So, you want to learn how to start a content writing business?
I didn’t mean that as somber as it sounded. 😉
But, let’s be real. Learning how to start a content writing business—any business, really—is tough. According to the Small Business Association, only about half of all businesses started today will still be around in five years. The other half will be long gone, with the majority of them failing in two years or less.
Yikes! That’s why I wrote this guide on how to start your own content writing business.
If you want to start a content writing business, you’ve got your work cut out for you – but fear not! Every truly great accomplishment at first seems impossible. I’m not promising it’s easy, but it will be worth it.
You might be wondering why I’m fine with sharing my secret sauce, so to speak.
Everyone knows my writing agency has been my primary means of income for nine years now. Well, I’ll tell you why.
a) I was personally asked by several readers for this guide, and I like to write about topics my audience cares about – even if it’s a little secret sauce-y! and,
b) I’m sharing this guide because I believe there is room for everyone in today’s market. With 4.57 billion people online, now is a better time than any to seek to build a brand in the digital space. Not to mention, if you specialize in a niche or content type, we’re barely even competitors!
The bonus: if you need a writing agency and don’t want to go through all of these steps, you’ll be more inclined to hire mine, Express Writers. 😉 It’s a ton of work, as you’re about to find out.
As the CEO of a successful content writing business, today’s guide will walk you through the things you must consider when you’re embarking on your own journey in building a writing biz.
- What skills and tools you’ll need to succeed
- How to build your brand and reputation
- The inside scoop on hiring and managing writers
By the time you’re through, you’ll have everything you need to lay the groundwork for your own content writing business.
Without further ado, here’s how to go from unpaid to paid and start a content writing business. Let’s go!
How to Start a Content Writing Business: Table of Contents
Part 1. How to Start a Content Writing Business: Do Your Homework Before You Start That (Content Writing) Business!
Part 1. How to Start a Content Writing Business: Do Your Homework Before You Start That (Content Writing) Business!
Succeeding at planning is planning to succeed.
The single most important thing you can do when starting a content writing business (or any business) is laying your foundations. And how do you get started with that?
By doing your homework.
Transforming your freelancing efforts into a full-fledged content writing business takes a few specific steps. Here are the two specific things you need to do.
1. Identify Your Area of True Expertise
Your research into the industry should give you insights into who and what is out there – and what isn’t. That’s good, because you’ll need to niche down into a specialty to succeed with your content writing business.
We’ll refer to this niche as your Area of True Expertise. It’s what you’re known for and what you strive to be the best at as you can.
When I was just getting started with Express Writers way back when, I wasn’t terribly picky about my clients. I picked up all manner of content, often starting my days at 4 a.m. just to send out dozens of emails to potential clients and agencies. It eventually worked, but that was because the industry at the time simply needed writers to stuff keywords into posts.
That will not work today.
In 2020, the content writing industry has matured and become more sophisticated. Your clients will expect you to be an expert in what you do. Therefore, it’s better to be a True Expert in one or two things than it is to be adept at several.
As you review the state of the industry, think about where you fit in (or where you don’t). This will give you a sense of what you need to do to begin scaling your operations. In particular, identify these things:
- Who is your ideal client? Startups? SMBs? Fortune 2000 companies? SEO agencies? You’ve got a lot of options.
- What do you do (and not do)? You may already have specific areas of expertise, such as executive ghostwriting or long-form content for tech startups. You may be still finding your feet but have nature aptitude at things like SEO or content marketing.
- Is what you want to do sustainable? Identify what you do and figure out whether or not you can position yourself as a True Expert. Then, identify whether a market need exists – some 42 percent of businesses fail because there isn’t one. Finally, determine if you can turn your position into a unique selling proposition.
- How can you turn your Area of True Expertise into a USP and a CDF? You want to differentiate, offering something your competitors can’t.
Your CDF is your “it factor” and you need it when starting a content writing business.
Don't have a clue on how to find your brand's it factor? You'll find my in-depth build-a-content-strategy training very useful. Many students have taken this course and used it to build their own business. Inside, you learn every step in building a profitable brand through content. Learn more: The Content Strategy & Marketing Course.
2. Analyze Your Business Competency
As a writer, you already know how to do a lot. However, starting a content writing business and scaling one both take skills that you may not have developed in your freelance writing career. Some things you should pick up if you haven’t already:
- Marketing. If you don’t have a grasp on marketing, you’ll need to get it down ASAP. This includes everything from digital marketing to content strategy and marketing.
- Project management. Ultimately, your goal will be to remove yourself from your agency’s processes so you’re no longer trading time for money. You’ll need to know how to manage projects to create project processes.
- Accounting. You must know how to manage money. From paying your subcontractors to dealing with taxes, consider taking a basic course in accounting.
- Leadership skills. As your team grows and your business takes on more ambitious projects, you’ll find yourself leading teams and people. Make sure you know how to handle them.
- Communication skills. You’re probably already versed in dealing with clients. Now, you’ll need to learn to deal with managers, contractors, business partners, and more.
Part 2. Identify Your Priorities & Goals for Your Content Writing Business
So, you know who you are, what you’re doing, and what you’re up against. Now, it’s time to establish where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. In the next phase, you’ll need to do three things: identify your priorities, establish your goals, and write your business plan.
What Do You Want Out of This?
People go into business for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s because we feel stifled by the corporate world. Sometimes it’s because we’re chasing a passion.
Before you sit down to actually build your business, spend some time identifying your priorities with your business. These are the things that are important to you and will impact your goals or strategies. Some examples of priorities include:
- Profitability. Who doesn’t love making more money?
- A superior customer experience. Are your clients waiting weeks for content?
- Free time. Perhaps you need to delegate or automate aspects of your business.
Here are a few things my students have said about what they’re trying to accomplish.
“I have been a freelance copywriter and editor for just over five years. I haven't niched the work I do, but I'm fortunate to have some very loyal clients who have achieved impressive results with my content thus far. Although I have a company, that is merely a store-front for the solo work I do. I have become so busy that I am turning work away and some of my very patient clients are waiting 1-2 weeks for content. This is far from what I want for them, and for me.” – Elizabeth
“I have a natural love for writing as well as for fitness and motivating others. But I have been stuck in HR/recruitment jobs in the corporate world. I’m looking to break out, follow my passions and do what I love … trying to start my own business, my own website, but I also still have to work while doing all that.” – Heather
You can see that each of these two students has different priorities. Elizabeth needs to scale an existing operation to provide better service to her clients. Heather needs to develop a profitable, sustainable content writing business to pursue her passion.
Establish Your SMART Goals
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Timely. It’s a formula for creating achievable goals with defined steps.
Some SMART goals when starting or scaling a content writing business might include:
- Land three clients in a specific niche by the end of the year.
- Build a five-page website showcasing my expertise within the next 30 days.
- Produce ten pieces of thought leadership for the blog to support the content marketing efforts in the next 90 days.
- Delegate five projects to five writers this week to free up 20 hours of my time for other activities.
You Need a Business Plan
Did you know that 17 percent of businesses fail because they lack a business model? Not only are businesses with a business plan more likely to succeed, but they also tend to grow 30 percent faster than their counterparts who lack one.
A business plan is proof that you’ve put thought and research into what you’re doing. It also signals that you’re thinking long-term and are serious about what you want to do. It doesn’t need to be long and complicated, but you do need one.
Banks may ask for it. Future business partners may, too.
If you’ve been freelancing for a while, you may have a business plan already. That’s great! You’ll need to update it with your new processes and business model.
A whole host of resources for writing business plans exist online. A few good resources include:
- The SBA’s business plan writing guide
- Nerd Wallet’s step-by-step guide
- Shopify’s advice for writing a business plan you’ll actually use
- Gillian Perkin’s video tutorial on writing a business plan
Part 3. Transition from Presence to Process When Starting Your Content Writing Business
Have you made it this far? Congratulations!
But if it seems like I frontloaded this guide, it’s because I did. Everything covered so far is the groundwork upon which you’ll build the next steps. The more thoroughly you’ve complete parts one and two, the stronger foundation you’ll have for starting your content writing business.
So, spend as much time as you need on the above. Once you know where you’re going and why, you can begin to build the engine that allows your brand, client base, and profits to scale.
I’m talking about your processes.
Processes Keep You Focused, and Help You Scale
If you’re a solopreneur, you’ve been doing everything on your own this whole time. That might have worked for you. Or, like Elizabeth, you quickly discovered that you have more demands on your time than you can manage.
Now, you need more writers. Maybe even a project manager, a bookkeeper, and a social media marketer. You need a team.
But with more hands touching the business, there are more opportunities for it to get pulled in multiple directions. How do we solve that?
By creating processes. Having detailed, documented processes lets you:
- Standardize the business and amplify the brand. Everyone will do everything the same way. Additionally, you can develop templates that keep branding and image consistent.
- Accelerate new employee or subcontractor training. Imagine explaining the same thing over and over again to every new hire. Now imagine handing them a document that they can study before getting to work.
- Lets you maintain your Area of True Expertise. Stick to your processes, the things you do. Say no to everything else, and you’ll never water down your brand.
How to Create Processes for a Content Writing Business
Creating processes for your content writing business doesn’t need to be difficult. However, you should be consistent with them. Do:
1. Identify things that you already do a lot. These business activities are the best candidates to be standardized and replicated across the board. Some examples of this might include:
- Client onboarding and interviews
- Writer interviews and onboarding or offboarding
- Content creation
- Content strategy or keyword research
- Quality control
- Editing and revisions
- Client invoicing
- Subcontractor payments
2. Document everything. Even if it’s simply in Google Docs, make sure that you’ve written down what to do. This gives you a paper trail for others to study and for you to improve upon.
3. Identify where you need technology and invest. This may include hardware or software, subscriptions, services, and the like. I highly recommend that you invest in:
- Accounting software
- Plagiarism detection
- Cloud storage
- Audio and video calling software
4. Create templates. Templates help standardize the formatting, language, and layout of your most critical documents. Such consistency helps you present a more professional image to your clients and saves your team time.
5. Disseminate the processes to your employees or subcontractors. Build into your processes a process for getting information into the hands of the people who need to know. Again, it can be as simple as a Google Drive that has everything your writers, managers, or clients need to know.
6. Check in with people about what’s working and what’s not. At the end of the day, it’s your people who will make the processes run. Check in with them to learn what’s working and what isn’t. Then, make changes to improve your processes.
Part 4. Get Your Team Together for a Content Writing Business
Up until this point, you’ve been at it solo. But that means the business stops working when you stop working. That’s what we’re trying to escape.
At some point, you’ll realize you need people power to drive your content writing business to the next level. However, you don’t want just anyone touching the business you’ve built.
As you get your team together, let your mantra be: People create value. When chosen well, your people are your most valuable business asset.
In general, you’ll interact with three groups of people:
Writers & Editors
You’ll need writers to delegate work to and editors to check the work. It’s very easy to access writer pools, but your writers will make or break your reputation for quality.
Upwork is a great place to look for talented freelancers, but plenty of other places exist as well. Wherever you go, to succeed with hiring writers:
- Require fluency in the language you work. In most cases, that’s English. It’s up to you whether you want to hire U.S.-based writers only, or if you’re willing to look globally. Just be aware that will have tax implications and potentially complicate quality.
- Headhunt, don’t post jobs. Content writing is one of the easiest careers online to get into, which means everyone is doing it. Posting jobs is a great way to get flooded with randos. Instead, identify talented writers with expertise in your company’s niche, then approach them.
- Don’t ask for lengthy, unique “samples.” Instead, ask for a portfolio. If they don’t have one, consider requesting a unique paragraph or two. Asking for an entire article as part of the interview process (especially if you have no plans on paying for it) is something scammers do – and good writers know that.
- Be upfront with what they can expect. Don’t promise $2,000/month in work if they’re not going to consistently make that.
- Pay by the word. Industry standard for content writing is to pay your writers by the word. You may charge your clients a lump sum for the entire project, but your writers are expecting a per-word agreement.
- Don’t go for the cheapest you can find. You get what you pay for. Avoid sites where you can hire writers for rock bottom rates.
- Set up an NDA and a contract ahead of time. Protect your processes and internal documentation by having everyone you hire sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Support staff may or may not be necessary depending on where you are in scaling your operations. They can help a business run more smoothly, especially if you’ve got multiple processes that require the human touch. Bring on support staff as you need. They may include:
- The web admin or IT support
- Customer success agents
- Writer support agents
- Business and project managers
- Specialists, such as content strategists or SEO experts
Business partners can breathe life, perspective, and capital into a growing enterprise. However, if you’re just starting a content writing business, it’s unlikely that you’ll need one. You may naturally have one, such as a spouse. That’s also fine!
Bringing on a business partner lies beyond the scope of this guide, but it’s worth mentioning because some people have asked me if they’re critical when you start a content writing business.
When you have a partner whose skills and competencies complement your own, that relationship will propel your business to profitability. However, don’t feel pressured to bring one on if you don’t feel like you need it. 😊
A Few Other Tips for Working With Subcontractors
At the end of 2019, freelancers and independent contractors constituted some 36 percent of the U.S. workforce. It’s expected that they’ll be the majority by the late 2020s.
When you hire your writers and editors (and possibly others), you’ll likely hire them as independent contractors. However, you need to be aware of what that means for you as a business owner.
Here are a few tips:
- Be wary of the IRS rules around employees and independent contractors. The IRS is very clear about what you can and cannot require from independent contractors. Familiarize yourself with these rules before hiring anyone.
- Be careful with non-compete agreements. NCAs are extremely common, but come with some major caveats. In the U.S., enforceability varies by state (they’re often unenforceable with online work). However, they may scare off some potential hires.
- Get your subcontractors’ availability and work around them. The easiest way to keep your staff happy is to work with them. Have everyone give you their availability, then task out work accordingly. This makes it easier to enforce accountability and deadlines, while making it more obvious when you need to hire more writers.
Part 5. 6 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting a Content Writing Business
Whether you’re starting a content business or scaling up a solopreneurship, there’s plenty of room for things to go wrong. I’ll round out the guide with a few lessons I’ve learned the hard way over the years.
Some common mistakes include…
1. Scaling Too Fast (or Too Slowly)
If you scale too fast, you end up with bloat that eat away at your profits. This may include things like hiring too many people or jumping into too many projects. At the other end of the spectrum, scaling too slowly may mean overworked people or lacking the infrastructure you need to take advantage of opportunities.
To fix this: Think long-term, identify your priorities and your goals, then focus on creating value with your people and your processes.
2. Not Doing Content Marketing for Your Business
I didn’t start content marketing with Express Writers until 2016. The moment I did, the brand took off and became the multi-million-dollar agency it is today.
Why? Content marketing is one of the most powerful ways for you to demonstrate your expertise and showcase your content differentiation factor. It’s how you prove you’re a True Expert at what you do without pushing yourself into people’s faces.
To fix this: Draw up a content strategy when you do your business plan. Your content and your business goals should align. That will also help you produce content without feeling burnt out.
3. Saying Yes to Projects Outside Your Scope
The most valuable weapon in your arsenal is also one of your smallest: It’s the word no.
Most freelancers aren’t trained in this weapon. As a business owner, you’ll need to be because you don’t want to take on projects that are outside your Area of True Expertise. There are several pragmatic reasons for this:
- They’ll take longer because you don’t have the processes or people for it
- They’ll water down your brand
- They’ll force you to tweak the very processes you built to try to make them fit
To fix this: Go back to your Area of True Expertise. Develop processes for everything in which you’re a True Expert. Say no to any jobs or work for which you don’t have processes already.
4. Not Learning How to Handle Money
You need to learn how to manage money – and no, I don’t mean simply hiring a bookkeeper who will handle everything.
I learned this the hard way when I discovered the people that I had put in charge of money were stealing from me.
Even if something as severe as that never happens to you, not knowing how to manage money may mean unnecessary expenses, lost revenue, or inaccurate records that get you in trouble down the line.
To fix this: Take a course on accounting for business online or at your community college. Then, play an active role in the money of your company.
5. Being Scared of Delegating
I get it. Your business is your baby. You’ve worked hard to build a reputation and a client base. Handing that over to someone else can be terrifying.
But you’ll need to do it to grow. Getting in the way by trying to continue to do everything yourself will only hamstring the rest of your efforts.
To fix this: Make your processes extra well-thought-out to give you the peace of mind that everyone is doing things correctly. Then, hire the right people.
6. Not Firing People When They Need to Go
It sucks to fire people, but sometimes it needs to happen. Having the wrong members on your team is just as bad as not having any people at all – in fact, it can be worse as your reputation will be on the line.
Don’t be afraid to put your foot down and make room for better professionals to join your team.
To fix this: Create a list of behaviors for which you have no tolerance, then refer to this list to determine if someone needs to be let go. Some examples may include consistently missing deadlines or going MIA when you need revisions from them.
Conclusion: Start a Content Writing Business in Months, Not Years
There you have it – close to everything you need to consider when you start a content writing business. From thinking about your position in the industry to the details of dealing with independent contractors, you’re now equipped with the insights you need to get started.
Of course, the skills I’ve outlined here are just the tip of the iceberg of what you need to know. The content writing industry itself is constantly changing. In addition to running your business, you’ll need to keep pace with the state of content writing in the 2020s.
Knowledge is power, as they say.
Get started with the Content Hacker™ Academy today.