As the home agency to an array of diverse creative freelancers, Creative Allies is committed to helping freelancers become the best they can be, through their work with us and educational and networking resources we provide them. In that spirit, we are writing about the challenges and opportunities freelancers face in today’s market, and we’re also engaging our friends across multiple professions to help us with timely advice for our creative friends.
Recently, I had a chance to chat withBrian Castle, someone I’ve known and worked with for years, and a writer who has made the transition from temporary creative to entrepreneur. Brian is not only a copywriter for hire but also the founder and CEO of Parklife Communications, based in Charlotte. Freelancing and consulting for nearly 10 years, Brian has become an expert on how to attract clients and sustain a freelancing gig into an actual business that keeps the bills paid.
Amie: So Brian, tell us how you got started as a freelance copywriter.
Brian: The short version is that after I lost a job, like many people, I decided to see if I could freelance as a creative. The only difference from most is that I wasn’t working in copywriting, but in financial consulting. So I looked at freelancing as not only a creative outlet, but also as a bridge to a new career at 37.
Amie: How did you get your first clients?
Brian: After I got fired, I reached out to about a dozen of my favorite clients just to keep the relationship going on some level. While I still keep up with most of these folks, three of them hired me for freelance gigs, and I still work with two of them today. One grew into a lot of ongoing, direct work, while the other is an agency that assigns me to billable client work.
Amie: Very few freelancers are able to sustain themselves on a couple of relationships. What did you do next?
Brian: In the early years, I would periodically ask my clients for referrals. There’s nothing better than a happy client, especially if your body of work is relatively small, to speak well of your business. I’ve found that when I get a client referral, the prospect is so eager to work with me that I can really work hard to make the relationship mutually beneficial. Also, if you enjoy working with someone, their friends are usually pretty great to work with, too.
That strategy took us from a couple of clients to about six and then eight. But at the time, even as recent as 2015, I still considered my company as a side gig. Then, about three years ago, I decided to invest more in myself, thinking that creating a mini content marketing agency could be something that I could do for a long time. We really amped up our website, realizing that I had a considerable portfolio to display. The beauty of working in social media, PR, blogging, and website copy is that your work lives and breathes in not only your own website portfolio page, but in a variety of other places: client blogs, social media accounts, and websites.
Amie: Most creatives are not big fans of selling! What’s your sales approach?
Brian: That’s changed a lot through the years. I think old methods of selling–where you prospect, push product or service, draw up a proposal, and then bug your prospect till she says yes or no–are dead. You can actually turn off someone who might otherwise purchase your services if you approach them that way. My approach is all about listening to needs, finding out why they’ve called me, and then designing a project or ongoing relationship defined on value. I haven’t worried as much about dollar amounts, such as creating minimum pricing.
I just try to make it as client-centered as possible. This also plays out in how we manage the process of converting a prospect to a client. Throughout our initial communications, I try to be as responsive and on-target with what the prospect needs, as well as providing them with any free expertise (another value-add), and ideas for follow-on work, whether they choose to do it with me or not. I use the sales process to illustrate those intangible difference-makers like responsiveness. There are LOTS of great writers out there, but you can win business and keep it by treating people right.
Amie: If you had one piece of advice for freelancers looking to create a sustainable business, what would it be?
Brian: Just as a soccer player needs to keep his head up while dribbling the ball, so that he’s able to see an open teammate for a potential goal, you have to keep your head up as a creative freelancer. You can’t get so bogged down in your work that you fail to see opportunities that you deserve to pitch. That means a few things: keep your website updated, showing a full variety of your work. Also, stay in touch with your clients and friends in the business world. Even if you’re not outright asking for referrals–and I certainly don’t do that in every conversation or even half of them–you’re staying top of mind while just being a good partner and friend.
Try to network, too, periodically. Go to events focused on general business and on marketing. The former keeps you visible among prospective direct clients, while the latter has you top of mind with agencies that might farm out work to you. Finally, don’t get down on yourself if you can’t be good at all of these things all the time. Right now, I’m a pretty bad networker. It’s hard to find that extra time outside when you have a toddler at home. But I just make sure to put more effort into keeping my portfolio out there and having those quality conversations with my clients and friends.