How I Got My First Premium Clients [Transparency Report #2]

Remember how I promised to be more transparent on this blog? This led me to write my first Transparency Report, where I talked about my beginnings as a freelancer. I wrote about my early starts, the “official” beginning of my online freelance career in 2004, and my first two years of being an online freelancer.

For this transparency report, we’re digging deep into 2006 to 2009 – the 3 years when I started “leveling-up” and targeting high profile, premium clients. How did I transition from being paid $10 per article for content jobs, to writing $100 per article for high profile blogs?

NOTE: This is a looong one because this was the most eventful part of my career.

Here’s the story:

Systematically Getting Premium Clients

After two years of working as a “content writer” – where I wrote the kind of content that was just descriptive, on easy-to-research topics, and I often had to add keywords for SEO purposes – I felt like I needed to do more.

Here’s what I was thinking: I wrote 5 to 10 articles per day, and while it was fun, after a couple of years I had written hundreds of articles and dozens of ebooks. But they were all mostly for SEO purposes. What I really enjoyed writing were the rare projects that allowed me to really write with a human reader in mind. I liked entertaining and informing them, so I wanted to do more of that kind of work.

The way I describe it now is “Ayaw ko magkalat sa internet”. There are billions and billions of internet pages out there, and most of those are not useful. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life writing things that only robots would read. Don’t get me wrong – writing for money is fine if that’s your goal, if you just want to do it to make a living. But it became clear to me that I needed more motivation than just making money. Making the transition, however, wasn’t going to be easy.

My problem? I had almost no bylines and my folio was “kalat-kalat” – it was on a variety of niches, so it was hard to even understand what kind of writer I was.

Key Takeaway: This is why “content writers” find it difficult to get premium-paying work – they have no bylines and the content is often meant for search engines, not people. Search engines never go “Wow, ok itong article na ito a, maybe I should hire this person to write my website content for me?”

If you love writing keyword articles, you enjoy them and the quick buck you make from them, that’s totally fine! But if you expect to charge $20 and above per 500-words for these articles, that’s going to be very difficult without any add-on services, lalo pa’t uso pa rin ang article rewriting.

Creating a Cohesive Portfolio in the “Entrepreneurship Niche”

If you read the previous transparency report, you’d know that my first couple of years as an online freelancer included varied jobs. I wrote under the travel, dating, and finance niches.

It might seem focused, but look at those 3 topics carefully. It’s so hard to relate them with each other. What does travel have to do with dating? What does dating have to do with finance? While I can come up with intersections, medyo mahirap to build up a large body of work under those niches and not get confused.

So I decided to spend most of my time on the niche that I enjoyed, was curious about the most, and also gave me regular work: finance. I used that as a jump off point to write about related topics, such as entrepreneurship. I used my best finance articles and my best miscellaneous articles in the travel niche to apply for writing jobs under finance or entrepreneurship. These were the clients I ended up with:

Splashpress Media, a new blog network back then. This blog network asked me to write for 2 of their blogs – but it was ghostwritten. I was paid $10 per article, and at 2 to 3 articles per week for each blog, this gave me at least $80 per month. I got at least $150 per month from this job. Because I didn’t have a byline here, I wrote mostly generic articles.

College-Startup. This blog was a real turning point for me. I joined them in September 2007 (see screenshot below), and was paid $10 per article, writing around 3 articles per week, so I got paid around $120 per month. More importantly, because I had my byline for this blog, I put my best stuff here.

TR-collegestartup

Staying with the current clients I was happy with. I still kept one client in the dating niche ($8 to $10 per article, plus ~$100 per ebook), and did the odd “content writing” gigs that came to me, but still had no byline. Keeping these clients allowed me to earn a full-time income, even while I was transitioning into a different kind of freelance writer.

Key Takeaway: Most of us start out trying many different things (design, writing, general admin work, etc.) and for many different clients (local small businesses, foreign small businesses, tech startups, etc.). This is normal. It’s better to start early, even if you’re unfocused, rather than wait around for the right niche or the right client to come along.

But, at some point, if you want to become a specialist – and specialists tend to get paid more – you’ll have to take a long, hard look at all the fields, tasks, and clients you’ve tried to find the one that resonates with you. Which clients do you love working with? Which tasks are you excited about? Which fields or topics are you the most curious about? By trying different things and seeing how you feel about them, you’ll have a more accurate and more realistic idea about what will work for you in the long run.

Don’t worry – you don’t have to commit to your niche, topic, or target market forever. I actually switch niches every few years as my interests change. But the switching only happens after I’ve tried and tested things, not before. Also, to be practical, I did not let go of my existing clients until I had solid income from the new niches I switched to.

The Big Break: Writing for a Blog That Had 100,000+ Readers Per Month

Just one month after joining College Startup, I was able to get a writing gig at Pimp Your Work, which had over 100,000 readers each month. Years after I left, the blog has since shut down and has become part of EveryJoe.com, but you can see some of my old posts here or look at the archived blog here.

Pimp Your Work's blog banner/header. Classy.

Pimp Your Work’s blog banner/header. Classy.

Pimp Your Work (PYW) was a productivity blog that was part of B5 Media, a large blog network back then. The section that PYW was in was called the “Business Channel” and there were maybe at least 2 dozen blogs there. Ganun karami yung blogs nila, and that was just one channel. They just posted an ad in a job board (it could have been at Problogger, but I’m not so sure) and I applied.

How did I get that job? Since I already had a solid portfolio on the subject of entrepreneurship and productivity (I had articles like “How to Be a Productive Student Entrepreneur” for College Startup) all I did was apply for the position and submit links to my best work from College Startup and Splashpress.

For PYW, I was able to cover more topics about productivity, freelancing/entrepreneurship, and tech tools. Also, since I was the person both writing and running the blog, I let my personality shine through. Check out the following posts:

This “big break” might not have paid so much (if you do the math, I was getting less than $10 per post on a “good” month at Pimp Your Work), but this gave me an even bigger boost in my portfolio. The readership was large, the topics were in demand (tech, productivity, entrepreneurship), and I used my best posts here to get the following jobs within a year of joining Pimp Your Work:

  • Writing for a popular tech productivity/freelancing blog that paid $75 to $100 per post, at 2 to 3 posts per week. I kept writing for this site until 2011, which meant that I stayed here for 4 years. In 2010, this gig led to another gig writing for a Fortune 50 company in the US that paid me $125 per post, for one post a week.
  • Writing for a tech productivity blog that paid $30 per post, at 2 to 3 posts per week.

(Sorry, my contracts for these 3 gigs were pretty strict, I’m not sure I’m supposed to identify them along with how much I was paid.)

Key Takeaway: At this point, you might be thinking “Kaya naman pala, may big break kasi siya!” but if you look at everything I wrote in this report so far, and everything in the previous report, I would not have gotten this “big break” without:

  • Narrowing down my niches. Specialization = Expertise = Higher Pay.
  • The deliberate decision and effort to find work that gave me my byline. Apart from giving me a sense of ownership, having my name next to my work comes with many benefits (I’ll get into this later)
  • Allowing myself to get paid less if it meant getting a wider audience, which I could use to get higher paying jobs. This means I didn’t just look at the dollar amount for each job, I also looked at its total earning potential – the other types of work and clients it could possibly lead to. Getting paid less just for the sake of getting paid less doesn’t really work.
  • More importantly: Once I realized the above 3 things, raising my rates and getting better jobs became such a faster process for me.

Still, it’s important for me to point out that getting premium clients, especially those that lead to high profile work, comes with its own set of disadvantages.

The High Price of High Profile Work

I know that I’m listing only two disadvantages here, but these disadvantages can be HUGE for some people – especially since these disadvantages will never go away as long as you do high profile work. So if you can’t imagine a lifetime of dealing with the following, doing this kind of work might not be for you.

#1 – Your flaws Will Be Exposed

Just a month after writing for PYW, I felt confident to pitch to one of my favorite blogs at that time, Freelance Switch. I was so excited because a) I loved their blog and b) they paid $20 per article, which was double my rate.

But take a look at the article I wrote, and more importantly, the scathing angry comments that littered the article:

fswitch

“I think you are giving bad advice, very bad advice.”

“I hate to say this because I’ve come to expect quality from FreelanceSwitch but Celine is not like the Experienced Designer she describes in this article. She is inexperienced and I would go as far to say that she has poor taste in every aspect of web design. Don’t get me started on the logo.”

“Wow… so many bad advices in such a short article. If you’re new in the business, do yourself a favor and forget you ever read this.”

Ouch. This is what happens when your work is very public and has your name written all over it. When criticism comes, people don’t hold back and it can be very painful.

Sidenote: This is why it can be dangerous for non-practitioners to give advice, especially when it comes to complex or sensitive topics. For my Freelance Switch article, none of it was based on experience – it was based on things I had read or heard from other freelancers. No matter how much theoretical knowledge you think you have on a subject, nothing beats deliberate practical knowledge.

Let me put it this way, if you were sick would you want to be treated by a doctor who just memorized her books and WebMD.com? Or would you rather be treated by a doctor who has spent years treating the specific disease you have? I learned this lesson the hard way.

Hindi naman sa masochista ako, but this disadvantage turned out to be a great thing because I learned a very important lesson – never state ideas that I haven’t tested or that I couldn’t find any empirical proof for. Since then I’ve been very careful about backing up everything, even the articles I write for clients, with stories from my own experience, statistics, references to credible research, or interviews with experts.

#2 – You’ll have greater responsibilities.

You won’t necessarily have more things to do, but the scope of what you have to do gets broader. For example, with high profile work, I couldn’t just parrot the same old articles that everyone else was writing. I had to come up with my own voice or even my own angle for each piece. I also had to interact with the readers, respond to comments, and come up with all sorts of ideas to get new readers and encourage returning readers. In other words, I had to think for myself. The ideas, plans, and rules no longer came from the client.

The Upside of High Profile Work (It’s Not the Money)

Now that you know the costs of doing high profile work, you can weigh that against its benefits:

#1 – Your work gets more exposure, probably even more than you can possibly do with your own efforts.

Ok, yabang mode na ito (mag-ingat at baka mahanginan). But the only reason why I’ll bring these things up is so that you’ll see how far high-profile work can take you:

Do you think I could get all that “publicity” on my own via my own blog? Nothing is impossible, but it would be highly improbable, lalo pa’t tamad ako. Kahit pa masipag ako, aabutin ako ng siyam-siyam before I can even spread my work that far. By doing work for high profile websites and clients, they are the ones spreading my work and my name. All I had to do were the tasks I was paid to do.

#2 – You’ll feel both competent and confident.

Remember how high profile work can expose you to a lot of criticism? The same is true for positive feedback. One of my proudest moments when it comes to feedback was when the founder of Google Analytics complimented me on an article I wrote about the history of their software:

GA

Because your work is publicly available, plus the fact that it’s in your name, you’ll be more mindful and deliberate about the quality of the work you put out there. When that happens, you’ll be more motivated to produce good work and make it even better.

#3 – You’ll get more work.

One thing I noticed is that when I start doing high-profile work in a specific niche, after a few months I get emails from companies in that niche or industry asking me to do similar work for them. This means that I rarely have to pitch or actively hunt for work. My target clients just find me. Plus, it’s easier to convince them to hire me kasi sila yung lumapit at nakita na nila yung work ko bago pa nila ako kontakin.

This is good news to me: I always see myself as a craftsperson, someone who focuses on making things rather than managing the makers. Since I don’t have to do much marketing to get new clients, that’s more free time for me to work on passion projects like Pinoy500, tend my garden, read books, or even simply do my work better.

Next on Transparency Report: What’s a typical workweek like for me?

Now that we’re all caught up in my past, I’m going to answer a question I often get via email or interviews: “What’s a typical day like for you?” I’ll try to answer that in the next transparency report.

In the meantime, stay tuned for the next post in the Pinoy500 blog: “How to know if a freelancing opportunity is profitable”.

Are there any specific things you want me to share for the next transparency report? Email me at mail@celineroque.com or let me know in the comments 🙂

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