Jennifer Mattern is a freelance business writer and professional blogger, as well as an e-book author and Web publisher managing approximately a dozen sites of her own. In addition to her more than ten years of freelance writing experience, she used to be an online PR and social media consultant through her own firm. Jennifer hales from Pennsylvania, USA and can be found online at www.ProBusinessWriter.com and at her primary blog www.AllFreelanceWriting.com.
1. Your website says you work from 5am to 12pm Monday to Thursday? That’s an unusual schedule, why have you chosen that and what do you do when you’re not working?
One of the biggest perks of the freelance lifestyle is flexibility in your schedule. For me that includes being able to work when I’m most productive. I tend to get more done in the early morning hours when it’s dark and cool and quiet (I’m completely useless work-wise in the afternoon). So I choose to wake up at 4am (usually) so I can gulp down massive amounts of caffeine and settle into my work day by 5am. Sometimes I start work a little earlier than that. It’s basically just a time shift on your typical 8 hour day with an hour off for lunch. I just happen to take lunch immediately after work rather than in the middle of that work day.
As for only working Monday through Thursday, that decision was about enjoying a better work / life balance. By the time Friday would roll around, I was usually exhausted. And the weekend was rarely enough time to fully unwind to start it all over again. I also realized there was a lot of wasted time during my work days. When you’re exhausted or overwhelmed it can be easier to let yourself procrastinate. And let’s face it. Social media makes that easier than ever these days.
I decided to give a four day work week a try. I canceled contracts with some of my older clients who were on the lower end of my pay spectrum (and not able to meet the current rates). And I convinced some of my other regulars to increase their contracts in different ways. What happened was this — I now work fewer days per week, but I earn even more money, and have more time to myself. It has been more successful than I could have imagined. It’s amazing how much more you can get done in a work day when you don’t try to overdo it during the week, and you allow yourself enough time to pursue other passions as well.
When I’m not working I pursue personal interests — reading, catching up on movies, going for drives, walking or hiking occasionally when the weather’s nice, doing genealogical research (big family history buff here), taking care of errands, taking day trips or long weekends out of town, spending more time with family and friends (such as my sister when she’s home from university for the summer), or just relaxing and unwinding before another work week.
2. You’ve done a lot of writing in your time for all kinds of businesses and websites. What are your favourite kinds of projects and why?
My favorite project at this point is definitely blogging. The work varies, it allows for a casual and conversational tone, and it offers a huge amount of freedom. While I’ve taken on business ghostblogging — company news, etc. — I usually take on niche-oriented writing. I choose the topics I want to write about. That could be anything in the business niche really (and occasionally I branch a bit wider for one longstanding client). For example, a client launched a new social media blog recently at http://SocialImplications.com and had me head it up. I get to discuss social media issues that matter to me and even rant about the problems I come across. On other blogs I talk about things like SEO and Internet marketing.
On top of my client blogging, I also run quite a few blogs of my own. Their topics range from freelance writing to independent music promotion to small business. There are several new ones set to launch including a small blog network and a new blog on the topic of indie publishing. The original plan was to move away from client work in 2010 and focus exclusively on my own blogs, e-books, and other writing. But I changed that plan due to the continued growth in the client side of my business. I’ve decided to push that transition back a bit, until the client side of the business starts to level off.
3. Until 2008 you worked as a PR consultant. Why did you decide to change your focus to freelance writing and how do you compare the two?
At that time I was mostly working with online business owners and independent webmasters. Their interest in consulting was fading, but their interest in PR writing (such as news releases) was growing significantly. With consulting I had to be around during “normal” business hours (tough when you work with an international client base). I decided that I could enjoy more freedom in my work, and make more money, by focusing on the writing side of the business. I already offered expanded business writing services outside of my PR firm on a part-time basis, so I simply cut the consulting work and rolled that into the PR writing services I already offered.
I wouldn’t go back to the consulting life for anything. Now I have fewer meetings and phone conferences to worry about scheduling in, more time to write (which is what I love), more time to develop my own projects, more freedom in my schedule in general, and I earn more. What’s not to love? It was the perfect solution for me.
4. What marketing have you found most effective in landing clients for your business?
I’m a big advocate of platform-building when it comes to marketing freelance writing services. In fact, I’m working on a book on that very topic called The Query-Free Freelancer. The idea is pretty simple. Rather than writers having to query prospect after prospect, getting rejections, they make the clients come to them. When I left the PR consulting work in 2008 for full-time writing, I took this approach. I built a platform and visibility. I built a solid referral business, and made sure I could be found easily via search. And within a measly three months not only did I have enough work coming in to keep me busy, but I had a waiting list built up.
The approach isn’t anything new. It’s just something I haven’t seen many freelance writers use effectively yet. I suggest that they think of themselves almost as an author selling a book — they need a platform (a built-in audience for their product or services). That could include things like a professional website, a blog (or several), a podcast series, e-books, white papers, seminars / webinars, e-courses, etc. Then it’s about building visibility and getting prospects to visit you there — commenting on others’ blogs, writing guest posts, landing interviews, and just about anything else you can think of to get yourself in front of your target market. In the end though it’s search and referrals that bring in the most prospects (in my case). And I haven’t been hurting for work at all, despite the lousy economy here which I’ve seen other freelancers blame for their occasional dry spells. The same can be said of other freelancers who have solid platforms and who keep their names out there.
5. Some people say it’s hard to land big clients and steady work as a consultant or freelancer if you live in a small town outside of the big cities. You live in a town with less than 30,000 people I believe, what’s your take on this issue?
I actually don’t even live in the town — in a small township on the outskirts (which is actually in a different county despite having the same mailing address). So where I live is much smaller. That said, I’m also driving distance from Philadelphia, New York City and Washington DC, so I’m geographically fortunate.
If you resort to targeting only local businesses, I could see how that might be the case though. But in this day and age, why would you want to do that as a freelancer? If your work can be done virtually, you don’t need to limit yourself in that way. The international market for freelance writers in the U.S. is astounding. Businesses large and small around the world want to appeal to an English-speaking audience, often specifically in the U.S. You’ll also find plenty of clients looking for UK and Australian writers. These freelancers are in high demand. They just have to know how to find that work.
Here’s where it gets a bit trickier. Too many freelancers look at the freelance marketplaces and job boards online. They see ads for writers, with clients willing to pay a pathetic $15 per article or a penny per word or sometimes even less. They either get discouraged and they move on to something else, or they convince themselves that these are the going rates of today, and they settle for them. They’re not the going rates.
The simple truth is that most clients do not advertise high paying freelance writing jobs in these locations. Many are never publicly advertised at all. It goes back to what I mentioned before — you need a strong search presence and a strong referral network. People don’t want to advertise high paying gigs when they know they’ll be bombarded with a lot of offers from unqualified freelancers who simply go gaga over the idea of being paid more. It’s a hassle. Instead they often just search for what they want (and if you’re not found via search, you won’t get the job). Or they’ll turn to colleagues or employees for trusted referrals. That’s why it’s so important to stay well-networked within your niche. If you do those two things finding work doesn’t have to be difficult, no matter where you live. These days clients are very often happy to work with you virtually. And if you prefer it, there’s always direct pitching. Sure, if you want to exclusively write for magazines it might be a bit tougher. But there are so many Web publications and business websites that need content or editing work, and if you target your market carefully and can demonstrate the value you provide the client, you can find equal pay (and sometimes much more) right on the Web.
6. Most freelancers and consultants don’t clearly list their fees to prospective clients on their website or marketing materials. You have yours clearly displayed on your website, what’s your reason for doing that?
I’m a big believer in publicly listing your rates when you work on a freelance basis. I know some freelancers who feel too constrained by that idea, and to them I say “then just post a range.” Here’s the thing. If you don’t give a prospective client all of the information they need on your site, but your competition does, the competition is immediately saving that client time. If they have enough information there to make a hiring decision, there’s a good chance they won’t even waste their time contacting you. Why would you want to turn off prospects immediately if they could be a great fit?
On the other hand, publishing your rates does turn off clients you don’t want to spend time on — the ones who can’t afford you. They’re not in your target market. I have colleagues who complain that they’re constantly pitched projects from prospects at ridiculously low rates. I’m not. That’s because they immediately know what I charge, and it’s not $5 or $10 per blog post or $100 for a feature. They don’t waste my time, and I don’t waste theirs. So when prospects do contact me, they’re already vetted to a certain extent. It’s a huge time-saver and eliminates a lot of uncomfortable discussions about rates. And let’s be frank. If freelancers want clients to stop undervaluing them, then they need to step up and start publicly showing what professional rates really look like. That’s the only way they’re going to counteract the cheap marketplace bids and content mill advertised rates on a large scale.
7. For consultants and freelancers that are looking to get publicity for their business or their clients, if you could offer one tip, what would it be?
Be yourself. Honestly, being myself is probably the top thing that brings in business and gets people’s attention. I don’t shy away from sharing my opinions, no matter how controversial they are. Some people are afraid that would scare off clients. It doesn’t. It shows them you can think for yourself and that you won’t be just another “yes man” type — which precious few seem to actually want, despite the misconception that companies want to hire corporate drones.
Don’t network with people solely to use them. Eventually they do notice and they do start to talk to other colleagues. You don’t want that reputation. Don’t put on a fake smile 24/7 feeling like you have to be a perpetual kiss-ass. It’s also easy to see through. On the flip side, don’t be constantly controversial just for the sake of doing so. Keep the harsh criticisms to issues you passionately care about. For me, there’s a lot I’m passionate about, so ranting was a big part of my own PR blogging (at the now retired NakedPR.com). It brought in a lot of clients who found my views refreshing in an industry full of spin and hype and constant back-patting. In writing, it’s done the same although I reserve it for the really big issues that get under my skin (usually ones involving the exploitation of other writers). If you’re not passionate about something, don’t try to fake it just to stir up controversy.
Be yourself. Network with likeminded professionals and prospects that fit squarely within your target market. Get to know them, and let them get to know you. Coming across as a real person and not just another generic writer, designer, consultant, etc. makes you approachable. And when you combine personality with a strong presence and well thought-out content people naturally find you and tell others about you.
8. What technologies or software do you use to help with running your business and staying productive, are there any that you can’t live without?
I actually minimize the technology I use. For example, I’m very against trying every new social media tool that comes along. That hurts productivity more than it helps, and it encourages people to forget about the importance of targeting. In that sense I primarily focus on blogging and Twitter. The Web is obviously a necessity for me because I’m a Web writer / blogger. Paypal is fantastic. They handle a lot of the basic recordkeeping for you which saves a lot of time, and it makes it easy to collect payments no matter where in the world my clients are (and since I bill up front for many types of projects–another perk of building strong natural demand–it’s vital that things are able to clear quickly). I would say Paypal, Internet access, and my blogs (which both bring in clients and direct income of their own) are really the essentials as far as technology goes. But honestly, my real dependence is on note cards of all things.