By Jesse Haynes
In December of 2020, the end of my nearly six-year college career was coming to a close and an MBA was within sight. I had a very nice job-to-be lined up … but I didn’t take it. Instead, I rolled the dice on a content-creation service I’d started a month earlier. It had started as a side hustle, but deep down I thought it had the potential to grow.
The first few months were rough. I was making just enough to pay bills, insurance, and provide the necessities. There were weeks of famine mixed in with an occasional feast.
But now? I’m fortunate enough to have increased my monthly business nearly tenfold and built a team of talented, part-time contractors who work with me to deliver high-quality copy, design, and digital platform management to several high-profile clients.
But nothing I did was uniquely special. Instead, everything followed a very specific formula that I believe anybody could replicate if they have the drive and desire.
Here’s my blueprint. May it guide you as it guided me.
How to grow a freelance content business
Leverage your strengths
Everybody has unique skills and strengths. If this article piqued your interest, you’re probably interested in freelancing something: copywriting, design, web development, or anything else.
I started as a marketing-focused copywriter since I had a master’s in business administration and the background as a published novelist. Something that combined the two felt natural.
If you’re interested in freelancing, do an inventory of your skills to determine the best service you can provide to your future clients. And, equally important, it’s always extra rewarding if you can work in a field you enjoy, so consider your interests as well when you begin the ideation of your business.
Build an impressive resume and client base
How do you build a client list? I used Instagram—DMs, specifically. While that might raise some eyebrows, it also proved incredibly effective. Just like a full resume helps you launch a successful career, you need an impressive list of people you’ve worked with to land big jobs.
With that in mind, I went to Instagram and began direct messaging celebrities. My message was short and sweet: a quick note to express my fandom, a short bio and my credentials, and then an offer to write something for them for free in exchange for a review I could use on my website.
I didn’t reach out to enormous celebrities—no DMs to LeBron or Drake. Instead, I targeted niche celebrities, like participants in my favorite reality TV shows or lesser-known artists or athletes.
It worked, too. Not only did I receive a positive response from about 15% of the DMs I sent, but I still work with some of them to this day!
And, most important, when you go to your favorite freelancing website and look for work, being able to say you work with reality TV stars, athletes, celebrities, and influencers really boosts your odds of landing your first big job.
Know your resources
You can learn basically anything online (from articles like this, even), but most of us also have people in our lives who can provide mentorship along the way.
In my case, I was fortunate to have a lot of experienced mentors in my life to answer any of my business questions, and I was also surrounded by friends who, quite frankly, are a lot more talented than me at a plethora of different skills.
Having people you can call on for questions—or even help—is too valuable of a resource to waste.
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Do not turn down work
When you’re growing a business, thou shall not say “no” to new work. That’s a startup commandment, and following it led to some 70+ hour weeks.
When I (finally!) landed some new clients, I had a lot of questions come my way: Can you build me a website? Will you manage my social media? I need an email drip campaign implemented in my CRM—can you help?
I said yes. Every. Single. Time. And did I always know how to do what I agreed to do? No, sometimes I didn’t. But, as I mentioned above, you can learn anything either online or by asking people you know.
Find quality help for your freelance content business
Confession time. Even when I hit the coveted 40 hours a week of work I was seeking, it didn’t occur to me that I could go from solopreneur to a business by looping in others. An aforementioned mentor was the one who first suggested it: “Give them some of your work and take a cut off the top.”
Not only did I find I could greatly increase my monthly income by handing off some of my work to talented peers, but it also greatly increased my offerings. Suddenly I had a graphic designer, videographer, photographer, web developer, and more talented writers on hand and ready to assist at the drop of a hat.
While most of these peers were either already working full-time jobs or still finishing their college degrees, giving eight people five to 10 hours of work per week dramatically increases your revenue and potential while lightening your load.
Important note: NEVER give away work without communicating to your clients that you’re doing so. If they hired you to do the job, you don’t want to come across as deceptive in any way.
Diversify your clients and income
While it’s crucial to take on any work you can find in the early months, it’s also important to diversify your clients and income as much as possible when you have the luxury of being selective.
Many freelance jobs are paid hourly, but having set monthly contracts offers great stability if you can pull it off. If you know you’ll make $X every month, it also allows you to budget your expenses and subcontractors more efficiently. I have four contracts that are anywhere from six months to a year, and for a freelance content creator that’s probably about as “stable” as you can get.
Food for thought: If you have a full-time job paying you $10,000 per month, getting laid off will derail your livelihood until you find something else. If you are running a freelance content business and have four clients paying you $2,500 a month, you can lose one on an expiring contract or unforeseen circumstance and still be very much stable.
Expect to fail
None of this is easy. There will be many late nights, lots of stress, and some nervous checking of the bank account wondering where your next paycheck will come from.
But if you learn from every mistake and push on with unquenchable determination, you can turn your freelancing dreams into a thriving business. I made many mistakes along the way with my freelance content business, and hopefully this article captures the lessons I learned well enough that you mimic my successes without stumbling through all my failures along the way.
Bonus: Don’t forget your retirement
Finally, don’t forget that as a small business owner, you’re in charge of withholding your taxes, investing in your retirement, and doing a lot of the business operations that an employer would ordinarily do for you. You’re on your own, and while there’s a lot of freedom that comes out of it, there’s more responsibility, too.
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