This quick, dirty and slightly sneaky guide to starting a copywriting business assumes you already have experience writing in a professional capacity.
Then again, given how social media has started stealing from traditional advertising’s media preferences and expenditures, you don’t necessarily need to know how to write like an old-school copywriter to do this kind of work for business clients.
If you have millions of followers on Instagram, you can likely find work handling other business’s social media.
How I started my copywriting business
For me, starting a copywriting business was easy-ish. I had been travelling the world, selling travel stories, reading and writing several hours a day. Singapore was a prosperous place I already knew and liked, so I decided to try to make a life there.
I met a graphic designer at a party who said I was funny and should be an advertising copywriter. I was broke and said, “Please, how?” He gave me a name and number.
The guy who answered was a Brit, the head of copy at Euro RSCG Ball Partnership, a hot ad agency at the time.
I told him I wanted to be a copywriter, expecting him to hang up on me. He listened politely, said he’d soon be needing a fill-in writer, and suggested I do up some dummy ads, then bring them in.
His agency’s biggest clients were Parker Pen, Mitsubishi Auto, TGIF Restaurants and Club Med. I went to work, writing one-off print and TV ads and full campaigns for those brands.
For three days I pounded almost non-stop, ending up with a stack of print ads, all crappily hand-drawn on hideous blue A4 paper. I had no art skills, no software, no money, no way to make it pretty.
I dropped it at reception
A week later, he called and said I was a good writer who didn’t know a bloody thing about advertising.
But he asked me to come in.
He walked me through the good and bad of my work, asked me to revise accordingly and return in a week. I used advertising awards books for guidance and inspiration, returning with my blue ads two more times.
Then he hired me at US$200 a day, for a week’s work.
I was shown to a nice private office with a door, an Apple desktop and a big window looking onto Beach Rd.
Immediately, I began receiving briefs for print ads, brochures, flyers, posters and point-of-sale collateral — and taught myself how to use the Apple on the fly.
I was soon joined by a local art director. We clicked, and produced respectable work that clients liked and bought.
My first week ended and was twice extended.
Nights, the copy head took me out for beers, introducing me to creative directors he knew from other international ad agencies – the most inspiring collection of artists, reprobates, intellectuals, drug addicts, alcoholics, failed novelists, uneducated geniuses and entrepreneurs it had ever been my pleasure to meet.
He told them I was the great new cub writer in town, and to hire me.
Most were from the UK, EU, Aussie, NZ and the US. They mainly welcomed me. I was new, open to critique, wanted a trial by fire, and told them so.
After three weeks, the writer I’d filled in for returned and I was let go – into a maelstrom of work.
My first month in (unofficial) business as a copywriter, I made about US$5,000.
I found an accountant who helped me set up shop as a sole proprietor, let me use his business address and gave me ideas for convincing Singapore Immigration to grant me an employment pass.
I was off.
I never said no to anything, and averaged US$7,000/month, going as high as US$18,000, one month.
How you can start a copywriting business
If you’re based in Canada, the US or another Western-type country, setting up a business is likely easier than that.
Copywriting companies are usually one-person freelancers for hire.
Aim to get work from multiple clients: Ad agencies, graphic design firms, web developers and direct to end-users.
Ad agency work is the best, most lucrative and hardest work to get. You need a sterling online and physical portfolio of campaigns in multiple media and sectors, in b2c and b2b.
In big cities like Toronto, New York and London the agency atmosphere can be harsh. Intense competition. Petty jealousies. Plenty of assholes.
I did my share of agency time. It ranged from toxic to boring to bracingly creative to falling-down fun.
No two shops are alike. So be strong, humble and always in learning mode.
Common characteristics found in great copywriters:
- Hyperactive imagination
- Insatiable curiosity
- Always reading and writing
- Highly energetic
- Bent sense of humour
- Wide general knowledge (popular culture, science & tech, sociology, psychology, political science, current events and history at a minimum)
- Sophisticated grasp of all media
- Ability to think strategically, competitively, visually and quickly
- Can hold a room and sell ideas to sceptics
- Big balls / ovaries
You’ll work insane hours on an extreme spectrum of briefs having nothing to do with each other. Some clients will demand your first-born, not to mention your nights and weekends – especially during the run-up to big pitches.
You’ll have many meetings, short, long and unending. They’ll seldom be boring, because you’re wrestling with ideas, logistics and complex shoots and productions, sometimes in faraway locations.
Kinds of client to covet
Individuals and small companies are riskier than established businesses. They tend not to know how to work with a professional copywriter, so potential for things to go wrong – wasted time, misunderstandings, non-payment, unneeded stress – is high.
Always ask for 50% of your estimated fee up front from such outfits. I don’t take work from new clients unless they agree to my terms.
Big agencies usually won’t pay you this way, and they take their time – sometimes months. Ask about getting interim payments before signing onto something long.
As stated, most copywriting businesses only consist of one or two writers. Many are run out of a residence, café or beach, off a laptop.
You may get very busy and grow to a team of writers, in which case you could opt for an office. Or let your people work from wherever they like.
Build a good reputation to expand your copywriting business so you can manage clients at multiple companies.
There’s no standard copywriting rate
The elite of agency copywriters make millions annually. Some open their own shops. An average full-time junior copywriter in an agency is paid US$25-30,000.
If you’re good, you might break $100,000. If you’re amazing, bagging big international awards year upon year, you’ll have offers at $300,000 and up. These are the gifted, hardworking few.
In the rough and tumble, less-creative world of website copy, blogs, corporate writing, etc., the volume-based copywriting outfits charge between $0.05 and $0.10/word.
Higher-end agencies get between $0.20/word to $2.00+/word.
Most, like me, agree to a fee based on the estimated time needed to complete each project. This way, you won’t have to log hours, which is ass pain. Just deliver the good copy on time.
Expenses for a copywriting business
Typical expenses in this business are your rent or mortgage, utilities and fees for banking, merchant accounts and invoicing software. If you employ other writers, add payroll costs.
Here’s my handy 10 steps to starting copywriting business checklist:
- Ask someone smart and successful you know to recommend a good, affordable accountant – for advice along the way, and to do your taxes, etc.
- Draft a business plan. Think startup costs, desired markets and break-even time. You may not meet all objectives, but you’ll have a destination.
- Make it legal. In some jurisdictions, an LLC will net you lower taxes than a sole proprietorship. Plus, if an ungrateful client sues, your life savings are better protected.
- Register for and pay taxes. On time. Don’t let them slide. That’ll easily get away from you, then wipe you out.
- Open the right bank account. Low fees, ability to accept and transfer funds, decent overdraft protection. Shop and ask around. They’re all a bit different and some are terrible.
- Try to fall in love with accounting. Record income, expenses, keep receipts, and monitor business performance.
- Get permits applicable to you. Ask your accountant.
- Explore business insurance. Especially if you have staff. If one breaks his arm typing too hard, you’re covered.
- Be a brand. Figure out what you can and want to be to the world. Stand unique from the other schmucks. Are you a specialist? Flaunt the daylights out of it.
- Maintain a gorgeous website. Cultivate an online presence on social media. Be easiest to get found. Make it impossible for visitors to miss your best work. Don’t post mediocre work.
As my dad used to say: Never complain, never explain.
Words to live by.