How I grew a multi-million dollar content company from home
In 2006, I was straight out of college with a degree in Equine Business from West Texas A&M University. I had focused on marketing and had always wanted to write for some sort of horse related publication or organization. I interned for a few months in the marketing department of the American Quarter Horse Association, but in the meantime, I discovered Elance and the world of writing for SEO (search engine optimization). My Elance projects quickly took over my regular job as a waitress as well as my internship and it was obvious that this was the path I needed to take. I was simply making more money writing than I was at any other job. My husband and I made the decision to officially start Words You Want on September 26, 2006.
The Early Years
2006 and 2007 were the prime years for SEO writers. The amount of content needed by businesses and SEOs was exponential. I would have orders for hundreds of articles come in nearly every week. I was writing over $2000 worth of content a week by myself and easily working 70 hours per week as well. My laptop would overheat to the point that it was painful for my wrists to touch it and it would leave red marks on my arm. These were the days before Google’s Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird algorithm changes, so you can imagine the number of short 300-word keyword articles that I was writing. Honestly, these were the days. SEO was so simple and straightforward back then. You had a list of keywords and you went to work and you cranked out the content.
It was soon obvious that I needed some help. My husband quit his job to help me answer emails and he even did some writing himself. I couldn’t keep up with all this content by myself and working 70 hours a week at a computer is mentally exhausting. My husband and I decided it was time to hire writers and to build a team that could handle the amount of work that I was doing. This is when my business really started to grow.
It’s important to keep in mind that during this time in the content writing industry, outsourcing to foreign countries was a major issue. There were many “article farms” that had developed and the quality they produced was very low. They would have a US representative who managed their projects (or just someone who spoke English pretty well), but the writers were not Native English speakers. There was also a lot of deception. They would say that they were from towns that didn’t exist, but would answer emails in the middle of the night. It was our goal to not develop the stigma of being a farmer, but as a quality company that business owners, SEO companies and web designers could trust. Flash forward 10 years and I would say that we achieved our goal. Words You Want has over 7000 positive feedbacks on UpWork (most were acquired from our 9 years on Elance) and have completed over $2.5 million in content writing projects.
Of course, after the Google Panda update, things got a little hairy in the SEO writing world. Everything that our clients thought they knew about SEO writing got turned upside down. The days of submitting to article directories were about to be history. Then there were the Penguin and Hummingbird updates and the industry continued to change as the rules of SEO changed. This business has its ups and downs as Google makes changes, it’s inevitable and you just have to go along for the ride and adjust your business as you go. Business ownership is not for the meek of heart.
Creating a name for yourself in the content writing industry is tough. That’s the main reason that I’ve always used a site like Elance or UpWork to acquire projects. Elance was the best by far, but when they merged with oDesk, the two sites became UpWork. There are many features of Elance that I miss, the main one being that they really promoted their top providers. UpWork doesn’t promote their providers like Elance did and it has shown in our numbers over the past couple of years. Plus, there’s always going to be self-proclaimed “writers” but not many of them have the work experience to back it up. On Elance it was easier to stand out from the crowd and it really helped you grow your business. It was also a good marketing tool as they ranked their providers based on the number of positive feedbacks that they received and clients would find you in those listings and contact you. On UpWork, it’s a different world and clients can’t just browse the providers like they could on Elance. You just don’t get the same amount of exposure that Elance provided.
In addition to using these sites, I’ve always had my own website and have worked directly with many clients for many years. To this day, I work with clients that I acquired in my first year of business. Repeat clients are the best clients and it’s vital that you grow and nurture those relationships. The content writing world can be a roller coaster and you’ll depend on those repeat clients to provide consistency to your workload and schedule.
Communication is Key
One of the main reasons I believe that Words You Want has been so successful over the years is because quick communication has always been a number one focus. So many clients will email a handful of writers and the person who responds first will be the one that gets the job. I’ve had clients ask if I sleep, because I’m available from 8am to 11pm most nights every day of the week. Whether I’m responding from my computer or my phone, I try to always respond quickly to answer questions or provide quotes.
Technology has always played a vital role in my ability to respond to clients because Internet in this industry is vital. In 2007, we got our first smartphone. It was an HTC Windows phone and honestly, it was a nightmare! I could never get my email address to work on it properly. We’ve come a long way in technology since then and my iPhone is never far away. We also had one of the first hotspots that Sprint made in an effort to always have Internet no matter where we travel. Bottom line, you can’t skimp on Internet. No Internet and slow Internet will do nothing but make you inefficient and slow. Even in your home office, get the best Internet you can afford. You won’ regret it.
Stubbornness and persistence are pretty important personality traits as a business owner. There are many people who attempt to work from home, but they fail and the main reason is due to a lack of self-discipline. It’s so easy to fall into the work from home trap and never get anything done. Many people depend on others to motivate them. When you work from home, you must motivate yourself. You must be self-disciplined. You must be stubborn and persistent.
Another roadblock that many people will run into is that their family doesn’t quite grasp that working from home means that you’re working. You are at home and available in their eyes, but they don’t realize that they might be interrupting you or keeping you from being able to focus on your work. There’s a “training period” so to speak that you go through with your friends and family.
Setting Your Policies and Sticking to Them
Over the years, I learned that a good set of project terms is very important. It’s also vital that you stick to them with every single client. You will learn things as you go and adjust your policies and procedures, but it’s very important that you stay consistent.
As an example, here are a few of the policies that I have:
- $100 per project minimum order
- A set rate chart with bulk discounts at 50 and 100 articles ordered as a batch. My rates have only gone up once over the past 10 years.
- I offer an article for approval or topics for approval upon request for clients
- No free samples or mock-ups
- Prepaid $50 phone call fee
These have been very important policies for my business over the years. The $100 minimum ensures that your time isn’t being wasted. The same goes for the phone call fee. I’ve had many clients who would abuse being able to call me to the point that I no longer gave out my phone number and required a fee for phone calls. This also helps weed out tire kickers and ensures you can be productive and work and not stuck on the phone all day. Topics for approval and first articles for approval help to ensure you’re meeting the client’s needs and reduces revisions, but at the same time, these need to be pre-planned so they can be scheduled accordingly.
The sticking to your policies part is even more important. Many clients will pull the “If you do just one sample for me, I’ll have tons of work for you.” It’s like a bad pick up line. I’ve heard this from thousands of customers and the large majority of them did not hold up their end of the deal. So, you live and learn. If customers balk, you tell them that this is your policy with all of your clients and you have to be fair.
Escrow is another reason that sites like UpWork are good for freelancers and other businesses. When you use escrow with a client, they deposit the funds into an account where they are held while you work on the project. Once the project is complete, you send the client the work, they review and then release the funds after any changes are made. It protects both the buyer and the provider. If there’s a dispute, UpWork has a dispute system that you work through with one of the representatives. There’s even an option for arbitration if you can’t come to some sort of agreement with the client.
When working direct, I require full, upfront payment through Quickbooks or PayPal. I used to allow 50% up front and 50% upon completion, but that became an arduous task to keep up with from an accounting perspective. I’ll still do it on very large projects (like in the thousands of dollars projects), but not on smaller projects. You also take the chance that the client isn’t going to pay the second half of the invoice. Pre-payment takes care of so many headaches and I’ve actually had fewer refunds this way as well.
This brings me to the issue of copyright. The work doesn’t belong to the client until they pay for it. If they don’t pay for it, you have the rights to the work and can therefore pursue whatever means you need to rectify the situation. Usually a strong worded email is all that you need to send.
Try Not to Put All of Your Eggs in One Basket
It’s really easy to get hooked into one client and let your time and focus go to them exclusively. The problem though is that everyone runs out of work or money at some point. You don’t want to have your entire business wrapped up into one client because you’ll come to a day when you have no work at all. You have to keep looking for work regardless of how much is on your plate. You can’t build a business without constantly trying to find new clients. It’s easier to learn how to juggle your schedule or find help than it is to start from scratch after a big client runs dry. You have to continually look for ways to grow your business, whether if that’s through additional marketing methods or adding to your services.
It’s Okay to Say No
One of the hardest things to do as a business owner, particularly when you’re first starting out, is to say no to client. But, there are plenty of situations in which you should say no – even if it means losing the job. Situations like:
- Clients asking for free samples or mock-ups
- Clients constantly trying to negotiate you down on your rates
- Clients who don’t respect your policies or time
- Clients who just seem to throw a road block in front of you at every turn
These are just a few examples. There are always going to be clients that you need to make a hard decision on, so be prepared for that unavoidable situation.
Don’t Forget to Market Yourself
When business is good and you’re working on your client’s projects, it’s really easy to forget about your own marketing plans and strategies. Keep up with your blogging, your social media posts and email campaigns. Try to be as consistent as possible and maintain a presence of your own on the web.
In the end, you’re running a business and you must always think of yourself as a business and not just you. That was hard for me to overcome at first because I’m very much a “do it myself” type person, but you can’t be that way if you want to grow because you can only do so much yourself. Too many people get hung up in what “they” can do as an individual and not how they can grow their business into something larger and more successful. In the end, even if you don’t plan on your business being larger than yourself, you have to keep a business mindset.
About the author
Valerie Mellema is the President and co-founder of the content agency Words You Want. In addition to managing her company for over 10 years, Valerie has also authored a number of non-fiction books on travel, horses, and hospitality. Her published books are available from her Amazon profile.
If you are just getting started on your freelance writing career, check out our tips on how to make more money freelance writing from home.