A lot of copywriters talk about building a “real” business, that is a business that isn’t solely built on writing copy for clients. In the 382nd episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast, Kira and Rob talk with copywriter Joel Klettke who used his writing and sales expertise, developed as a copywriter, to build a team and service business bigger than what he might have built on his own. And he shared what he’s learned from the experience.
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The Copywriter Underground
Rob Marsh: Over the past 7 years of publishing this podcast, it’s pretty rare that we bring guests back for a second visit. And the guests that have been back three times? I could be wrong but by my count, that’s only happened twice. Today’s episode makes it three.
Hi, I’m Rob Marsh, one of the founders of The Copywriter Club. And on today’s episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast, my co-founder, Kira Hug, and I interviewed copywriter and founder of Case Study Buddy, Joel Klettke to catch up on what he’s been doing for the past couple of years. Joel has gone from being a top performing, in-demand copywriter to the founder of a million dollar business. And in our discussion, he shared some of the lessons he learned along the way.
But first, this episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast is brought to you by The Copywriter Underground. It is truly the membership for copywriters and content writers… where you can find the training, coaching, copy reviews, and community you need to build a successful copywriting business. To learn more visit thecopywriterclub.com/tcu
And now let’s jump into our interview with Joel…
Kira Hug: All right, so Joel, I’m not going to ask you how you ended up as a copywriter because we already covered that in episode, Rob, which episode? I know you know.
Rob Marsh: Episode 21 is the first time and maybe like 107, I think, is the second time. It’s been a while though. It’s been a while since we chatted on the podcast.
Joel Klettke: Yeah. I like these, it’s almost like a snapshot in time, like journal entry to go back and listen to myself on somebody’s life.
Rob Marsh: How much better life was back in episode 107?
Kira Hug: Well, going back to 21, I think that was the one I was listening to and reading the transcript from. That’s when you were, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s when you were just starting case study, buddy, right? That was the origin of it when you were getting into case studies. Or was that 107?
Rob Marsh: I think it was even before that.
Kira Hug: Yeah, it was before that. We were introducing it. You had that business running at that time.
Joel Klettke: Yeah, like technically Case Study Buddy is almost eight years old. It was off the side of our desks initially. And then right before the pandemic, we kind of pivoted to focus full-time on that. So that became kind of a big transition point. And then it’s continued to be the full-time focus since then. So we’ve only really been two years, maybe three now, full-time pushing this thing.
Kira Hug: Okay, well, let’s go back then to before pandemic when you went all in and just curious, like what, what triggered that decision for you and your business partner to go all in on this business?
Joel Klettke: I think there are a whole bunch of different factors. I think, you know, at the time, the grass is always greener in life in general, you know, like you always want to be doing that new thing. The headspace I was in at that moment was I had done the freelance thing and I’d done it well, graduated to basically being in a position of consulting for some pretty great brands, some really great projects. You get to the point that you are now making what your heroes made.
I remember listening to Joanna Wiebe talk about charging $10,000 for a landing page and thinking, that’s so outlandish. And then I got there. And at that point, I was kind of hitting the ceiling. I felt like I was hitting the ceiling of my potential. I just wanted to keep growing. I wanted to change. I was finding when I was working on projects, I was going through this weird anxiety almost of like, now that I’m on this level, I have to keep delivering at this level. I have to keep being this person in this way. I still had a lot of work.
It wasn’t like I was forced into a pivot, but it was kind of like, in the meantime, we have this other thing going on off the side of our desks that is growing under its own steam. It’s kind of gone from you know, $17,000 in its first year, very, very part time to, you know, then maybe like 38. And then you had this big jump up to 80. And then all of a sudden, you’re 200. And then you’re 800. And now you’re approaching a million. And meanwhile, you haven’t really spent full time energy or effort. So you start to wonder, you know, what could this thing be if we really devoted when I say we I’m talking about myself.
And for those who don’t know, there’s a partner in the business named Jen who I used to work with agency side. And then we teamed up on this thing. So it was growing a lot. And it kind of looked like, hey, this is an opportunity to maybe build something that might outlast me. It’s a chance to grow in new and different ways to build a team, to build a process, to move out of the craft per se and into the business side of business. And so it was that combination of lots of potential growth alongside this desire to keep learning and keep growing myself that just made it seem like, yeah, now we got a strike while the iron is hot. And so we did.
Rob Marsh: So we’re not going to talk about every piece of your journey, Joel. But just looking back, I’m curious, over the past couple of years, what would you do differently to build? If you’re going to build the same business that you’ve built right now, Are there things that you would do differently that you didn’t do the first time that might impact where you are today?
Joel Klettke: Yeah, I think I had, in some senses, before I get into the most present, what I do differently. In some senses, I had a test balloon. Because when I was doing business casual full-time, I tried to build a team. And it went miserably. I focused so much on the profit side of it and the potential for that that I overlooked the people side of it and the process side of it, especially, and focusing on making it scalable from the beginning. which, you know, I didn’t make the exact same mistakes with Case Study Buddy, but there’s certainly things that, you know, I, in retrospect or in hindsight, it’s, it’s easy to see where you might’ve deviated.
So one of those things is like, I was petrified of the whole idea of hiring and like full-time, like, how do you know when you can bring someone in and like, isn’t there a lot of paperwork and like the government and all, you know, like that whole notion, even though it wasn’t that complicated in retrospect, it kept me back from you know, making some of those decisions. And so for a long time, you know, we held off on bringing other people in outside of pure production roles until we absolutely needed to. So for example, one of our first not staff, but more of like a full time retainer was a gal named Morgan on the projects and operations side of things. And the difference that made when I talk about that jump from like, 200 to like 800.
That was the introduction of Morgan and operationalizing the process and having someone whose full-time job was the process. I think when you’re so used to coming from a freelance thing where the work is the process and it’s just you, you don’t realize how quickly stuff breaks and needs to be reinvented and how quickly that becomes a full-time focus until you’re in the thick of it. So we held off on that just too long. And once we had someone in that seat, the growth just exploded and the ability to focus elsewhere was colossal. So I would have brought an operations person in much, much earlier. I think By the same token, one of the lessons we’re learning now years later, case studies, especially customer stories, are such a variable product and timeline. Namely because there’s so many stakeholders inherent in it. There’s you and your team, there’s your client, there’s your client’s customer, and then within there, there can be lots of legal PR.
In the beginning, I really looked at this as like a productized business, like set a price, buy a thing, it’s this much for a case study. And that worked until it really, really didn’t work. Because now when you start to hire these fixed full-time staff, you’re incurring overhead all of the time. Whether or not you can execute on that work or not, if a project hits pause and you’ve only billed $3,000 for it, every month that holds in pause, you’re paying somebody to chase up on it and your margin gets eliminated. So I think I would have looked and tried to be more in tune with how the decisions we’d made around the underlying model of the business were influencing the business. But when you’re growing, everything seems like it’s going great. Like, well, we’re growing. How could anything be wrong? And you kind of don’t realize until you take a really close look, like, hey, there’s some things we really need to address here.
I think one other thing I would mention, it’s like the cliche You hear a lot of people talking about hiring slow, firing fast. I’m a people pleaser. I always want to give people the benefit of the doubt. I want people to win. You want every hire you make to work out. You want to believe that you made the right call. You want to believe that everyone can succeed and thrive and will find their footing. But something that I’ve learned now over the course of hiring both contractors and staff is that you can do everything right in the hiring process and it can still not work out. And there have been situations where out of a desire to give people a chance or to not rock the boat or for any excuse really, there have been people that we held on to too long to the point it was not good for them. It was not good for us. It was not good for the team. And nobody’s, none of these were bad people. They’re all great people, just not great fits.
And I think one of the lessons I learned is that I used to always view letting someone go as a, just this like egregious, you know, tense event when in reality, you know, maybe this is just, clever woo-woo framing, I don’t know. But if they’re not thriving there, then you keeping them there is preventing them from being in a place that they really can from their next chapter. And while there may be pain in the moment for both sides, there is a net benefit to everyone being able to move on. So I mean, those are some of the hundreds, honestly, of lessons, things I would have done differently, I would have been quicker, especially to move on from people that just were not clearly were not working out, even if you really, really liked them and wanted them to. That’s a lesson that you, for me, anyways, you don’t learn until you’ve had to make that call and felt the immediate relief, you’re still sad, you’re still obviously the situation, you’re not happy about it. But the immediate weight off your shoulders, the minute that call is done, and it’s like, now we can begin again. And I hope those people felt to now I can begin again and find something that’s better for me. So those are some of the myriad things I continue to learn.
Kira Hug: Yeah, so I guess this is similar to Rob’s question. But what knowing everything you know now, all the wisdom you bring to business. So going back, let’s say you didn’t have case study buddy and you get your copywriting business back up and running. What would you do differently in that business with everything that you know now?
Joel Klettke: It’s I mean, it’s a lesson I’ve talked about before, right? When you’re coming in, I think I loved writing. and I wanted to write. I never saw a business case in it until I did and then it was my job. For so long I focused so much on being really the best I could be at the craft, which is not a mistake, but the reality is if you want to up your earning potential, if you want to get to a position of authority, if you want to command, You know, respect and dollars and all of that. You have to focus. Your focus is, yes, you obviously need the underlying talent and work in the craft. You have to become essentially a consultant. You control your destiny when you know enough about your own business and your own audience and your own offering that you can pitch it well, you can structure it well, you can come into businesses like you’re the person with the plan as opposed to being dictated to.
And so I don’t know that I necessarily regret the way that it played out because I think it was a natural learning curve. But had I known earlier on, the closer I get to that consultant type of title, the better I do in all regards. I think I would have made that a focus earlier on. I think beyond that, something that I mentioned earlier, I’ve always been a people pleaser. I went out on my own in 2013, so we’re past a decade into this now. I have easily lost six figures in revenue. being accommodating, being nice, not enforcing things I could have enforced, not having difficult conversations that probably should have been had, going above and beyond because I was nervous about my own value and ability to deliver. And so I think, you know, you don’t have to be an asshole. I think, you know, nice, nice guys and gals still can win. But you do cut yourself off at the knees often. when you shy away from any kind of conflict or tension or standing up for yourself. And I got good at that as time went on.
These days, I think I would have folded a lawn chair to some of the feedback that I’ve had to deal with over the past few years. if it was happening in my freelance and consulting kind of stuff. But getting used to the idea that you’re not going to make everyone happy, that issues are going to arise, that you don’t have to take every issue on the chin or give up your margin or give up your time just to make everything right. There are other ways to do that. I think I played a little too nice strictly on the business end. I don’t regret a moment of being nice to my peers or in communities or anything like that. That pays infinite dividends, but on the business end, being a people pleaser is a very expensive way to be.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, I may want to come back to that idea. You were talking, though, about the pathway to becoming a consultant. And I wonder if we could go deeper on that, Joel, because I think there are a lot of people who see themselves as copywriters. They would like to get to the consulting type projects, but they don’t see the pathway. They don’t know the steps. So I wonder if you could sort of step through how you did it yourself. What was it that you were doing to build your authority? What was it that you were doing to make the right connections? All of the various steps that get you from where you were to where you want to go.
Joel Klettke: I mean, before we talk authority and connections, let’s talk about the functional, like, how do I do consulting? Because that is a daunting question for people. And the simplest way I can try to frame it is think about everything that has to happen before you get a brief and do that stuff. Like, that’s really it. It’s, you know, before you get handed something to deliver against, somebody has to diagnose an issue. come up with a solution, hash out a process for solving and applying that solution, and then that very end piece is getting the people to actually put hands to the plow and do the work. If you want to be a consultant, the odds are very good you’re already doing aspects of it without being aware of it.
When you come into a situation, this is where things started to click for me when I realized I was starting to give advice, not just deliverables. I started to realize I have opinions and ideas and methodologies that I think people could apply to get this done. It started for me kind of innocuously thinking I should really be able to help people out with the customer research portion of that. I’m going to get good at that piece. Well, that led to the next puzzle piece, which is analyzing the data that came out of that. And that led to being able to make recommendations against that data. And that led to being able to sit in a boardroom and defend those recommendations to people who were, you know, maybe in conflict or maybe unsure of the path forward.
And that ultimately culminated in all right, now I’ve got this packaged up process for here is how we’re gonna do customer research. Here’s how we’re gonna do analysis. Here’s the report that you’re going to get. Here’s how that’s gonna play into your deliverables. Here’s how that’s gonna play in beyond our engagement. And so the simplest way to repeat is think about everything that happens before the brief and start focusing on how can I play even a role in one part of that? And you’ll know that you’re starting to get there when you see a project or you see a site or you see a company and things spring to mind for you based on your experience now having done the work of this is what I think you should do here and this is why. And when you can explain that why and articulate that why and come with a process for answering that why, that’s how you get there.
So it’s not the case that you put cart before the horse, like I’m just going to go make myself an authority and then people will trust me to consult. For me, it happened the opposite way around. It was I got very good at the craft and through that saw the opportunities for me to expand what I was doing. And then because of that, it led to, okay, now I feel comfortable because I’m already teaching in private. I’m teaching clients. I’m advising clients. Now I can translate that to the public. Speaking at events was massive. I still think in-person events are the most underrated way to grow your business, period, in a consulting or small business way.
But you also don’t have to wait for an event to come to you getting on podcasts, getting on LinkedIn, you know, like my mantra for literally almost a decade now has been solve problems in public. That is consulting, that is authority building, that is the single sentence approach I have taken for the past 10 plus years to positioning myself as someone who is known for and understood to be capable of solving a problem. It’s just doing that over and over and over in a public forum, be it social media, be it speaking events, be it one-on-one with people be it, you know, for years I did free audits just to sharpen my tools and then those transitioned into paid audits and having that as an offering, you know, that’s easy to pick off a shelf, you know, productized audit offering is brilliant for venturing into the world of consulting. But I think, yeah, don’t get the two mixed up. Don’t start with the public stuff and go, I’ll figure out how to do the consulting later. That’s how shysters and faux gurus emerge. take what you’re doing and bring it out to the world.
Kira Hug: Yeah. I like how simple it is just to think about, okay, if I’m giving, if I find myself giving advice to my clients frequently, that’s a good sign that I might be ready for consulting. And that’s a different timeline for everyone. It could be one year for someone, and then it could be 10 years for the next person. And that’s, that’s okay. Um, I want to go back to what you shared initially. I wrote it down. Uh, you said, I was trying to figure out how to be this person in this way. You were talking about what, when you were figuring out the next steps and you, it sounds like you were having some friction as far as like, I’ve already hit the top of the game. Where do I go from here? You didn’t say this, but it’s also like people are watching. You’ve got a great reputation. So could you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that? Cause I can relate to that.
Joel Klettke: Yeah. I mean, so, you know, I’m not arrogant enough to think that I was like the best copywriter in the world, but I had gotten to a place where I think you are. Thank you. But I’d gotten to a place where I was doing the thing. I was up there. When I would be in a room of other copywriters and we were talking about who we were working with and what we were able to charge, I found myself in league with the top 5% of the people in that conversation. That was a wonderful place to be, but it came with this enormous amount of pressure. It’s kind of like how as a kid, everyone wants to be famous, and then famous people want to retreat back into obscurity, because this is not the deal I thought I was getting here.
I’ve talked before, I think even on this podcast, about the idea of toxic perfectionism, and how much that ruled the roost for me. I needed at that point It wasn’t just I wanted, it was like mentally I could not accept for myself putting out anything other than what I felt like this is exceptional, this is my best work to date. And while that is like a great motivator for a time, there comes a point where that is actively tripping you up and destroying your ability to deliver anything. I found myself more than ever staring at that blinking cursor thing, I have no idea what I’m doing. When in theory, I know more than ever what I’m doing.
I found myself falling into just patterns, the same tired ways of approaching things. My creativity went out the window because that felt like a risk. I was so worried that If I deviated from what I had done so far or if I moved away, if I took a really big swing and I whiffed on it, the stakes felt like, well, before I was playing in the little league and it was no big deal. If I whiff on this for this multi-billion dollar brand, well then that I’m ruined. And none of that is true. But I went through this whole, when you’re new to the game, the thing you fear most is critical feedback. Then you get in, for me anyways, kind of this groove where you’re not really getting that as much anymore. It’s like, I’m killing it. I’m doing great. And then you’re right back all of a sudden where you’re like, the thing you fear most is critical feedback because you feel like, well, they came to me for who this persona of me is, and this level of work is, and if I can’t deliver that, who am I, and why did they work with me, and all of this.
So I remember I was on retainer for this company, and some of the nicest folks in the world. And I remember just having to tell them, I’m hitting a wall mentally, and I’m sorry, and everything was coming across to them late, and they were thrilled with the work, but I became such a critic of myself that it started to inhibit my ability to deliver. And it was at that point where I realized, I think I’m in a place where I need to back away from the production to fall in love with something again, because I’m not loving the craft. I’m not loving the business side. I’m not loving the anxiety that’s coming with this. I appreciate the money, but I can, for me, I felt confident I can make money other ways now. I’ve learned enough that I can do other things.
And so at that point, it was like I just needed a change. And since then, I’ve learned a lot of really talented copywriters have gone through the same thing where they just needed to get out of production because they didn’t love it anymore. They weren’t enjoying it anymore. And then sure enough, everybody comes back around and ebbs and flows, right? It’s still a part of who you are. But I needed to take the pressure off. And for me, ironically, the risk of running a multi-person business felt like less pressure than trying to deliver continually at this, you know, I’ll call it elite personal level. I just, I needed to change things.
Kira Hug: What year was that roughly?
Joel Klettke: I think things are really coming to a head 2020, 2021, like again, right before the pandemic, you know, the last Full copywriting project I did. I’m still proud of it. They still have a bunch of the copy live. It was for a company called Era. It was a digital marketing agency out of the UK. I’m thrilled with the work that came out for that. And I think part of the reason why that project went so well is I was already treating it like my last hurrah. It’s like, this is my swan song for consulting and freelancing for a while. It gave me a definitive exit point. And so it took some of the pressure off. And I’m still really pleased with the lines that we came up with together there. And I think it’s done well for them.
Kira Hug: I was also going to ask what you’d recommend to someone who’s in that stage. I mean, you said it helped to do something else. I guess there’s always an opportunity to do something else. But some people might not be able to make that pivot quite yet. Are there any other alternatives that could help them?
Joel Klettke: I mean, we put so many artificial rules and barriers on ourself. The reality is like, you don’t have to, I mean, you can apply in so many different ways. I started doing, that was around when I started really leaning into the audit offer because I enjoyed that more. I liked the problem solving of diagnosis where I could then pass that off to someone to do the production and Run with it. You can decide in that moment, like, hey, for a month or for six months, I’m only going to do small business websites for three grand. Like you, you can decide. Right. The worst thing I think you can tell yourself is that you don’t have options because realistically you do. You have the years of experience and energy and effort and connections that brought you to that point. That’s not worthless, right?
And odds are if you have arrived at that point and you are delivering that kind of work, you are not just good at copy. You are not just good at content. There are, whether you realize it or not, other things that you are doing or delivering that you can lean into. If you are going to continue to try to do the exact same thing, In the exact same way, get a good therapist, I guess. I mean, connect with peers. Find some other people who are in a similar situation and talk about what you’re seeing. And if your nervousness is stemming from the fear of feedback or the fear that the work is not good enough, have friends that will evaluate it before it ever gets to the client, have people who will both cheer you on and show you where you need to level up. Because I think part of the thing that was isolating for me in that season two is we have the mastermind and we’ve got our group of friends, but everyone in that group was so busy doing their other amazing stuff.
I really lost a sense of community and then the pandemic obliterated it. And so suddenly I made myself an island. I have trouble being vulnerable at the best of times, maybe more so in the past, especially when I was in that very perfectionist stage. But that just ramped it up. And that was the enemy. When you’re in your own head, your only choices are to either switch what you’re doing or get out of your head in some other way by taking that work or that stress or those questions to other people who get it. And that’s the interesting thing too, is like, From the outside looking in, the people that you admire in the space have it all figured out, and they’re doing great, and they’re crushing it. I promise you that they’re all going through their own waves and tribulations of, am I even good at this?
Rob Marsh: Yeah, it’d be nice if there was a secret code for those who act like we’ve got it all figured out in some ways. would be us having figured it all out. So Joel, as I’ve watched you over, I mean, we’ve known each other now for seven or eight years, and I’ve watched you literally build two different kinds of businesses. One as a copywriter, I suppose, even stretching back as an SEO consultant before that, but as a copywriter who really gets to the top of his game, You’ve built this agency, this case study buddy agency that, again, feels, at least from the outside, like you have gotten to the top of your game. Is there a preference between the kinds of business? If you said, OK, and we kind of asked this question before, but you’ve lost everything, would you want to go back to being more of a copywriter? Would you want to build a product company of some kind? This is a really terrible way to ask the question, I guess, but how would you compare those options and what would you choose knowing what you know from doing both?
Joel Klettke: There’s some really important things I’ve learned that would inform that decision. I think number one, the season of your life matters enormously. Like had you asked me this question in my 20s, I still would have gone back to the individual business because the freedom that allowed me to travel and experience life in my 20s and not be accountable to other people, the ease of Cash, honestly, when you don’t have overhead, when it is just you, when the only person you have to look out for is yourself, that’s very attractive. And even now, right, if things were to close down tomorrow, I think there is a safety and a confidence that comes in knowing I can do it on my own. And that’s very attractive.
The honest truth is, I really believe if you want to make the most near-term money possible with the least amount of anxiety, consulting is the way to do it. Because you’re not worried about building a team and building out other processes. You have complete control over everything, what you say goes. And so it still remains very attractive. The difference for me now is it comes down to aspirations. Part of what I wouldn’t trade at all about the multi-person business side of things is we have an incredible team. The people that I get to work with and learn from and be humbled by and argue with and all of that, there’s a real community element to a business and growing something bigger than yourself. I make less now than I did consulting by a lot. a lot. Like in my, I have no problem, you know, talking numbers. This is not a flex, but like in my best years of consulting, I brought in, you know, about 300,000 Canadian. So USD helped me out a bit, um, with what I would call like serious.
Rob Marsh: Something like that. Yeah.
Joel Klettke: Um, but you know, like I don’t, I do not bring anything remotely close to that home. In fact, I’m grateful I had such fat years on the business casual side because it’s allowed for some lean and challenging years on the case study buddy side of things. When things really cooled off, 2022, November, October, in the B2B world, having that to know was there was huge. But the people aspect of growing a business, the opportunity for legacy, and honestly, just like, I think the hardest thing for me right now is I don’t really view myself as a copywriter anymore because there’s so much that I have learned outside of that craft. I can still do it. I’m still very confident I could sharpen my knives and go back and be an assassin in that space.
But I think I know more now. I can do more now. I’ve taken on, in my view, harder challenges now and more diverse. I’ve solved more diverse problems. And so for me, If I’m going to go into anything consulting, it’s not going to be as a writer. If I’m going to build something new, it’s a more linear application of the things I’m learning and growing and doing now. I feel like I can do and be more. I feel like if I was ever going to go in-house, I could legitimately be in the C-suite or I could be in a founding partner’s environment. I think for me, these days, the potential rewards of a multi-person business outstrip the flexibility of the consultancy, but I’ll tell you, if times ever got tough, man, am I glad that I could go elbows out and provide. It’s a wonderful thing to know you can fall back on.
Kira Hug: Yeah, I think that’s what allows us to take risks as copywriters and consultants. It’s like we can, we have that confidence that we can go back to it at any time if we need it, um, which is really nice. So you mentioned cooling off and you know, I think a lot of copywriters can relate to that phrase over the last year, especially 2023 was difficult for a lot of writers. So how did you deal with it mindset wise? Like how do you stay strong mentally, emotionally when, um, you know, the business turns and it’s out of your control in some ways. I know we always control something. How did you deal with that?
Joel Klettke: Let’s talk about the headwinds facing coveters now, especially if you’re in the B2B space. I think first, the one everyone, you know, the big elephant in the room is AI. And I don’t care who you are, if you’re not concerned about the impact of AI on the way that you do things, you’re not paying attention.
Kira Hug: It took us 40 minutes to mention it. So I’m proud of us. We lasted three minutes.
Joel Klettke: when some of the sharpest tools in the shed are concerned and talking about it, if you’re like, nah, this will blow over, you are an ostrich. You are an ostrich. Okay, there’s this whole AI giant looming in the corner, then there’s the economic conditions and inflation and companies cutting spend, and that rocked through end of 2022 all the way through 2023, and we’re still now seeing layoffs into 2024.
Now, that stuff does end. It doesn’t go on forever. And you can weather that storm very differently depending on your situation. If you’re a consultant you have or a copywriter, you can be very scrappy. You can change on a dime. You can redefine your offering. You can go after a new vertical. You can move very fast. The position that I found myself in is we’re not even a big company, but we can’t overnight pivot and be like, we’re now case study plus buddy. It’s not a thing. How do you weather it? How do you come out? I think the first thing is something I get right a lot and something I struggle with very much still, and that’s mindset.
An area I got that right is from the moment I first really mucked around with chat GPT, my posture towards it has been like, I need to be curious about this, informed and equipped, not terrified. And that has served me really, really well. Because you can shake your fist at the clouds, and humans are always going to be the best. And so you are an ostrich. You are not paying attention. Because AI doesn’t have to steal your job to change your job, or change the perception of your job, or change the process behind your job. And so approaching that with an air of curiosity and what if, as opposed to just shutting down.
In the early stages, I remember chats with Lianna Patch and just being terrified at seeing some of the things come out. It’s been like, holy cow. And we’re in the earliest iterations of this, and both of us have chosen curiosity, and both of us are better for it. So I think that’s one thing, is being curious about the potential as opposed to being terrified at the, I guess, the potential. You choose your posture there. I think, quite honestly, Navigating the slowdown has meant making harder and new decisions and trying to have a mindset of, this isn’t growth financially, but this is growth personally. I am learning and proving to myself that I can do hard things. It is never fun. I don’t care who you are, unless you’re some kind of psychopath. It’s never fun having to go to people and telling them, we don’t have enough work. We need to let you go. That’s never a fun conversation. It’s one I’ve had to have. It is never a fun conversation getting on a call with a client and all of a sudden, a relationship that was based on value is now being boiled down to a price point and that both neither side really has a say.
And so, some of the lessons I’ve taken away from this are things like always have more than one point of contact in a company. that knows you well because the number of people that got let go that were our primary people and then we had no voice in that conversation was harsh. It really hurt us. I think looking for ways you can be flexible without, you know, like what are your unbendable rules and where can you adapt for a season? I think that really matters. I think a bias toward action, again, you don’t want to overreact, but if you hold on too long in hopes, well, maybe it’ll turn around, maybe it’ll turn around, maybe it’ll turn around, like no, like act. It’s hard to make calls like we have to let someone go or we need to change the model.
But the longer you sit on it and stew on it, the more difficult it gets to ever make that call till you’re really painted into a corner. And then I think the other really hard lesson that I learned and continue to learn is we grew so much, so much under our own steam word of mouth. We had it made in the shade in terms of being one of only a small handful of competitors in the space. And so we had good name recognition. I had a good you know authority in the market you feel like that stuff is going to fill your boots forever it is not and so one of the regrets i have is not really investing in a good sales and marketing engine in the fat times because boy do you really, it’s much harder to stand that stuff up in the lean times.
And so, I’ve been humbled quite a bit by the reality of it does not matter how strong your market position is today, how much brand name equity you carry, how much authority you wield on social, when the rubber really hits the road and times get really tough, that is not going to carry you. And again, I’m grateful for that lesson because, for example, it got me doing things that I had never, never thought we’d be doing. Cold outreach, I was like, no way. I’m never going to touch that. I’m probably on the record being like, I’m never going to cold pitch my life. You can just build a business. Everyone comes to you. You can. That’s not going to last. So we got into cold email, for example. That was a humbling experience. And to see it actually work, was another humbling experience. Because like, yeah, here’s a massive bias I had that like, I was wrong. And so that I’ll close this rambling thought off with that, like, getting to a place in your career, some people comes really easy. For me, it did not where you’re okay, being wrong. Pretty important. Because the longer you you stay doggedly committed to your current perception of things, the more screwed you can find yourself.
Rob Marsh: So Joel, I’ve noticed over, maybe it’s the last four or five months, maybe it’s been going on longer, you’re doing some fun things with AI and image and your own personal brand. So I’m to the point now where if I see a black and red checkered shirt, a bald head and glasses, I know it’s from you, regardless of whether it’s on a Muppet or it’s in a stained glass or something else. Tell us, what are you doing with that? What are the tools that you’re using and why? Why are you putting your image in the Twittersphere or in LinkedIn so much?
Joel Klettke: Yeah. I always wanted to be good at art. Like I always wanted to be good at drawing. I always wanted to be good at like sculpture. My wife would say I give up too quickly. What I have is like, I have what I think is good taste. I know something’s cool when I see it, but if you leave it to me to visually create that thing, I admire designers so much because their brains are so deconstructive. They can take something that they see the end point of, break it down to its core elements, and then rebuild it. What a skill set. I don’t have that visually.
So knowing that about me, the thing that always held me back was the skill set, not the ideas, and I didn’t have time to cultivate it. And so one of the first things I got really interested in with AI was this whole incredible phenomenon of like, being able to generate a visual just from text. To me, that is still magic. For the religious folks in the room, the whole notion of God spoke it into existence and there it was, to me, this is, on a microcosm level, the closest thing you’re going to get to, not that we’re mini gods or anything, but to me, that’s just incredible. It’s mind-boggling that that’s possible. And so I started mucking around with it. I was like, well, what’s the potential? I was curious. What can I create? and I started playing around originally with Midjourney and I was pretty impressed by the crazy things that would come out and it was all kind of for a laugh I was like mostly creating stuff that was like outlandish or like characters for my kids and then I always wanted to have visuals for all my posts on LinkedIn, because it’s like free real estate. You might as well use it. It’s there. It can draw eyeballs.
So originally, if you look back at my posts, you’re going to see this weird hodgepodge of like there’s a Muppet funeral, and then there’s like monsters chasing people through the woods. I was just searching for like, what can I do here? And what works? And then I got curious. I started to see other people. on LinkedIn have these branded elements, like Ramli John, he has for his podcast, this pixel, you know it’s him the minute you see that thing. For the guys at Refine Labs, you know the aesthetic of their videos and that set up the minute you see it. I was like, can I recreate that feeling, but with AI? Can I build a personal brand out of AI generated imagery. And I needed to find, I was like, the problem that I have, I’m not, number one, I’m not good at this. Like I’m not a prompt engineer that I can like do weightings and like little pro like I, I needed the most brain dead simple thing.
And then Coincidentally, DALL-E within chat GPT rolled out and it blew my mind because for the first like mid-journey, you still had to treat like you were programming something. DALL-E was like, I could speak plain English and I could get something cool. And then I could refine it and I could get something great. And that was like the catalyst. I’m like, okay, I need some consistent elements. I can’t consistently generate my own face. Thankfully, I’m like a pretty generic white bald guy. So that works to my advantage. It was like, what repeatable elements could I bring into this? And that’s what I settled on is I’ve got this red plaid shirt that I’ve given talks in. I’m always going to be wearing black square glasses or something close to it. And I’m always going to be bald. Let’s bring those things in. And my thought was, I’m not going to go for photorealism. I’m going to go for styles where there’s a trick of the art that makes it believable that it’s me, whether that’s anime, claymation, a stuffy. There’s this acceptability factor of, yeah, that could be Joel. And do that enough. I thought maybe people will start to write, so I started testing it out. It took two weeks for people to notice. That’s it. after 14 days of consistently posting that people should say, I love the, like I tune in for the images and then I read the post. I’m like, that, that’s wild to me.
Um, so I’ve fallen off a little bit with keeping that up, but once I had like established it as like a person, then I now had the bandwidth where I could show like all white business shirts and then a red and plaid shirt hanging in the middle. And people who’ve been following me would make the connection. Like that’s, I get what he’s doing there. Or similarly, I could just take the base elements. It started full and then I started to take pieces away until it was just the shirt, just the glasses. Now, I’m getting to the point where I’m curious if I can just have plaid and see if it still connects. So, it’s been this whole experiment that’s been really fun. And AI has been a really cool tool for it because while I’ll never be able to draw or make art like that, and I have so much respect for the artists and we can get into the ethics of like who I’m technically stealing from as I do this, but that was the, that was the experiment. And if you take nothing else away from that, if you do something consistently 14 times in public, people will start associating it with you. Like it doesn’t take much. It really doesn’t.
Kira Hug: It’s such a great idea because I’ve messed around with so many different images using AI, but I didn’t think about, we’ve branded it for campaigns, but I’ve never branded it around my own identity. And that’s such a great way to show up. So I’m going to swipe that and experiment.
Rob Marsh: I’ve tried to swipe it. I don’t know. I’ve got the blue shirt, the blue collared shirt. I also have black glasses that I wear at least when I’m on camera. But I’m struggling with the – I don’t have the bald head. So the gray hair thing – You have short gray hair. When I play around with Mid-Journey, though, it keeps making me want to be Superman. And when I do it in Dali, it always gives me a beard. And it doesn’t, I’m just like, I keep pushing back.
Kira Hug: Because you should have a beard. You should grow your beard.
Rob Marsh: Maybe so. So I’m still in the learning stages, Jewel, but I’m looking forward to when people start to recognize whatever it is that I come up with.
Kira Hug: You need Converse sneakers, Rob. You need the sneakers in there.
Rob Marsh: Yeah, maybe it’s the sneakers.
Kira Hug: All right. So I want to go into burnout because I don’t want to not talk about that. And I going way back, like way back, you know, you had your trip and you can tell me what year to New Zealand. You took time away. And, um, I believe that was to just, you know, deal with some burnout and just focus more on life. I’m wondering how you deal with burnout these days, considering that you have this significantly larger company with all these employees that we’ve talked about. You have three kids now. That’s a change from last episode. So are there any habits, anything you can share with us that may help us deal with burnout?
Joel Klettke: Yeah. So that trip happened and that, you know, I, I continued to work a little bit through that period, but that was really, yeah, a moment of acknowledgement that just, there’s other things I want to do with life. I’ve worked really hard. I’ve earned the opportunity to like be fully remote and to take advantage of this. Um, And so we did that. I think burnout shows up in different ways for different people. And recognizing how it’s showing up in you becomes really, really critical. Because for some people, it’s overt, they feel it, they’re tired, they’re, you know, it’s it’s this cloud. I think one of the toughest lessons for me is realizing, especially with like a growing family, that burnout would come out as anger at times. And I’m not, you know, I never considered myself an angry person till I found myself in situations where I’m like, my response to what’s happening in this situation is so disproportionate to the situation. And it’s not acceptable.
Like I’m not okay with being this person right now. Um, And so I think I don’t have the novelty of just like dropping everything and going to New Zealand. Like you said, I’ve got a growing family. I’ve got a company that’s now reliant on, you know, not solely on me, but like I have a critical role to play. And so it took a lot of mindset changes for me. I grew up pretty, not like mocking of, but just like never felt like I would be the kind of person to get counseling. It’s like, that’s not really for me. I invested in it because I got to the point where I’m just like, I have friends, I have community to some degree, but I need somewhere to take this stuff. And so that was one of the things that I invested in that I think honestly, everybody, it’s the cliche, but everybody should. be in counseling at some point in their lives.
So I think looking at what resources are available to me in that way. I think transparently, burnout and stress and anxiety, it’s a really true to life thing right now. This is a very stressful period in the business. Some days I deal with it great, some days I don’t. I think I’m more aware as I get older. I’m 36, I’m not ancient, but I’m very aware of the mind-body connection at this point. We’re getting out and moving, prioritizing exercise, prioritizing walking. I started an adventure club with my kids to get us. We have a little ravine across from our place and we go try to spot animals down there. We hardly ever see anything, but we’re still waiting on the day that we, we, there have been deer and stuff. So they, they do exist.
I think my kids are starting to think I’m just tricking them, but. You know, like finding little ways to involve those around you in the way you cope with that, but in a healthy way. I’m not yelling at my kids, but Adventure Club is like a much better manifestation of like, hey, I need to get out and I need to just not do this thing. I think another key component to all of this is I’m married now and my burnout affects my spouse. Again, I’m not great or haven’t historically been great at being vulnerable or asking for help. I think just fostering that dynamic with Courtney and being able to say, I’m not doing great. This is not a good day for me. My headspace is off. Can we team up today?” You can imagine with three kids and her full-time momming, she has her own days of well-earned burnout. So nurturing that dynamic and being able to have conversations there, I think is really important.
Then coming full circle, I kind of alluded to this, but community is such a big thing. For years, I tried to loan Wolfit, then through the pandemic, a lot of the community I had got obliterated. you know, seeking that out. When you’re younger, things like going out to a local marketing drinks, you know, event just kind of feels like networking. These days, it feels a lot like therapy, because you’re meeting with people and you’re getting out of your day to day and you’re commiserating and you’re talking and even if you’re not drinking anything, or you’re just there for the people, which is largely where I’m at these days. There’s something to be said for just like changing your environment, changing your headspace, being amongst others who are going through the same thing and having those conversations and realizing like, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not just you. You know, that kind of thing. So it’s still a struggle. I think my anxiety and my blood pressure probably both higher than they’ve ever been. But finding healthier ways to navigate that is something I’m, you know, I’m committed to because I have people depending on me, both in the business and outside of it. So it’s important.
Rob Marsh: My question really is, okay, Joel, so what is next for you? You know, what are you working on? I know, um, case study, buddy, still a thing and still a huge part of your life. Um, but, uh, where else is your brain going?
Joel Klettke: Yeah. I mean, I’m in a season where, um, you know, like I said, I alluded to like, it’s, it’s a tough, tough market for everybody. If you’re on the outside, Looking at Case Study Buddy, the impression would be, I hope people feel like we’re a market leader, like we’re doing great work, but that can be true and you can still be struggling. Part of my duty, obligation, and drive is to put Case Study Buddy on a great path and keep it going. I don’t have imminent plans to leave the company or anything like that, but I think both Jen and I are pretty open about the fact that it’s not what we’re going to do forever, at least not the only thing we’re going to do. I think long term, there’s other things that I want to explore. I’ve cultivated this set of skills now over time in business building and in writing and in other areas that make me an asset to others building businesses.
And so I’m still, you know, it’s like the cliche, but there’s still courses that I would love to publish. There’s still work that I would love to do. Um, you know, I could see myself potentially, you know, I don’t, I don’t know what the future holds, but I could see myself working nicely with others who want to build. And, you know, I think the part of the business bone that I really love most is the beginning, laying the foundation, getting things going. I could see myself in a place where I’m partnering with some folks to build up businesses and brands and get them momentum. I think that’s the part that’s most exciting for me.
But I remain open to anything really. There’s still parts of consulting that excite me. There’s still parts of copy that excite me. And while I don’t think I’ll ever, I mean, knock on wood, you never say never. Well, I don’t think I’ll ever find myself in a full-time copywriting role ever again. I still want to write for fun. I still want to be part of crafting that messaging. I still want to take the tools I’ve earned through that period and apply them in different ways. So yeah, I don’t know what’s next, but I think where I’m at these days, where my head is at is more I like to build brands. I like to build companies. If I could be like the bald, less attractive Ryan Reynolds and be out there helping get things going, I think I’d have a lot of fun with that. And I think that’s something new is this desire in the future to prioritize not just what’s profitable, but also what’s fun. You get to live once and you don’t even know how long you get to do that, so you might as well enjoy it while you can.
Rob Marsh: The next image I’m looking forward to seeing you post in LinkedIn is going to be the Joel Klepke Deadpool crossover.
Joel Klettke: Yeah, he’ll be in plaid. It’ll be a plaid suit. I’ll have to find a creative way to get past the filters on that one, but I’ll give it a go.
Kira Hug: All right, so as we wrap, we’ve talked, you know, touched on AI. And I’d love to hear from you, your perspective on the future of copywriting, in terms of I guess, in terms of thinking about what we should do, what we should be prepared for, from your perspective, and maybe what we should consider more than what we have.
Joel Klettke: Yeah, my perspective on this is going to be different from others, so don’t just listen to me. I am firmly in the camp that we are early days on all of this, that it’s only going to get better, that the barrier to entry is only going to get lower, and that the output is only going to get stronger. You still need people to think, you still need people to decide, you still need people with experience and taste to know what is good and know what may perform, but the mechanical writing bit as a competitive advantage is only going to erode. more and more and more.
And while you can despair about that, and I certainly went through my own period of being like, but I spent so much time and energy learning, choosing to approach it through a lens of curiosity, and how can this accelerate what I’m doing How can I use it to iterate? How can I use it as an extension of who I am and what makes me a great writer as opposed to calling it the death of my career? I think what’s so interesting is people who get really good at writing, so many of them want to start teams and agencies. And what are you doing when you do that? You’re outsourcing the product side of it, right? You are assuming a strategy role.
Well, what difference is it if the person doing the writing as a person or a machine. So I’m in the camp, kind of in the same territory with the Stefan Georgis of the world, where it’s like, I think we are going to get to a point that the mechanics part of it, it’s not an advantage. It’s accessible to everyone. I think in many ways, we’re already there. I continue to be astounded. But in the same breath, I think the craft of copywriting is safe. I think It takes skill and talent and passion and devotion to understand why things work and why something might work. I think we continue to be surprised by what lands and there’s still this whole human psychology to it. There’s still this whole very intriguing, like what is it that gets a beating heart to respond to a written word that I think there is still so much of a playground there to be explored that just because AI might be helping accelerate the actual production doesn’t mean that the craft is over, the craft is dead.
I think the more you can be acting like a consultant and investing yourself in the curiosity of why does this work, the what if, the more you treat it like a playground and not a minefield, I think the more exciting life gets. Because realistically, if you’re writing ads for Google, you need coffee breaks and sleep. An AI doesn’t. It can churn out a thousand ideas. And while 998 of them will be awful, two of them will be great. It just needs a tiny margin. So Yeah, I still think it’s worth getting into the field. I still think it’s worth cultivating curiosity. I still think it’s worth honing the craft so that you can be someone who directs. next things to come. That’s where I sit. Others will disagree. They think we’re reaching the pinnacle of what AI can achieve on the written word and that there’s not that much further that realistically it can go. I don’t know anything about the technical aspects of that. All I know is today, I can ask a machine to give me a picture of a bald guy wearing glasses, riding a moose, and it can do that. And if it can do that now, I can’t even imagine what’s possible in 10 years. I’m not going to write anything off.
Rob Marsh: That’s the end of our interview with Joel Kletke. The first time that he was on the podcast, Joel gave us some advice that still resonates with me today. He talked about how if you can solve real problems for your clients, you don’t need to start out charging beginner rates, even if you’re just starting out in business. The value that you create is in the solutions that you bring to the table, not the years of experience that you have. Now, those are my words, not Joel’s, but that was the message that he shared, and you should definitely check out that episode. It was number 21 in your podcast feed.
It’s worth emphasizing one or two other things from today’s interview that stood out, at least they stood out to me. Talking about hiring, Joel said that you can do everything right in the hiring process and it will still not work out. This is such an important lesson and unfortunately, we all seem to need to learn it on our own. Even when we hear others say it, we almost always have to go through the process to internalize it. It’s so hard to just hear it and apply it. Good people are not always a good fit. They are almost certainly a good fit in other situations, though, and when you part with them, you give them the opportunity to find that better fit. Trying to be nice or overly patient, giving extra chances, that just prolongs the decision and it doesn’t make it easier. In fact, it actually makes it harder to do.
I also appreciate our discussion about growing your influence. That portion of this podcast is worth listening to at least twice. It’s not about the audience. It’s about your capability and your skills. That absolutely has to come first. We’ve all seen the 22-year-old life coach dispensing advice that comes across as ridiculous to anyone with a decade or two of experience, or the marketers and copywriters who, once they have a few clients, they immediately create a course that supposedly teaches others how to mimic their success. Just because you’ve done it once doesn’t mean that you can do it again and again, especially as situations change or as clients change. Spend a few years perfecting your craft, learning how to diagnose big problems for a variety of clients and creating solutions for them and doing it over and over enough that it becomes secondhand. Then go out and tell the world.
Now, I want to be clear. I’m not saying that you can’t share your journey or that you must wait until you’re a credentialed expert before you can develop a social presence or speak on stage or do any of those things to build your authority. Of course, you can do that stuff too. But the emphasis is on building your expertise and your capabilities. becoming the expert before you say you’re the expert.
Okay, thanks to Joel for joining us to chat about his business and some of the challenges that he’s worked to overcome over the last couple of years. If you wanna connect with Joel, the best way to do that is on LinkedIn. You can also find him on Twitter where he posts more fun and experimental stuff. He’s definitely worth a follow there. And if you wanna see what he’s created at Case Study Buddy or want to learn more about writing case studies, go to casestudybuddy.com where there are a ton of resources to get you started.
Just a quick reminder that The Copywriter Underground is the best place to find the resources and coaching you need to grow your copywriting business. You can learn more at thecopyrighterclub.com/TCU.
That’s the end of this episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast. The intro music was composed by copywriter and songwriter Addison Rice. The outro was composed by copywriter and songwriter David Muntner. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard, please visit Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to the show to leave a review.
Thanks for listening. We will see you next week.