6-Figure Freelance Copywriting – An Interview with Ryan Healy

Ryan Healy
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6-Figure Freelance Copywriting – An Interview with Ryan Healy

 

Ryan Healy is a top copywriter who earns 6-figures per year writing from the comfort of his own home. In fact, he was able to make 6-figures in his first calendar year as a copywriter.

In this interview Ryan reveals the secrets of what it takes to be a successful freelance copywriter including…

  • The 3 stages of a copywriters life
  • 4 ways to get new copywriting clients
  • How to price yourself when first starting out
  • The questions you must ask before and after taking on a new project
  • How to avoid nightmare clients
  • And much more. You can listen to the interview or read the entire transcript below...

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Joey Bushnell: Hi everyone, this is Joey Bushnell. Today I have with me a fantastic copywriter by the name of Ryan Healy. Ryan, thank you so much for being with me today.

Ryan Healy: You’re welcome Joey, thank you for inviting me.

Joey Bushnell: Thank you. Ryan, how did you become a copywriter?

Ryan Healy: I kind of fell into it. I was working at Merrill Lynch which was a financial company, it doesn’t exist anymore. I had a home schooling company approach me which was based in Denver, Colorado. I knew the owners and they knew me. I didn’t have any marketing experience or marketing background but the owner knew that I loved to write and he also knew that I was entrepreneurial.

He said to me “Ryan, I’m having difficulty finding a marketing person to write sales copy for us and I’m wondering if you might be able to come and work for us. It would involve a small pay cut but I would teach you how to write direct response sales copy, marketing and all of that stuff.” So I accepted that. Merrill Lynch wasn’t doing well at the time and I didn’t see a future there. Turns out I was right about that, as it doesn’t exist anymore.

So I jumped over with this home schooling company and worked there for 3 years. The owner John mentored me and I took over a lot of his responsibilities. I did Adwords, PPC and I wrote their weekly electronic newsletter which was sent out via email. I did a lot of copywriting for their annual catalogue, wrote sales copy for their website and so forth. I’ve always been entrepreneurial, always been interested in business so I took the job with one of those purposes being that it would be a stepping stone toward whatever I was going to try next to start my own business and get out on my own.

I got my series 6 license in the hopes of becoming a financial planner and I set up an arrangement with this guy and he was going to mentor me. So at bonus time I got a nice bonus and I decided that was a good opportunity to leave. So I quit my job there and tried to become a financial planner. That quickly fell through and that whole arrangement fell apart. I found myself in a situation where I had no job, no income and only about 2 weeks worth of money left.

I thought… I can get another job or I can try to launch my own freelance copywriting business. It was something I had thought about doing but was to afraid to quit my job and become a freelance copywriter which is why I had set up this whole thing with the financial planner. So I said I’m going to try it, so I did it and I got 3 clients in a 2 week time period. I’ve been going ever since and now coming up on 8 years in business this June.

Joey Bushnell: Wow, congratulations.

Ryan Healy: Thank you.

Joey Bushnell: So if others were thinking of a career in copywriting is that something you would endorse and if so why? And if not why? What’s your opinion on that?

Ryan Healy: I guess it’s different for everybody. For me, I love to write, I always wanted to be a writer so freelance copywriting gave me a way to earn a good living from writing. So if you are reading this and you love to write, maybe you also enjoy sales or you enjoy selling things or find the advantage of one product or another then copywriting could be a really good fit for you.

You also have to know your personality type. Are you risk averse or are you a risk taker? I think anytime you go into business for yourself, you have to be a little bit of a risk taker. Unless you are unusually great at what you do and unusually good at business, there are going to be times when the money doesn’t come as fast as you’d like and you have to go 6 weeks with out pay and other months will be great. Just know that it’s not like you’re sitting there raking in money all the time, at least that is my experience. I’ve made a very good income from it but there has definitely been dry spells and challenges along the way. You have to be prepared for that no matter what kind of business you are doing on your own.

Joey Bushnell: Thank you, very honest and very true. I’m sure you could be very successful but you also have to be very prepared that it’s not total plain sailing as well.

The direction I’d like to take this interview Ryan, is for anyone who was thinking about going down that route of becoming a copywriter themselves. I know that you have written extensively on your blog about this topic, you also have a report that you sell around becoming a freelancer and having your own freelance copywriting business. So I’d love to ask you some questions on that today if that’s OK?

Ryan Healy: Sure absolutely.

Joey Bushnell: My first question is… Assuming that we have done some training and we feel that we are at a competent level, that we can write copy for other people. How would we then start to get clients? A consistent flow of new clients and maybe also some regular clients, people who come back to us for regular work. Do you have any tips on how we get ourselves out there and find people who need our services?

Ryan Healy: There is always the traditional method which is paying for advertising. You can use Pay Per Click advertising or do more old fashioned space advertising by buying space in a magazine. Then driving those people to a landing page on your website or sending them a sales letter, that is a method and it works, you can get clients that way.

Most people are going to have to start with some form of advertising because how else are people going to find out about you? You have to get your name and service out there and tell people why they should hire you versus the competition.

Another way to get clients is to attend events, particularly events that attract entrepreneurs and business owners who are likely to hire a copywriter. This could be something local but more likely you are going to have to travel to get to an event like this.

I say that because your local florist, nail salon or dry cleaner probably aren’t going to hire a copywriter. They don’t understand the value of sales copy and they are kind of in a commodity business where their business is just making offers like “Come in a get a free this or that, or here’s a coupon”. You can help with those things but they aren’t going to pay you that well.

You want to target clients who know what direct response copy is, they know the value of sales letters and space ads that get people to buy and they are actively hiring copywriters already or they are wanting to hire one. So marketing events, that will attract that type of person can be a good place to network and get your name out there.

Obviously once you have some clients and you start building your book of business, the best source of business is going to be referrals, so view each client for the project that it is but also view that client as potential referral source. So do whatever you can to take care of that client and do whatever you can to make sure their project is successful, that they are making money, that their investment pays off and they are more than happy to refer their business friends to you. Closing a deal when you’ve been referred is much easier than closing a deal once someone has clicked on your ad on Google.

I’ve had the experience of advertising on Adwords, I can’t anymore because I’ve been banned for a few years. When I used to advertise on Adwords, I’d occasionally get some guy who would contact me about a project and the details he gave me would be “I was looking for a copywriter and I just clicked a whole bunch of ads and filled out a bunch of forms” that is when I would contact him once he filled out my form, I would call him back and he would say “I’ve already hired someone, I contacted about 5 people at the same time.”

You definitely don’t want to be in that category, it’s such a waste of time following up with those people. They just go down the side bar, click on all the ads and fill out all the contact forms. They aren’t contacting you for any specific reason other than that you are a copywriter.

Joey Bushnell: Thank you, they are some great ways to get started. Do you have any tips on how to price our fees when we are first starting out?

Ryan Healy: When you are first starting out, from a selfish perspective, is that you are going to need to replace your income to survive. So one way of pricing your projects could be saying… How much time is it going to take me to do this project? And how much time to do this kind of project? Then filling out the whole month and thinking… How many can I fit into a month and what would I need to make on each project to be able to pay my bills, that could be one approach.

Another approach would be to go out, research your competition and find out what they are charging. I’ve done that a little bit but processes vary so much in the service business. You’ve got people on the high end charging $10,000 and people on the low end charging $100. So it may not be very helpful but at least you can get a feel for what’s cheap, what is reasonable and what is expensive and price yourself accordingly.

There are some pricing reports out there, I think Chris Marlow publishes a pricing report that is based on a survey by other copywriters and she provides the data in a report saying “Here’s what copywriters charge on average for a white paper, here’s what copywriters on average charge for a sales letter, for an email or opt-in page etc.”

Joey Bushnell: Personally, did you charge slightly lower to begin with just to get the experience and now these days, you are charging more now that you’ve got more testimonials, case studies and proof to show people?

Ryan Healy: Yes, that is generally true. When I started I didn’t charge as little as some of the other copywriters were charging. Some where offering to write a sales letter for $100 – $200. I thought that’s ridiculous I could make more in a job why would I do that?

So I charged right from the get go, $1,000 for a long form sales letter of about 8-10 pages in length. To make $1,000 at the time was good for me and it covered my bills but that was still working for pretty cheap. My thinking was at the time I needed about $4,000 to pay my bills, my wife didn’t work, I had two kids and a house. So I thought I could do one sales letter a week and that would be $4,000 hence $1,000 so that’s what I did.

Joey Bushnell: It’s not so cheap that you are doing yourself a disservice, but at the same time it’s low enough that you can get people to take a risk on you at the beginning and then when you get really good at your trade, you price accordingly. That’s a good method I think.

When you agree with someone that you are going to write copy for them, do you ask them to pay you upfront before the job itself, do they pay you after the job or half and half, what is the arrangement there?

Ryan Healy: The answer to this is… it really depends on the client and the project. Some people will tell you always get paid upfront and I can’t say that is bad advice because if you get paid upfront you know that you are going to get paid and you don’t lift a finger until you get paid.

I recently had a guy approach me and I put together this page and a half long proposal, we talked on the phone a few different times and he said “When can you get this done by?” I said “If we get started right away I could get it done by about mid March.” He says “Great get started.” I said I needed 50% down to get started, it was a $2,000 project. I said shall I send you the invoice? He said “yes, send it I’ll get it paid”. I sent it and what’s today’s date?

Joey Bushnell: Today’s date is the 28th of May.

Ryan Healy: 28th of May and I still haven’t been paid. So, have I done any work on the project? No, I haven’t. I haven’t really lost anything apart from the time it took me to put the proposal together and the time I spent talking on the phone with him. Maybe he will pay, maybe he won’t but until then at least I haven’t lost anything.

Joey Bushnell: Have you been burned before Ryan? Have you written copy for people and they didn’t pay up?

Ryan Healy: Oh yeah lots of times, more times than I care to count really. So every situation is different, in one case I did a percentage deal with a lady. She paid me the very little that I asked for upfront then when we made $250,000, she never paid me the $7,000 she owed me. In fact she ripped off all the speakers at the event too apart from one or two of them. So it was just blatant theft. I wasn’t the only one she ripped off she conned a whole load of people. That was one situation.

Another situation, I got paid for 3 projects in a row the client was really good. They hired me for a fourth project and they went bankrupt and I got served legal papers saying you are listed as a creditor and other stuff. I did make back a portion of that but lost a portion. You just never know a good client could become a bad client when you least expect it. That is just the nature of the business.

So getting paid upfront is great. Sometimes I like to do the 50% upfront and 50% on completion and here’s why. I look at it also from a perspective of how motivated am I going to be? So if I get paid everything upfront, I’m going to feel motivated right away because I just got paid. But the longer that that project drags on the less motivated I’m going to feel because I’ve already been paid. That is not necessarily a good thing because you want to feel motivated to do your best work and to finish strong.

Now if you don’t get paid anything upfront and you are getting 100% on the end, you are not going to feel a lot of motivation to get started because you are going to be thinking, how am I going to pay my bills this month. The closer you get to the end of the project the more motivation you are going to feel.

If you do a 50/50 you are very motivated at the beginning you might have a slight dip in the middle but then you get more motivated at the end. That’s a nice thing because it’s more consistent motivation through out the whole project. Does that make sense?

Joey Bushnell: Absolutely and I think it’s the fairest and safest way for both parties to get the outcome that they want from it. So I think that is a really good model there.

Can I just ask you with those bad experiences that you had with people who didn’t pay for the work that you had done did you let it go, take any legal action or let it go and learn from it for the next time?

Ryan Healy: Yeah I just let it go. You are going to get back on your feet faster if you just move on to the next project. If you try to take legal action, it’s not going to be good for anybody. You are going to have to go to court, pay a lawyer and here’s the thing, if the judge or jury find the case in your favor and the other party has to pay you back, it’s still possible that they will never pay you back. Often times when someone is stealing money or taking money they are already in financial hard times and they don’t have the means to pay you and they just weren’t honest enough to tell you that upfront.

Joey Bushnell: So don’t waste the negative energy on it, learn from it and move on.

Ryan Healy: Yes that’s my recommendation. It would be different if it was $500,000 at stake. But rarely are you going to have more than $5,000 on the line assuming you got paid half upfront.

Joey Bushnell: Are there any warning signs that could help us avoid picking up a bad client? Before things went wrong were there any red flags or warnings signs before hand that you ignored and went ahead with the project anyway?

Ryan Healy: In some cases yes, in others no. I find that the less money somebody has put up, the more likely you are going to get ripped off which is why I would never recommend getting paid 100% on the back end unless it’s a client you’ve done multiple jobs with and you know they are dependable. I have done that, been paid on the back end but only after I did projects where they paid me upfront or I did 50/50. So the less money they’ve got in the game, the more likely you are going to get ripped off.

Just a side note, if you are doing a percentage share such as you are going to write this copy and do it for free upfront then take a percentage of the results, those are risky propositions. You usually want the person to put some money upfront whether it’s $1,000 or $2,000 whatever it may be and then the percentage. That way if they never pay you, which is a strong possibility, at least you still have something.

Other warning signs… For me, one is flattery. When a client comes to you and is heaping praises on you saying how awesome you are. That is a big warning sign. That is something con men use to lower your defenses and you start thinking “Wow I must be really great and awesome” and that’s when they start asking for all of these concessions or you agree to bad terms or you agree to potentially good terms but the client never pays.

Another warning sign is when a client promises you a bunch of work upfront. So they’ve never worked with you before and almost every client is going to say this, you’ll get on the phone and they’ll say “I’m looking for a long term relationship.” Well who isn’t? Is someone going to get on the phone and say “I’m looking for a short term relationship with a copywriter, I’d really like this to go badly and never hire you again.” No one is ever going to say that.

If you get into this business you’ll be shocked how many times you hear the exact same thing over and over again. One of those things is “I’m looking for a long term relationship”. That’s not necessarily a warning sign but if they start saying “We’ve got all of this work that needs to be done and if this goes well we could keep you busy for the next 12 months.” That is way out there, all you should be concerned about is the here and now. What is the first project? That is all I care about. I don’t care about the next 12 months I just want to get paid for today.

Usually they use that as a negotiating tactic for you to reduce your rates. Let’s say your rate is $5,000 they might try to say “I could keep you busy for 12 months, can’t you do it for $2500 or $3,000?” It’s just a negotiation tactic and it’s a warning sign because generally people who haggle a lot on price and try to promise you the moon are not going to turn out too well.

Joey Bushnell: Thank you for that, it was great advice. What kind of questions do we need to ask a potential client before we take on a job from them?

Ryan Healy: For me, I like to get a good idea of what their business model is. What is it they are selling, is it a product or service that I agree with?

For example I had a guy who contacted me the other day he wanted to hire me to write a sales letter. So I said yes I’m interested, send me more information. It turned out it was going to be a fake news site that then pushes to a free trial offer with a continuity attached to it. I just didn’t feel comfortable with it, I didn’t feel comfortable doing this fake news site making something look really legit that isn’t necessarily legit. So I said I’m sorry I have to pass on this. So that is one key things, find out what is it that you are writing, what is it that you are involved in and does it line up with your values.

Is it something you are excited about? If you’re not excited about it it’s going to be more difficult to sell it.

Other questions I ask are, What price are you selling it for? Because I want to work out how much is my client going to make or how much could he make. Just some basic math, if he sell 100 units at X price what does that equal? If he sells 1,000 units what does that equal?

I also like to ask if they have an email list and how they are going to drive traffic, that is really important. If a brand new online marketer comes to me and they want to sell their eBook for $20 and they have no list and no experience driving traffic, why are they hiring me? They could pay me and I could write an awesome sales letter but they are going to have a hard time making that money back, it’s going to be a while. In a situation like that I would tell the client “It sounds like you have a good eBook but at $20 a sale and no way to drive traffic it doesn’t make sense to hire me.” Write the sales copy yourself and hire me for a critique or get a book on copywriting and try it yourself.

I try to recommend other solutions for clients like that. But I would say the traffic piece of it is really important because let’s say you accept a project from someone who doesn’t know how to drive traffic and has a low priced product. You charge them a few grand to write the sales letter and they pay it. Then let’s say they put the sales letter up and they get one sale a week or month because they don’t know what they are doing. That is going to lead to a bad experience for the clients and that could end up bad for you, even if you did good work. If the client doesn’t feel good about the outcome even though you did good work that is a bad situation.

Joey Bushnell: One sub question that came out of that Ryan is you mentioned earlier about being excited and enthusiastic about the product is that something that you would say is a definite requirement? If you believe that the product they have is not going to sell well, would you say sorry I can’t take this project on?

Ryan Healy: Yeah if you don’t think it will sell well, you might want to decline the project. But let’s say you think it’s a decent product, maybe you’re not excited about it but you might not be the target market, but you could see how others could be excited about it then I would still accept the project. So I don’t think being over the moon excited about a product or service is a requirement for selling just as long as you can see the value in it for the target market.

Joey Bushnell: And what sort of questions should we ask after we have accepted the job?

Ryan Healy: There is a lot of different questions to ask but just a sampling you might want to consider asking…

The terms of the offer, that is going to be important to get straight up front. That includes the price, what they are getting, are there any bonus gifts involved, is there a guarantee and if so how long is the guarantee for and what are the details. Do they have to send the product back or can they keep it?

You want to ask for any type of credibility builders. If you are selling an info product you will want to know the background of the author and what kind of credentials the author or product creator has. Are there any awards that the product or service has got that you could use. You want to ask for testimonials, what have customers said about the product or service. Those are just some of the thing,s just hashing out all of the details, all the guts of what goes into the sales letter or sales piece.

Another thing, I learned this the hard way, it’s one of the few projects I felt bad about after it was over. I don’t have many of them but this was one of them. It’s important to ask your client upfront are they comfortable with a negative sales approach and a positive sales approach or do they prefer one or the other. That is going to sound weird maybe to someone who is not in the business but you can use negative headlines to get attention and start building a sales case and you can use positive stuff. I used a negative one then the client came back to me and said “Oh we don’t want to say that” and they never made me aware of this before hand. Then in another case I wrote a positive one and he wanted a negative one. So it can go both ways.

Joey Bushnell: So ask before which one they are comfortable with or if they are happy with both?

Ryan Healy: Yes exactly.

Joey Bushnell: OK. You have a blog post which outlines the 3 stages of a copywriters life, I was interested to know what those 3 stages are?

Ryan Healy: Of course. The 3 stages go like this…

The first one is “If I could just replace my income…” This is when you’re getting started, you’re really excited about your new endeavor and you are struggling to get to the point where you are paying all of your bills and you’ve replaced whatever income you were making at your job or whatever you did before. So hopefully this is a short term stage. Hopefully it would only be a few months, ideally it would be as brief as possible because you don’t want to be struggling and going into debt.

The second stage after you’ve got to the point where you are paying your bills is “If I could just crack the 6 figure mark…” Everyone wants to make six figures, I don’t know if there is anything magical about it but that is the way I was. I had never made 6 figures in a job before and that was my goal, I wanted to do that. That could take a bit longer, in my case I was able to do that in the first calendar year of being a full time freelance copywriter. Keep in mind that as a freelance copywriter you have business expenses so even if you crack 6 figures gross, your net income after expenses could still be below 6 figures.

So while you’re pursuing 6 figures it’s likely that you’ll do a few different things. It’s likely that you will raise your prices in that time. You’ll probably also take on a lot of projects or as much as you can handle and then that sets you up for stage 3 which is burn out basically.

In that post In describe it as “If I have to write one more sales letter I swear I’ll…” It’s not to say that all copywriters get there or even that you will stay there. But from talking to other copywriters everyone hits this at some point, where they just feel burnt out. They are jaded, they’ve seen too much, they’ve seen the shenanigans that go on behind the scenes, some of the outright deception that happens in sales.

It can be discouraging and you get to thinking “Gosh if I could write for myself that would be ideal.” For me I love doing client work so the ideal for me is choosing only the best projects and the best clients and not taking on every single project because burn out is not fun. But then at the same time working on some of my own projects and making those profitable.

Joey Bushnell: So you are on stage 2 right now and long may it continue!

Ryan Healy: Yeah. Well I’ve hit stage 3 a few times along the way.

Joey Bushnell: OK, but you hung in there?

Ryan Healy: Yeah I hung in there. I haven’t actually felt burnt out in quite a while just because if you pick the right clients and the right projects freelance copywriting is really rewarding. I think you get burnt out when you have the wrong projects and the wrong clients and that’s rough.

Joey Bushnell: Just really quickly on stage one, the newbie stage where money is an issue and we are looking to replace our current income, you said that for you it only took a couple of months, is that something that most people can hope for? Should they expect a little bit longer than that? Is it realistic to expect that after a few months we can get to a level where we are financially OK? At least, when we are first starting out because it’s a risky time isn’t it?

Ryan Healy: It is. I started in 2005 and the economic conditions in 2005 where very different than they are today. So nobody is going to duplicate what I have done exactly, it’s going to be different in some way just because it’s 2013, things are different.

Certainly it’s still possible to replace your income. Obviously the less income you have the easier it is to replace. So I find if you are a single guy or gal sharing an apartment with someone and having low living expenses, certainly you could replace your income in a few months. It all depends on where you are at.

If you are a high level manager making 6 figures already that is going to be tough and you have to plan a while longer before you are able to replace your income. If that is your situation you are going to need some sort of cash buffer to make it. It all depends.

People living in New York, LA, or San Francisco or even London are going to have a tougher time of replacing their incomes because their cost of living is so high in those cities. But if you live in a more rural area or lower cost of living area it’s going to be easier for you that’s just the way it is.

Joey Bushnell: So there’s quite a few factors in there but it’s going to be different for everyone but the good side is that, if you work at it and find the right project then things can start to happen for you.

Ryan Healy: Absolutely.

Joey Bushnell: That’s great. Thank you so much for the interview Ryan. Where can someone find out more about you? If anyone is interested in this particular subject, you do have a report that I mentioned earlier, could you tell us a bit about that and also just in general where can people find out more about you?

Ryan Healy: Sure, I sell an inexpensive report on how to get clients as a freelance copywriter. That is available at the website getclientsreport.com. I also write a blog on a fairly regular basis, I usually have something new published every week and that is at ryanhealy.com. I write about a variety of different topics there but mostly it’s focused on running a business, copywriting, productivity, lifestyle, lifestyle design, product creation and things like that.

Joey Bushnell: Awesome thank you so much for the interview. I highly recommend to go and check out Ryan’s blog, it’s a great blog and it’s a fantastic report as well. If you have enjoyed what you have listened to today then you are going to get even more from the report, so Ryan, thank you once again for taking the time out to do this interview with me today.

Ryan Healy: Thank you Joey

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