Many freelance writers get to a point where they want to scale their business in some way. Or they want to diversify their income stream by launching a new side venture or project.
Mike Stelzner is a classic example. From 1996 until just a few years ago he was a freelance writer. Today he is the founder and CEO of Social Media Examiner (SME), an online magazine for business owners and marketers who are trying to figure out social media.
In less than 4 years, SME has attracted 222,000 email subscribers and 800,000 website visits per month. And Mike’s podcast, The Social Media Marketing Podcast, has 21,000 listeners! As if that weren’t enough, Mike recently launched a new website: MyKidsAdventures.com — a site for parents looking for fun things to do with their kids. We’ll come back to this one later.
In this interview Mike talks about what it takes to launch a successful side business when you freelance full time and have limited resources and bandwidth. The notes that follow are a basic, unedited summary of our interview. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. And you can also subscribe to this podcast series in iTunes.
The Impetus to Getting Started as a Freelancer
Termination! After 1-1/2 years of high accolades at a big corporation, Mike was terminated, because the CEO thought he saw him in a compromising position (which he hadn’t)!
After some introspection, Mike decided to become a hired gun. Since he had worked in the marketing department at a company that sold computer hardware to businesses, he decided to take his familiarity with the manufacturer’s products and reach out to them. A few said yes, and Mike started producing marketing collateral for these companies — pieces such as PowerPoint presentations, brochures, data sheets and white papers.
He soon realized that high-tech stuff was his sweet spot. Fortunately, in the early 90’s as the web started to take off and become a bigger part of our lives, high-tech was in demand.
By the late 90’s people wanted websites, so Mike started creating websites, too. As business grew, Mike added designers and other sub-contractors to handle anything he didn’t do. He basically recruited the talent for his customers.
Then the economy tanked. Mike needed a way to generate leads. He figured that maybe people were looking for a way to write white papers, so he bought those keywords and wrote a 10-page white paper. In the paper he gave away a lot of his tips and at the end he asked, “Are you the right person to write a white paper?” And, “what to look for when hiring a white paper writer.”
This strategy generated more leads than Mike could possibly handle!
This led to another idea. Mike asked the people who had registered for his white paper if they would be interested in receiving his newsletter. Over 20,000 people said yes.
To create quality content for his newsletter, he wrote his own articles and he reached out to other industry professionals and authors. Almost everyone agreed because by this point Mike had thousands of email subscribers. He had an attentive audience.
He also joined forces with what he calls his co-opetition; Jonathan Cantor and Gordon Graham. Together they started a newsletter and built a portal called White Paper Source.
The plan for this portal was to publish a high-quality newsletter that would attract a large audience. This would provide a solid platform for a self-published book he was writing on how to write white papers. But was began as a platform for marketing his book exploded into a huge white paper writing referral business. It also led to many speaking engagements and high-paying white paper gigs from clients.
The transition into speaking and other things
As solopreneurs we all face the challenge of time vs. money. Mike charged by project
rather than by the hour. Then thought about how Qualcomm was paying him $4,500/month to train their engineers on how to write white papers.
He began to see the power and potential in teaching this material. So he decided to put together a writers’ conference. He contacted Bob Bly to see if he’d be interested in presenting, but Bob told him that he didn’t do physical conferences anymore. Mike was forced to re-think the conference and he came up with a virtual online conference called “Copywriting Success Summit.”
The Summit took the world by storm! Nobody had heard about it before. About 300 people came to learn how to become copywriters. He began to realize the potential for lots of people to come together virtually and learn from practitioners. Considering the amount of time he put into it, it was a big money maker — the most he’d ever made.
Along the way, social media started cropping up. Mike started asking people to write about it for his newsletter. The topic resonated with his audience, because as freelancers and marketers, they were all trying to figure it out too.
Then he launched Social Media Success Summit in the spring of 2009. More than 500 people attended that virtual event. It was the biggest thing he’d ever done, and it confirmed that social media was about to explode. This was the sign that he needed to get in on it.
It’s never too late
Although it may have appeared that Mike got in on social media almost too late, no one had done what he was doing before. Even now, four years later, no one has done it. Proving it is never too late!
Because what Mike realized was that he did what he did with little knowledge of social media. Unlike white papers, everybody was talking about it! Instead of being deterred by lack of knowledge, he looked at this as marketplace justification; there was a need, because:
- If everybody is talking about it, there was a massive market place
- Nobody can do it my way – we all have our unique way of teaching and addressing the issue
Instead of doing a white paper, he decided to write blog posts and give the stuff away for free. Mike knew what people wanted, he knew how to find what they wanted and he knew how to give them what they wanted. He brought his unique background as a writer, businessman and marketer.
Am I a Writer or am I an Entrepreneur?
Writers have all the makings of an entrepreneur. Which is why more of them should consider starting a side business. When you think about it, to be a good writer, you have to:
- Synthesize and organize information
- Interview people – talk to people, gather knowledge/insight, know what’s working
- Generate great content
Many entrepreneurs get it wrong, because they don’t know how to do these things well.
A good writer knows how to find stuff that other people can’t find; they know how to position, articulate, and communicate. Further, a copywriter knows how to market and how to persuade. Writers are pre-equipped with all this stuff; they just need to look at their skills with a different mindset.
Mike’s next big thing:My Kids’ Adventures
Social Media Examiner has been a huge success, but Mike is always looking and watching. The inspiration for the new venture was his children. They were growing up and finding fun without Dad! They were sitting on the couch playing video games or watching TV.
What could he do help them see that you can have fun outside of video games and TV? As he looked for ideas, he noticed that there was a lot of information out there for babies, toddlers and teens, but not much for those in between. He wanted to empower parents by creating cool articles to help them have fun experiences with their kids.
After presenting the idea in a 2-minute video at a conference, 100 people came up to Mike and said it was incredible. He found a hole in the market targeting parents who feel disconnected from their kids.
MyKidsAdventures.com was born.
Besides the personal motivation to bond with his children, Mike sees the possibility of a children’s adventure novel in the future.
What drives him
First and foremost, Mike loves helping people. Many people get work through Mike’s ventures and they’ve grown personally and professionally because of it.
There’s also a certain excitement level that comes from being surrounded by a great team that will always be there for you. Every freelancer reaches a glass ceiling because their business is not scalable. Some have the bug to do bigger things, and the only way to break through the ceiling to do bigger things is by hiring people. Otherwise, you get sucked into the work and never have freedom!
The downside is that you have to relinquish some control. You have to accept that not everyone can do it your way. You have to learn to accept that people make mistakes, things aren’t going to be perfect. Everybody has different skills and you have to work hard to train them. You have to be able to transition from being the doer to the manager.
Where do you start?
Start it out as an experiment. This allows you to fail. Allocate time for it and hire a contractor to help you so you can try it out. Set milestones; if this happens, then I’ll go on to the next step. If it doesn’t happen, then I’ll back off or try again.
This way it’s not as as risky. You haven’t invested a lot of time or heart yet.
But, you do have to find somebody who can help you in the areas where you have weaknesses and focus on those that are within your comfort zone. Try to leverage people within your own network.
What he would have done differently
“Nothing! Every mistake that I’ve made got me where I am. Every screw up has taught me a lesson,” he says.
For example, Mike invested $100,000 into building his own social network called “The Networking Clubs” through Social Media Examiner. Unfortunately, it failed. He shut it down a few months ago. But, he explains that everything he learned from that venture will be used with My Kids’ Adventures.
Mistakes force us to take it to the next level. Complacency leads things to dry up.
Items mentioned in this podcast include:
- Mike’s podcast: www.socialmediaexaminer.com/podcast
- Mike’s book on white papers: www.writingwhitepapers.com/book/index.html
- My Kids’ Adventures: www.mykidsadventures.com
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