Becoming the Recession-Proof Freelancer: An Interview with Writer & Business Coach Carol Tice
Carol Tice is a freelance-writing business coach, freelance writer, book ghostwriter, and blogger. Passionate about helping freelance writers grow their careers (particularly through tough economic times!) she recently released her new FREE e-book The Recession-Proof Freelancer. We chatted with Carol about the importance of pivoting your business to survive economic changes, why freelancers must market themselves, and more. Read our interview with her below, and visit her website Make A Living Writing.
Let's start with the basics. How did you get into the freelance writing business?
I got into freelance writing out of songwriting. I was a starving songwriter in the clubs in L.A. in the 80's, and I'm not dating myself or anything. But then I entered an essay contest and won and they paid me $200 and I never looked back. I gave away my recording equipment. I was like, "I won't be needing this." I found something that they pay you to write.
Then I won another contest and started taking some university extension courses about article writing and copywriting because there wasn't online learning back then. Then I got two staff jobs. I was a staff writer for a trade publication glamorously covering home improvement retailing for five years. And then I wrote for the Puget Sound Business Journal here in Seattle for seven years. And then I was fired when a new editor came to town in late 2005 and have been freelancing ever since then.
So how did you evolve from being just a freelance writer to building a business/brand as the “recession-proof freelancer?”
Through that process, I had replaced my job income. I was earning about $60K when the downturn of 2008 hit. And during the downturn, I built my income to six figures. The financial sector was melting down and it was a nuclear implosion of our whole economy. I just kept building my income.
I wanted to see how much I could earn. I wanted to earn six figures. I realized I could earn more. My income potential was unlimited. I started just being really serious about marketing and not freaking out when I lost all my clients one by one over the course of about 18 months, and had to replace them all. I just kept going.
I had a mindset that I think is the mindset you need for this, which is, "OK, this is going to really devastate a lot of people's freelance writing situations and there's going to be a lot of fallout and chaos. And I'm going to be the exception to that rule. I'm not going to accept defeat. I'm not going to curl up in a ball and cry and be sad and go 'Oh no, now things are bad.'"
My approach was that the freelance marketplace's a trillion-dollar marketplace and I'm just one tiny me wanting to earn a hundred grand. I think there's room in there for that. I think most freelancers don't think this way. They think they hear all the negative news and then they think "This must apply to me." But it doesn't have to if you don't think it doesn't have to.
So what would you suggest for freelancers who are seeing their business take a hit right now, and who might be losing clients?
Think about who you've been writing for and whether that's a sector that's going to keep going. It's just a question of doing marketing within the niches that you normally work for and having more people know that you have availability -- or pivoting to a new niche, if that one is dead right now.
The vast majority of freelance writers do no marketing. Almost no one actually treats it like a business. I just know this from hundreds of coaching students. I say, "Tell me how you've been marketing and what you've been doing to market your business, so we can talk about how to optimize that." And they reply, "You know, I've never really done that."
They usually say, "Oh, a former employer took me back as a freelancer, and then other people referred me. And it's just kind of gone along and now all of a sudden that's not working." But think of your favorite little brick-and-mortar store that you go to. Would you expect them to stay in business if they didn't do any marketing? If they never had sales or e-mailed their list or sponsored the chamber event or never got out in the community? No, you would expect them to close. Right? And it's the same for you.
We're not any different. You actually have to market this sucker, especially in bad times. You really just can't sit around on UpWork and bid on jobs that ten thousand other people are bidding on and expect that that's going to really feed the family. Your odds are just going to become lower and lower. If you're in any of these mass job application situations, you're a million.
My joke is that if three million people get laid off, a million of them decide to be freelance writers. The bottom of the market gets flooded with new wannabe people who are willing to do something for $15. They have no idea how long it takes to do things or how much we have to pay for ourselves. They don't know what the math is around this. So you don't want to be in the bottom end of the market, where there are many starving brand-new people willing to do anything. You have to be in the world of value clients.
So how can a freelancer writer better understand the current situation and how to navigate it?
Look at who you’ve been writing for. And is it just a question of that particular client flaking out right now and freaking out? And you could market to a lot more like them and get more business? Or is it a situation where you need to pivot and look at other industries?
I have one student right now in my coaching program who was all in on travel copywriting. And this is why I don't like people to be only in one niche. I like people to have two or three, because industries have cycles. They go up and down. In the last recession, obviously, the financial sector and the real estate sectors went stone dead. All of a sudden. And if you didn't have anything else, then you had a lot of trouble. It's the same now. If you're all in on one little area, this is a problem in a downturn. Because you need diversity.
What would you say to someone who feels uncomfortable or apprehensive admitting that they could use the business right now? Who might even feel embarrassed?
You just got to do it. I used to say this to people before this all happened. They'd say, "Oh no, I lost my anchor clients suddenly so what do I do?" My response would be, "Hop on LinkedIn and say, 'Hey, I find myself with an unexpected free few weeks here." If anyone needs X or Y or if you're a copywriter, hold a copy package sale. I've seen people do this very successfully. Do you need to launch a product? Do a launch package that you usually charge $5K for and offer it for $2500 to the first five people.
I don't think people should be dropping their rates in general or offering to drop them. I see people saying, "Should I just go to my clients and offer to work for less?" No, God, no. You know, they're not even asking and you're just trying to cut your pay? No, and not ever.
But if you have open time, one of the things you can do with it is do something at a discount in a very limited quantity that just gets some revenue in the door for you. It's a way of marketing what you do and explaining to people what your expertise is. I really think of the revenue you give up as a marketing cost. You get some new clients and they understand this was a one-time situation on this pricing. So hopefully you can go back to sane prices after you do that one package for them.
I think of that as totally routine stuff. Clients come and go even in good times, and people suddenly find themselves with unexpected availability and they do marketing promotions like reaching out to everyone in their network and letting them know they'd appreciate their referrals right now because "I have a little availability that I wasn't expecting."
You have to get comfortable with asking for what you want from the universe. If you want to do this, especially in this kind of climate where the pace of change, as I talk about in the book, is just going to accelerate. Clients have always come and gone and now they're going to come and go faster.
Which online strategies do you focus on, and what would you recommend to other freelance writers?
Having an online site where people can find you as a key step on the road to being functional in a recession because you need inbound leads. You can't only focus on outbound marketing or you're going to get very exhausted. You need some people to look you up and find you on a LinkedIn search or on a search for a writer in their city who does their particular type of thing and get some inbound leads.
What about branding? A lot of professionals have gone beyond the idea of simply having a website. Do you think freelancers need to become brands to be successful?
I want to say that I personally think I really suck at branding. I have five different Web sites, none of which relate to each other or are named similarly. I am not a branding expert and I have been fiddling with my branding for my freelance writing forever. And I've done OK without really being a super brand ninja. I think that just really simple SEO, like "I'm a freelance healthcare writer in Atlanta," where you could get found on a search by the right type of prospect. That is basically how I built my whole business in the last downturn.
Back then, you didn't even need an industry niche because it was less competitive online. Fewer people had an online presence. And I was just a "Seattle freelance writer." I got hired by three Fortune 500 companies in my town, who were looking for someone local who could show up in a meeting.
Now, I don't think you can do it without. I do know and have students who have completely awesome branding and are very focused around a niche. I think the downside with it right now is it tends to be all in one niche, which as I said, has its drawbacks in a recession.
I think you can just have a basic "me" speech that is who you write for and what you do. And there are still plenty of clients you can find with it. Don't have a complex if you don't have big, sexy branding or a "sexy" URL name. I've been going pretty far on "myname" dot com, and I know lots of other writers who are in the same boat. They're just using their name in their URL and using SEO keywords in their tagline that communicates what they do.
If you don't have big, sexy branding right now, don't stop marketing because you think you need to revamp everything until you have sexy branding. Do not wait for anything to be improved or done. Always be marketing. The number one thing is just to keep marketing all the time. Never be like, "Well, I need to wait for X or Y." That's the biggest mistake I see.
Don't buy into the myth that our writer websites are ever done. They are evolving documents that we constantly update. So there is no being "done" with your website.
We tend to think of content as two types: primarily for yourself, like op-eds and personal essays, or primarily for others, like reported articles. What is your opinion about content as it relates to your business?
Well, that's a complex question because I have built an industry on my opinion about the freelance writing world, and that is how I primarily earn now. I do still freelance. I never stopped. I wasn't one of those people who wanted to start coaching because they hated the thing they were doing. I just wanted writers to stop falling for scams and writing for content mills.
I get my opinions about what's going on in our industry out on my blog. In general, there's not a lot of money in writing first-person essays. Unless you're one of those moonshot success people, like Cheryl Strayed. Personal writing is not a regular thing you can rely on to pay your bills, unlike writing for businesses or writing reported journalism. Those are the two big buckets where there is reliable money you can feed your family with.
And how do you see that shifting now, with the current climate?
Publications are going to go through just a massive wave of change during this. I think a lot of sectors of print are going to wonder "Why are we still printing? Why are we not digital-only?" I think we're going to see a whole new wave of shifting to digital. I get a lot of people who can't get over their sadness over the death of print. And if I can help you get over it quickly and move on to find new digital publications that pay well, it will help your career a lot.
You have to accept that change is the only constant. Print magazines are mostly going away and the money is gravitating onto digital and digital rates are rising and have been the whole time I've been freelancing, since 2005. Things like custom publications, company magazines, trade magazines are where the money is remaining.
So you need to think about what kind of publications are just going to roll along here and target them. On the business side, just the big thing to know is that if you've had this approach of "I love helping tiny solo-preneurs startup teeny little local businesses in my town," understand that these are going to be terrible, terrible clients right now.
They never really were our client. They were always a bad client for us. Not big enough to have regular money for us. But now they're really going to be a really bad client. They're just going to flake.
Bigger is really better in the downturn. You know, Jamie Dimon [CEO of JPMorganChase] was just saying, "We're going to extend $150 billion in credit lines to our banking customers that are businesses." And the question you want to answer is, who are those companies?
Everybody's got to follow the money. We've got federal money, loan money. Who are the companies that are big enough and together enough that they're going to apply for that big loan and keep going and keep marketing? Who are the people strong enough with the cash reserves that they're going to go, "Let's do a lot of marketing now and take market share away from weaker players who are going to all freak out and stop doing stuff. This is our opportunity to dominate."
You need to identify the winners. Everyone has to understand that in a recession, it's not just losers. There are winners and losers. And your job is to follow the lumps of money and think, "Who are the winners?" Anyone who does any product or service that serves really wealthy people? They sail right through. It's like nothing happens. They're wealthy. They have resources. They keep taking private jets and going to private islands. And buying thousand dollar handbags and everything they still do. Where will the money be?
What industries are flourishing? Think about what parts of the economy are still going. Who is going to get money and or is sitting on money because of corporate tax cuts? A lot of companies, sadly, used that money to buy up their own stock, which is now worthless. But some of them sat on that money, and are going to use it now. They're smart. They're going to use it to keep their staff in and keep their marketing going.
And my other suggestion is to seek out companies who have done big layoffs. Just follow that train to who needs freelancers. Because they lay off everybody and then they go, "Who's going to do the work?" So that's always an opportunity for us. So think about where's our opportunity, where's the money, what industries are still going? Follow the trail.
Can you clarify the difference between commodity and value clients?
I feel like a lot of people don't understand this differential, and it causes them to be very poor and waste a lot of time, because when you're on UpWork and someone's like, "I want you to write four $15 posts about celebrity gossip an hour," that is a commodity client. I know people doing that. That is a commodity client. They need a large volume of content of middling quality. The quality is not important. They just need a lot of content they can put ads around because that's their business model is earning off the ad clicks. It's a crappy business model that doesn't work very well. And that's why they can't pay you very much because they're actually kind of failing. It's a failing model. Commodity clients are all like that. They're commissioning content by the yard. They don't care how good it is and they just want quick and dirty garbage.
And that space is going to be so awful during the recession. Because those businesses are going to fail even faster. More people are going to be willing to do those junk jobs for less.
You have to be in the world of value clients. Totally different universe. They sell real successful, complex, expensive products or services in the 3-D world. And not every writer could write their thing. They deeply understand the connection between what you write and them making money. They're like, "If this content is great, I will make more money. So I need to hire the best writer again. Throw all the money at them I can."
Here's the typical conversation you have with a value client. You ask "What's your budget for this? What were you thinking you can pay for this?" They say "We didn't even think about it. My issue is getting the right writer. This is a name-your-price situation." That is the client you're looking for. They are bigger. They do regular marketing. They have ongoing monthly work for you. And they understand the close connection between what they're asking you to do and the result they're getting.
To apply this to ghostwriting books, I think those are all value clients in a way. It's important that the book be well-written and be really successful in building their authority and helping them get that next CEO job or speaking gig or whatever their goal is for the book. I think probably people who hang around Gotham Ghostwriters are probably pretty well-focused on the value client. And often those book ghostwriting clients have other copy, other content they want, like a Forbes post, written around that.
So there's an opportunity to provide ghostwriting value beyond the big investment that is a book? Through articles and other online content?
There's a ton of authority-like, blog post ghostwriting happening now on Forbes, on Medium, on LinkedIn, etc. A lot of CEOs and thought leaders are looking to have somebody write that stuff for them. So if you can write a book or something long-form, you can definitely write a 1000-word blog post under their name on Medium.
So what's next for you?
Helping as many writers as I can understand what is going on in the marketplace. That's why I locked myself in the closet for two and a half years for this book and am self-publishing it and not looking for a publisher. I'm just trying to fast track this info out to as many people as possible, because honestly, I knew freelance writers who ended up living in their cars in 2009, 2010, and I'm just a crusader for fair writer pay and treatment. And I want people to understand how to productively market, and that you can continue growing your business despite all this. You really still can. But you have to commit to doing the marketing. I'm focused on helping people with their freelance careers through financial crises.