Interview with a Barefoot Writer: Michael Katz
“Barefoot Writers have a huge advantage; most people hate writing and they’re terrible at it.”
— Author and E-newsletter Expert Michael Katz
Former corporate marketer-turned-self-employed writer Michael Katz has overturned one of the biggest fears new writers face when starting out. It’s the fear of selling — specifically, the fear of selling themselves and their services.
Most writers would rather wait for clients to come to them.
Michael has found a way to make that happen. He shared it with me during a Thursday afternoon call from his office in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
“It’s not just writers,” Michael says, referring to the fear of selling. “It’s really all professionals. No accountant or attorney or coach sees himself as a salesperson. We’re all people who have this skill and we just want enough clients so we can do work. But the problem we all have is ‘I need enough clients consistently.’ If you can solve that for someone, all their troubles will be over.”
Michael acknowledges it used to be the case that everyone had to sell — and sell hard. “Before the Internet, before social media, you had to really do the selling because there was no cost-effective, scalable way to interact with people. You had to spend money or pick up the phone.” Thanks to the Internet, all that changed. “Email is essentially free,” says Michael. “It gives you the ability to reach out to people. Nowadays it comes down to who’s a better communicator — not who has more money.”
Michael’s not the only one thinking this. A recent article from TIME magazine focused on the shift in power from big corporations to the individual — and it’s all thanks to the Internet. These days, a simple blogger can compete against massive marketing companies. Self-published authors are winning out over publishing houses.
It comes down to one thing: Real value stems from your message, not the size of your marketing budget.
Michael takes this concept one step further. Referring to the Internet, he says, “It’s not even leveling the playing field. As solo-writers, we actually have an advantage. Because here’s the problem: when you put five people in a room at a big company, the writing doesn’t get better, it gets worse. So there’s no advantage to being huge when it comes to communicating and writing in particular.”
He went on to explain that a key attribute of anybody he works with is that they don’t want to sell. They just want to offer their services in a genuine way. He would know — it’s the model he follows, and his business is thriving. Clients really do just seek him out. All he has to do is sit by the phone and take their calls.
In fact, that’s how Michael first got started as a writer. As he puts it, he was always a writer — but it was a side thing. A fun thing. He even wrote a humor column for a newsletter — award-winning, at that. But always just as a hobby.
It wasn’t until Michael turned 40 that he realized professional writing was his gateway to solo-employment. He started out in marketing for large companies. But as he says, “Marketing for big companies was more about numbers and process than really creativity per se. And so writing had nothing to do with what I did as a marketer.”
He eventually left that job and went off on his own. His initial intention was to help companies build websites. But, like so many successful writers working today, he fell into writing for pay — kind of by accident.
It started with a class on the Internet Michael used to teach at his old company. “I did this thing where I would send periodic emails about stuff I’d found. I remember writing one about this new company called Amazon where you could buy books.”
When he left the company, there were about 35 people on his email list. But he left the company on good terms, so he was able to keep writing about different interesting things that related to the Internet. “It wasn’t even like a newsletter — there was no such thing as a newsletter. It was more like a bulk email. People kept asking to be added to the list, which seemed really weird in 2000.”
He says it took him a couple of years to realize that this bulk-email approach of his let him stay constantly in touch with people, but in a non-salesy way. “I wasn’t trying to sell anything, I was just sharing information and staying in touch in a very non-threatening, informational way.” It was the birth of Michael’s brand of content marketing.
From there, people started inviting him to speak at events. Some even hired him, asking if he could help them create “one of those newsletter things.”
That’s when Michael’s epiphany hit. He says, “I finally realized ‘Oh! I should just help people with this!’ And because it was inherently writing and that’s something I like to do, it really fit well with my Internet experience and goal to work with small businesses.”
The fact that his business came together in such an organic way is underscored by Michael’s unforced, natural writing style. As he puts it, “Sometimes I’ll say to clients, ‘I didn’t just get hired by a newsletter company and now I tell you that newsletters are good. I came to it the other way; it was so helpful in my own business that I started helping other people.’ It was totally organic and accidental which is a very compelling thing to say to a potential client.”
Michael’s e-newsletters are also an amazing prospecting tool. “It proves itself by being in existence,” he says. “When someone asks me for proof that I can make a difference to their company, I say, ‘Hey, did I call you or did you call me?’ Because that’s how someone calls — they get my newsletter or they hear about it and they call. I never make the call.”
That’s one of the things that sets him apart, in fact. Thanks to his easy-going approach to getting clients, Michael is never forced to be something — or act like someone — he’s not. That’s a powerful truth for any new writer. Too often, would-be writers put themselves out there online and think that they need to sound “business-professional.” Not only does it make them all sound alike, but they’re not approachable. “That’s a big part of my message,” says Michael. “I always ask people, ‘How do you talk to clients?’ Then I tell them to just do that when you write. Just do what you normally do with people you’re really comfortable with.”
Michael’s background as a humor writer really comes into play in his own messages. As he puts it, “That’s my thing — I’ve always been sort of a funny person, and any writing I did tended to be parodies of stuff. I got into writing columns for a newspaper back in the mid-90s — that’s how the whole humor award thing happened. And it wasn’t until I started my own newsletter where I discovered that joking around in the middle of talking about business just works for me. I was tentative at first, because like everyone else, I didn’t want to be unprofessional. But what I found was personal stuff and humor in particular was both compelling. They made my pieces more interesting but also helped people connect with me better.”
“But,” he adds, “It’s more about authenticity than there being any particular correct personality. Don’t try to be funny if you’re not. Because then I’ll meet you and I’ll think, ‘Hey, where’s the funny guy?’ Just be yourself.”
Despite his easy-going attitude, Michael is disciplined about his writing. He doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike when he knows he has a project to finish. But at the same time, he always has a surplus of creative ideas right at his fingertips — literally.
“My biggest writing ritual is to collect ideas and write them down. I have this bowl on my desk — it’s very high-tech — this bowl on my desk that’s filled with probably a hundred sticky notes in it. And it’s just these little things or stories or something that happened to me. Like my dog — and this is true — my dog carries his deflated tennis ball around the house. He just walks around the house. I don’t know how I’m going to use this, but it’s an interesting tidbit. So when it’s time to write, because I publish a newsletter weekly, I sit there and look through the stuff and find what’s interesting to me and it eliminates that blank page thing.” He adds, “For me, it’s much less about ‘Do I feel like writing now?’ because I always feel like writing if I have something good I want to write about.”
Besides the sticky-note bowl, Michael has a host of other tools he relies on so his business runs smoothly, including Dropbox, LastPass, and Constant Contact. “There’s so much technology that I can run my business easily as ‘a real business.’ Half of it is free, even. I would say that it’s very helpful to use technology. Not the super-sophisticated kind, necessarily, but you want to automate as much as possible in as many aspects as possible. And if you’re a person who really hates technology, you’ve got to hire somebody. What you don’t want is to be spending 80% of your time running the business instead of doing the business. So it’s always worth the money to get a virtual assistant or a tech guy or whatever. I think it’s a requirement. You can’t really do any of this stuff if it’s too manual.”
Michael also chooses to do his work from a rented office space as opposed to a home office. “I’d been going to work in an office for 15 years,” he says. “It just seemed natural. Plus at the time, I had three kids under the age of six so I was just happy to get out of the house. But I find people like me, they want to have an office for whatever reason. Others like to roll out of bed and say ‘Hey, I’m in pajamas.’ I find home to be very distracting — although my office is two miles away and I go home for a lunch break every day. But I like the separation.”
There’s certainly something to be said for separation, as any successful writer who works from home can attest. Michael agrees. “My wife works from home, and she can’t shut it off. She’s checking emails on the weekend and at night because her computer is right there. For me, I don’t usually do work at home at night or on the weekend because it’s back in my office. I find it’s a nice separation.”
For Michael, the payoff outweighs the price of rent. “I can’t do any real writing at home, it just doesn’t work for me. It’s a little expensive to rent an office, but not a lot because you still have to pay for your cell phone, you still need a computer, and so forth. It’s worth the price to have a place that you find comfortable, whether that’s your bedroom or your office.”
He underscores that this is a common problem for most small business owners, especially when first starting out. Writers are no exception. They don’t stop to decide what works best for them, and instead try to fit a mold. In fact, most want to do too much, too soon — and often try to do all of it on their own, quickly getting discouraged.
Here’s Michael’s perspective for moving beyond that roadblock: “Consider this. I’m always looking for things that are the low-hanging fruit. You’ve got to recognize the difference between reaching out to the world and doing what I call ‘setting the table’ activities. You need a website, a business card, a company name, and maybe a logo, but creating none of those will make the phone ring. Yeah, you’ve got to have a website in 2013, but if you spend six months deciding if your logo should be blue or dark blue, that’s not going to make much difference. A lot of people do these ‘set the table’ activities, but they don’t invite any guests. They’re constantly refining stuff behind-the-scenes, probably out of fear of thinking they’re not ready or that they’ll make a mistake.”
His advice, then, is to encourage new writers and business owners to just get out there, in whatever way they like. “It could be physical networking … social media stuff … whatever. If you’re a writer and not publishing content regularly, then something’s wrong. You have a huge advantage; most people hate writing and they’re terrible at it.”
He points out that it’s just not possible to put yourself out there in a way that’s incorrect or wrong. “I do these group coaching courses and I’m always surprised at the number of people in these classes who are very accomplished in their field. They may be new at flying solo, but they’ve been doing stuff for 20 years. At the same time, they’re afraid they’re going to blow a chance because they’ve reached out to someone and they don’t have their tagline yet. I say, just do it. I find in marketing, particularly for people like us — solos — success means someone noticed you. And the opposite of success is not failure, it’s anonymity. They just didn’t notice.”
His message is clear. There’s virtually no such thing as a mistake when building your business. There are only learning points. “People have this idea that if you make a mistake, your life is over. But it doesn’t happen. There’s a good chance you won’t say something unbelievably stupid when you meet a prospect. You might say something that nobody understands or that they don’t remember. So with the next person, you refine it and try it again. But you have to be willing to be out in public and visible.”
It’s an important lesson for writers who sit on the fence, overthinking how they want to look to prospective clients. As Michael says, “I think the mistake people often make is too much focus on the behind-the-scenes stuff. There’s a lot of stuff you can learn from big companies, but most of the branding stuff is just not that relevant for us. You can devise a tagline and no one but you will ever remember it. And maybe not even you. It’s not like ‘Just Do It’ or some other tagline where they promote it with a lot of money where it makes a difference. It doesn’t matter that much to people like us. It’s much more about being out there and making connections and being able to clearly and coherently explain what you do.”
He’s gone through this experience multiple times, it turns out. When Michael works with coaching clients, their focus starts out with things like what color the website should be and whether artwork on their business cards is a good idea. He tells them, “Forget that, we’re not going to talk about that.” And from there, he moves the conversation toward topics like content and audience and voice.
When asked what he feels is the greatest asset of working for himself, Michael doesn’t miss a beat. “It’s that we get to show our ‘human’ sides. That’s what makes us stand out.” Not that people in big companies or even mid-sized companies are stupid or unfriendly, he says. “It’s just that there are so many people involved that it’s very hard for them to speak or communicate in a way that sounds human. There are too many people at the table — there’s a legal department that doesn’t want you to say this and the PR people want you to say it this way. The result is something like ‘we’re leading providers of cross-platform solutions.’ But we don’t have to do that. Our advantage is that we’re individuals.”
Michael laughs. “The funny thing is,” he explains, “my big company clients hire me to make them sound like us and all the solo people are trying to sound like they’re bigger. They say ‘we’ when there’s only one of them. Solos always pretend they’re bigger. But as soon as someone hires you, they’re going to know you’re not bigger, so the person who thinks bigger is better is going to be disappointed.”
He also points out that a lot of clients actually prefer hiring solo-professionals. “Some people like the solo because they know if they hire you, they get you. It’s hard for the big companies to do that, so they end up as this sort of cynical person with a disembodied voice.”
If your goal is to get over the fear of putting yourself out there, Michael’s advice is to simply be genuine. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. And acknowledge that it may be a slow transition if you’ve been in the corporate world for some time.
“You understandably don’t feel legitimate. If I leave and I’ve had a job for my whole life and go off to become a writer, I take on what I believe writers look like so that I feel more legitimate. Whatever that means. The same if I became an attorney. I would get a car that an attorney had and I’d get a briefcase that attorneys have so I look better. But the problem is, you’re basically saying that I’m just going to move into the pack like everyone else which is like the opposite of marketing. You’re supposed to stand out.”
He turns his emphasis to the power of relationship-building. “Really,” says Michael. “It’s not usually even about your skill. Think about it, how do I know who’s a better writer as a potential client? Just like you don’t know how good your doctor is or how good your attorney is or how good your car mechanic is — who can tell when you’re first connecting? The differentiator turns out to be the people. So if you hide that, you’re saying you’re a generic freelance writer. If you’re generic, you’ll only ever get hired for the cheapest fee.”
He adds, “This is why I love the 21st century. It’s really gotten to be about who you are as a complete person. You’re not just a resume on some company website. So the more you can reveal the real you, the more likely you are to get hired. Again, not by everybody, but how many clients do you need?”
Point well made. Cultivating your own writer’s life is not about to fitting into what other people think is the ideal description of a writer. It’s about picking out what works for you.
This interview was previously published in the June, 2013 issue of Barefoot Writer. To read more interviews from fellow Barefoot Writers be sure to check out The Barefoot Writer's Club .
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