Don’t buy into the starving artist narrative. People get what they negotiate in life and for the writer who wants to break six figures and has no compunctions about writing for brands, it’s never been easier.
Yes, lots of writers barely make ends meet. More journalists have lost jobs than coal miners in the past 15 years and media companies are sloughing off writers faster than Facebook can change its mission statement. But a flooded market is a wonderful place to be if you have a brand and a niche.
A brand is the singular idea people associate you with. When you think Apple, you think high-end computers. Ford, reliable cars. Nike, athletic shoes. These brands do much more than that, but in a country teeming with 29 million businesses, one word or phrase is all you get. As a freelance writer, your brand should be your niche. What word or phrase should people associate you with?
If you pick something short, specific, and memorable, you make it easy for people to understand what you do. Narrowness is key. If it’s long or more than one thing, it doesn’t work.
If you write for medical device startups, that’s good. It’s limited. That’s something your friends, family, and colleagues can remember and pass on, and it precipitates conversations like this:
You know, we’ve been looking for a writer
What does your company do?
We sell medical devices
Oh, you know I actually know someone
Most freelancers get this wrong. They think they have to cast a wide net so they use their website and conversations as an opportunity to regurgitate a laundry list of services. They say, “I write for medical device startups but also do some SEO work and I also have some experience with injection molding and CAD software.” Doesn’t have quite the same ring.
My brand is writing for B2B software startups. I don’t do consumer writing and if someone needs that, I’ll tell them as much. People appreciate a service with sharp, defined edges because they know it’s not for them, and that kind of honesty builds trust. People who can’t buy will at least remember, and possibly refer me to those who can.
If you have a brand, you’re at a serious advantage over the competition who doesn’t. People want a specialist, not a generalist. If you need a Shopify app built, would you rather hire an app developer or a Shopify app developer?
Plus, once you’ve narrowed your brand, actually finding the clients becomes easier.
If you know your brand, you know who isn’t your customer, and that narrows the world of opportunity down to just a manageable several thousand companies. Lots of freelancers feel paralyzed by all the potential directions they could go in, but the knowing is in the choosing. Your brand is a creative constraint that makes finding business simpler.
I know B2B startups, so I’ll use that as an example. Out of the 29 million U.S. businesses, only five million are B2B and only a fraction are software companies. My total addressable market (TAM) isn’t all that large, and once I’ve found one company, I can find others, because they travel in packs. To find yours, look at:
- Google Search: Search “Top companies in X industry.”
- LinkedIn: Run job searches for companies hiring full-time roles for what you do.
- AngelList: Create a free account and search for both companies and roles.
- Built In: Select a city and browse featured startups or jobs.
- Their website: Once you’ve found a company, look at their partner page.
- Conferences: If there’s a conference relevant to your niche, look at the sponsors page. Those are relevant prospects with a budget.
Make a spreadsheet for the 20 companies you plan to reach out to. Look up each company on LinkedIn and find people at that company that can hire you. For me, in B2B writing, that’s usually the highest-ranking person with a marketing title.
Develop a written pitch that’s less than 500 characters and includes the following:
- Why you’re reaching out
- What you’re offering
- Proof that you can do the job
The best proof isn’t actually completed work, but the names of companies you’ve worked with. I call this flashing the badge. Editors, marketers, and people buying writing are busy and rely heavily on heuristics to know you’re a good fit. If you’ve written for a competitor, partner, or household name brand, they’ll infer a lot.
If they ask for proof, send links to work. If you don’t have any published links to send, make your own. Write for Business 2 Community, Business.com, Medium, Thrive Global, CustomerThink, or any number of platforms where you can self-publish.
Repeat. It helps to have a sales process which, at the very least, should be a bright red calendar invite for the same time each week that reminds you to drop what you’re doing and reach out to prospects on your list. Name the calendar invite for the reason you’re doing this, like “Financial Freedom” or “Cover Rent.”
When your list runs dry, refresh and repeat.
This final tip is the most important. Once you start to find clients, start raising your rates. Whatever you’re charging today is likely too little, but you don’t want to bother every client by haggling, or scare them away by overcharging. Each time you land a new client, raise your rate 15 percent and tell them that’s your rate. What most freelance writers find is that many clients say yes without batting an eye. Which means they’ve been charging too little. Continue raising until you start hearing “No” from clients you’re genuinely interested in. Lower it slightly, and keep it there. That’s your ceiling. For now.
It’s a tough life for the generalist writer. There are 123,000 others to compete with in the U.S. alone, according to the Department of Labor. Much better to choose a niche for yourself and compete with just a few thousand, or perhaps just a dozen. That way, it’s easy to stand out, build a reputation, and be sought after. A flooded market can be a wonderful place to be—provided you have a brand and are known for doing one particular thing.
I agree on all fronts! When I work with freelancers in my mentorship, we always start with “what do you want to be known for?”, which is very different from “what do you do?” A laundry list of things you do can not only dilute your brand and credibility but also confuse your clients. Understanding what you’re known for can bring clarity and higher revenue for your freelance business.