I was made redundant nine months ago, and after a lot of soul-searching (and fruitless job applications), I started my own freelance product marketing business, Orange Mesh. This (quite long) article is about some of the things I’ve learned along the way that might be useful to you if you’re thinking about doing something similar. Get in touch if you’d like a chat BTW.
Freelance product marketing
You’ve got to overcome your lizard (survival) brain just to get started! I was prompted to read Seth Godin’s no-nonsnse book The Icarus Deception (which I did while walking the dog), and the straightforward arguments in it tipped me over the edge towards starting my business. If you’re already thinking about doing it, this is a good read.
Once you’ve decided to go for it and start your own business as a freelancer, get the foundations for actually operating the business done: business bank account, accounting tools (and accountant), biz cards, website… Without these, you’re not actually in business (raising invoices, accepting payments, recording expenses, promoting yourself, etc.).
Your first three or four gigs will very likely come from recommendations, ex-colleagues and word-of-mouth. This is very, very useful. It’s also quite scary because you know deep down that at some point you’re going to have to find a client through your own marketing hustle. Don’t underestimate, however, the power of your network and how much these personal recommendations provide work.
The brief! It’s all about the brief! If there isn’t one, the customer doesn’t really know what they want so you can’t possibly deliver it. Ergo, they will be disappointed with what you do deliver. If there isn’t a brief, write one, even if it’s encapsulated in your proposal. I write relatively detailed proposals (for my own benefit) and then cut them down to give to the client along with my quote. I don’t give too much away in the proposal – I want the client to engage me, not use my proposal as the brief for someone else.
Having a variety of clients in different industries, covering both products and services, has been great fun and kept me interested. And having a mixture of large and small projects means that I’m never doing the same thing for more than a day or two at a stretch – managing expectations, and my time, along the way to keep everyone happy
Having a time tracking app (I use Hours) is vital – not just for checking if you’re over-allocating your time to one particular client, but, and for me this has been a real learning experience, to compare how long I budgeted a gig to take vs. how long it actually took. My learning was that I was taking too long to do stuff rather than undercharging.
Discounts can seal the deal (or can tip a gig in your favour). Yes, it might devalue what you do, but as a new business, I took the view that I needed the business and that the possibility of a recommendation at the end of it was the upside.
It’s okay not to have a contract before starting a gig. In fact, I’ve stopped even thinking about this. I trust my clients to pay, and they trust me to deliver.
Feast or Famine
Some people are so crazy busy (really?) that they will not have the time to respond to your proposal/emails. And chasing them will or won’t have any impact on you getting the gig. I tend to gently chase every couple of weeks – just to keep the project in their heads.
Don’t assume that an open-ended, retainer-based engagement proposal is what a client wants unless they specifically ask for it. If you’re asked for a proposal for what they see as a self-contained project (with quite a few deliverables), it’s not a retainer – it’s a project where the client wants to know what they’re going to get for their money, and what the delivery schedule is (even if it’s months).
I constantly worried (still do) about the feast or famine problem: “I’m very busy right now with no spare capacity… should I be marketing myself to find new clients when I know I can’t fit the work in?”. In the end, I decided to use the ‘builder model’ to deal with new business in this scenario: “Yes, I can do the work… I’ll schedule it to start in two weeks’ time”.
Some specific product marketing learnings
- Don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water when you’re rewriting existing copy. Don’t lose sight of the features/core capabilities of a client’s product or service, and their corporate DNA, by focussing too heavily on benefits.
- Yes, lead with the benefits, but follow it up with the features. While customers want to know the company understands their issues, they also want to know what the company does and how it does it.
- When writing copy, understanding (or establishing) a client’s USPs early on is very important
- When doing website copywriting work, never ignore any design work that’s going on in parallel. In fact, wait for the design to settle down – the new copy needs to fit the design, not the other way round (typically).
- Get your copy reviewed early on. Keep checking with the client that it’s what they want. Failure to do this results in lots of unpaid time doing rewrites.
- Not everyone knows what they want straight away, but on the other hand, some people are more than happy to hand off responsibility or be led, gently, by the hand. These are good gigs – but check (often) that what you’re doing/writing is really what they want.
- People are often very happy with what they’ve got already – right up to the point when they get to see how much better their company would look with benefit-led messaging
- For a business like mine, Twitter and Facebook are a waste of time. They are very time-consuming and in my experience don’t bring in any business. I’ve stopped promoting my blog posts on Facebook, and I’ve removed my Twitter feed from my website.
- Blog posts promoted via a small-but-growing email list have been very successful – I get a regular 30% email open rate.
I’ve never looked back and I know I made the right decision. I love the work I’m doing and the service I’m providing is not only useful but people are willing to pay for it!