The Anatomy of an Article Writing Agency, Part III

The Anatomy of an Article Writing Agency, Part III

Welcome back to the third and final installment of my “Anatomy of an Article Writing Agency” series. On Monday, I gave you some background info on how I got my start working as a freelance writer. Then, on Wednesday, I shared some advice on how to hit the ground running for those of you who are interested in finding your own freelancing clients.

Today, I have a few more insights to share with you as we wrap up the story of how an unintentional freelance writer turned a single article writing contract into a five figure business…

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When we last left off, my business was growing rapidly. My first client had passed on my contact info to another, and a combination of word of mouth referrals and my own advertising left me with more work than I could handle on my own. Even though my boss at the time was generous about me doing freelance work while on the clock, she wasn’t *that* generous!

Around the time that I had about six clients all sending business my way, it became obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with everything myself. I was filling every spare minute of my work day with writing, but that wasn’t enough. My writing work began to spill into the evenings, taking up the limited time I had with my then-boyfriend – not cool!

Something had to change, and the decision was to either cut the number of clients I was taking on or bring on another writer to help handle the load. Because I’m not very good at saying no to potential business, I went with option #2 and set out to find a writer to help me with my business.

Of course, those of you who have worked with freelance writers before know that good writers who work for low prices aren’t easy to come by. I started the process of finding writers for my team through sites like Guru.com and Freelancer.com, but it wasn’t a walk in the park by any means.

New Arbor Enterprise functioned as I believe most freelancers operate – clients would contact me on an as-needed basis, requesting batches of articles (typically 5-25 at a time) and specifying their desired deadlines and any keyword/SEO parameters that needed to be met. So when I started looking for writers to work with me, I would simply post a batch or two of articles to these freelance portal sites and hire writers based on their quotes and portfolios.

A couple of things here…

Number 1 – I’m a big believer in paid freelancer tests (and this is especially relevant for those of you who hire freelancers as part of your business model). Portfolios are great, but they don’t always tell the full picture about a writer’s skills – you won’t really know how someone works until you initiate a project. And asking a professional freelancer to do a free test is disrespectful in my opinion – you wouldn’t ask an auto mechanic to prove he knows what he’s doing by fixing your car for free, so why do the same thing online?

The downside is obviously that you’re taking a risk with your time and money. More than once, I would award the project to a writer, only to have them blow the entire thing off at the last minute – which resulted in some late nights for me, rushing to get through the content to deliver it to the client on time. Unfortunately, although I ultimately learned to keep my test projects small, I never figured out a good way to completely eliminate this risk, and just chalked it up to being a part of doing business online.

Number 2 – For this business model to work, I needed to find writers who were able to write good content at a price that left me with enough margin to make the time investment worth it for me. Because I was making $50 for three articles (or about $17 per article), I looked for writers who were charging between $5 and $7 per 500 word article, leaving me with $10-$12 per article.

While I was still doing quite a bit of work to earn that profit – including finding clients, coordinating clients and writers, and editing my writers’ work into my own unique style – this was still difficult to accept sometimes. Was I really worth that much more than what these writers were charging? Could I justify making a $10 profit when they were only earning $5 per page? At the end of the day, though, we were all making the rates that we set for ourselves. No one was entering blindly into this arrangement, and I suppose I can’t hold myself responsible if the writers I worked with weren’t happy with what they were charging.

The other downside to this arrangement is that good writers who are charging $5-$7/article burn out fast. If I could go back and change any one thing about my business, I would have implemented a graduated payment system that would have increased their pay after a certain number of successful articles. I believe this would have helped with the turnover that occurred whenever a writer quit abruptly due to burnout.

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So, the goofy thing about my business was that as soon as I brought on my first writer, the number of clients and projects we received rapidly outgrew our capabilities, requiring a second writer, then a third and so on.

Before I knew it, I had seven writers working with me on a freelance basis, and enough clients to support them. Talk about a logistical nightmare!

When your business grows to this point (and again, this applies to marketer who juggle a large number of projects as well), you need an organizational system and a set of policies to ensure that everything runs smoothly. The following are a few of the things that I did to maintain sanity – both mine, my writers’ and my clients’.

Google Calendar – Honestly, I kind of look back on this and laugh. I tracked incoming projects, writer assignments and deadlines using different colored appointment blocks in Google Calendar – warm colors for writers and cool colors for clients. How unsophisticated! (Give me a break – I was 22 at the time… 🙂 )

If I were to do it all again, I’d invest in a program like Basecamp that would have given me much more functionality in terms of managing projects and also a way to track communication with both my writers and clients. I know there are free alternatives out there as well, and if you have a recommendation for other aspiring agency writers, please share it in the comments.

Business Contracts and Policies – I didn’t enter this business with much professional experience, but I knew I needed at least some contracts and policies in place to protect myself.

In fact, throughout the entire three and a half years we were in business, I was only ever screwed over financially on one small, three article project, and I believe a big part of that luck was due to the contracts and policies I put in place from the get go.

*Payment Terms – From the very beginning, I required that all new clients paid half of the estimated project fee up front, with the remaining half due upon completion (after unlimited revisions until they were satisfied). Once we successfully completed a project, we could negotiate payment terms, but otherwise, I believe having this policy in place (and refusing to waver on it) protected me from scammers or tire-kickers who wouldn’t have paid up on time.

*Business Contracts – I used two contracts in my business: a project agreement and a project questionnaire. The project agreement detailed the specific terms of the project, including deadlines, cost, and so on. The questionnaire allowed me to collect all of the necessary details for the project and have them in writing in order to prevent miscommunication throughout the project. (Check out the links in this paragraph for examples of the documents I use – feel free to modify them and use them yourself.)

*Professional Communication – When you’re working as a writer, your communication skills are constantly being scrutinized. For this reason, I used a number of email templates that allowed me to qualify new client inquiries and follow up on existing projects without having to check my spelling and grammar each time.

Also, it should go without saying that timeliness is important here, not just in terms of initial follow up, but also if you encounter any problems during a project. Remember, there are tons of great freelance writers out there, so don’t give people any reason to leave your business.

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So that, in a nutshell, is how I turned one small freelance writing job into an agency that grossed over $30,000 throughout its life.

But by now you’re probably wondering, “Sarah, that sounds like a pretty sweet gig. Why aren’t you running New Arbor Enterprise anymore?”

Well, for me, the business came to a natural end for two major reasons. By the summer of 2009, the contract with my original client had evolved into a 100 article/week contract, which represented a major chunk of my business. Near the end of 2009, they experienced a significant Google slap, wherein Big G decided that they’d over-optimized their sites and de-indexed most of them. Their business disappeared over night, which left me without work for several of my writers.

The second thing that coincided with the end of that contract was a major case of burnout on my part. Article writing had been a part of my life for a long time – actually, it’s funny to look back and remember what a constant presence it was. When I took trips with friends or family members, I’d wake up early and sneak down to hotel lobbies to crank out a few articles. Heck – when my husband and I decided to move several states away from home, I remember camping out amidst the moving boxes trying to write content while getting my life back in order.

The problem with evolving to an agency model is that there’s no downtime. At least, it’s much harder to take a break when you’ve got people expecting you to send them work. When you’re freelancing on your own, you can schedule vacations and take time off for holidays, major life events, etc. When you’re running an agency, things become more complicated.

After losing my biggest writing contract, I scaled back considerably – cutting back to only a few select clients and one writer, but even that was too much. In the first six months of 2010, I was attempting to buy my first home, and plan and hold my wedding (FYI – bad plan…), so I put a hold on writing indefinitely. In October 2010, I formally declared the end of the New Arbor Enterprise writing service.

I still do freelance writing today, but on a much more limited basis. I pick and choose the clients I want to work with, I charge higher rates and I only take on writing work when it interests me. For now, this business model suits my needs and provides a good complement to my affiliate marketing and product creation businesses.

If you want to learn more about how I’m currently structuring my writing services, check out my new website at www.Sarah-Russell.net. But otherwise, that brings us to the end of our story and my experiences as a freelance article writer.

So, in closing, thanks for bearing with me through these three *long* articles. I hope you’ve found them helpful and at least mildly interesting 🙂

If you have any questions at all about what it’s like to work as a freelance writer, please share them in the comments below!

Image: Gaius Valerius Flaccus

13 Responses to The Anatomy of an Article Writing Agency, Part III

  1. Adrienne says:

    Wow Sarah, what a ride. That does sound like a LOT of work and you always have to come up with new fresh content which is where I sometimes struggle. But I really appreciate you sharing with us how you got started, what happened along your journey and where you are now.

    I really enjoy writing blog posts because I have faithful followers now that are interested in what I am writing about and at the same time, they are learning a lot as well. So for me, that’s fun.

    Never knowing how my articles will be viewed is another story. I’m still working on the SEO, keywords, etc. to really optimize my views so I can’t really write what I want because I have to fit certain keywords in. That’s harder for me I find.

    But article marketing will never die so this is an area we can all learn from. Thanks again for sharing your story. I really enjoyed it!

    Adrienne

    • Sarah says:

      Adrienne – Glad you enjoyed the articles!

      Writing for clients is a very different game than writing for your own blog. On the one hand, it’s nice that you don’t have to worry about how every piece of content reflects on you personally.

      Writing to SEO/keyword parameters is a lot more challenging, but at least then it’s on the client’s end if the content isn’t as good as it could be.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. Peggy Baron says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for going to all the trouble to write out this 3 part story. I really enjoyed reading it, and you’ve made some great points – like about positioning yourself to stand out.

    What’s next for you?

    Peggy

    • Sarah says:

      Peggy – Thanks for sticking with me through the series!

      As for me, I’m still doing some limited freelance writing, but I’m also focusing on growing my affiliate marketing business and growing this site.

      Ooh – and I have a fun new product coming out next week. More to come Monday 🙂

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  3. Jon says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Wow. Just wow. What a journey and the education you received from it is incredible.

    So, straight out: which service is your favorite for finding outsource workers? You mentioned a couple.

    When the tasks start to eat into personal time with people close to you that’s when you feel the sting. It’s tough. Some of us put work before everything and our relationships suffer (I’m guilty). But BALANCE is everything.

    Looking back I’m sure you’d agree that going through it all, even when you questioned your own pricing, was worth it. You’re all the wiser for this.

    I wonder if the writers you were feeding have stayed in the industry?

    Also – great job having your contracts together and streamlining your email process. Smart.

    Talk soon…

    Jon

    • Sarah says:

      Jon – For finding freelancers, I’ve had the best luck with Freelancer.com and the Warriors for Hire section of the Warrior Forum, in terms of quality vs cost.

      And I’ve kept in touch with a few of the writers I worked with, so I know that some of them are still in the business. The others, I’ve lost touch with, but I hope they’re successful with whatever projects they’re invovled with.

      And for sure I agree that, despite the parts I questioned, the whole process was definitely worth it. It’s been a blast writing these articles and revisiting some of the lessons I learned throughout.

      Thanks for your comments!

  4. This is a real inspiration. I built a blog not thinking about how to monetize it at all. But it seems like article writing is a great way to make some extra money. Thanks for your story and the details!

    • Sarah says:

      One of the things I like about article writing is that the payout is immediate – no building a website, waiting for traffic, testing different offers, etc. Just write the article, and get paid 🙂

      That does make it a nice complement for beginning bloggers or affiliate marketers who aren’t seeing results on their sites yet.

  5. Chris says:

    Wow, Sarah, thanks for sharing. I really like your conversational writing style. It makes all the technicalities of running a business more approachable. When I started out freelancing, I was writing $15 articles for Demand Studios and when they cut-back on writers and titles, it was almost a relief, because of the burnout from their repetitive form articles.

    • Sarah says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Chris! I made it through all of two articles for Demand Studios (mostly because they were the only two approved topics I could find that weren’t completely absurd) before giving it up. Hope you’ve been able to find work outside of that hell hole as well!!! 🙂

  6. Blake Tull says:

    Sarah,

    Thank you for taking the time to put this together. I felt like I was engrossed in a novel while reading this – I didn’t want it to end! 🙂

    Thanks,

    Blake

  7. Nabarun says:

    Hi Sarah (Russell Brunson) lol!!!

    Super kid thing you did with that name..Excellent story. My story is pretty similar to yours except that I am a returning writer. I started off freelancing in 2009 both privately and on elance/freelancer.
    But I had bigger dreams which only internet marketing could provide for. Holidaying at will, enough time for my life fulfilling activities and complete financial freedom.

    I gave up professional writing and got into courses and softwares to help and guide me with IM. Yet, for reasons unknown to me, I havent made much of that dream lifestyle come true. Today morning I was having a chat with my mentor and told him about this situation and he asked me ” what can I do to trade time for money?”I said ” I can write well”. What came next is where I am right now, reading your article and contemplating on it.

    I am going to start off with my writing services again and this time with IM skills included in my arsenal. Although this article clearly outlines the scope and boundaries to operate in, A a mail or two could go your way for some clarifications. Am on your list now:) Great work Sarah.

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