In the eighth episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast, Kira and Rob talk with content creator Dan Foley, one of the co-founders of Tailored Ink. Dan talks about the best sandwiches in New York City as well as the challenges of building a writing agency and what he thinks makes a great writer. This is one of our shorter episode (partly due to an audio malfunction) so it’s an easy one to check out…
Click the play button below, or scroll down for a full transcript.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:Tailored Ink
The New York Sandwich Project
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
Intro: Content (for now)
KH: What if you could hang out with really talented copywriters and other experts, ask them about their successes and failures, their work processes, and their habits, then steal an idea or two to inspire your own work? That’s what Rob and I try to do every week at The Copywriter Club Podcast.
RM: You’re invited to join the club for episode eight as we chat with Dan Foley, founder of Tailored Ink, about starting a writing agency, landing big name clients like Uber, Google, and Salesforce, and perhaps a thought or two about the best sandwiches in New York City.
KH: Hey, Rob. Hey, Dan. How’s it going?
RM: Hey, Dan.
DF: Hi, Kira. Hi, Rob. How you guys doing? Thanks for having me on.
RM: We’re glad to have you.
KH: Yeah. I feel like we should start with the best sandwiches in New York City. That’s clearly the most important part of this entire conversation.
RM: That’s right. Dan, you used to keep a blog. I think you called it “The Sandwich Project.” I don’t know if you’ve updated it recently, but I looked through … I’m a big fan of sandwiches and looked through it. I’m jealous that I don’t live in New York City where I can try all of these places that you’ve recommended. Tell us about your favorite sandwiches.
DF: Oh, man. It’s like picking a favorite child, right? You have so many … The reason why I started this project was I just moved here from South Korea, and I wanted to do something to put me on the New York writing map, but something that was benign, and relaxed, and fun. When I lived in Korea, there were no good sandwiches. They had great food, but sandwiches weren’t one of them, so what I did was I started exploring the city, and what I found was finding the best sandwich was impossible, but maybe finding the best type of a sandwich was great.
Like for instance, my favorite burger was at this restaurant called “Minetta Tavern” that’s over in like West Village, Greenwich Village area, and it was just this knockout burger. The cool thing was the restaurant was a place where Hemingway and writers like that used to like hang out, and drink, and eat burgers, so it had that very writerly feel to it as well.
RM: That’s cool.
KH: Is this website or blog still going? Do you still venture out and find the best sandwiches?
DF: Because I’ve been so busy running the company, I haven’t had as much time, but I did … So, I do actually have two or three posts that will be pending and will be coming out in early 2017, so yeah. Be looking for those for sure.
KH: That’s great. Yeah.
RM: Can we get a big list of places to check out the next time that I am in the city so I can check them out?
DF: Oh, absolutely.
KH: Yeah, so now, Rob you have to visit this winter. We’ll hang.
RM: That’s right. Yeah, we’ll be there. We’ll be there soon. Dan, you mentioned you started this as a benign writing project, but you’re obviously doing something a lot bigger now. Tell us a little bit about Tailored Ink and just maybe the genesis of that idea.
DF: I’ve been working as a freelance writer part-time, but I wanted to … I want to try to get back to my roots, and one of the reasons why became … why I was an English major in college was because I wanted to teach, and so what I ended up doing was I was teaching high school English in La Bronx and freelance writing on the side. I start to realize that I liked the writing element of it much better than I like the teaching element, but I was finding that finding agencies that would give me consistent work and challenging assignments that fulfilled me were tough to find.
Then, what ended up happening was a buddy of mine who had taught English with me out in South Korea approached me because he was living in New York too. He said, “Hey, I’ve heard some of your stuff, and I like what you’re putting out there,” and he’s like, “I’ve been doing the freelance writing thing too.” He was working at The Economist at the time, and he said, “Hey, listen. I think if you and I put our heads together, we could come up with something. We could come up with our own writing agency, and we could do it. We could do it better. We could do it smarter. We could do it our own way.” I told him that was a fantastic idea, but it’s nerve-racking, the idea of starting your own business when you’re two English majors who have no formal business experience, whatsoever, so I was a little hesitant, but he kept harping on.
We started to like go back and forth, and flush out the idea, and the idea that we came up with that we both realized that we thought could be successful was we create a boutique writing agency that does the one rule that you’re not supposed to do which is you create a generalist writing agency where you can say yes to any assignment, but the reason that you can say yes to any assignment is because you have a crop of freelance writers who were all at the top of their game.
What we tried to do was recruit our friends and our former colleagues that we knew that were in … were writing for The New York Times, or working at The Economist, or who were in MFA programs, or had published substantial things. We tried to hit different people and different verticals, and once we started establishing this dream team, it started going from seeming like a scary outlandish idea to something that was very possible.
KH: I think, Dan, what really impressed me when I was checking out your website was just, like you said, the caliber of writers that you’ve attracted, and I saw … Also, the diverse group. You have legal writers. You have proofreaders, creative writers, web producers, so it sounds like you pulled them in from your network, but how do you attract them because I think … I would think it would be hard to really attract a freelancer who may love their independence, and may have already left the nine-to-five, and just wants freedom, and doesn’t want to fit in to somebody else’s mold, so how do you attract them? How do you keep them? How do you keep them happy financially and just really with their work so they’re excited about it?
DF: Yeah, it’s definitely tough. We definitely have had writers who … Actually, funny you say that. We’ve had writers who have worked with us freelance, and then gone off to the … actually, gone off to the nine-to-five afterwards because they found the freelance lifestyle was too daunting for them, so we’ve had both, which is funny, and then they usually end up coming back to us and writing in their free time after the nine-to-five, but what we found for retention and for keeping our writers happy are few things.
One, we only try to give them assignments and clients that they tend to resonate with. It’s a very no-pressure approach. It’s, “Hey, listen. We have …” We come up with a … or slough of writing assignments. We figure out who can do each one, and we like to have a backup person in each area in case of someone is overloaded with other assignments or maybe someone is … I had a buddy of mine who decided to take a hiatus and just take off to China for two or three months, and that was fine.
We have a deep enough staff of writers that we can cover most things. Also, we try to pay them a fair rate given their experience. We tend to go anywhere from … The low point tends to be maybe like $40 or $50 a piece if they’re a new writer, and it’s a low-pressure assignment all the way up to like $250 a piece if it’s like a blog post that requires some research and they’re at the top of their game, and so we have a wide range or what we are willing to pay our writers, and that’s given us the flexibility to have a diverse team and people that can step up when we need them to.
RM: Dan, are you taking on new writers all the time, or if somebody was interested in writing for you, what’s the process for them to say, “Hey, Dan. Consider me for this kind of a project?”
DF: I would say just honestly fill out the form submission on our website. We’ve found writers in bizarre places, everywhere from a night out drinking to … and stumbling across someone who’s in the publishing industry to long-standing connections with writers who are professors at universities, and it’s been great because we’ve been able to give them work, and they’ve had us guest lecture at their university, so we’ve … If you’re interested, I would just say, and you’re listening to this right now, please reach out and tell me your going rate, what verticals you’re good at, and why … what it is that makes you impassioned to write because one of the things that we found is we don’t … and one of the nice things about running a boutique agency is that you’re allowed to say no.
If a client gives you a job, you don’t have to take it. That’s the nice thing about writing, our business is we take the assignments that we want to take that we feel like we’re capable of taking and can do a proper job with. We feel the same way about our writers. We don’t want to … We want this to feel very organic and very natural. When it stops being that, then it stops being this fun experiment that we’ve come up with.
KH: To dig a little bit more into the process, if I am one of your writers, what does it look like when you have an assignment and you know I’m the perfect match for that assignment? Is it just an email to me? I accept, you pay me 50% up front or pay upon project completion? It sounds like you’re not paying hourly, right? It’s just per project?
DF: We pay per project because that’s how we charge our clients as well.
KH: Oh, got you. Okay.
DF: Because we found that … We found that clients tend to like us a lot more if we can tell them exactly what the cost of … If you want 20 blog posts in Q1 of 2017, giving them a rate that they can figure out and put into their budget for the next year tends to make a lot of businesses much more happy. We don’t just do that with businesses. We do it with our writers as well. We say, “Hey, listen. We can give you this much for this many things as long as you hit all these deadlines. Here, here, here, here.”
What we normally do is … Again, because it’s boutique, I try to have as many calls as I can with our writers just to give them an overview and talk strategy with them. Once they’ve gotten a client on board, and they know that client, and they’re the writer for that client, then I don’t need to call them up every single time, but especially in the beginning and especially when we’re still working out the kinks, and getting the voice right, and making sure that we’re hitting the right keywords, and that we’re delivering the right message, that’s when … Yeah. There’s a lot of handholding both from the client to me and me to our writers.
KH: Are you able to share how much you keep off the top of each project? Do you have like a set percentage that you keep?
DF: It depends.
DF: It can be as high as 100% if myself or Han ends up doing some of the writing because sometimes we feel like we’re the best suited to take the job, and for some of the lifestyle stuff … for Han, for some of the … like the finance and business stuff because he worked for The Economist, and now that we’ve been running this business, we have a good feel for it. We’ll take it all for ourselves, and we have … Because we like to write too, so we … We have fun doing it and the clients like it, but if you want to … For paying our writers, we pay them anywhere between 20% and 50% of the project. 20% especially if they’re a new writer and we’re really taking the brunt of it.
If they’re subject matter expert, but they don’t know how to write that well, and we’re basically doing the writing for them at the end of the day, that’s on the lower end, but if you … If we’re drawing you out from your … We have a writer that writes for Fashionista, so if you’re doing the piece for us, for L’Oreal, for instance, then you’re going to come in a higher rate, but you’re going to produce work that is going to be fantastic from the get-go, and we’re going to have to edit it very lightly, so it’s just … It’s almost like finding fee if anything at that point, so we can’t justify taking so much of it at that point.
RM: Dan, I imagine that there are a lot of writers that have reached a point in their career where they are overwhelmed, they’re busy with their own projects, and they look at this and say, “This is a great idea. I can hire a couple of writers to work for me and sort of start my own writing agency,” but I imagine it’s not as easy as that. Can you share some of the struggles that you guys have had as you’ve started up the writing agency and some of the difficulties that you’ve had to work through so that you can actually make it work?
DF: One of the first things for sure that you start to realize is that when you start running the business aspect of it, you start to realize that there’s a lot of things that come up that you wouldn’t … a lot of costs and a lot of things that you wouldn’t maybe have anticipated from the get-go.
RM: Uh-huh (affirmative).
DF: For instance, when you’re writing for yourself and you’re a freelance writer, the task at hand is to manage yourself, hit your deadlines, and get everything done, but as you guys both know, writers are fantastic people, but they can be primadonnas. They can be … even the best ones aren’t always the best…
RM: There are a few. There are a few, right? Not everybody.
DF: Right? We’ve tested out writers who have commanded crazy high rates and who have just completely failed to deliver. It’s finding that balance, and especially when you have a client that has maybe an eclectic need of content. For instance, one day, you’re writing a philosophical article for them, right? We have one client that does one of their … one of the brands that they work with, and so we’re writing for them is a kind of like child-raising philosophy. The crazy thing about it is finding the right voice for that writer has been a struggle. Somehow, the … Our writers who have had kids, and who have actually given birth to kids, and like taking care of them aren’t as great about writing the subject matter as some of our people who are like lifelong single people who have no interest in ever having kids.
RM: That’s so interesting.
KH: That’s a lie.
DF: Yeah. There’s that aspect to it, so finding the right writer is much more of a struggle than we think, but also, just the project management in general, running … We have a few employees now, and so being able to … That was a huge step for us was being willing to invest in that because when we’re doing everything ourselves from the get-go, it was doing that managerial stuff, doing that following up, constantly following up with clients for payment, reaching out for new leads on LinkedIn all the time, doing this kind of things. It was tedious, and it wasn’t the part of running … and it was detracting from other parts of running the business.
RM: It sounds like in starting a writing agency, it’s not just a matter of all the fun parts, but you almost take on the negative sides of the business, the invoicing, the project management, all that kind of stuff on behalf of the writer, and if I’m a writer who loves writing, that’s maybe not something I’m thrilled to do.
DF: Absolutely, and it’s … At the end of the day, the big draw to it though is … I think there’s three of them. The first is the freedom. Having the ability to live that freelance lifestyle, but still run a business and still be a part of a business is phenomenal, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. The second thing is having the element of creative control. Granted you still have to keep your clients happy, but the editorial role is more often than not a very good one to be in especially when you have a good stable of writers because you’re helping already talented people bring out their voice a little bit more. The same way, I think a lot of our writers could do the same thing for any piece that I’ve written where that led that teamwork in writing, and that camaraderie is a very beautiful thing.
Lastly, running a business is not all fun and games, but there are some really cool things about it like being able to do the sales element of something. I’ve never sold anything before in my life, and now, being on that side of it has been just a wild ride, and it’s fun, and I can actually … I can see myself getting better at it, not to mention being able to do all these fun things like podcast, and conventions, and guest speakers, and that kind of stuff, so it’s … I absolutely love it. If anyone would be interested in doing this kind of stuff, I would highly recommend them to because it’s just fantastic.
KH: Dan, before we move on to a different topic, this is more of a personal question for me because I have worked with other writers under my umbrella when I’ve taken on … Usually, it’s not intentional. It’s I have taken on more work than I can handle and I need help, and I always find it awkward because I’m like, “Okay. Do I invite this writer on to the client calls? Do I invite them on the research calls, or do I just hide them and pretend like they’re not here?” I just am curious to know if you include your writers in the client engagements, so maybe that kickoff call, or any type of survey calls, or interviews, or do you do all that, and then the writers are behind the scenes getting the recordings and not necessarily client-facing?
DF: If the writer is our employee, then by all means, they’re definitely on the client call. Sometimes, I will take them on for the client calls as well, but often times … Here would be my thing. I know what you mean. It could be awkward, but for me, it’s usually just I don’t want to waste their time. So often, I find with client calls, it’s just so much redundancy. The reason why people hire writers is because they don’t know how to be articulate and creative enough on their own, right? That’s the whole idea of writing, right? It’s, “How do I communicate better?”
I think that being able to distill what a client call said into a phone call, in an email is often times a better use of not only my writer’s time, but helps me start to deliver the value prop that they’re trying to get at already. I think that’s basically our job at the end of the day as writers, right? No matter what kind of writer you are, it’s about, “Can I deliver some sort of message even though if that message is just telling a good story?” Yeah, so I don’t. I don’t feel the need to be on the client call because I think it almost … Yeah, I just find it redundant.
RM: Dan, you mentioned that you like the sales process or that’s a new thing that’s been fun for you. Tell us a little bit about what you guys do to land clients like Uber and Google. What is the secret?
DF: For us, it’s been a variety of different things. A lot of times, we … because companies like that rarely work … rarely do. They reach out directly just to someone like us. A lot of times, what we found is that with something like Google. We came on to it via a project where someone reached out to us on LinkedIn, or with Uber, we partnered up with another creative agency that taken us on, or right now, we’re writing a website for the National Bank of Jamaica, and that’s because we’re working with a web development company who fired all their freelancers and just … is working with us directly because we’ve done a great effort to build their selves up as a credible source of quality writing that delivers on time and delivers results.
Obviously, we’ve had missteps along the way, but I think overall, we’ve done a good job of positioning ourselves. I think that’s been the … One of our biggest goals was that our website is relatively simple, but the takeaway message of it is if you want quality writing in boutique style marketing services, this is the place that you can come to.
KH: It sounds like reaching out to key partners is huge and has been a huge help for you, which is a great reminder for me and for people listening just that you can reach out to these design agencies that have these bigger name clients and get in the door that way.
Something that you mentioned though is that you exude quality, and I think maybe that goes hand in hand with having an agency versus being a freelancer, just the way that people view you in your first interaction or when they land on your website, but I’d love to hear from you how any freelancers that are solo and … They are professional, but maybe they aren’t exuding that same quality enough at least to land Google and Uber.
How can we show up in a bigger way without also being … have any false pretenses about who we are, that we are a solo practitioner, but I still want to show up as someone who can really create quality work that’s good enough for Uber? How can I do that?
RM: Hey guys. At this point in the interview, we lost Dan’s sound, and so we’re going to jump ahead a little bit. He was giving a great answer about how freelancers need to show up using LinkedIn and the different things that they can do. When we got him back online, this is what he had to say.
DF: The beauty of LinkedIn is that this is where business professionals look for you because that’s what they’re used to, and is LinkedIn corporate? No, it’s just like a business Facebook, and so if you’re good at marketing yourself, if you’re good at writing about yourself, you can do it all right from there. I think it’s just about making sure that you have your best foot forward. Having a great headshot actually really matters. Having a lot of connections really matters. Reaching out to the right people too like having the right connections matters.
Don’t be afraid. We have like the ProFinder and like the Salesforce or whatever those things are called, but yeah, don’t be afraid to use those. People at the end of the day don’t mind getting cold-called if you can provide them a little bit of value in that message. This is actually not my story, but one of my friends was able to pull this off.
If you guys know the mattress company, Casper, he … What he did was he wrote an email to the CEO, and he … In it, he said, “Hey, blah, blah, blah,” like quick intro to me. “I was thinking about your company, and I was saying, ‘Huh, wouldn’t it be interesting if you guys partnered up with moving companies, and then that way, you could … They could deliver a new mattress to your home that first day that you’re there, so it’s like a … almost like a new gift or like a starting out kind of thing, and you offer some sort of discount or some sort of incentive?’” He liked the idea so much that they ended up taking him on, and now they’re working together in marketing.
Like this idea of being able to use LinkedIn in creative ways and be able to target people and still make it personalized and not as corporate as it is now. That’s the methodology. I feel like that’s the smart way to do it, so using LinkedIn properly is a great tool for a freelance writer.
KH: That’s such a great reminder especially. I’m someone who … I have a lot of connections on LinkedIn, but my profile is awful. It’s embarrassing, and I just have shrugged it off, but listening to you now, I realized that I’m missing out probably in a bunch of opportunities because I do not look professional on LinkedIn, and so thank you for the reminder.
I also wanted to ask you about your networking because you mentioned and that’s how you land your clients. You’re social, and you reach out to people. Can you also talk a little bit about your networking with BNI because that’s really how the two of us connected and just how you’ve used that to land new clients, especially because I think writers tend to not join networking groups like that very often?
DF: BNI is an interesting bag, right? Anyone who doesn’t know, it stands for Business Networking International, and it’s like church for business people. You go there at the same time every week. There’s all sorts of like chanting and like rituals, but basically, what everyone does is they all go around and they give a commercial for what they do every week, and it’s the same people every week, but it’s like one of every animal, so you have one lawyer, one dentist, one … Insert thing here, but you have one writer or you have one content marketer, and that is a beautiful thing because it allows you to be that person, that go-to person that they think about.
That being said, not all BNI groups are created equal. I’m in a very good one. I locked out my … the people I’m with. There’s like an SEO expert. There’s a lead generation guy, so we all play very nice together, and we can all find business for each other. Networking is smart, especially something like BNI, but you have to be around the right people. You want to be in a place where everyone is bringing the same level of professionalism and energy that you are, and that definitely takes some searching. I would wholeheartedly recommend BNI if you’re in a dynamic chapter, in a good one.
RM: Dan, I have another question about how you’re working with… the other writers that you work with and what you’re seeing is making them successful. Obviously, you’re a writer. You’re working with dozens of very good writers for your clients. You mentioned every once in a while, you’ll bring in a new writer that’s not … it doesn’t work out very well, but I imagine that you’re seeing a lot of these writers that are working out really well. What are the things that these successful good writers have in common? What are they doing that sets them apart from everybody else?
DF: Honestly, there’s … Actually, I’m glad that you asked that. I think there’s three things that they do. One is that they understand brevity. People have no patience these days. I always love the Hemingway kind of writing style, and so did my partner, so we’ve tried to brand that as our style. Being able to deliver a message quickly, succinctly, and intelligently is a very hard thing for a lot of people to do.
We found that people who … Journalists make fantastic copywriters and content writers. They’re just … because they understand form really well. We also found that strangely, some of our best demographics are writers who haven’t written in this form before, but are at like MFA programs. Being able to be a fiction writer, you can adapt that kind of creativity and use it. Like two of our best writers are what I would call fiction writers who are trying to make extra money. I wouldn’t even call them content writers. We have to tone down their stuff sometimes because they take too many chances, or sometimes, they’re way too flowery, but dear god, are they good. I’d say brevity is one thing. The second thing would be journalists and fiction writers tend to be really good. Lastly, open-minded individuals.
RM: It sounds like there’s a really good mix though. People who can tell a story or who have that creative ability, that’s the journalist or the MFA type candidate, and then again, writers who can get things done short and quick. It sounds like a … actually, a really good advice for anybody, especially who’s writing online content for an audience that just doesn’t have a lot of time.
DF: Yeah, they … That’s the key, right, is being able to have that kind of eclectic background and just understanding what good writing is. It’s funny because we’ve actually found that academic writers are not the … yeah, are definitely not the best for this kind of thing. Basically, as long as you’re not a primadonna, we’re good to go.
KH: Before we jump off, for people that are listening, writers who are listening, and are interested in what you’re saying about creating an agency, and they’re like, “This sounds like something I want to do or maybe just a mini version of it,” what would you recommend to them to test the waters and ease into it to see if it’s a good fit for them because we know it’s not a good fit for everybody?
DF: I would say the best question to ask yourself is, “Do I care about writing everything?” Then, the follow-up question would be, “Do I want to be a business person as well as an editor or writer?” That’s what it boils down to because you’re not going to write everything. In fact, there’s going to be some stuff you’re going to want to write that you can’t because someone is going to be better at it than you are, and you’re going to want that for the client.
Also, there are going to be times where you have to do that annoying business stuff like paying your writers before you pay yourself and realizing that, “Oh, no. I have all these expenses that came up because of these ads I’m running on Facebook or these like things that I’m doing,” and all of a sudden, it becomes not as much about you just being a freelance writer doing your own thing and much more about taking on that business responsibility, but if you think you can handle those two things, then I don’t think … I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t consider or at least try running an agency on your own.
RM: This whole discussion has been really interesting, Dan, and a lot we can take from. We appreciate your time. For anybody who wants to find you and connect with you directly or either to write for Tailored Ink, where would they look for you online?
DF: There’d be two ways you can do it. One, you could go to www.tailored.ink, so not .com, .ink, and feel free to fill out the form submission. The alternative, you just email me directly at email@example.com.
RM: Awesome, and The New York Sandwich Project is just thenewyorksandwhichproject.com, correct?
DF: Absolutely. Yes.
RM: Next time I’m in Manhattan, why don’t we pick up a sandwich together?
DF: I would like that very much.
KH: Thank you, Dan. Thanks for your time. Great conversation.
DF: Yeah. My pleasure, guys. Thank you so much.
RM: 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.