How to Run a Successful Part-Time Copywriting Business when
You Have a Day Job
One of the biggest questions I get from new and aspiring copywriters is how to start (and work) a part-time copywriting business when you have a full-time job.
In fact … I was asking myself the same question six years ago!
Back then, my goal was to become a full-time freelance copywriter. But, as my family’s sole income-earner, I couldn’t just quit my day job and give it a try. I had to build my business gradually until I could afford to make the leap.
In this article, I’ll give you some tips and ideas on how you can build and run your business on a part-time basis safely and methodically.
From Fire Hydrants to Copywriter
Until I became a copywriter, I had been in sales my entire professional career. I sold everything from fire hydrants (yes, someone actually sells those things!), water-main pipes, valves, and fittings — all the way to professional technology services, PCs, servers, and software.
My last job was for a small software company where the pressure to make and beat sales quotas was high. I had to put in long hours, which left little time to work my copywriting business on the side. Not only that, but we had a new baby, and my wife had left her job to stay home with him.
So, basically, I had a high-pressure sales job where I couldn’t afford to slack off. My family was depending on me. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my six-figure income … and I had very little extra time to do anything on the side.
I realized that the only way I could transition out of my day job was to launch my side business methodically and over time. So I drafted an action plan that would take me from where I was — overstressed salesman — to full-time freelance copywriter over the course of two years.
The plan was based on Michael Masterson’s “chicken entrepreneur” approach, which I had read about in an Early to Rise article a few years earlier. In that article, 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. But, it was the best way for someone in my situation to safely transition into a full-time solo business.
In the context of freelance copywriting, being a chicken entrepreneur is all about keeping your job (and a steady paycheck) while you work this new 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.
(I’m happy to report that this approach worked very well for me. In June 2006, after 27 months of working my copywriting business part-time, I had enough clients and enough work to quit my day job!)
Finding the Time to Work Your Business
Now … there is one aspect of this whole thing that’s going to be difficult, no matter how you go about it. And that’s finding the time to work your copywriting business. 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 trade-offs.
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 a.m. 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 ball game or office gossip.
So, if you can get eight hours worth of work done in five or six — and skip a two-hour commute — that leaves you with a good chunk of time to work on your copy business. Just make sure to always be ethical about this. You have to be fair to your employer. Don’t ever work on your own thing while you’re on the clock.
Increase Your Productivity
To find the time to work your part-time business, you’ll also have to find ways to increase your productivity. That means staying focused when you’re working. No email, no Facebook, no Twitter, no phone. If you’ve dedicated 8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday to your business, you have to work exclusively on your business during those hours.
I found that having a list of tasks already written down before I sat at my desk would help me dive straight into the work. I would also give myself a 5-minute break at the end of each hour to clear my head. Additionally, I would set weekly objectives to work toward in terms of sales letters mailed to prospective clients, outreach to people in my network, progress on my own website, and so on.
Prospecting for Clients When Time Is at a Premium
There are dozens of ways to prospect for clients. But, the challenge for part-time copywriters is finding prospecting methods that won’t interfere with their day jobs. There are two great ways to do this: direct mail and tapping into your network.
A well-written sales letter with a strong offer, mailed to a well-chosen list in your target market, can work wonders. And, for part-timers, the best part of direct mail as a prospecting strategy is that it can be done in the evenings. You can print, fold, stuff, and mail 10 letters every night and let them “do their magic” during the day while you’re at work.
Reaching out to people in your network is another great (and proven!) way to land clients when time is at a premium. Not only do they trust you already, but it's often easier and less stressful to approach people you know than it is to contact complete strangers. And, if you're just getting your freelance career started, talking to friends, colleagues, and relatives about what you do enables you to develop and refine your message in a less-threatening environment.
Start with the people who know you best. Even if your closest friends can't take advantage of your expertise, they may know someone who can.
Handling Prospect Inquiries During the Workday
The best way to manage prospect inquiries while at your day job is to 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 you 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 to Manage Client Expectations
How do you manage your limited time and your clients’ expectations when working both a full-time job and a part-time copywriting business? 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 received 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 a 20-hour project in to 12 hours is a big mistake. Better to say “No” than to miss the deadline or submit subpar work.
One of the biggest obstacles part-time copywriters face is staying motivated. Especially when their goal (quitting their day job) seems so far away!
There are a few things you can do to stay on track. First, try not to focus too much on the big goal (say, the date by which you’d like to quit your day job). While important, this big goal can seem bigger than life when you’re just starting out. Instead, focus on shorter-term goals. Break down your big goal into yearly, monthly, and weekly milestones and objectives. And focus on reaching those.
Celebrate these little wins with pride. Let the excitement of finishing your website or completing a small copywriting project for a friend (say, your first real writing sample) drive you to keep going.
Second, make sure you have the full support from your family. Working a sideline while you keep a full-time job is challenging. You’re going to have to sacrifice some family time to reach your goals. 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 okay if they don’t fully get it at first. But, try and get as much support as possible. Then, share your successes with them as they happen. It won’t be long before they realize that you’re fully committed to changing things for the better. Seeing them excited will feed your enthusiasm and reassure you.
Third, if your goal is to eventually quit your day job, avoid the temptation to spend your part-time income earnings. Try to save all of your business income (after taxes and expenses). Stash it away in a savings account of some sort. Seeing your savings grow will be a huge motivator. It will make all the hard work and sacrifice feel worthwhile. Plus, it will give you the cushion you need to confidently make your move when the time is right. Money in the bank equals restful sleep!
Above all, never forget why you’re doing this. If you have good enough reasons to work both a full-time job and a part-time business, you’ll persevere and succeed.
[Ed. Note: Ed Gandia is a successful freelance copywriter and co-author of the best-selling book The Wealthy Freelancer: 12 Secrets to a Great Income and an Enviable Lifestyle.]
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