Freelance to Passive: How I Scaled My Writing Business
One of the biggest criticisms of freelancing (and more specifically, freelance blogging) is that it is not scalable. By this, people typically mean that you must always be intrinsically involved in your freelancing business. If you’re not present, you don’t make money. It’s a pure hours-for-pay deal.
While freelancing is (by definition) an hours-for-pay business model, assuming that’s all a freelancing business can ever be is naive. I’m proof of that fact.
While freelancing is what enabled me to quit my job, it was never the business model that I had in mind for the long term. Several months ago I put the wheels in motion on a process that would transform my business forever and prove to anyone who cared to notice that freelancing is scalable. It can even achieve that Holy Grail status of “passive.”
In this post I am going to share the story of how I transitioned from freelance blogger to business owner and explain how the change has benefited me enormously.
It all started in Spring 2013, when I was starting to get a little jaded by freelancing.
I had been writing for clients since September 2011; typically 2-3 hours per day. That doesn’t sound like much (and to many it won’t be), but coupled with my own blogging commitments, it felt like a lot of writing.
I knew that something had to give. I had often remarked upon the notion that freelancing isn’t scalable — that writing for pay would forever limit my earning potential. But at the same time, it had afforded me the opportunity to quit my job and attain a level of freedom I had never enjoyed before.
Freelancing felt like a halfway house to me. It had done great things for me — namely enabling me to quit my job — but it wasn’t going to take me to where I ultimately wanted to be.
Don’t get me wrong — it was a great dilemma to have. I was earning in excess of $150 per hour. But I didn’t want to freelance forever and I had ambitions to earn more. I just didn’t know how I was going to do that. After all, everyone says that freelancing isn’t scalable.
An Accidental Discovery
At times I had considered taking on writers to help me with my freelancing, but I had always discarded the thought on the assumption that people wouldn’t be reliable and/or good enough. To me, working with other people led to the kind of complications that I would rather do without.
But that all changed when I advertised here on LWB for paid writers for a website I was working on at the time, Free Online Dating Advice.
I received a lot of applications. Many weren’t that great, but some were good. And I was really impressed with a handful of the applicants. In short, they did good work for a reasonable price. As long as I was willing to edit each piece to ensure it was up to my own specific standards, the writing was up to scratch.
While I ended up folding that website and moving onto other projects, the process I went through with it taught me a valuable lesson: working with people could be a positive — and even potentially profitable — experience.
At that point I felt I was onto something. Could it be possible to work with other freelance writers to produce work for my clients? I knew there was only one way to find out.
However, I had worries. First of all, would I be able to find writers with the necessary experience and technical abilities to produce articles that I could work with? Secondly, could I actually still make money by subcontracting the work? Finally (and most importantly), would my clients be happy with me working in this way? I decided to address each concern in turn.
The first one was easy to figure out — all I had to do was try someone out. Now I’ll be honest at this point — I can’t remember exactly what I did! I’m pretty sure I just asked one of the writers I had already been working with to write a piece with a view to judging if it would be worthy of submitting to a client as one of my own.
In short, the answer was yes. I had to tickle it into shape a little, to make it my own, but that didn’t take too long; certainly far less time than me having to write it myself! I also discovered that editing is a far less brain-intensive type of work than writing itself (at least it is for me).
The financial aspect seemed to work too. I had no real notion as to what kind of margin would be acceptable, but I was certainly happy with what I ended up with. Although paying a writer might cost me half of what I was being paid for the piece, my time investment would drop from 1-2 hours to perhaps 10-15 minutes. A 50% income drop in exchange for the work taking just 25% or so of the time it used to was a good deal as far as I was concerned!
One might think that the biggest roadblock I had would be finding writers. You would be right, if it weren’t for the fact that I had a ready-made selection of writers available to me through Leaving Work Behind and my freelance blogging guide (which later became Paid to Blog).
I was really fortunate in this sense — I didn’t have to go trawling the web for writers. I had them at my doorstep. I have little doubt that the transition would have been more difficult (but certainly not impossible) if I didn’t have LWB readers to appeal to.
It really was a case of everything coming together nicely. I was fed up with writing so much, the FODA project demonstrated that good writers were available at a reasonable price, and furthermore, those good writers were on my doorstep. There was no looking back now.
If I hadn’t had this resource available to me, I probably would’ve advertised via the ProBlogger Jobs Board — the destination where I landed my first couple of blogging roles.
Making the Switch
I was excited at the possibilities of this new business model and decided to launch a new business to mark the change: Clear Blogging Solutions. While CBS didn’t last (I quickly reverted back to marketing my services behind my personal brand), the growing team behind it did.
At this stage my only remaining concern was my clients — would they be happy with my new approach? I figured there was only one way to find out. I sent them all an email stating that I would now be working with a team of writers to help me produce my content.
To my pleasant surprise, not one of them had an issue with it. To me, that’s what you get when you work with high quality clients: they don’t have time to worry about specifics of content production. As far as they are concerned, if the content is still up to scratch, they don’t mind. They have bigger fish to fry. And I was of course determined to make sure that the content was as good as ever.
From that point on it was just a case of transitioning from writing myself to using writers for all of my client work. This transition took place over a period of months. I started by reaching out to LWB subscribers and asking them to join a list specifically for freelance writers. I would then email the list with new job opportunities when I was ready to make a change.
Working With Freelancers
Getting new writers set up and writing to a standard that I was happy with did take time, but it was definitely worth it. I went from spending 2-3 hours per day on freelancing to perhaps 20 minutes. Although I was making less, I had a lot more time to dedicate to my other projects and I didn’t feel like I was on the verge of burning out any more.
I’m not going to pretend that the process wasn’t without its teething problems. I had one writer quit on my literally overnight, with no notice. Sometimes writers miss their deadlines. However, for the most part, I have been delighted with how reliable my team members have been. I’ve found that if you extend people a level of autonomy, they will typically follow through for you.
When it comes to working with freelancers, I have three simple rules:
- Treat them with respect at all times
- Give them flexible due dates (typically, a writer’s due date is two working days prior to when the client is expecting work)
- Always pay them quickly and on time
These three rules seem to have worked well for me so far.
These days, I spend a few minutes per day editing pieces and communicating with clients (I act as the client liaison — my writers don’t deal with them). My writers take care of the rest.
If I wanted to, I could hire an editor and make the whole thing a truly passive business, but at this point it’s not worth the hassle. I really don’t mind spending twenty minutes per day editing.
What’s really exciting though is where I can take things from here. I’m currently dabbling in social media strategy reporting and ongoing management with Jo (the LWB Community Manager); it’s something I could get really involved in down the line. Then there’s all the other associated areas in which I could offers services: conversion optimization, SEO, design, and so on.
There’s a lot of potential avenues to explore, but I’m in no rush. In reality, the writing side of my business isn’t my favorite part of what I do for a living (although it is currently the most profitable). While I could spend more time on it and probably make a lot more money, it’s not all about making money for me.
I would say that my biggest potential challenge down the line is in transitioning from a personal brand (i.e. me) to a “proper” business brand (like Clear Blogging Solutions attempted to be). It didn’t work for me first time around, but I feel like I should make another attempt at some point. But I suppose that’s a topic for another day…
Photo Credit: JD Hancock