Elizabeth Inniss. Copywriter. Scriptwriter.

Attract your dream clients. Stand out from the crowd.

'List? What list?' How NOT to run your business - lessons learned from year one

As my business turns two this April I wanted to give you an insight into the workings (or not workings) of a small enterprise. I love finding out how people do things - particularly if their journey is a bit messy - so if you’re anything like me prepare to be delighted…  

Oops! Things that went wrong...

I took the free in freelance too far

It was April 2012. I’d just returned from a holiday in New York with my beau, Matthew and was raring to launch my own biz. I’d been commissioned to write some articles on NYC and had some lucrative work lined up that was closely related to the job I’d just left (bid writing). I’d landed, briefly, on my feet. 

It was spring and I was loving my new-found freedom. I had massages, went shopping and enjoyed long lunches. I even went away again, this time to Paris. I’d been so desperate to leave my stressful, restricting job that when I was set free, I was like a kid in Willy Wonka’s factory. 

 Got my gaming face on. Usually there are crisps or a pack of Bombay Mix nearby as essential player snacks.

Got my gaming face on. Usually there are crisps or a pack of Bombay Mix nearby as essential player snacks.

Speaking of child-like tendencies, I had some amazing new Xbox games to play (Skyrim and Mass Effect 3). So I spent an inordinate (no obscene) amount of time playing and indulging in my new-found freedom.

A few months after my dallying, I noticed this:

Month    Earnings
May    £1,671.50
June    £437.00

This is an extract from my accounts – June is what happens when you’re dossing about too much.

Lessons learned:

  • A period of adjustment is advisable when going from a regular 9 to 5 job - a similar structure is helpful until you get used to it
  • Unlike in many jobs where you can slack off from time to time and still get paid the same, self-employment is a direct 'time for money' scenario (at least at first)
  • Working on getting more work needs to be part of the weekly schedule
  • Keep gaming - and other leisure activities - to allocated times

Then I went the other way and worked too much

When I realised this 3 months in, I felt rather ashamed of myself and became the harshest of task masters, working way into the night. I monitored every hour and gave myself an unrelenting structure which pretty much meant I no longer had weekends or evenings off. If I'd been treated that way by a boss I would have called a union!

Inevitably that level of intensity was unsustainable. I would work like this for weeks non-stop and then burn myself out to the point where I could no longer focus. Then I'd do it again. As my work relies on a functioning brain to concentrate and create, this was not a good place to be.

Lessons learned:

  • Balance is key to running a business - taking time out to recharge is as important as doing the work in the long-run
  • Work smart rather than hard - focus only on the tasks that bring in (or will bring in) money
  • And outsource those tasks that are a waste of your time/or for which you don't have the skill

Charging too little and having no boundaries

I had a proven track record in bid writing and CV writing (both mastered in previous roles) but I wanted to apply my skills to copywriting. Aside from training, I thought it would be beneficial to charge very little to get my foot in the door. 

The problem with this was, although some of the clients I got during this time were lovely, most were not. The low payers resented parting with their cash for even the highest quality work and yet wanted the most attention. It came to a head when one client didn’t pay me for half my work and avoided my calls. I knew the whole scenario was wrong, but I needed the work so it became a bit of a vicious cycle. 

Lessons learned:

  • People who pay the least seem to want the most
  • No one values your time or skill unless you do, so set your fees and boundaries accordingly 
  • There is some wisdom to lowering your prices at first, but it should be limited and complemented by incremental price rises and boundary setting
  • Getting customers to pay at least 50% up front brings the right dynamic to a project

Not niching sooner

Although I needed to stretch my writing wings, it was apparent early on there were types of writing I preferred to do over others. This didn’t stop me wanting to do it all and be good at everything, oh no. I clearly had some masochist tendencies. 

 My original website - with one too many services on it.

My original website - with one too many services on it.

It eventually became apparent that I needed to narrow my focus. Doing all the writing in the world wasn’t fulfilling and some of it wasn't financially sensible. So I started to phase out CV writing and minimised the bid writing. 

Fact: The moment I started niching I could charge more and clients were willing to pay.

Lessons learned:

  • Niching is a darn good idea
  • It helps to do what you’re most interested in as it will sustain you through challenging times
  • By niching you will devote more time to that craft and become an expert. This doesn’t mean you can’t do other things – and helps you stand out

I’m not actually niching enough – there are micro-niches that can be very lucrative indeed, something to explore in the future perhaps...

List? What list?

I barely blogged and had no sign up/opt-in page to grow my subscribers.  I consistently tell my clients to do this but for some reason didn’t apply it to myself – and the result was zero list.

Yes, I had clients and 99% of them came back (the other 1% no longer needed my services) – but did I capture them? Did I heck. What a dork!

Lesson learned:

  • Collect names as soon as humanly possible and provide them with great, consistent content

I have to admit I learn from my mistakes (most of the time) so these little gems have helped overall.

And then there were SOME things I got right…

Things I got right

Prep work

Before I left my job I saved up three months’ worth of expenses to act as a buffer if it all went wrong. I also signed up to a freelance writing site, setting up a profile and leveraging my existing skills and testing the market.

I read around running a business (although a lot of it is meaningless until you start). I found this no frills 31 Days to Start Freelancing free course particularly helpful to begin with. 

Starting before I was 'ready'

I didn’t have a website, business cards, an accountant or marketing consultant, but I did have an online profile, some contacts and networking opportunities in the pipeline.

I knew instinctively that I couldn't wait to be perfect at everything, but I was excited, willing to learn and ready to take a risk. As a result I landed on my feet and, despite my best efforts to sabotage my progress, I still made a living wage for the entire year.

Keeping on top of my accounts

I'm not great with numbers, but I’ve always kept a home budget spreadsheet which I adapted for my business. Every time I incurred a business expense I simply put it into Excel and kept a file for receipts.

My planning made my tax return so easy, avoiding the headache most entrepreneurs seem to make for themselves. I'm allowed one smug moment right?

Trying lots of things

I knew I was good at writing, I had a degree in literature and language, been short-listed in competitions and used my skills effectively (in work and play) up to that point. But, I wasn’t sure which way to go: technical, creative, corporate? Editing, proof-reading, or writing from scratch?

I needed to try it all to know what I wanted to do day in and day out. I also didn’t know who my ideal client would be until I met my worst client! I found it was good to be open (to a point) and correct course as I went along. 

Joining a freelance site (at first)

 Useful to start but I wouldn't recommend staying there

Useful to start but I wouldn't recommend staying there

I didn’t have to do much marketing in my first year as being on a freelance site meant I simply bid for work and, when I got a high rating, people came to me instead.

It ranked well on Google and the ratings gave prospective clients the reassurance that I was tried and tested.

However, I've learned it should only be a springboard to bigger, better marketing. 


Final numbers


My income for year one wouldn’t set the world on fire (around £16k), but considering I had three months of doing very little and made my fair share of mistakes, I still made enough to cover my expenses and even made a tiny profit.

Making money is the lifeblood of any business, but forging my own way in the world, getting amazing feedback for doing work I loved and earning that money all by myself, surpassed anything I’d experienced in regular work.

Conversely I made my clients a hell of a lot of money: over £4 million. Yep. I’m more than a little annoyed that I didn’t feel confident enough to charge more, but these are the lessons I’ve learned. 

Up next:

Year one gave me a great foundation to grow from and, with these hard-learned lessons behind me, I was focused on doubling my income in 2013 - and taking the copywriting world by storm.


Life had other plans.

If you’d like to know when I publish what happened next (and for special discounts and a cool freebie) sign up to my list. Yes, now I have one!

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