Leaving Work Behind

Freelance to Passive: How I Scaled My Writing Business

Written by Tom Ewer on March 24, 2014. 34 Comments

TypewriterOne 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.

Freelancing Burnout

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.

Experimenting

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!

Finding Writers

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:

  1. Treat them with respect at all times
  2. Give them flexible due dates (typically, a writer’s due date is two working days prior to when the client is expecting work)
  3. Always pay them quickly and on time

These three rules seem to have worked well for me so far.

What Next?

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

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34 Responses to “Freelance to Passive: How I Scaled My Writing Business”

  1. Mark Sharron
    March 24, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    Solid article there…..still on the path you set me on 2 years ago now and going strong.

  2. Razwana
    March 24, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    I love the chilled attitude you have – no pressure to do things just to make money. It takes the need to push in business away. Not that I don’t think you’ll give yourself pressure when it’s needed.

    Why did CBS not work? And what would you do differently to transition away from a personal brand?

    • Tom Ewer
      March 24, 2014 at 4:11 pm

      CBS didn’t work because without my personal brand, the vast majority of inquiries were from time wasters / people with a tiny budget. As to doing things differently next time, I’m not sure yet…

  3. Kaya Ismail
    March 24, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    I’ve recently outsourced a small amount of my client work out to somebody I know, and despite some very mild teething problems, It’s working out quite well for me. I’m earning less money, but I’m saving far more time.

    Great post as usual Tom.

  4. AllenTaylor
    March 24, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    It’s a solid business model if you can make it work. You have to be able to manage writers, time, and money. I’ve been doing it for years, although I’m beginning to take on more freelance work directly.

    • Tom Ewer
      March 24, 2014 at 4:11 pm

      Hi Allen,

      The great thing about it is that I think you should have those skills if you’re a good freelancer. one discipline *should* lead into the next (although there still will be a learning curve, of course).

      Cheers,

      Tom

  5. JoDavies
    March 24, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    Great post! Very excited for LWB as it transitions into your ultimate vision and a great reinforcement for people that outsourcing certain things can be a great thing for your business!

  6. Matt Schmidt
    March 25, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Freelancing may feel initially like trading dollars for hours like a regular job. But freelancing really helps you bring out your skills and expertise. You can use that focus to develop other revenue streams.

  7. Jawad Khan
    March 27, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    I usually read your posts in email these days.

    But the burn out point you mentioned got me to comment.

    It has, thankfully, become more hectic for me as well. But the burn out is coming, I can sense it.

    The one way, however, I feel it can be reduced is by diversifying the kind of projects you take.

    Sometimes monotonous projects and similar types of content leads to burn out as well, at least with me.

    But you’re right, there’s just so much more that you can achieve by getting the right people on board.

  8. Karen Marston
    March 27, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    Hey Tom,

    Curious why you think a “proper” business, rather than a personal brand, is the next step?

    Cheers,
    Karen

    • Tom Ewer
      March 31, 2014 at 12:29 pm

      Only in the sense that I can’t be the credited author over huge numbers of blogs — the business needs to become less about me specifically, and more about the quality service that my team and me can offer.

  9. Steve
    March 28, 2014 at 2:44 am

    Tom,
    I love to see the progress you’ve made in just a short while. Your brand is growing quickly and you seem to have a pretty clear direction in mind. Keep at it, my friend!

  10. Carol Brennan
    March 28, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    I really liked this post. It reminded me that our businesses develop as time goes on and we understand our customers and market. Being in business is a learning process. Thanks for this.

  11. Chad
    May 14, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    So, you just became a middle man? That doesn’t seem sustainable long-term.

    “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.”

    High quality clients? More likely dumb clients. Why wouldn’t they just do the same thing you did and pay less (cut out your middleman fee)? It would take a little initial work, but once it was setup it wouldn’t require anymore work than they had been doing with you and their profitability would be significantly increased.

    • Allen Taylor
      May 14, 2014 at 6:50 pm

      That’s a good theory, Chad, but Tom’s business isn’t so much a “middle man.” He’s not connecting buyers with sellers. He’s contracting with the publisher based on his reputation as a writer. Then he carefully screens writers he has writing for him and if they meet his approval, then he’ll give them assignments. But he does edit their work, and he probably tweaks some of the writing along the way to add his voice to it in order to give it more of his personal style, which the publisher appreciates because Tom’s style, his reputation, is what the publisher is paying for.

      This is more akin to the apprenticeship model. Less experienced writers get a little feedback for their work as they try to pursue higher gigs for themselves. Eventually, if they’re any good, they’ll earn higher pay and leave Tom’s employ.

      • Tom Ewer
        May 21, 2014 at 10:48 am

        Ah; just saw this answer after I published my own!

        You’re absolutely right Allen, and I am always delighted to see my writers progress onto bigger and better things independently, as they often do 🙂

    • Tom Ewer
      May 21, 2014 at 10:47 am

      Hi Chad,

      I’m not just a middleman. I edit and proofread all pieces to ensure that they are up to scratch. I offer a timely and professional service, regardless of what might be going on in the background (e.g. writers quitting). I offer the benefits of my reputations and my social network(s).

      For all of the above reasons, my clients are happy. It is notoriously difficult to find reliable freelance writers – I know that as much as anyone.

      I’ve been doing it about a year now and it’s been sustainable so far.

      Cheers,

      Tom

  12. Tito Pandu Brahmanto
    June 6, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    Thank you Tom for your guide and shared experience. It’s funny I have read this before but when I first read it, I’m not thinking that my freelance work will need this someday. When you point me out this and I read the second time, now I know how to scale my freelance career.

  13. Irene Enriquez
    March 23, 2015 at 11:19 pm

    Thank you so much, Tom. 🙂 Although I haven’t been freelancing for a long time, I’ve been looking into scaling my business since the beginning of this year. I want to have more time for school and to venture into other non-writing businesses.

  14. Jamie Thomson
    May 5, 2015 at 12:50 am

    Been facing a similar situation myself of late (albeit on a smaller scale). This post really helped.

    Is this still the way you work today? I noticed the post is just over a year old now.

    Thanks Tom.

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  16. Michael Belfiore
    July 18, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    Excellent post! I’ve begun moving this direction myself, and I can say to any thinking about it that the water’s fine! I just today edited a piece that a subcontractor wrote for me, based on transcripts of interviews I did. I did some light editing, and passed it on to my client in a fraction of the time that it would have taken me to write it. The writer is good and needs the work and the experience, and I freed up a ton of time to focus on other parts of my biz as well as get some hang time with my kids.

  17. Mike Taylor
    September 17, 2016 at 6:34 pm

    Hey Tom,

    Thanks for this article, it’s really inspired me to take my writing business to the next level. I’m at the point where I could probably bring on another writer, but I’m really worried I won’t find someone reliable who produces quality work. If you know of any good writers who need work, send them my way! – http://www.mikeptaylor.net

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