The Difference Between Working Hungry … and Starving

I’m convinced that the hungrier you are, the faster you’re going to make it as a six-figure copywriter. But I don’t mean you should literally starve yourself financially!

It’s just that you’re more likely to dedicate yourself to starting a new career if you need to make money.

Here’s the all-important question: How do you know what to charge when you’re so hungry to start earning money (or at least get a little acknowledgement and success) that you can taste that first check … but you don’t yet have the experience to back up the need?

You might be surprised at my answer: Work for free.

This is how many copywriters, including me, made it through the “hungry” stage to get our careers launched … careers now in the six-figure neighborhood.

But this is one suggestion I’ve heard many beginning copywriters balk at … to their own detriment. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it works.

It boils down to this: You have to prove yourself first before you can expect someone to shower you with big bucks.

Put yourself in the shoes of the person hiring you. Would you fork over a check for $5,000 or more to someone who’d never written a full promotion before?

Of course not. And no one else is going to either.

But if you find someone who has a promising sample, and they’re willing to give you at least a headline and lead – maybe even a full promotion – and not charge you unless you decide it’s good enough to use. Well, you’ve got little to lose and a lot to gain. You’d probably go for it.

That’s exactly how “spec assignments” work.

I got my first spec assignment through a website ad I saw while I was still working my way through the copywriting program. I responded that I’d like the assignment, had zero experience, but would work for free. Of course, I used my best copywriting techniques in that initial contact letter!

Much to my surprise, the client took me up on my offer. After I turned in six sample headlines and leads, she gave me the green light to charge $3,000 per package … and had me turn two of my six samples into letters that ended up in the mail.

And don’t let people who make their business putting other people down claim you can’t build a career around opportunities presented through AWAI. I’ve pretty much built my career on AWAI-advertised openings … and I could name at least a dozen other copywriters off the top of my head – who I’ve met personally – who’ve done the same thing. And I’m sure there are dozens more.

Here’s how it worked for me … and how it can work for you, too, if you give it a try.

On one occasion, I responded to an ad in AWAI’s Golden Thread for a headline and lead for a spec assignment for a health product. They liked what I wrote and asked me to complete the whole package. I knew I’d make money only if they mailed it – not just for finishing the work!

But I did it anyway. When it mailed, I earned $500 for my effort. Plus, I got a beautifully designed package as a sample and could boast a decent pull rate, even though it didn’t quite edge out the control.

I don’t mind telling you that I’d get closer to $5,000 for that same assignment today. Plus royalties. Do I feel cheated? Of course not! I leveraged that assignment into more paying work.

I spotted another ad, again in The Golden Thread, for a copywriter to ghostwrite a biweekly alternative health e-letter.

Armed with my one sample of a health project, plus a spec sample I wrote specifically for this potential client – I got the job! This was the turning point in my career, because they offered a 12-month contract for what amounted to about a week-and-a-half of work every month.

It paid the bills, gave me lots of practice in meeting deadlines and writing steadily, and left me plenty of time to pursue other projects.

Was I really working for free on these assignments? At first, yes. But ultimately, no. The real trick is to make working with you a risk-free solution for your new client … and give them a much-deserved break for letting you cut your teeth on their projects.

Once you prove that you have what it takes to start the money flowing for your client, you can be sure the money will start to flow in your direction as well.

[Ed. Note: Monica and her fellow AWAIer Krista Jones share their experiences of going from “newbies” to six-figure pros in their bi-weekly e-letter, The Copy Protégé.]

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Published: April 24, 2006

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