Why I failed as a freelance writer

judgemental-cat-isjudging-lolcatI recently closed my state-recognized, report-my-taxes-or-burn freelance copywriting business. I’m now a bona fide cube dweller with a sweet gig and a steady paycheck. This works for me, and I’m quite happy. Still, I felt a pang of sadness when I closed my business license account and filed the last of my business taxes. It was admitting defeat. When you first go freelance, you read a lot about how this writer made it by doing this and how that blogger found the secret and how “you can do it, too.” But I didn’t “do it, too.” I failed. Here’s why…

Started freelancing for the wrong reason

I became a freelance copywriter when the ‘permanent’ copywriting position I’d been promised was eliminated thanks to budget cuts. (Irony, noted.) Anger gives me the energy to get things done in the short term, but it cramps my business-critical decision-making skills. Redecorate my office with inspirational quotes? It shall be glorious! Network, cold call or put together a business plan? I-don’t-wanna-k-thx-bye. Your takeaway If you’re going to freelance, do it because you want to and because you’re willing to run a business.

No contracts

LOLcat - contract for soulContracts are what help you get paid on time and help protect you from getting screwed. Despite all of my research that stressed the importance of having my own contract, I didn’t know anything about them and therefore kept putting it off. I got lucky that the few clients I did get didn’t take me for a ride. Your takeaway Get your contract ready. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to cover your butt. You can update it over time, but get it in order. If you need one now, one place to start is the Freelance Union’s Contract Creator.

No company branding

I was just me. Job-hunting, please-pick-me, little ole me. For many clients, that’s fine. But they’ll take you more seriously if you build and own your professional brand. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield wrote:

Sometimes, as Joe Blow himself, I’m too mild-mannered to go out and sell. But as Joe Blow, Inc., I can pimp the hell out of myself.

That means more money, more opportunity and a better chance to succeed as what you are—a walking, talking business. Your takeaway Freelancers aren’t people, they’re businesses. Be a business. Build your brand. Pimp yourself.

No business plan

LOLcat - Evil Plans I didn’t know what I was doing, where I was going or how I was going to get anywhere. And just like with my contracts, I didn’t know where to go to fix this problem. I was a clueless minnow treading water in a big empty sea. See how well that worked out? Your takeaway Writing your business plan makes you look at your business as a whole and draw its map. It can even force you to define your own vision of success. You can start by combing the sample business plans at BPlans for sections and business ideas. I don’t know anything about BPlans’s paid services. Can’t share any pros or cons. But their sample business plans are a starting point. At the very least, you’ll get an idea of what you need to look at and figure out.

No marketing plan

I had no idea how I was going to drive business or where to find clients. I depended on previous employers and creative agencies. It was a Build-It-And-They-Will-Come approach. Only ‘they’ never showed up. Your takeaway Businesses that market themselves stand a better chance of success. Even Apple markets itself. It’s just common sense. So market yourself. And be smart about it. I’d love to point you in a direction, but I still have no idea.

Sucky website

My first website was a red, black and white GoDaddy site with fonts that wouldn’t match. Think of a plain, white tissue box with some boogers on it but with half the glamour; that was my site. I’d include a screen capture but I was more than happy to delete it and let obscurity do its thing. Your takeaway Don’t wait until you need a website. Just put one together now. Plan it out and take your time with it. And I do not recommend using GoDaddy.

Sucky boss

LOcat doing job If I was an employee, I’d have thought I was the nicest boss ever. I slept in. Took long lunches. Cut out early when it was sunny. I was my own boss, right? I could do whatever I wanted. Problem was that I wasn’t an employee. I was CEO, CFO, COO, CTO, CMO and every other C(_)O necessary to run a small business. And I sucked at it. Your takeaway Being your own boss means demanding more of yourself. Set boundaries with friends, family and pets. But most importantly, set boundaries with yourself. Because no one is there to do the work but you.

It wasn’t a total loss

Yes, I did a lot of things wrong. But even though I failed, also got a lot out of it. I learned a lot. And I’ll cover that in my next post.

8 thoughts on “Why I failed as a freelance writer

  1. I don’t think you failed at all. Kind of like with this job. I did my very best and it wasn’t accepted. That’s it. You’ve met a lot of awesome people in the process. I also felt this way when I got the job to start with. Kinda sad but excited. I’m sure you’ll be great.

    • Thanks, Willie. I’m actually doing pretty darn well. I’m very happy where I am.

      You will rock your next freelance adventure. Sometimes things don’t work out, but it’s for the best. Your best is yet to come. 🙂

  2. Have to admit, this makes be a bit sad….but I’m happy if this makes you happier. I agree with Willi – you learned a lot about yourself and about business, so why classify it as a total failure? Thank you for sharing this and being real, Erica. It reminds us (and potential freelancers) that making it requires hard work and commitment….if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Good luck in your new venture, I look forward to your next post!

    • Thanks, Sandra. I hear you; it makes me a bit sad, too. Still, not a total failure. More of a ‘first draft.’ Next time (and there will be a next time), I’ll be a heck of a lot better prepared.

      Freelancing is hard. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. 😉

  3. You’re in good company, Erica. Consider Edison, Einstein, and Astaire. They were considered failures, also. At first, anyway. But, like them, you found the things that didn’t work. So, when you’re ready, you’ll do it all again, but differently.

  4. It’s funny, Erica, but just a couple of weeks ago a local digital agency contacted me asking if I was interested in a part-time content marketing vacancy they had.

    Even though it was a job, rather than a freelance gig, I gladly sent over my letter of interest.

    If I’d landed that job, I would’ve been working more hours as an employee than as a freelance. But no way did I see that as some kind of failure as a freelance writer.

    For various reasons, I saw the job as an opportunity to build new relationships that would take me to where I wanna go.

    After all, who cares what path you take to get to your destination? And that’s how you should see it too.

    As for the job – the company said they found someone else with a lower salary demand than mine. But they’ve added my details to their outsource list of freelances.

    That was still a result for me – because I got my name in front of them just when they were most receptive, i.e. actively looking for copywriters.

    • Kevin, that’s a great outlook. Congrats on getting your name out there and seeing opportunity where some might see otherwise.

      “After all, who cares what path you take to get to your destination?”

      Exactly. 🙂

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