A conversation with Carol Tice leaves you thinking three things:
- Massive pools of clients with deep pockets are waiting to be tapped by freelance writers like you
- It’s surprisingly easy — thanks to the Internet — to find and dive into those pools
- If you’re willing to jump in, you’ll never look back
Carol’s work has been published everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times, with several other business journals, periodicals, and websites in between. Her client list includes names like Forbes.com, Entrepreneur magazine, Dell, Sun Trust, American Express, and Dun & Bradstreet. Carol’s blog was even named one of the “Top 10 Blogs for Writers” in Write to Done’s 2010 contest. Plus, her freelance writing business has won a host of journalist honors and awards.
Given all that, you can see why we wanted her take on how to succeed as a money-making writer.
Carol spoke to me from her home near Seattle on a Monday morning. Enjoy the following account of her no-nonsense, here’s-what-works attitude.
Why did you leave your staff writer job to strike out as a freelancer?
I got fired. I love sharing this because I think a lot of freelance writers have the idea that if you make one mistake, your career is over and all the editors get on the universal editor communication network and tell each other never to hire you again. But nothing like that happens. So I was about 10 years into my staff writing job, and I was really happy. I was writing for Business Weekly in my town. I loved covering business, I loved the editors I was working for … and then they both left. Another editor came in. It was clear from the beginning that he wanted me out, but I rode it all the way down — because I had a bar mitzvah to pay for! He ended up getting rid of me a few weeks before the bar mitzvah (which turned out great because I had a lot more time to devote to planning the party).
I got some severance and initially just thought I would freelance while I looked for another job. But within about six months, I thought, “I’m never going back — this is great!” I had just adopted two special-needs kids and thought, “How did I ever do this with a full-time job, where I had to go be in an office everyday and take the ferry?” It was obvious I needed the lifestyle of freelancing.
How did you land clients when you first started?
That was 2005 and 2006, when the economy was just ripping along. I just started telling people that I was looking, and I approached a couple of city and business magazines and contacted a bunch of sources and companies. I got my first assignments pretty easily. Now before, I had only done journalism. I had never done any business writing and I wasn’t even thinking of doing it. I thought of it as the dark side of the force, you know? But then, one of the start-ups I covered asked me to ghost their CEO’s blog and write some editorial articles for their site. I honestly did not know what a blog was when they asked me. I went and started learning about blogs, and just tried it. It turned out kind of fun and paid really well. So that was my first experience going down the road of freelance business writing.
Now that you’re an established freelancer, what’s your favorite way to market your services?
My favorite marketing tools are the ones that market for me, and I don’t have to do anything. So, great passive marketing tools are my website and LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn landed me four different Fortune 500 clients — and they approached me.
If you update your writer website frequently and have keywords in it, it works. My key term is “Seattle freelance writer.” I highly recommend everyone do their keyword search and see who’s on there and get to know those other people at the top of your city search or keyword term for whatever you’re trying to rank for. You want to know who’s up there and find out where they network because they know something.
So you have a pretty high regard for LinkedIn.
I constantly meet writers who aren’t using their LinkedIn profile or aren’t even on LinkedIn, and I just think you’re missing a huge opportunity. LinkedIn is the phone book for hiring freelancers in the eyes of large corporations. They’re constantly doing searches on LinkedIn and looking at profiles. I really like using In-Mail as well. You can look at who’s viewed your profile on LinkedIn, then send them an In-Mail email and say, “Hey, are you looking for a writer? I saw you were checking out my profile. Let me know if I can help with anything. I know your industry.”
I also recommend looking at full-time job postings on LinkedIn. That’s where you apply but you say, “Hey, I’m not looking for a full-time job. I’m a happy freelancer. Do you need anything done while you’re making this hire?” Because having been a staff writer for 12 years, the thing I know about hiring a staff writer is that it takes six months to a year. It’s a very long, elaborate process, usually because the editor doesn’t have time to interview anyone, then they can’t make up their minds, and then they give writing tasks, and if they hire that person, the next person quits. So they’re never really fully staffed and any time you see a staff writer job, there’s a freelance opportunity.
I think people who have not been staff writers are just not aware of what it means when you see a staff writer position being advertised. What it means is that a disaster has happened. Someone has been bundled out of the building. Because the minute you fire a writer, they leave the building immediately and there’s chaos and they can’t just shovel that person’s work on to all the other writers or they will also quit and have a domino effect. So they just immediately take that money and move it to the freelance line until they hire somebody.
Do you do any active self-marketing?
I’m a big fan of in-person networking. I got some great clients that way and met some amazing prospects, including someone who was with Microsoft Office Live (think the #2 largest website in the universe!). Media Bistro live events really paid off for me, too. I think you really have to kiss a lot of frogs with in-person networking, but it’s worth it. Keep circulating until you figure out where your clients hang out. If you live in a small town and you go to a small town Chamber meeting and those people aren’t what you’re looking for, drive to the next town where bigger corporations are present.
Usually when people market proactively, they tend to think about the mid-level companies. But what I’m finding is that big companies are increasingly looking for freelance writers because they want expertise they don’t have on their staff, or they just don’t have the bandwidth to do it themselves and they don’t want to make another full-time hire.
You’ve been freelancing for only about six years. What else helped you get noticed by big companies?
I landed the blogging spot for Entrepreneur because I was writing for the magazine and my editor happened to mention they were looking to outsource. They’d had an editor doing the blog and they were taking it to the freelance level, and I was like, “Well, I know how to blog.” Even though I’d been blogging for about 12 minutes — I had maybe six blogs under my belt. But I said, “Take a look.” And they said, “Okay, blog for us.” This was four or five years ago, when fewer writers knew anything about blogging. So I recommend freelancers try to get a blogging gig on a really high-traffic blog, or guest-post on a high-traffic blog.
People from the I’m-a-laid-off-journalist side (which there are legions of) don’t realize how interested businesses are in hiring them. They think their skills are not transferable to the business writing side, but there are businesses that would love to have you.
Sure, getting complacent can be a big problem for freelancers.
It’s like a Newtonian law. Like, “Gigs we have tend to remain gigs we continue doing at the same speed and in the same direction.” We don’t go, “Hey, this isn’t getting me clients — I should move on from this, it doesn’t pay that well.” I remember mentoring this one guy early on and he told me he’d been writing for small businesses for 10 years and I was just like, “Here’s the revelation for you: It’s time to write for bigger businesses.” And he said, “Wow, you’re right. Why am I still doing this?”
And that’s what happens, we get into these ruts and then we don’t realize the only force that is going to move our career forward is us. No one’s going to come skipping down the lane to say, “Here, I’m gonna give you a bigger, better quality client.”
Which experience over your 20-year career, from editor to interviewer to producer — has proven most useful to life as a professional freelance writer?
I think what really made me a successful freelance writer was that my dad was in business for himself. All his life he would do stuff like drive home from Fullerton to L.A., eat dinner, then drive back out to Whittier or someplace to sell more insurance. I grew up watching him constantly prospect and constantly find clients.
One other skill is to realize you constantly need to learn new things. I think I once did a post and made a list of all the things I had to learn in blogging. Stuff like learning to use movable type, Blogger, WordPress, private CSS systems, etc. I learned how to find and attach photos and wrap text and the list goes on and on. And this is just for blogging — now there’s the whole social media platform stuff. But this is the difference between people who are earning a lot and people who aren’t is that they understand the Internet is changing everything in our business and you need to learn about it. I am a completely non-technical person. Technology totally makes me hold my head in my hands and cry. I have no natural aptitude for it but I have learned mountains of new technology and that’s a huge factor in how much I earn now.
There are so many layers of payoff in that — clients appreciate you more, you’re more likely to keep those clients, and they’re more likely to refer you. Now, tell me about your print book, How They Started, which debuted last May. How did that come about?
That’s another example where blogging in a prominent place had a payoff. The publisher for this book found me through my Entrepreneur blog. Writing the book itself was a whole new experience. I had to beat a lot of bushes to get information and found that the big tech guys — the venture capitalist types — just don’t do email anymore. So I used LinkedIn and Twitter, and in the case of one guy I wanted to interview, I commented on his personal blog to get his attention. The PR departments of the companies I was writing about were impenetrable, so I used a lot of social media and found a lot of other contacts through LinkedIn. I also found hundreds of links to past interviews and YouTube interviews, so in some cases, it didn’t matter if people didn’t talk to me.
Two years ago, you averaged over $5,000 a month blogging, but wrote as many as 68 blogs a month. How did you keep it all organized?
Thankfully, I’m down to around 30 or so blogs a month now. I have lists of ideas and links … I’m a big string collector, so I always have a million ideas floating around for my blog posts. I also use the WordPress Editorial Calendar plugin — I’d be dead without that plugin. I was so disorganized before that and now I can plan where my blog is going for months to come. I have at least a month’s worth of posts mapped out right now.
The other thing is to write in batches. Once you get into the head of your client, in the groove of their style and audience, you want to stay there and get as much done as you can. I would usually write my three Entrepreneur posts in one sitting, so it would take me three hours a week to do that and then I was done. And I was so much more efficient.
You’ve referred to yourself as both CEO and Janitor of your writing company, TiceWrites Inc. What advice do you have for someone getting ready to launch their own writing business?
I got that CEO and janitor tagline from a start-up CEO who had that on his business card years ago. I loved it right away because it really says what it is to be a freelancer. You do everything from emptying trash cans to replacing light bulbs to choosing an Internet security provider to marketing the business. A lot of people coming out of Corporate America only had to be one little cog of the business. But in freelancing, you’re everything.
You’re referring to the trick of moving past the romance of writing and treating it like a money-making business.
Right. Either you have a business or you have a hobby. I talk to writers who say things like, “I don’t want to write this landing page for insurance companies. I really want to write about natural healing remedies.” So okay, if you just want to get up every day and write about what you feel like writing about, then that’s a hobby, not a business. A business approach is, “I’m going to figure out who pays the most for my skills and then I’m going to go out and convince them to hire me.” That’s a business approach. And once you have the money coming in, then you might also spend an hour in the morning or one day a week writing the thing you’re just dying to write.
You pay for guest posts on your blog. Why?
That was actually a huge decision. The idea that I should pay for blog posts was something I thought about for a long time. But my mission is to help freelance writers earn more money and to help drive the market toward better pay for writers. I know that many large and popular blogs do not pay for guest posts and I have guested on many of those blogs for free. I decided that I had to stop waiting for the big blogs to lead the way on this issue. So I started by allocating $100 a month for guest blogs.
Paying for blog posts changes your attitude about your blog-based business because now you’re spending money on the business. The quality of guest blogs you get goes way up because it becomes very competitive. The other thing is that you get a lot of attention. I’ve been linked to so many compendiums that show you can get paid to blog. So that has given me a lot of links and traffic and word has spread, and it really builds your reputation. For me, it was essential to be a paying market because I’m serious about this.
I find that if you think of it as a marketing cost, it’s actually way better value to pay people for guest posting — as opposed to say, spending 100 bucks on Facebook ads — because they become raving fans for the rest of their lives. They become your marketing machine.
It’s investing in your business in a way that never goes away. Final question: what’s the best thing about life near Seattle?
I moved here in 1995 from L.A. I was looking for a place with seasons. When my husband and I got here, it smelled like we were on vacation. This summer alone we went to Mount Rainier and Lake Champlain, and biking and paddle boarding. I wanted to get out of smog-filled L.A. to breathable air.