you’ve heard about rural broadband, that’s the sort of change needed.

The Creative Revolution

We’ve had an Industrial Revolution, when people flocked to the cities because it suddenly got cheaper to live in urban areas and more work was available. Well, the moment that high-speed internet access hits rural communities, you’re going to see the opposite.

That’s because it’s cheaper to live in rural areas than it is to live in big cities these days. The big problem rural communities face at this point is that there just isn’t enough of the right type of work available locally, still. There often is plenty of work to get done, especially when you remember how much goes into running a farm. But there aren’t certain benefits (or at least enough money to buy those benefits) available in many jobs that can be had in a rural community. Think about health insurance. The average farm family needs health insurance just as much as the white collar worker living in New York City. But it’s a lot harder to make sure that someone in the family is working a job that provides health insurance when you have to drive an hour just to get to a town of 10,000 people.

The combination of creative work and internet connections can do a lot for this sort of situation. High speed internet access means that it’s possible for someone living in a rural area to land a job that provides health insurance that also allows for telecommuting (a category that a lot of creative work falls into). It’s also possible to build a business that makes buying health insurance on your own a lot easier. If, for instance, a member of a farming family can bring in an extra $30,000 a year through freelancing, paying for a health insurance policy can be a lot easier.

The Future of Creative Work

The ability to work from anywhere we want, on the creative projects we love, will change the world. The impact that something as simple as rural broadband might have is incredible, and something that I hope to see for myself in the near future.

Personally, I have plenty of family and friends for whom such technology will make a huge difference, if it hasn’t already. I have plenty of family members who simply live somewhere that the only internet access option is satellite connections. I’d love to see their lives made easier. And I’ve got to say that, if my work was the only constraint on where my family lived, we would be out in the boonies as fast as we could pack.

Image by Flickr user Adam Arthur

Living the Life of an Enchanter

There is a simple truth that many of us forget about: today, we live in a world of the greatest opportunity. By the mere fact that you can read this post, I know that you have the ability to lead a life that your ancestors never even dreamed of. There are still people being without access to these opportunities, but they are coming fewer. Recently, I read of a computer center built in a refugee camp that made online work available to people who were forced away from subsistence-level farming.

In the grand scheme of things, a subsistence-level life is something we have only missed by the narrowest of margins. Millions of other human beings were born at times when the only life they could look forward to was scrapping a short life from the dirt around them. In my family, that life was as close as my great grandparents — in yours, that life may be as close as your parents’ generation. But today, if you have access to this post, I know you have the opportunity to literally live any life you want. You may not have the drive to turn an internet connection you access at the local library into a career that brings you wealth and acclaim. It’s harder for some of us to even start than for others.

But I have read too many stories on inspiration, seen to many people succeed despite their circumstances, to believe that you can’t achieve what you want if you are only willing to work hard to get it. Two hundred years ago, that fact was not true. Two hundred years ago, for many people, hard work brought survival and little more.

I tell you this not to force an unwelcome gratitude for a life you may not even need to think about that often, but to share my own awe. I know people who make a living from doing nothing beyond writing up their opinions and that astounds me. I have friends who earn their daily bread by making stuffed animals, music and a whole host of other artwork that there is simply no room for in an era where just to survive the year takes 365 days of labor.

Originally, this post was supposed to be a simple review of Guy Kawasaki’s latest book, “Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions
.” I read the book in the matter of a couple of hours and wrote up a short review that, while positive, said exactly the same things that every other review of this particular book will say. To a certain extent, that is because “Enchantment” is a business book listing out some ideas for business that are not such a leap: if you can connect with a client or customer and convince her to like your product, the entire sales process becomes simpler.

The fault here lies with me, not with the book. While I was reading, I focused on the methods and anecdotes discussed. I read a lot of business books and that’s the way that I generally compare business books. But I didn’t truly pay attention to the overall framework Kawasaki was building. The language he used — his discussions of how to be enchanting, the impact of enchantment and so on — differs significantly from the words typically chosen for business books. But there’s more there than simply being persuasive and able to connect with potential buyers.

Have you ever thought of yourself as an enchanter? I was a little old when the Harry Potter books came out to add a wand to my playtime repertoire, so I wasn’t really able to answer that question with a ‘yes’ when I thought about it. My littlest sister routinely told me she was a witch when she was little and cast more than a few enchantments on me. Personally, though, I was half-convinced that I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

But the question of if I’m even a capable of being an enchanter has come to me again and again after reading ‘Enchantment.’ the book never talks about the role of the enchanter in any great depth, but simply by telling you that you must be enchanting, it hints that you must always be an enchanter.

An enchanter has the abilities to cast spells, to turn Cinderella’s rags into a beautiful gown. An enchanter can create more than illusions — she creates real magic that can change lives on a whim. An enchanter can create the greatest beauty, the greatest challenges and the greatest stories. And I want to be one, thanks in large part to Kawasaki.

That leads me back around to what I opened with. We live in an age of unimagined opportunity. We truly can become enchanters, provided that we are willing to put in the hours to craft our spells and build our successes. Moreover, I’ve come to the conclusion that life is too short to live any other way. With the opportunity to live the life of an enchanter in front of me, I have a hard time justifying anything less.

My ancestors truly would consider me a witch, not only because of the technology I can use, but also because of the way I make my living. I type on a little box and somehow that translates to food and money. I know I can go further, though, and ‘Enchantment’ landed on my desk at a time when I’ve been looking at next steps. I’m not the only, either, and I believe that Kawasaki has cast a spell of his own that makes this book valuable for readers.

If you are interested in a more traditional review, consider this: Kawaski is a great writer, seasoning a discussion of modern marketing and communication techniques with perfectly chosen stories and anecdotes. He has chosen a style and a vocabulary that are game-changing. I received a free review copy of this book and I have a feeling that I am going to grateful for years to come for that simple gift. Read the book, let your thoughts stew and then comeback to it again.

From Writer to Business Owner: An Interview with Marjorie Asturias

Actually turning your writing career into a business is a worthwhile step — but it takes a great deal of work. Marjorie Asturias agreed to give us a look into how she made that transition.

Can you tell us the story of how you transitioned from a freelance writer to a business owner with three team members?

It definitely wasn’t something I planned! As I’m sure you’ve heard from a lot of solo entrepreneurs, I originally just wanted to be able to continue being a freelancer and hopefully match the income I was making before I took the plunge to go on own.

As my business grew, however, I struggled to meet deadlines and fulfill my contracted commitments while at the same time continue my networking and business development efforts. I’m the kind of person who likes to both jump in with both feet while also doing extensive research on the best ways to do something. So while I’m building my business, I’m also soaking up all this information about starting and managing a small business from books, blogs, websites, and newsletters. One of the things that really struck a chord with me was the constant refrain of, “If you want to build a business for growth, you have to get help.”

It took me awhile to understand that deceptively simple command, but it soon made sense when I found myself working 16 to 17 hours a day juggling business development and the actual work of my business. I’m not 21 anymore — I can’t sustain that for long! I need my nine hours of sleep (although I still only get about seven on average). I also need time to sit back and actually do some big-sky, strategic thinking, so I’m not constantly just reacting to things.

The first person I brought on was a web developer who disappeared as soon as I paid him, which didn’t exactly inspire me to go out and hire someone else. But I knew that I couldn’t let that setback cripple me or my business, so after licking my wounds, I went out and was more careful about the next person I hired. The first one was a social media coordinator, who I hired on a part-time basis, maybe about five or so hours a week. The first time I paid her, I flinched because I didn’t like seeing money go out the door, but that feeling very quickly passed once I realized how much freeing it was to know that the work was being done but that I didn’t have to worry about it. I could spend more time doing high-value work that brings in business and know that the projects themselves were being taken care. Once I hired that first person, it was much easier to hire another, and then another.

How does your typical day with Blue Volcano Media differ from how you spent your time when you started out as a freelancer?

I spend way less time at my desk! When I was a freelancer, most of my assignments were with print magazines that were based elsewhere, or websites looking for content. I thus spent the vast majority of my time in my home office, pounding away on the keyboard. For variety, I would sometimes park myself at the local coffee shop, but that gets old really fast when you have to go to the bathroom and have to pack up everything just to do that.

Now, I still spend a lot of time at my desk, but about half of my week is spent meeting with clients or prospects or attending business development and networking events. I spend a little more time on the phone now (Skype or my mobile), but instead of interviews with article subjects, I’m usually talking with clients or prospects or meeting with my staff.

That’s also something else I spend more time on: project management. I have a virtual assistant who I would like to eventually turn into a full-time project manager, but for now she’s relatively new to the company so she’s still learning the ropes of how we do things, who our clients are, and what we do. So for now I’m the project manager, so I’m constantly emailing or chatting with the rest of the team to answer questions, follow up on projects or assign tasks and projects to them. My social media specialist is going on maternity leave soon, too, so I’ll be spending part of the time working with my assistant on taking over some of our social media accounts and training her on social media and the tools we use.
I’m also looking for a part-time SEO assistant, so that’s another thing I need to devote my time to that I never had to before: human resources. It’s not my favorite part of the job, but most entrepreneurs feel the same way, I’m sure! It has to be done, so I try and have my assistant do a lot of the front-end work like gathering candidates and reviewing credentials, while I just come in for the interviews and final decision.

What tactics were particularly important in letting you grow your business so quickly? Did specialization play a role in your growth?

Networking! It’s amazing how few freelancers do this, and many of those who do, they don’t do it consistently enough. I totally understand the desire to do as little of this as possible, but with very few exceptions, it’s almost impossible to grow a business without doing some kind of networking.

I’m not a natural networker — I’m an INFP! — but I can fake it. I’m usually exhausted after a round of meetings and networking events, and all I want to do is crawl into bed and read a book, but it’s not really as difficult as people make it out to be. For a lot of really driven networkers, they motivate themselves by pursuing a high goal, like meeting a hundred new people a week or getting 20 business cards per event, but I aim for quality, not quantity. It would terrify me to enter a room full of people I don’t know and try and gather even five business cards, much less 20, so I keep my goals in line with my personality: I try and meet one new person at each event. Just about anyone can do that, including most shy folks, and it takes the pressure off of glad-handing everyone you meet just to achieve an arbitrary number.

I joined two local Chambers the month I officially launched my company and tried to attend as many of the events as I could. I got lucky and landed a client at the very first event I attended at one Chamber, and he’s been wonderful at giving me referrals that later turned into business. But most of the time it’s just showing up, meeting new folks, greeting old friends (and the more often you attend, the more people you know the next time you go to a meeting or event, which is comforting), and getting your name and face out there. People do business with people they know and like, and they can’t do that if you’re not around.

And yes, specialization did help tremendously, especially since we specialize in a relatively new, sexy field. We originally had offered web development services, too, but I scrapped that pretty quickly. It’s not one of my strengths, although I built our company web site myself after our developer disappeared, so when we were doing web development for clients, I was spending most of my time just managing projects rather than doing the work. I also found out just how many web developers there are out there — I meet a new one at every networking event I attend — and realized that I didn’t want to compete in such a crowded space. Sure, there are a lot of folks in the Internet marketing space as well, but we’re one of the few that actually has significant experience (we’re talking years, not months or weeks, like some of our competitors), so we enjoy that competitive advantage.

Once we zeroed in exclusively on digital marketing and dropped web development, we were able to focus our work and our networking efforts better. Since all of us on staff are writers — three of us started out as bloggers years ago and only moved into the digital marketing space once we’d established ourselves in the blogosphere — we have a huge leg up on so much of our competition, many of whom rely on cheap content providers from overseas who can string SEO words together but not necessarily create content that the average American user can or would want to read. We understand language and its power to evoke certain emotional responses. We know that there’s a difference between, say, “precise” and “accurate,” and that people respond differently to both words. That’s a mighty compelling pitch to a prospective client, since they can be assured that we know what we’re doing and are not just throwing words on the screen.

What do you see happening with your business in the future?

I’d like to see continued growth in 2011. 2010 was a fantastic year for us in terms of revenue, which caught me by surprise because of the economy and the fact that I was pretty new at the whole entrepreneurial thing.

I know it’s a cliche to say something about wanting world domination, but really all I want is to be able to continue to create value for our clients and, internally, develop my employees’ expertise. I don’t think I would ever want a huge company, but I do see growth in 2011, with perhaps a couple more additional employees with particular expertise in SEO and content. Beyond that, I don’t really know what will happen. If you’ve read “Rework” by the guys from 37Signals, you know that they don’t really believe in long-term plans either. I do some blue-sky thinking, but mostly about the business itself — where is SEO going to be in six months? what are the potential effects of Facebook’s recent changes on our clients’ fan pages? So much change happens in this business that it’s difficult enough to keep up with everything, much less project what will happen to my own company down the road.

What advice would you give to a freelance writer considering how to create a business out of a freelance career?

Prepare to work the hardest you’ve ever worked in your life. I started out my working life as a Taco Bell crew member when I was sixteen, working two hot Texas summers surrounded by hot ovens and pots. I was a wind energy developer/landman before I pursued freelance writing full-time, so I traveled frequently throughout the Southwest, scouting out dusty, windy dirt for multimillion-dollar wind projects, driving thousands of miles on lonely highways, negotiating with savvy rural landowners and farmers, attending trade shows, dealing with the colorful personalities in the energy industry.

This? This is the hardest job I’ve ever had. It’s also the most fulfilling, but make no mistake: it requires a lot of self-discipline, organization, and a desire to learn how to sell. Because that’s what you do when you own your own business: sell. If you don’t like selling, don’t start a business. I hate selling, but I’ve figured out a way to sell that fits my personality and doesn’t make me want to shoot myself at the end of the day. If you believe in what you do and what you can offer your clients, the selling comes pretty easily anyway. But you have to be comfortable talking to people and meeting new folks all the time. When you’re a freelancer, it can be easy doing all your selling via pitch letters and query letters, but with your own business, most of your selling will be offline, in person.

Be prepared to work long hours, sometimes seven days a week. As a freelancer, you already know that if you’re not working, you’re not earning, so you’ll at least understand that part of owning your own business. You’ll need to learn how to juggle the many, many, many little tasks that small business ownership requires, from bookkeeping to taxes to invoicing to CRM (customer relationship management). And if you expect to grow, you’ll need to learn how to hire and fire people. The 37Signals guys believe in hiring slow and firing fast. As a generally nice, accommodating person, I still have difficulty with this, but it’s so important. No one will ever value your business as much as you do, so you’ll need to demand that your employees treat it with respect, whether they work in an office or work from home.

Oh, and do get a nice suit. As a freelancer, you can get away with wearing a nice pair of jeans, blazer and shirt, but as a business owner, you’ll need to up the game a little and dress up for networking events. Trust me — people notice.

Ask Me Anything: Responding to Referrals

Mel asks,
What’s the etiquette on responses when a friend recommends you to one of their clients and CC’s you on the e-mail? Do I say hi, say anything? They sent along my web site url, so they know where to find my work, not sure how I can reach out and make friends.

Following up is usually a good idea, unless your friend slips you the word that this prospective client prefers to initiate contact. It can be something as simple as sending an email saying that if the client has a particular project in mind, you can point to your most relevant clips.

The reasoning is not to get your best clips in front of the client, of course. It’s because the more contact you can have with a client, the better chance you have of actually landing the project. That’s because most clients don’t immediately hand over a project. It takes at least three contacts (visiting your website, emails, coming back to the website again) to make a sale — that’s where most people start getting comfortable with the idea of handing over money because you’ve become a known entity.

Got a question about the business of writing? Leave it in the comments below and I’ll answer it next weekend!