An Under-The-Hood Look at a $236K Year of Copywriting

An Under-The-Hood Look at a $236K Year of Copywriting

Rewind to Dec 2016.

I joined Joanne Wiebe’s mastermind for copywriters, “The 200,000 Year.” Cute name, even if I hardly believed it. I thought “Gee, it’d sure be nice to make $200k” the same way a person might think, “Gee, wouldn’t it be cool if lollipops grew in my backyard?”

I barely cracked $60K in 2016 (though it still felt like a HUGE win).

Fast-forward to December 2017.

I was sure my bookkeeper had made an epic fuck up.

When I logged into Xero to look at my Q4 profit and loss statement I nearly fell out of my chair. Then I demanded a meeting to review my transactions, so sure was I that there’d been some mistake.

Turns out there was no mistake. I’d had two $30k months in a row and didn’t even notice.

The first person I told was Joanna who, in classic Joanna form, assigned me a job. She told me to write a blog post about it. So here I am. (And because I know you’re thinking it, yes, I do feel like a shameless braggart for talking about my income on the internet. And yes, I’m working on that.)

According to Copy Hackers annual copywriter salary survey, more than 50% of copywriters charge between $50 – $100 an hour.

My hourly rate averages $500, depending what package you buy. More if you calculate it in Canadian dollars, which of course I do. So how did I wind up in the less than 5% category of copywriters who charge more than $250/hour, after only 2 years in business?

Before I tell you what I did that made the biggest impact, let me throw a few numbers at you. Because while I may have earned $236k CAD, I definitely didn’t take home $236k.

As you read these numbers, you should also know that I incorporated my business and switched accounting software midway through the year, so I had to estimate a little on some of these numbers.

My rates, who I worked with and what I earned:

40Day rate in Jan 2016: $1000 USD
Day rate in Aug 2017: $2500 USD
Day rate as of today: $3000 USD

# of day-rate clients: 24, including repeat clients
# of project-based clients: 8

Total income from client work: $170,000 CAD
Total income from my courses: $29,000 CAD
Total income from affiliate promotions: $35,000 CAD
Total income from email swipe file: < $2000 CAD

These “total income” numbers are really rough. My accounting/bookkeeping systems were not set up for this speed of growth, so I had to estimate a bit. Working on that.

My biggest expenses:

Training: $29,000 USD

  • Mastermind: $10,000
  • Private coaching: $9,000
  • Online programs: $2,000
  • Other: $8,000

Contractors (VA, design, ads management, bookkeeping): $34,000 USD

Travel & Events: $8,000 USD

Ads: $9,000 USD

… and lots of other stuff. This list is by no means complete. These are just the biggest categories. Roughly 50% of what I earned last year went straight back into my business. I’m comfortable at that number, but long-term I’d like my expenses to be 35% or less.

I’m pretty embarrassed about how much work it was to cobble together this semi-accurate list. Even after poking around in Xero and QBO for hours, I still wonder where the heck all my money went, and I still can’t vouch for the accuracy of these numbers.

*sigh*

For someone who teaches about money, this is pretty shameful for me. I finally bit the bullet and hired a bookkeeper in November 2017. I still can’t believe I’m paying $600/month for this service since I don’t have a ton of transactions, but it gives me so much peace of mind and saves me so much time I don’t question the expense.

3 Things That Made a Big Impact

1. Getting my name in front of people who matter.

I joined Joanna’s mastermind as much for who it would connect me with as I did for what I would learn. And in both respects, it was completely worth it. Not only was Joanna generous with introductions, I learned how to run a sales call, how to price projects and put together proposals and more.

Same goes for conferences and events. These connections have brought tens of thousands in new business. One time at a Jeff Walker conference I stood up and asked a question in front of about 800 people.

I got swarmed immediately afterward.

Everyone needs copywriters. If you meet enough people and show up with poise and confidence (not like the copywriter who was running around thrusting business cards at anyone and everyone without so much as a how-do-you-do), you’ll have more than enough clients.

Caveat: I LIKE these people a lot. I’m not just buying my way in front of potential clients. They’re kindred spirits. They’re my tribe. And as far as referrals go, I give as much as I get. I might’ve gotten more referrals than I referred at one time, but now I get to be on the referring end a few times a week, which feels amazing.

2. Positioning myself like a superstar, even when I wasn’t one yet.

When people see higher prices, they expect to be dealing with a professional. I priced my services at a rate that would distinguish me from the masses of low-priced copywriters, as soon as I felt I had enough skill to justify it.

I also cultivate celebrity by branding everything I can. The more people see me as a brand, the less they see me as a freelance writer cranking out copy from her basement with a cat in her lap.

Drawing boundaries also helped me position myself as a top brass pro.

I don’t work late nights or weekends or even Fridays. I make that really clear from the get-go, and so far my clients have been really respectful of that. If you send me an urgent email on Saturday afternoon, you won’t hear from me until Monday, even if you’re offering to pay me triple.

People want what they can’t have. So NOT being constantly available, and being really clear on my waitlist and delivery times helped to boost my credibility and perceived celebrity. See Joanna Wiebe’s Diva List.

Case in point. I’ve been trying to buy this pair of Camper shoes for weeks now. They keep popping up and then getting marked as “no longer available.” I’ve made it as far as submitting my address and payment information only to be foiled again and again. I want them so bad I’m considering a trip to Montreal just to buy them straight from the store.

“The harder it is to hire you, the more your best prospects will want to hire you,” Joanna wrote.  Having good lead gen helps a lot. My time is legitimately scarce. So naturally, people want it more.

This is hard to do when you don’t have legitimate scarcity of your time. Most copywriters think they’ll start drawing boundaries when they have tons of leads coming in. In the meantime, they’re happy to accept rush projects and be available at the last minute for clients who are paying them peanuts.

3. Delivering top-tier service

When you underprice your services, you don’t give yourself any bandwidth to go the extra mile for your clients. There’s no time or money left to send them postcards and presents in the mail, or throw an extra email or mini landing page into their package, on the house.

Those kinds of things are what helped me stand out as an A-list service provider. I traveled to New York and California at my own expense to meet with clients whose businesses (and friendships) are really important to me.

But before any of that, even simple things really changed how my clients perceive me and what they’re willing to pay.

…like having my VA on sales calls to take notes so I can focus on the conversation.

…or making sure the client always knows when our next check-in is, what we’ll be talking about and what I need from them. (It’s surprising how few service providers do this).

…and delivering on time always, always, always.

Small things, big impact.

Where I was most challenged:

My money systems got hit hard in 2017. In January I had a bookkeeper set me up in QBO but I was still reviewing and reconciling the actual transactions myself. This worked okay until I started hiring more contractors, buying more software and selling more low-priced stuff, like courses and swipe files.

By September I had a major issue on my hands. I was backed up like crazy in my bookkeeping, and I noticed transactions were getting lost. As a multi-currency business, I found it really hard to track my money in Quickbooks.

Most importantly, it stressed the shit outta me to even log into to QBO. Something had to give.

Because my income has thrown me into a whole new tax bracket, I decided to incorporate, and bring on a bookkeeper.

Enter Xen Accounting.

Xen keeps my books as audit-proof as they can possibly be using a combination of software: Xero, ReceiptBank, and LedgerSync. The system isn’t perfect, and TBH it still stresses me out when I get an email from Morvarid, who’s in charge of my books. (Not her fault at all, I just really don’t like bookkeeping.)

Every transaction is reconciled with a receipt attached electronically. But I still have trouble trusting it.

Another struggle is Profit First. I want to implement Profit First in my business, but I really just have no idea where to start. I have chequing accounts and credit cards in different currencies, so it’s not as easy as say, throwing 35% of my revenue into an expense account. I hope to figure this out in 2018.

Finally, I had one launch that felt like an epic fail. I made a few sales and broke even after costs. It was heartbreaking. I was pretty new to launching my own stuff, so I had no idea that failure is just part of the game. It felt like a personal failure. I raged, cried, overslept, and eventually, I got over it.

My biggest wins in 2018

I started attracting way better clients last year. Really top tier people, and entrepreneurs who’ve since become great friends.

This has added a human element to my business that was really missing before. I used to feel like a lonely freelancer, and fantasize about having a career where I was in front of people more.

I’m in front of people all the time now. I make video a must on Zoom chats. And my clients are triple-A aaawesome. I learn so much from them. I get to take their programs and basically sit at their feet and learn. It’s a huge honour.

The growth of my business has come so fast I sometimes feel like I didn’t pay my dues. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to trust in my success, and not feel like this whole thing was a total fluke.

If I had to start from scratch again tomorrow, I could. If I suddenly found that all my new leads dried up, I’d know what to do. That kind of confidence changes your life.

It’s that level of sureness that led us to buy a house this year. I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I pull in the driveway. If my 28-year-old self could only see me now! (I’m 33, just to put that in context.)

As a new copywriter, there’s not much in this post you can’t replicate yourself.

If growth comes slower, I say embrace it. Going from earning less than $5000/year to earning $236K in a year came with a TON of challenges. Not just for me, for my family too. It’s like going from cheesy 5-lb dumbbells to 250-lb deadlifts. Lots of things get ripped and stretched.

Probably my biggest takeaway is that how you run your business is just as important as the quality of your deliverables.

If you want to take more copywriting courses and great really freakin’ good at it, go for it. But don’t expect that to make you money. What makes you money is your ability to sell and deliver a top-tier service.

Getting results for your clients will get you referrals and glowing testimonials, which you’ll need to grow. And you need to be skilled to get the results. But before you even get the chance to demonstrate your awesomeness, you need to make the sale and get the deposit.

One of the best pieces of business advice I ever got was from a random audio by Danielle LaPorte:

“Get the money in the door.”

You can get fancy later.

So whenever a new copywriter asks me what they should be doing to grow their business, I say focus on sales first. Focus on being an amazing service provider. Keep taking courses, but keep your eye on the ball.

When you get really good at selling yourself, you’ll also get better at selling for others.

And if you can do that, you can charge whatever you want and be rich like me forever and ever.

Tarzan Kay

I’m a launch strategist, copywriter and educator on all things money—earning it, growing it, and helping others get more of it.

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