How to Transition From a
Full-Time Job to Full-Time Copywriting Biz
Ed Gandia’s situation was a bit extreme – he had to replace one six-figure income with another.
Here’s how he did it. It’s a plan that can work for you too.
What did you do for a living prior to becoming a copywriter?
Ed: I was in sales for my entire professional career. I sold everything from fire hydrants (yes, someone actually sells those things!), large-diameter water-main pipe, valves and fittings—all the way to professional technology services, PCs, servers and software.
What drove you to pursue copywriting as a business?
Ed: Every company I worked for had either limited marketing resources or no marketing dollars to support their sales force. In fact, in my last company, I was assigned to a software product that wasn’t selling that well. The company was trying to decide whether or not to keep supporting it. They brought me in and gave me six months to try and make something happen. If I could generate substantial sales, I would keep my job. If I failed, I’d be on the street. Unfortunately, they gave me very little in terms of marketing support.
So as a sales guy trying to get that product off the ground (a product which, by the way, didn’t sell itself), I had to get very creative to attract potential customers. It didn’t take me long to realize that cold-calling alone wasn’t going to cut it. You can only make so many calls in one day. I had to do something else to “multiply” my efforts.
In my previous job, I had learned to write simple sales letters to generate “leads” (which is the term in sales for “potential customer”). I decided to implement a similar strategy with this new company. Within a few weeks, the leads (and subsequent sales) started coming in fast and furious. Encouraged by the results, I began to refine my sales letters. I bought and read every copywriting book I could get a hold of, including AWAI's Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting program.
I studied the craft and continually refined my process. And after six months, I had blown expectations out of the water. My boss and the company’s president were impressed!
But in the process of learning the craft of copywriting, I saw a business opportunity. I found that I loved writing copy. To me, it was “selling” on paper. I had already toyed with the idea of either launching or buying a business within five years. So I thought, “Why not copywriting?” It made perfect sense. I already liked the work. I was good at it. And it would keep me from having to hire and manage employees, which was the one aspect of owning a business I wasn’t crazy about.
So what started out as a necessity—something I needed to learn and get good at in order to keep my job—led me to what would eventually become a very lucrative and fulfilling business.
How did you make the leap?
Ed: Carefully and methodically. My wife and I were starting our family. I was the sole breadwinner, which meant that I couldn’t afford to take too many risks. Plus, I was earning a nice six-figure income by then. I was willing to sacrifice some of it in the short run for a better life in the long run – but not for too long. I had to do this methodically and over time.
So I drafted an action plan that would take me from where I was to becoming a full-time freelance copywriter. It was based on Michael Masterson’s “chicken entrepreneur” approach, which I had read about in an Early to Rise.
Michael explained that being a chicken entrepreneur is all about launching and growing a successful business without taking unnecessary risks. It’s not the sexiest approach. It won’t get you on the “Today Show” or “60 Minutes.” But it’s the best way for someone like me to transition into a full-time solo business when there’s a lot at stake.
In the context of freelance copywriting, being a chicken entrepreneur is all about keeping your job (and a steady paycheck) while you work this business to (a) ensure that it’s something you actually enjoy and (b) ensure that it can support your financial needs and goals. That way, if you aren’t able to make a go of it after a reasonable amount of time and effort, you can try something else and you won’t have lost too much in the process. Plus, you’ll still have your job and your paycheck. And of course, if you’re successful, this approach is a great way to get out of a dead-end job without having to starve for a year or put your family in financial peril.
It took me 27 months from the moment I got very serious and strategic to the point where I was able to quit my day job. It was hard. I put in a lot of hours and often worked weekends. But in the end it was all worth it.
How would you recommend new or aspiring copywriters go about this transition?
Ed: First, you have to take into account your specific situation. Where are you in your career? Are you currently employed or unemployed? How quickly do you need to start generating a freelance income? What do your finances look like? How much of a risk are you willing to take? Do you have other sources of income (spouse, investments, etc.)? How much time can you dedicate to building the business? Where can you find more time (we all have ways of making the time, but many people don’t want to make the sacrifice)?
Once you know where you are, you have to put a plan together. You can’t wing it. If you’re currently employed, the best way to do this is to transition slowly – again, the “chicken” approach. That means learning the craft of B2B copywriting and building the business on the side while you keep the safety of your paycheck.
Yes, it’s going to take time – maybe two or three years, depending on your income goal. And yes, it’s going to require you to give up some of your free time. But this approach will keep you from having to risk too much. And once you’re ready to quit your day job, the transition from part-time to full-time will be much smoother than starting from scratch.
On average, how long would you say it takes to build a copywriting business that can sustain you to the point where you can quit your day job?
Ed: It depends on how much you want to be earning when you go full time, as well as how much time and effort you put into it. Again, I did it in 27 months. But I also worked very, very hard. I was disciplined. If you can’t (or don’t want to) put in too much time—or if you’re not necessarily trying to replace a six-figure income—that will have a direct effect on your transition time. For instance, if all you want to build is a business that will generate $3k – $4k a month (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), then it could take you a lot less time.
Another huge factor that determines success is how disciplined you are about positioning yourself and marketing your services. If you can find a way to leverage your skills, experience and knowledge from your previous or current career … and if you’re very strategic (meaning you assemble and take action on a smart marketing plan) and are disciplined about your self-promotion … then that will accelerate your progress.
If you’re in a full-time job that requires you to put in a lot of hours, how do you find the time to learn the craft, learn the business and attract clients?
Ed: I wish I could give you an easy solution to this dilemma. Fact is, you’re going to have to find the time. You’re going to have to look at how you spend your week now and make some tough decisions and tradeoffs. In my case, I would either wake up an hour earlier every day or put in two or three hours at night after our son was in bed. I would also work Saturday mornings from about 6:00 am until noon. I tried to keep Sundays off limits, but the occasional deadline meant putting in a few hours Sunday afternoons.
You may also consider approaching your employer about either telecommuting and/or working four ten-hour days rather than five eight-hour days. Such creative arrangements can free up a lot of time to work your business. Telecommuting, even if it’s only one or two days a week, can help make you a heck of a lot more productive, since you’re not constantly interrupted by colleagues who want to catch up about last night’s game or office gossip. So if you can get eight hours’ worth of work in five or six – and skip a two-hour commute – that leaves you with some time to work on your business. Just make sure to always be ethical about this. You have to be fair to your employer. Don’t work on your own thing while on the clock.
Is it a good idea to let your employer know that you’re starting a copywriting business on the side?
Ed: If you have a solid working relationship with your direct boss, you may want to consider telling him or her about your side venture. Make sure they understand that this will not interfere with your job or your performance. You’re going to have to make that call.
My preference would be to not go out of your way to let them know – at least not right away. Again, behave in an ethical manner. When you’re in the office (or on the clock), give 100 percent to your employer. It’s the right thing to do. But on your own time, give 100 percent to your business.
Even though I had a very solid relationship with my boss, I waited to tell him until I was generating a significant part-time income from my business. I wanted to make sure this thing was going to work before I told anyone anything. I was very emphatic about my commitment to him and the company, and he was very understanding and supportive.
The one thing I would never do, however, is tell your co-workers. Resist the temptation, however strong. If you spill the beans, it will invariably get back to someone who could make your life hell.
What’s the best way to take care of client calls and emails if you work in an office all day?
Ed: Get a smart phone such as a BlackBerry or iPhone. These handy mobile devices enable you to have your business email sent directly to you as it comes in. Not only can respond to the client via email directly through the device, but you can also use the phone as your direct business line. You’ll want to set up a simple voicemail greeting and have the unit pick up messages until you can get back to people during your breaks and your lunch hour.
Once you make the transition to a full-time freelance career, you can then change your official business phone number to a landline or you can simply keep your mobile as your main number. I know many freelancers who have opted for the latter because they prefer the portability of a mobile phone.
How do you manage your limited time and your clients’ expectations when working both a full-time job and a part-time copywriting business?
Ed: A lot of aspiring copywriters get hung up on this for no reason – I was one of them. Here’s the deal. Clients are already used to freelancers telling them when they can take on a project and when they can deliver a draft. So the fact that you can’t turn around that case study or white paper in one week shouldn’t trouble you. If you can’t do it that fast, you just can’t. A full-time copywriter with a solid workload would face the same dilemma if she faced a similar request from a client.
Your schedule is what it is – limited. Accept it. But be very diligent about keeping track of your availability and current commitments. Don’t over-commit to anyone. Keep an updated schedule with all your current and upcoming projects (I keep mine in Excel) and be honest with yourself about your availability. Squeezing in a 20-hour project into 12 hours is a big mistake. Better to say “No” than to miss the deadline or submit subpar work.
How do you know when you’re ready to quit your day job and make the leap into a full-time copywriting business? What are the signs?
Ed: First, you need to have accumulated a healthy amount of reserve cash. It should be enough to cover you on slow months and to carry your business for at least six months should you have a rough start.
Second, you need to have a steady stream of part-time work coming in that, if doubled, would more than meet your income needs. So let’s say that your goal is to earn $6,000 a month during your first year as a full-time copywriter. And let’s say that you’re already earning $3,000 to $4,000 working your business part time. Well, everything else being equal, I would say that you’re ready to go. Why? Because if you had more time to work on your business, you’d probably be able to double your current part-time effort. It may not happen right away, but if you’re performing at that level by putting in 20 or 25 hours a week, you should do even better if you had 40 hours a week to dedicate to the business.
Finally, if you live in the U.S., you need to make sure you have secured health insurance for you and your family. This may not be an issue if your wife is employed and has access to health insurance. But if that’s not the case, you need to have that taken care of before you quit your day job.
What common pitfalls must aspiring copywriters avoid if they want to have a successful transition?
Ed: Make sure you’re doing this for the right reasons. Don’t try and become a copywriter just because you hate your boss or your current job and want to get out of that situation as quickly as possible. If you don’t enjoy writing, you’re going to have a hard time making it in this business. You have to enjoy the work.
Second, make sure you have the full support from your family. As I’ve mentioned before, the road is full of obstacles. It’s going to be tough. You’re going to have to sacrifice some family time to reach your goal. And that’s going to require that your spouse, kids and other loved ones understand what you’re doing it and why you’re doing it. It’s OK if they don’t fully get it at first. But try and get as much support as possible at first. Then, share your successes with them as they happen. It won’t be long before they realize that you’re very serious about this and fully committed to changing things for the better.
What did it feel like to resign from your job? What did you do to celebrate?
Ed: It felt wonderful! Again, by the time I resigned, my boss knew of my plans. He knew that I had given him 100 percent all those years, but he also knew that my future was elsewhere. He was very happy and supportive.
To celebrate the occasion, I opened a bottle of 1991 Niebaum-Coppola “Rubicon” – a terrific red wine from Napa Valley, one of my all-time favorites. This wine has a special meaning to me. It signified the big leap of faith I took when I left corporate America. Rubicon is the name of a river in Italy that marked the boundary between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul to the north and Italy proper to the south. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army in 49 BC to make his way to Rome, he broke that law and made armed conflict inevitable. Once he crossed the river, Caesar knew he was fully committed. That’s when he uttered the famous phrase ālea iacta est (“the die is cast”).
I believe in symbolism, and I believe in celebrating your victories. So I made sure to celebrate that pivotal moment in style … and in a way I’d never forget!
What final piece of advice would you give to someone who is where you were five years ago – trying to go from a well-paying full-time job to launching a lucrative freelance business?
Ed: It’s going to take time and a ton of effort. Probably more than you think. But this leap is also very doable. I did it, which means you can too. So if you’re serious about making it happen, here’s what I’d do:
- Draft a plan to get you from where you are today to where you want to be
- Start taking action on that plan immediately. Today, not tomorrow!
- If you haven’t done so yet, learn the craft of B2B copywriting. Learn it well.
- Market yourself consistently, but be smart about it. Focus on two or three strategies at first. You don’t need to use them all.
- Put in twice the effort you think it will take. That way, you’ll ensure you reach your goal (a great tip I learned from Bob Bly).
- Celebrate each and every success.
- Don’t quit! One of the biggest reasons (maybe even the biggest reason) so many people never reach their goal of becoming a full-time freelancer is that they quit way too early. Don’t let up. Keep working it and it will happen.
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