5 Things I’ve Learned Running a Sort-of-Secret Writing Team

For the past 7 months or so, I’ve been running a teeny-tiny, kind-of-secret content shop.

I realized early on in my writing career that while I can make a decent penny writing for clients who want solid work, I’ve got an implicit ceiling: myself.

To make more money, I either have to give myself a raise (and hope my clients continue to see the value) or burn the midnight oil and never leave my office again like some sort of pale monitor troll (nope).

So I set about building a team of capable sub-contractors – the goal being to find those who had strong work and who were open to mentorship and critique. It took some time, but I’ve now built up a solid little team (USA, UK, Canada) – and tested them in the field.

We’ve handled some great projects: product descriptions, blog posts – even a magazine article or two! But this ain’t your typical team, either.

In this relationship, I play the point man.

That’s been both great and awful all at once. Great because I maintain control. Awful because if anything goes wrong, I burn up hours with a quickness. 

But it works, for now, until I can expand a bit and get an editor other than me in the mix. Right now, I negotiate rates and spend my own time meticulously editing the work so that I’d be proud to be associated with it. I’ve been offering the team’s work as an alternative to my own when I get a lead who can’t afford my rates or whom I want to take but do not have the time. It’s not meant to replace my personal work (please, still hire me for stuff) - just mostly for volume-based projects.

Importantly, clients always know it’s not me doing the work (I don’t pass theirs off as my own), but they take comfort in the fact that I’m editing and guiding the whole process. I charge a little more than you’d pay at Textbroker or oDesk , because I believe in paying my writers well. I know it results in stronger work.

Anyways, during the process of running this team, I’ve learned a lot of things I think might be pertinent to other businesses trying to get content done. Here are just five of them:

1. Administration can (and will) kill you.

You know what stings? Accidentally saving over top of a brief with a different brief, then assigning the SAME brief to two different writers. Yup, I did that, and yup, I ate the cost by paying both writers for the exact same article – and then paying one again to write the correct one.

Another time, I sent a writer the incorrect brief and wound up having to burn my own hours writing the piece myself to hit the deadline, AND paying the writer for what they produced.  The client, of course, was delighted to have gotten a piece I had written myself – but… Oof.

I’ve also quickly learned that burning hours on menial tasks like checking in on deadlines or e-mailing confirmations adds up to a TON of lost money, so I’m beginning to tinker with Zapier to automate my processes – especially now that my team has grown to a modest but respectable 13 writers. I’ve learned to really mind the details, automate what I can and triple-check everything – because mistakes cost money I don’t want to lose.

2. Writers are frustrating, beautiful creatures.

Businesses – let me just say that I have a new respect for the challenge of finding a writer who doesn’t completely womp gorilla balls.

The writing talent pool is ten miles long and an inch deep – when you find someone who is good at what they do, you hang on to them. When you pay a writer, you are paying for more than their creativity – you’re paying for their professionalism, their rational logic, their ability to do business.

So many writers just don’t understand how to run a business. It’s frightening.

I’ve learned that great writers are absolute gold. One of my sub-contractors is a gem of a woman, who has the foresight to name her documents in batch-order and add her last name so I know who they came from. She foresees potential problems, understands the value of a brief and adheres to guidelines like a soldier listening to a general’s command. I send her as much work as I can and pay her before she’s typed a single word – because I can trust her. There’s something to be said for a writer who needs minimal editing and understands the big picture.

And then, there were the ones who didn’t make it. The pure creative types who had no respect for deadlines and thought style guides were “suggestions”. I’ve had people submit hilarious headshots that looked like they snapped them in their bathrooms. I’ve had people with strong portfolios turn in work that was not only late – it was obviously rushed (note to writers: If you’re turning in something late, it damn well better be spotless copy. Don’t double down on your mistakes).

I’ve also learned the value of a second chance. Some writers that I didn’t think would make the grade turned out to be really strong – it turns out I just needed to learn to guide them better and improve the processes surrounding how we get things done. I’ve learned how to spot and test for talent , how to cut people loose when you need to, and how to stay your hand and give deserving folks another shot.

All of this has also helped to affirm to me that I’m worth the rate I charge for my own, personal work (which maybe sounds arrogant – I don’t mean it to, it’s been a genuine relief to discover). Having been in the hiring position, I know how much more I’m willing to pay for someone who just gets it – and I actively look for writers who have a formal business education (or anything that proves they’re more than fancy words).

3. The devil is in the details. Mind them carefully.

There’s just little things you don’t think about that wind up costing you – any ambiguity in your process will create dissonance and waste. What do I mean? Well, as a writer, I’ve always just assumed it was best practice to include images, cite your sources (including images), start pieces by providing context (instead of just jumping into a list or a bunch of stats) and the like.

I took that knowledge for granted – and you just can’t do that. Every expectation, every guideline, every instruction needs to be documented. Never assume anything.

It took a bunch of pieces for me to establish guidelines for sourcing images (high res, please. No, don’t just steal from Google image search) and even how to include them in a document (don’t just paste them in there, save them separately and flag within the text). It took awhile to get the point across that you needed to cite sources for stats and figures. It took a bit to teach writers to use the proper formatting so that a client can easily pop the document into WordPress.

The tiny things – the little things you omit – they’re the things that wind up costing you. Leave off a critical detail in the brief, and the writer will write something completely different than you intended.

I’ve learned to be thorough in my processes, and to never stop refining them over time.

4. Content ideation takes time and practice.

Coming up with content ideas for clients is hard – and if you’re not careful, it’ll run up a huge tab. I’m still perfecting the ideation process, but I’ve learned the value of doing a lot of ideation at once; I’ve gotten better at lateral thinking, learned what questions to ask clients, learned the value of picking up a phone and going beyond the brief.

Rock-solid ideas don’t just happen. They don’t materialize in a dream. And, sadly, I didn’t really budget for that time. Oops.

It’s been exciting to find myself getting better and better at eavesdropping on conversations and putting together content calendars that clients are really stoked about.

5. There’s hope for quality yet.

I was worried, in the beginning, that the team would constantly lose out on jobs because people just wanted cheap work. I’ve been delightfully proven wrong. There are a growing number of businesses who, while they want to outsource, genuinely care about who is handling that work.

It’s a trend I’m happy to see – both for my personal work, and for the industry at large. It gives me hope – hope that I can help these writers build meaningful careers on their own (I do a fair amount of Skype calls, coffee dates and e-mailing, trying to help them grow their careers and earn their own clients).

To those who respect the writer – I salute you. Thank you for that.

In the months to come, I hope to offer this little content team as a boutique service for businesses.

I’m still ironing the kinks out, but I’m proud of what I’m building. I’m stoked to work with who I get to work with. I’m ecstatic that I get to pay these writers significantly better than other jobs. I’m elated to be able to mentor them and be a part of helping grow their careers outside of the sub-contracting I send them.

The goal has always been to build a content creation service that can handle work for people who need affordable quality. I want to build relationships with agencies, and be a part of solving the cost vs. quality problem (hell, I’m doing all the sourcing work FOR you!). I believe clients can get content they can actually use and also have the pleasure of working with a team who has a really high level of “give a damn”.

We’ll see how it all pans out.

Still a lot to learn.

 (Side note: If there’s a sixth lesson, it’s to pace yourself. I started working on this within three months of stepping out on my own to write full time. The stress of trying to spin this up while keeping my own work top-shelf has probably taken years off my life. But hey, learn to love the hustle, right?)

P.s. It should now make sense why I’ve been writing pieces on topics like how to outsource product descriptions, how to find and keep writing talent, how to work with copywriters and so on – I’ve been learning myself!

5 Responses to “5 Things I’ve Learned Running a Sort-of-Secret Writing Team”

  1. Iain says:

    Sounds like, even given the hard work, you’re getting a lot out of this project. Hope it continues to deliver success and satisfaction.

  2. Sounds world class, what kind of articles you guys write?

    • Joel says:

      It’s a healthy mix of topics; we’ve covered stuff ranging from travelling in an RV to magnetic therapy. I shy away from extremely technical pieces, but if it can be researched, I’ve probably got someone who can handle it.

  3. Seems like everyone has come up in a big way since last Mozcon, eh? It’s been fun to watch BCC grow and I’m lookin forward to the next few months of more Joel domination.

    Disclaimer: I’m also a satisfied customer of BCC, if anyone is looking for truly amazing copy HIRE THIS MAN.

  4. Alex says:

    Good stuff, Joel

    very useful AND very timely for me ;)

    thanks for sharing your experiences and hope you’ll have enoughe time
    and motivation to keep posting on this topic

    right, off to read more of your “insider” tips

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