Joel Klettke stops by The Copywriter Club Podcast studio to chat with Kira and Rob talk about how he launched his business as a highly paid copywriter, his process (and a roadmap for a roadmapping session), testing rates, working with other writers and relentlessly chasing down referrals to bring in new business. We asked Joel if anyone can learn copywriting and accomplish what he has, he didn’t sugar coat the answer (you’ll have to listen to hear what he said). And while we say this about a lot of our episodes, this one truly is stellar. The advice Joel shares should be a permanent part of every copywriter’s playbook. Check it out:
Click the play button below, or scroll down for a full transcript.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:
ProBlogger Job Board
Joel’s Process Page
The Copywriter Club Facebook Page
Business Casual Copywriting
Case Study Buddy
Joel at TedX
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
Intro: Content (for now)
Kira: The Copywriter Club Podcast is sponsored by Airstory, the writing platform for professional writers who want to get more done in half the time. Learn more at Airstory.co/Club.
Rob: What if you could hang out with seriously talented copywriters and other experts, ask them about their successes and failures, their work process and their habits, then steal an idea or two to inspire your own work? That’s what Kira and I do every week at The Copywriter Club Podcast.
Kira: You’re invited to join the club for episode 21 as we chat with conversion copywriter Joel Klettke about leaving a guaranteed six figure job for the uncertainties of freelance, the power of case studies to grow a business, speaking to audiences like Conversion XL and SearchLove, and what he did to land a big client like HubSpot.
Rob: Hey, Kira and Joel.
Joel: Hey, how’s it going?
Rob: Good, how are you doing?
Joel: I’m good. It’s finally warm here, so I’m enjoying not shivering in my boots as I try to type things.
Rob: That’s always a good thing, right?
Joel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rob: So Joel, we should start off with your story, how you got to be where you are. I know there’s a lot of different things that we can cover as we talk about that, but you left a very good job in the SEO world to take on a job as a freelancer, and we’d love to hear more about that and how you were so successful so quickly.
Joel: Sure, so the short story is that I’d been working for an agency for almost five years. I’d kind of just fallen into that job. I really enjoyed SEO, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to forever. I’d always loved to write, but I’d never seen a business case for it. I saw the whole digital industry turning its head towards content. Content marketing, the role of copy and landing pages. I thought, “Okay, well if ever there was a time to take what I feel like I’m good at and turn it into a business, the time is now.” I had told the company that I was working for, “This is it. I’m checking out. I’m going out on my own.” In my head, I had kind of made up my mind to say, “Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Shortly after I did that, I got an offer to go in house at quite a big firm with clients who are household names, big car companies and household brands, and it was a guaranteed six figure pay day. All of a sudden, these things that I’d thought I’d been so confident in kind of got thrown through a loop. Do I really want to go out on my own and be a writer? Everything I’ve read about this says I’m not going to make any money, I’m going to struggle to have clients, but do I really want to keep doing SEO and just have the same frustrations, and problems, and challenges on a bigger scale?
Ultimately, I wrestled with it for a couple days, and thought, “No, I was on a path, I’m going to stay on that path, and I’m going to bet on myself that I can create a job for myself that will pay me just as well as this would’ve.” That became a goal. I printed off the job offer, and I kind of tacked it up in front of my desk, and thought, “Okay, this is what I said no to, so I better hustle. I better pull myself through.” That’s how I kind of got into it. There’s more about how I landed my first clients and that kind of thing, but if I was summing up, the reason I was able to get momentum so quickly is I came at it with a business mindset, not an employee mindset. I wasn’t looking to be someone else’s employee, I was trying to be a consultant. I wanted to be someone people trusted.
Instead of acting like, “Well, I’m new to this. I don’t know it very well,” I had the confidence to say, “You know what? I know I’m a good writer.” I’d done some writing through the agency, the clients were happy with it, we’d hired other freelancers whose work was garbage, and I would revamp that. I thought if those people can charge what they do and make a living as a freelancer, surely I can do the same. Instead of coming in at it from the lens of like, “Okay, I’m going to charge low, and get my feet wet, and pay my dues,” I just started charging high right out the gate. Nobody cared that I hadn’t done this for ten years. That wasn’t the question they had. All they cared about was how well could I do the job, and if I could prove I could do the job, I could get that rate. I learned that really quick.
Kira: Okay, so I love that you said bet on yourself, and clearly there’s some confidence, and the business mindset going into your business from day one. I think most of us tend to miss out on that side of it when they start up businesses. How can new copywriters take what you just talked about, the mindset and the confidence, and turn that into action to get their first few clients? It sounds like you said, number one, you can start off with higher rates, you don’t have to start out with low rates. What else can they do to land those first few clients?
Joel: Sure, and I know the question in the back of people’s heads is, “Well, what if I don’t have a portfolio? Don’t I have to take jobs for cheap to get a portfolio?” The answer’s absolutely not. No, you don’t. Again, that’s the employee mindset of paying your dues and working up the ladder. That’s not the case. What I did is I had a few clients that I took from the agency, I didn’t take them with me, but I’d done some projects agency side, but then when I was floating out there, I deliberately avoided things like Upwork, things like ProBlogger Job Board. That’s not a knock on there, there’s great jobs there, but it’s a low cost economy. You’re competing against everyone to see who’s going to be the lowest to bid.
Instead I went to connections I had that I knew they would have real clients, serious clients who needed copy, and where I could get a referral in, and there’d be some trust because I was being referred. I took my little portfolio, and I went to web development shops, I went to marketing agencies, I went to consultants who already had done the hard work of cultivating these clients who had some budget, and who I knew didn’t offer copy, and said, “Hey, why don’t I charge a rate that you could get a cut, and you’ll make more off the clients you already have, and you’ve seen the work I can do, and we both win?”
As far as if you have nothing, invent a project. Don’t wait for someone to hire you for your dream job, invent one. Again, all people want to see is that you can do it, that you have the process. They want to see an example of a final deliverable. It doesn’t matter if that sales letter never actually got used, it doesn’t matter if that website doesn’t actually exist. If you can show them the process you went through, and an example of what your copy will look like when it’s done, that’s enough for people to get buy-in.
Kira: What else can we do, and this is for more experienced copywriters as well, to show up as a consultant verse the employee? I think that is an ongoing battle. What are some other ways we can just embody that consultant mindset?
Joel: Yeah, I think so much comes down to proving that you’re not just a writer. If you want to work with big clients like a HubSpot, like an Insight Squared, it’s not enough to just be good with words, you have to be able to demonstrate your process, you have to be able to communicate the value you can bring to the table. For my generation that kind of hates being on the phone, I’m sad to say, but a lot of that happens on a phone call, where people aren’t coming to me and saying, “We need a new website, what do you charge?” It’s, “Okay, you think you need a new website. Let me get you in a call and talk through what I see going on on your site, talk through the opportunities that I think you’re missing, ask you about your research process, ask you about what you know, what you don’t know, and help the client realize, ‘You know what? This person isn’t just a writer. They’re bringing strategy to the table. They’re bringing things to the table that we didn’t even know we needed, and now we have to have.’”
I think a lot of it’s about properly framing and communicating what are the most impactful, and I don’t even think that’s a word, but we can talk about it. One of the highest impact things I did was publish a process page that showed all of the stages I go through, so that people aren’t looking at my deliverable as, “Here’s a bunch of words. I hope it works for you.” They can see, “Here’s how this guy thinks through problems, and that’s why we need him on board as opposed to that writer we hired last time who totally didn’t nail it, and didn’t get our voice, and didn’t convert. Let’s go with the guy who’s shown us he can think through our problem.”
Rob: Joel, you’ve mentioned process several times, and I’m glad you brought up the process page on your website, because I remember seeing this a year and a half ago, and thinking, “Oh my gosh, this guy has nailed it.”
Kira: It’s so good. So good.
Rob: “I’m going to take it and put it on my own site.” I mean, I haven’t done that, but it’s one of those things where I thought it is so good. Can we talk about that page a little bit, and about your process, and how you go about a project, for those who might not actually be looking at that page right now on your website?
Joel: Yeah, absolutely. I think the most critical thing I’ve learned, because when I started, it wasn’t as important to me and now it’s become essential, is the importance of that first phase of my process, and it should be the first phase of every writer’s process, and that’s customer research. When I start a project, the first thing that I talk about with my client is how do we get the information, what do you already have on your customers, where are there gaps in our understanding, do we need to do some client interviews, do we need to put out a survey, do we need to have an on site survey? Where are the gaps in our understanding, before I write a word for you, because if we don’t have direcytion, this is going to be a waste of your time, it’s going to be a waste of my time.
On my process page now, I kind of break it out into phases. I help the client kind of see, “Okay, well here’s where we start, we’re going to have a polite call to see if we’re a fit, get the basics out of the way.” Things like budget, is this a project I even want, am I a fit? You don’t want to burn hours of time only to figure out you’re thinking you’re going to charge five grand and this person has ten grand for the entire year in their marketing budget. Once you’ve gone through a polite call, that’s where you dive into a roadmapping session where you get into the nitty gritty. What are you trying to accomplish? Where are you at right now? Where are these gaps? If we were going to go ahead, what research is feasible for us to do?
Putting that together before you get into it, so you’re setting the expectation that, “Hey, this is not just a send me your wire frames and I’m going to fart some words onto them. This is we’re doing some serious research, we’re going to be tackling this like we tackle a problem and not just a deliverable.” After we go through that phase, we’ve had our call, we’ve had our roadmapping session, I’ve expressed where I think there’s gaps. That’s the point where we get sign off, we agree on a scope, we get into it. Now the client has an understanding, they can see, okay, well I’m going to get into drafts, and when I’m in those drafts, it’s not the case that you’re going to have to tap me on the shoulder every other day to figure out where things are, we’re going to set some timelines, I’m going to communicate to you a running tally of when something’s finished, I’ll push it over.
When it comes time to revisions, “Here’s how any revisions are included. If you need revisions beyond this, something’s probably gone wrong, we’re going to have to have a conversation, and we’re going to have to sort out has the scope changed, has the direction changed, why are we here?” Again, making that very clear, and then another thing that’s really important is letting the client know I’m not going to disappear. Once things are launched, I’m going to be there looking at it, saying, “Hey, I think we can make a further improvement here. Hey, maybe the visual hierarchy of this can be improved on the designing.”
It’s about showing the client end to end that you’re serious, that you’ve thought of everything, things they haven’t thought of. It’s giving them an understanding of what it’s going to be like to work with you before they even send you an email, so that they come in knowing. There’s no questions around, “Uh, how is this going to go? What are our next steps?” They know exactly what the next steps are, because I’ve already told that to them, so they’re comfortable moving forward even if we’ve never worked together before.
Kira: It’s just so good. Okay, how do you arrange or position the roadmapping session, and if you don’t mind sharing, how much are you charging for that? It sounds like that is all happening before you even share the proposal and the pricing for the actual project. How do shape that? I know a lot of people in the club are asking about that right now.
Joel: Yeah, and to be honest, this is something that I still experiment with. I’m still learning myself the best way to do this. It’s not the case, I don’t do a roadmapping session, again, before they have any idea what an engagement with me might cost. In those initial calls, we’re definitely setting expectations. “Hey, I’m more of a ten grand copywriter than your $500 copywriter. If that’s not okay, let’s not waste each other’s time.” When we get into that roadmapping session, to be honest, it’s been a little different every time. Sometimes, if the relationship stands to be enormous, and the amount of work on my end to do a quick audit is not significant, it’s not going to take me more than, say, a single day of my time, I’ve been experimenting lately with just doing a little bit of that for free. So saying, “Hey, here are the key problems.”
I’m not handing them the roadmap, and saying, “Let’s go.” I’m saying, “Hey, I’ve dug in. Here are the things that I see I’d like to discuss with you more.” I’m kind of seeing how that goes because I’m dealing with companies where they’re looking to get, it’s a little bit more liquid and a little more fluid, but in the past, I would charge about $750 for that roadmapping session. It’s not a one hour call, sometimes it’s three hours, sometimes it’s three hours with a follow up call that’s another hour or two. I’m charging for that time because I’m putting together a strategy in that time where whether they work with me or not, they have a clear direction of where to go.
I think that’s another thing that writers can really latch onto. Your value add isn’t just, or shouldn’t just, be in the words you provide, but should be in the strategy and the direction that you help set. With every engagement, I leave it so that if they decided, “Hey, you know what? We’re going to cancel the contract after the research phase,” they’d still have taken away an enormous amount of value that’s not just going to help them with the current project but with any messaging project down the line. The reason you should charge for those roadmapping sessions when you’re looking at a client that maybe is just coming into it, they have no idea what to do, because you’re providing strategic direction.
What I said there’s a little contradictory. I said you should charge for it and right now I’m experimenting with doing a little bit of that for free. The reality is that this is fluid stuff and if you’re already under contract by the time the first phone call ends, things are a little bit different. I would encourage new copywriters, test it out for yourself. Start offering a roadmapping session say $500 and walk them through the process, walk them through the strategy, show them where you’re going to take them. It’s a huge value add that especially, for even those midsize to smaller clients, $500 is not a lot of money, and it’s a good way to get your foot in the door and prove your worth before you even really get going.
Rob: Joel, for those copywriters that are just starting out, that you’re advising to do this, let’s talk through maybe just a roadmap for the roadmapping session. What do they want to cover? What should they be looking at? What should they be reflecting back to the customer? What kind of advice should they be giving? If they don’t know how to do all of that, where do they go to sort of figure that out?
Joel: Right. I mean, Brennan Dunn is like the champion of roadmapping sessions. He’s got some great resources on how he conducts these. Large and in part, my own processes is based on those. You’re approaching it like an open discussion, but an open discussion that you’ve gone and prepared for. That’s part of why, again, if it’s not a sure project, that’s part of why you’re charging for it. Before you get into that roadmapping session, you want to conducts basically a surface level audit, let’s say like me you’re doing conversion copy, of where you think the big gaps are, of where you think the problems are of the obvious opportunities that you see.
That might be just as simple as saying, “You know what? Let’s talk about on this roadmapping session the way you guys are pricing. What does your support logs look like when people are asking? What questions are you getting about pricing? What is your plan for the future? What are your best performing products and worst performing products?” A roadmapping session is as much about you learning about the company as it is getting them to start questioning themselves, getting them to start thinking through, “Oh yeah, maybe we haven’t thought of that, and we should talk about this more.”
If you can bring, in the middle of that question, if you come in, approaching like, “Hey, let’s talk about this. Let me ask you some questions about this,” and you’ve already prepared based on a little pre-audit or a little bit of homework beforehand, you can say, “You know what? This is where I think we should take this with copy,” or, “This is where I think copy could play a role,” or just as importantly, “I don’t think copy can solve this problem.” You can win a lot of clients for long term by telling them the problems you can’t solve for them, and that’s okay.
This road mapping session is about doing your homework upfront, spotting the obvious problems, and preparing questions for the customer about who they think their audience is, what their goals are, what they perceive the problems they’re facing right now are, what’s feasible in an engagement for things like research, and what might not work for them? It’s as much about you getting to know them and validate the things that you’ve seen in doing your homework, as is for them to start questioning, to get to know you, and for you to have an opportunity to kind of dazzle them by saying, “Hey, I’ve already kind of thought about this, and what do you think about this angle, or what do you think about going down this road?”
The end deliverable of that is you leave that saying, “Here’s a summary of all the stuff we’ve talked about, here’s the things that we agreed are problems or issues, here’s some of the solutions that we said that we would like to investigate, and this is all going to inform kind of the statement of work or the proposal that I give you, because now, I’m not coming to you talking about problems that I think you have, it’s problems we both know you have.”
Kira: Joel, you mentioned that you want potential clients to know you’re not the $500 copywriter, you’re the $10,000 copywriter, but I think probably a lot of people listening want to be that $10,000 copywriter or the $20,000 copywriter. I know you position your rates really well on your website, and we’ll link to that page, and you mention that your projects start at $3,500. You also focus and make it really clear that it’s all about the value, it’s not about hourly rates, and I think you do a great job leading and kind of guiding potential clients. I guess my question for is what else do we need to be doing to become that $10,000 copywriter, especially to find those clients that are willing to pay that much?
Joel: Yeah. To be honest, that rates page, it’s one of the pages I’ve experiment the most with. That $3,500 number has changed from five grand to ten grand. I’ve put all kinds of numbers there. I’ve experimented with all kind of ways of communicating my rates. It’s not really about that specific number, it’s about getting the idea in whoever’s reading that’s head that, “Hey, this guy isn’t necessarily cheap, but he is going to be very good.” As far as transitioning to higher projects, I think there’s a multitude of things. The first thing is proving your competence. Even on your smaller projects. Again, things like showing your process.
A huge thing for me in attracting some of my biggest clients was publishing about the way that I solved problems. I used my own blog and my own content to show people in ways that you can’t do on just a sales page on your website, to show them here’s how I approach a problem. I did a lot of educating, I targeted a lot of problems that I knew bigger companies or clients in general had with copy. When I just got going, a ton of my work was in guest posting. I would write for agencies, I would write for SEO tools, I would write for different publications where I knew even these bigger companies turn to for information and try to position myself as, “Hey, here’s a guy who really knows what he’s talking about.”
To be honest, a lot of it only happens over time. I said, you don’t want to start out charging bargain basement prices to build a portfolio. It’s not about where you set your price as it is how many relationships you cultivate over time. All of my most recent best projects, because I haven’t been very active over the past year in blogging, have come from relations I’ve built. With a client like HubSpot, my foot in the door there was Matt Barby who for a long time was out on his own, very, very talented marketer, went internal to HubSpot, saw they had a need, and because I’d known Matt for a long time and had been proving that I knew what I was talking about to Matt for a long time, I was the guy he turned to when he said, “Hey, we’re looking to maybe give this a shot in a smaller capacity.”
I first did a smaller project with them, and then I was brought on to help tackle the larger site. It’s important to be putting out that you’re competent, but it’s also really important to be making connections, even with people who aren’t in a position to maybe hire you for those big projects right now. I did a lot of going to conferences. MozCon, for example, was my stomping grounds. Year after year, I’d go in and I’d try to make a splash, not just showing up and handing out business cards like every other stooge. I’d try to come up with creative ways to stand out. I ran a sticker contest one year where for a chance to win $500 if somebody took the sticker I gave them, slapped in on something, took a picture of it, and tweeted it, they were entered to win something. It was showing kind of that creativity, that innovation, and it did pretty well. It made some buzz, people at the conference went, “Oh, you’re the sticker guy.” It got people paying attention to who I was.
I think it really comes down to constantly be looking for ways to prove your competence, even if you don’t thing you’re the best in the industry. I still want to be Joanna Wiebe when I grow up, but it’s about putting up the-
Rob: Don’t we all?
Joel: Yeah, absolutely. As you learn, as you grow, as you accumulate new skills, publish about them, publish your process, talk about the things you’ve learned, talk about how you’ve tackled problems for clients. Prove your competence, use what you’re doing to prove your competence to build relationships, and then just continually do good work. The last thing I’ll say on that is be relentless. This is something I’m still learning. Be relentless about going after referrals. If you’ve done good work for someone, don’t be afraid to send an email saying, “Hey, you know what? I’m booking out for the next few months. I know our project is maybe wrapped, you know that if ever we have a chance together, I’m game, but hey. Do you know anyone who might be in a position?” Often times, it’s amazing how often people like, “You know what? Actually, yeah. These guys were just talking to me about how they’re thinking about doing a redesign,” and they’ll float you on.
Kira: We interrupt this interview for a very special announcement.
Rob: The Copywriter Club has its first sponsor. It’s Airstory. Before we get into what Airstory does for writers, we just wanted to share that this is actually a sponsorship we went after. We actually approached Airstory because we like the tool so much, and said, “Hey, would you guys like to sponsor the show?” We were thrilled when Joanna said yes, that they would like to. Kira, you’ve played around a little bit with the tool, how would you use it as you create the sales pages that you work on?
Kira: Recently, I used it with a fellow copywriter, and we were working on a sales page together. It’s a great tool to use with team members, fellow collaborators, and you’re able to piece the cards together with different sections of copy. Maybe you have a cart for objections, or for pain points, for key benefits, and you can kind of piece it together and create a sales page in an easy to use environment with a collaborator. It beats jumping into Google Docs. My Google Docs usually look like a disaster by the time I’m done with them and I have a hard time keeping track of all the content I need. Airstory’s been a great way to stay organized, which is a challenge for me sometimes.
Rob: Airstory has this beautiful interface. It works really well, connects with Slack and Evernote, Typeform, even Gmail. If you want to learn more about Airstory, go to Airstory.co/club to join and start your first project.
So Joel, your approach to being a copywriter is very different, I think, than most people who think, “Hey, I’m going to be a copywriter.” You’ve looked at it as a business rather than a creative pursuit. We started with your story where you said that you had this other offer, but we didn’t really tell the end of that. How long did it take you to hit six figures so that you had passed that offer, that you were doing well, and where are you in your business today?
Joel: Yeah, so the rough numbers. When I left my agency job, and I’m only sharing this to give people perspective, because this is not me patting myself on the back and bragging, but I want to prove that it’s possible.
Kira: You should brag. We want you to brag.
Joel: My agency job, when I left there, I was making around $68,000 a year. This was after putting in my time, paying my dues, having been there for almost five years. Five years in SEO is a lifetime. By that point, you are kind of in a senior role, enough to be considered for the six figure jobs. The job offer that I was given was upwards of a hundred grand. Obviously, it would have to be to be six figures. My first year in copywriting was a little bit weird, because I was still doing a little bit of SEO consulting on the side. I didn’t fully transition into copy until about month three. My first year, I came close, I didn’t quite make it. I made, I think, about $92,000 in my first year. I didn’t quite beat my goal, and that wasn’t discouraging to me. It was like, “Okay, I’m close.”
The first thing that I thought was, “You know what? Had I been billing all these projects to US clients and US dollars, I would’ve probably crushed my goal with currency exchange.” I got motivated by that, I came really close, I was really happy. I had almost beat my previous salary by a third, which made me quite happy. In my second year, the doors kind of blew off. By the end of my second year, I grossed over the first two years over 230,000. That second year was obviously about a $50,000 step up from the first year. I couldn’t really be upset with that kind of growth.
Where I’m at now, just to close out that question, I decided to move to New Zealand for eight months, and I wound down how much work I was doing. Last year, I still broke the hundred thousand dollar mark, but it was not nearly as big a year, but it was a huge year for life. I think that’s one thing. Now, my focus is how do I bring balance back into this? That 140,000 plus year was amazing, but it was also very challenging. If I’m going to try to beat myself again, I’m going to do it in a way that’s not going to lead to burnout.
Rob: So Joel, are you a unicorn, or can anybody do this? The reason I ask is recently Kate Toon posted in our Facebook group a survey of writers in Australia and what they said that they made in annual salary. I think it was like 80% of them are below $50,000 and that’s Australian dollars, which is maybe about the same as Canadian dollars, but it’s shockingly low. It’s less than most people would be making in a regular job. Can anybody do this?
Joel: You know, as much as I want to say yes, I’m going to say no. This is why, I’m not saying that to discourage people, but if you want to be the kind of writer, the kind of businessperson that brings that home, you have to be willing to learn to do more than just words, you have to be willing to learn how to operate like a business, you have to be willing to learn how to have confidence in client relationships. The reason I say that not everyone can is because everyone will say they’re willing, but when it comes down to it, some people really just can’t be bothered to learn that stuff. Anyone can learn this, anyone can apply this, but not everybody will.
I want to be realistic about that in saying that this is not easy. There’s no two step system. It’s a total mindset shift away from acting like an employee to building like a business. Some of the keys that really helped me reach that mark is I started to focus. I started to focus on the kinds of projects, when I started out I was doing mostly blogging. I then started specializing just blogging about digital marketing. From there, I kind of awoke to the idea of conversion copywriting, and I shifted my focus there, but I still had all these blogging clients, so what am I going to do? Just cut them loose? No. I decided, “Okay, well, the first key was specializing. Second is subcontracting.”
If you’re getting good projects, I’d you can find good people, if you can build a process around how you share the work to make sure that the quality is there, there’s no way I would’ve hit that number had I not brought on board Steven Peters, who does all of the blog work for Business Casual Copywriting now. I subcontracted 100% of that to him. I tried other approaches. I tried subcontracting to ten different people, and it blew up in my face extremely quickly, but subcontracting helped me make money when I wasn’t working, and I could still pay Steven a really great rate, because I’d sort of proven myself through building my own competence, and now I could pass that on. If you try to be a generalist, if you try to just be a writer, it’s going to be really, really hard.
We’ve all seen the rates people want to pay for blog posts. I saw something today, they wanted a 10 to 12,000 word ebook written for $500. I don’t care who you are, how are you going to make a living doing that? You have to escape this idea of, “I’m going to look for the easy jobs on Upwork, I’m going to look for the easy jobs on the job boards where everybody else is posting.” Instead, you have to build a brand, build a business, and prove that, “Hey, I’m not like all the people on the job boards. Those are the juniors, those are the people that are going to do your cycle work and do it for cheap. I’m not going to be here when you want something; I’m going to be here when you want something exceptional. I know exactly what that exceptional thing I can give you is.”
Basically, the way it was explained to me is like, bad copywriters ask, “What do you need and what will you pay me for it?” Good copywriters, good businesspeople say, “Hey, here’s the level I’m on, and if you want to be on it, here’s what it’s going to cost.” It’s a subtle mindset shift, but it makes all the difference in the world.
Kira: Wow, you’re good. I’m just thinking, I’ve asked that question before, “What do you need?” Okay, so you mentioned subcontractors, and that’s something that’s been on my mind. I’ve been working with different collaborators on projects and testing that model out as well. Can you talk a little bit more about what happened when you brought on the ten different subcontractors, what we need to look out for as we move in this direction, and even just how much you think you should be paying for someone like a Steven, someone you can rely on and really work with to build the business?
Joel: Sure. I’ll try to explain this as quickly as I can, because there’s so much I could unpack here, and I want to get to as much of it as I can. When I started, I kind of did the math, and I got diamonds in my eyes about, “You know what? If I could charge $250 for a post, and then I could subcontract for 100, I could make $150.” I thought, “Oh, the key to this is to do as much of this as quickly as I can.” You’re thinking, “Oh, I got to scale to this.” I went out and I published a posting I was looking for writers, and I asked people for referrals, and I got this stable of like eight to ten people. I thought, “Yeah, I’m set, because of course every writer in the world shares my process and standards for quality, so this is going to be simple.”
It wasn’t, because almost no writer, if you’re a perfectionist, if you’re really good at what you do, it is hard to find writers who share that commitment. You can’t manufacture give a shit, and if you have a lot of it, you’ve got to find someone else who does, too. What I found was work quality was inconsistent, my processes were broken, I couldn’t keep track of who was doing what, I had no systems in place for allocating things and making sure deadlines got there. My writers sometimes didn’t care about deadlines, because it’s not their client. I burned it down. I was frustrated and I thought, “Man, that did not work at all.”
Then I decided, “I’m going to try again, but I’m going to do it slow and instead of assuming writers and I are going to be on the same wavelength, I’m going to give it time, I’m going to work with one person to teach them how I like things done, to teach them what clients expect, to teach them my process.” I did that with Steven. I brought Steven on. I worked closely with him. I let him make mistakes, because when you’re not trying to cover up mistakes for ten people, you can work with one, and Steven’s the kind of guy, he’s got the right attitude, he’s got the right work ethic, where once I pointed out something once, he never made that mistake again.
My advice to you who are thinking about subcontracting is do it slow. Don’t get diamonds in your eyes. Pick one person. Be ready to have those tough conversations, because stuff is going to go wrong, mistakes are going to be made. It’s not the end of the world. You’re training someone. You’re a business training someone. Do that slow, and now I don’t even have to look at Steven’s work anymore. I pass him projects, I pay him his rate, and we both do well.
As far as what you think you should be paying, the way I’ll break it down is I try to have relationships be a 60/40 split where I’m taking home 60 and over time I flip that. Once they’ve earned my trust, and I know it’s very hands off, and this is basically I’m handing this to you and no issue, I switch it the other way around, because I believe you should reward good work and pay writers fairly. For example, when I started out sourcing my digital marketing posts, I’d charge the client $500. I started off paying 150, 200. Today, that number is much different. He might take home 300, 350. My share is smaller, but I also trust him, and he’s earned it.
Kira: Joel, quick question about that, is Steven working with you only, or is he working with other copywriters as well?
Joel: In our situation, I’m the only one Steven subcontracts to. He’s not an employee, he can take on other jobs, he can and has picked up jobs on his own. I’m the only one he subcontracts for.
Rob: Joel, I’d love to switch gears here a little bit, and talk a bit about case studies. You’ve created an entire business around this, and in fact, I know Kira is using your business Case Study Buddy to create a case study. Talk to us a little bit about why writers in particular ought to consider using case studies to show off their business, but also, what could we be doing better as we help our clients create case studies?
Joel: Sure. I’m such a hypocrite in this, because I’ve built a whole business around case studies, and I have none for myself, which is going to change. The case studies are the ultimate. They are tricky in that we all think we need to have a ton of metrics, we all think we need to have a client who can measure everything down to scale, and that is great if you can get that, but a case study can just be a customer success story, an extended testimonial that talks about the problem they had and how you solved that problem, and why they liked working for you.
It doesn’t have to be, “Oh, we increased their lift 20%.” That’s interesting, that’s obviously has a huge impact, but just as powerful can be detailed stories of how you solved a problem, why that person chose you, why they continued to choose you. It’s proving competence, like I talked about earlier, but with the added value of third party proof, this is someone else validating, talking about from their perspective why they chose you, and why others would be stupid not to.
How can we be better at creating case studies for our clients? I mean, I don’t really want to arm the militia, and have you all come down and take down the case study, but what it comes down to, the key thing, the most important part of the process is that interview. The questions you ask, how you ask them. You have to get, in most cases, a client on the phone to really explore their story. The only time we don’t get someone’s client on the phone is if we only need really like one testimonial, and we’re just doing a very short summary, like a point form summary style case study. That’s sort of a different offer, and we can get just the intel, the nice sounding quote from a survey.
For the big dogs, for the clients that really want to showcase their value, for example with Kira, we interviewed her client, and Kira knows interviews inside and out. She did great ones with her clients’ clients, but what we’ve done is we’ve mastered the process of getting good insights out of clients on the call. If you’re more interested in that, there’s lots of posts in the Case Study Buddy blog about what our favorite questions to ask for. If you do a little digging, you can even find the templated questions that we often use going in. We obviously customize and tailor that to everyone, but that’s a good place to start if you’re thinking, “Hey, this might be an asset I want to put together.”
Kira: Joel knows that I am a huge fan of Case Study Buddy, and this is my first case study with Case Study Buddy, and for me, I feel really uncomfortable interviewing my own clients, even if I know we’ve had a successful relationship. It makes me cringe, I don’t want to do it, and I know for a fact just looking at that case study that there are questions I never would’ve asked and details about that project, as far as numbers, and percentages, and conversion stats, that are so important that I just would not have gathered on my own. I think especially if you’re a copywriter who is starting to land those bigger projects, you know can help you land more projects, but you know that maybe you don’t want to have those conversations or you just can’t package it quite right, obviously I’m a huge advocate, and so I’m really excited about it.
Joel: Thank you. I think, just quickly, one of the things, too, that’s valuable, that we offer as a value and that I think copywriters can offer as a value is exactly that. When you’re a third party, you can dig, you can be objective, you can put them on the spot. You’re not making them uncomfortable. You can ask things, because hey, it’s not your client, you’re just trying to tell a great story.
Kira: Right, and especially if it’s an ongoing client. Even with the one that you interviewed, I want to continue working with him, so I don’t want to get on a phone and grill him about the stats. It’s just not the way I want to handle that relationship. I was even thinking as a copywriter, you can just add that fee, the Case Study Buddy price tag, add that to your projects, or like half of that to your projects, so it’s just built into what you’re charging, so every time you roll out a huge project, you know you have a case study that will be created based on that project. That’s what I’m going to start doing.
Joel, I want to shift directions and talk about burnout, because you alluded to that earlier, and you mentioned this past year was a huge year for life and you worked out of New Zealand. I want to know the catalyst for that. What was happening? What was the burnout like? What was your experience like working abroad? Burnout is huge for so many of us. We’re dealing with it. How did you tackle that?
Joel: Yeah, I mean, I think the way that I wound up burned out is, it’s kind of like the saying, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I got so wrapped up in the game of how much can I make, and how much can I grow, and honestly, I think everybody, we’re lying if we say we don’t want to make as much as possible and be well known. We all want that. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in that, though. For me, I was working late and long to deliver on projects, I was taking on projects that paid well but weren’t necessarily the clients or people I wanted to work with ongoing. I was putting myself through the ringer, because it’s never going to be enough.
When you hit the six figure plateau, you look up, and you see someone’s at the $250,000, and once you hit that, you look and some does half a million and a million. I can tell you right now, that never ends. That rat race never ends. I got really caught in the thick of that, and finally thought, “You know what? I’ve made money, but I haven’t really spent time where I wanted to, I haven’t really invested this money in experiences that will be memorable.” My wife and I had talked for years, almost since we started dating, about how cool it would be if we lived somewhere else. New Zealand is a country that we have kind of a mutual history with, so kind of near as I was realizing, “I’m tired. I’m not enjoying this as much, and this isn’t really what I want my job and my life to look like.”
As we were kind of realizing that, we started making plans. It’s like, “You know what? Now’s a good time. We’ve had a big year, we’ve put in the work, and now let’s enjoy it. Let’s kind of retire while we’re young, do a practice retirement.” That became, it was like, “Let’s enjoy this. Let’s go over and do it.” I still worked while I was over there, I still picked up projects, but I wound things down quite a bit. It was a fantastic lesson in just breathing and not worrying so much about the rat race, or whether or not I was outpacing my peers, or who had launched a more successful thing. I was able to just be, and to enjoy, and to do something I had dreamed of doing.
I think it’s important not to get so caught up in the idea of building the dream that you never actually step back and enjoy the day to day. That’s something that I brought back with me now, that I’m still seeking balance in and trying to find how do I structure my time, how do I structure my business so that, yeah, I’m willing, I’m ready to work hard, I expect to work hard, I’m not going to be on a beach anytime soon making the mythical passive income, but I’m also not going to be working until nine o’clock at night on landing pages for clients that really don’t need landing pages at nine o’clock at night.
Rob: Right. Joel, I love that advice. I think before you left for New Zealand, I shared with you that I did the same thing with my family. We went to Europe for half of the year. For those writers who can get away, they don’t have a spouse that’s locked into another type of job or whatever, I highly recommend it, because it really does change your focus from work, work, work to hey, there’s a world out there that is worth experiencing and we should all do that before we turn 65, right?
Joel: Absolutely, yeah, and the thing is you don’t need a lot of money to do it. You really don’t. If you live frugal, if you save, if you’re smart about sharing accommodations and not trying to ball out and do absolutely the Ritz, and put yourself up in the penthouse, and be the Neil Patels of the world who publish about how they spend $12,000 on buttons in a month, and what did that do for my business. That’s not real life. I would say confidently that if you can make 50,000 in a year and save 10 to 15 grand, you can go away for two to three months, and work through that two to three months or more, and not have your life implode on you. It is very doable.
Rob: Yeah, so we’re going to run out of time here soon, but I want to ask you about some of the speaking events that you have done. You’ve spoken at TedX, you’ve spoken at ConversionXL, by the time this podcast airs, you will have spoken at SearchLove. How did you connect into those kind of opportunities, and how has it affected your business?
Joel: In every circumstance so far, it’s been somebody going to bat for me. There’s a lot of paths to speaking. I had done some public speaking in university, I had done online some things like webinars before I was invited to come out and speak at events. One of the most important things you can do is prove you are a good verbal communicator. I haven’t spoken there yet, but when people like MozCon or people like these bigger conferences are considering who to put up there, they need to know you can get up there and not wither under the spotlight. Doing things like webinars, shooting your own videos, it doesn’t matter the quality even. Just proving you’re a good, confident speaker is the start of it, I think.
Also, proving, like I talked about earlier again, putting out the world, “Hey, I’m proving my competence. I’m talking about what I’m doing. I’m proving I know my stuff.” For me, in all cases, with ConversionXL, it was Joanna going to bat for me and Shanelle inside of ConversionXL kind of confirming that. With SearchLove, Ed Fry, who was at ConversionXL, went back to Distilled and said, “Hey, I saw this guy, he’s really interested in speaking. Do we think we have room for them?” Because I had been working in the background to establish that yeah, I know what I’m talking about, and prove yeah, I can get on a stage and not embarrass myself for you, that opened some doors.
It really does come down to, again, networking. I would encourage people, go to the conferences you want to speak at. Get to know people, and show up, be visible, be familiar. That could open a door later on when they go, “Yeah, this person already knows our format, and our content, and our audience, and they’ve been publishing, and they look good on video. Let’s get them shot.”
Rob: That’s awesome. This interview has been fantastic. As I’m thinking about the things that we’ve covered, there’s so many different things that you’ve done in your business, Joel, that over the last year and a half, I keep thinking, “Oh, yeah. I need to do that better.” So much of this is just a great reminder that there are very particular things you can do to be professional about the copywriting business. I want to thank you for sharing that with us and with our audience. If people want to follow up with you, connect with you in some other ways, where would they go to find you online?
Joel: The best place is Twitter. Just @JoelKlette. You can also reach me through my website, Business Casual Copywriting. If you want to investigate case studies, CaseStudyBuddy.com, publish there, do some things there as well. I think the last thing I want to say, because it’s easy to come on these things and be like, “Yeah, I’ve got this figured out,” but I want people to know that I’m still figuring this all out. I’m still trying to find balance, and process, and how do I do this better. If you’re just starting out, or even if you’re in the middle, you’re feeling discouraged, don’t feel like people who look like they have it all together have it all together because nobody’s really like that and this is just a learning game. We’re all just learning and trying to get better.
Rob: Thanks, Joel. That was great.
Joel: Yeah, thank you.
Kira: Thank you, Joel.
Rob: You’ve been listening to The Copywriter Club Podcast with Kira Hug and Rob Marsh. Music for the show is a clip from Gravity by Whitest Boy Alive, available in iTunes. If you like what you’ve heard, you can help us spread the word by subscribing in iTunes and by leaving a review. For show notes, and full transcript, and links to our free Facebook community, visit thecopywriterclub.com. We’ll see you next episode.
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