Rapid Prototyping: A Faster and Simpler Way to Go from Zero to Paying Clients

Rapid Prototyping [image]

When you’re launching a freelance business, careful planning and preparation are important.

Until they aren’t.

In fact, one of the most egregious mistakes new freelancers make is to overplan and overprepare.

This is especially true with new freelance copywriters.

That’s a difficult thing for me to say. I’m a planner. I’m great at it. I can plan a road trip or vacation like no one else I know.

And back before GPS, I would carefully plan and map our long-distance drives like a champ. (Rand McNally, anyone?)

But it’s not just the act of planning that I enjoy. I want to be ready to tackle any challenge that comes my way. So my natural tendency is to study and plan as much as possible before taking any meaningful action.

After launching a successful freelance business and coaching more than 250 new freelance writers and copywriters, however, you start noticing some glaring patterns.

And I’ve concluded that overpreparing is counterproductive. It often leads to failure and disappointment.

Don’t misunderstand me. Planning and preparation are both essential. But many new freelancers take it too far.

What Most People Do

Let’s look at how many folks approach their launch:

  1. Study general copywriting fundamentals
  2. Study B2B copywriting fundamentals
  3. Agonize over which types of projects they’ll focus on
  4. Take a specialized course on how to write white papers
  5. Take another specialized course on how to write online copy
  6. Obsess and agonize over their “niche” decision
  7. Spend two months creating an info kit for prospective clients
  8. Spend another two months putting up their website
  9. Take one more specialized course on how to write case studies
  10. Prospect for clients
  11. Land a client
  12. Refer to their copywriting course library to complete the work

This is not an exact representation of how every new copywriter approaches his or her launch. It’s a general summary of the general approach I see so many new folks taking.

It’s especially common among new freelancers who don’t have a journalism or writing background. They can already write well, but they’re learning the craft of copywriting for the first time.

Bottom line: this approach involves lot of steps. And a lot of time!

You’ll also notice something interesting: the time and effort involved follows an inverted pyramid shape.

In this model, new copywriters spend a large amount of time learning the fundamentals of their craft and taking specialized copywriting courses. But when it comes to the business-building elements of their launch—especially prospecting activities—the tendency is to spend less time there. Or to put them off as long as possible.

The logic behind spending so much time studying is that the more you know about the craft, the better you’ll be. And the better you’ll be, the more business you’ll potentially land.

Right?

Well, not exactly.

Yes, it’s important to learn the fundamentals of copywriting—very important, in fact. It’s also imperative to practice your craft. You have to know what you’re doing. You can’t just make it up.

But this approach also leads to a number of challenges.

Procrastination

First, it breeds procrastination. Why? Because you’ll never feel you know enough to get out there. So you keep studying.

But this puts you on a dangerous treadmill. You learn something and then realize that there’s more to learn. So you avoid building your business until you learn the next skill.

Before you’re even done learning that skill, you realize there’s still more to learn. So you take more courses, read more books, do more planning.

And so the cycle goes.

Poor Retention

Second, you can’t possibly retain all this information. You’re not a computer. You’ll forget most of the material if you don’t apply it quickly.

And if you don’t get client projects, you won’t get to apply it.

If you haven’t landed your first client yet, here’s something you’ll learn very soon: The BEST way to learn and retain your skills is to work on a copywriting project for a client.

That’s when the information you studied will really sink in. That’s when you’ll finally integrate all these ideas into your core.

Overwhelm

The third problem with this standard approach is that you’ll quickly get overwhelmed. Immersing yourself in books, courses, webinars and articles has its benefits. It can also create an incredible amount of anxiety and stress.

I should know. I took the courses when I was getting started. I attended a ton of webinars and teleseminars.

I also built a library of large three-ring binders full of printed articles on copywriting and content marketing. Every article was highlighted and notated. My goal was to read and reread every article and report in order to memorize all the great ideas.

(When we moved three years ago, I came across boxes full of these binders and was shocked by all the information I collected. No wonder I was so stressed and overwhelmed!)

Lack of Focus and Direction

Going deeper and wider with information is also a proven recipe for losing your focus and direction. You’ll quickly get lost in the forest. And before you know it, you’ll forget your goals and purpose for your freelancing business.

Finally, this approach will very likely lead to serious disappointment. Because after a while, you’ll inevitably start equating studying with progress.

In other words, the more you learn and study, the better off you are. At least that’s the mindset many of us have adopted for decades.

If you went to college or university, this the basic formula was:

Study hard + learn a ton + get good grades = land a good job making decent money.

Yet when new, hardworking freelance copywriters finally get out there and realize that clients aren’t lined up outside their door, the whole thing seems so unfair.

“But I studied so hard!” they tell themselves, not recognizing that after a certain point, more information is not the answer.

After a certain point, studying and learning don’t get you what you ultimately want: paying clients.

Rapid Prototyping

There’s a better path to success in this business. I like to call it “rapid prototyping.”

Rapid prototyping is a set of techniques used in manufacturing to quickly fabricate a scale model of a physical part or assembly.

It’s also widely used in Silicon Valley to test multiple product and concept ideas and to iterate much faster and with less risk.

The goal is to spend considerably less time, money and resources finding the right solution (or business model, product or approach) that will work.

So instead of front-ending all the planning, studying and preparation, you instead spend just enough time preparing a prototype of the product, concept or business model. You then put it to the test, assess results and make refinements based on what worked and didn’t work.

From there, you continue to iterate until you find the best solution. Rinse and repeat.

This is how so many startups can get products and ideas to market faster and with less risk and capital. They spend just enough time developing the idea before testing it out in the market.

How This Applies to New Freelancers

I’ve found that you can take a very similar approach when launching a freelance writing or copywriting business.

Rather than spending years learning and training on your craft before going to market, you spend enough to develop a basic level of competence.

From there, you work hard to land one or two clients, just so you can apply that knowledge as quickly as possible. And you use what you learn in order to refine what you study next or what type of writing projects you pursue.

Conceptually, here’s what that might look like:

  1. Study general copywriting fundamentals
  2. Study B2B copywriting fundamentals
  3. Take a deep professional inventory to decide on your “starting” positioning
  4. Put up a simple website (treat it as a first iteration only)
  5. Prospect for clients
  6. Land your first client
  7. Refer to your copywriting course library to complete the work
  8. Assess, refine and iterate

Notice that you start with the same basic steps. You fill your knowledge gaps as needed. But then you quickly move into marketing your services and finding a client or two.

These clients don’t have to be impressive. In fact, they won’t be. They can be people you know. And you don’t even need to charge a fee for your first two or three projects.

The important thing is to get out there and apply what you’re learning. Not only will you accelerate your mastery of the subject, but you’ll also learn what it’s like to work with a client on a writing assignment—something you can’t learn from a book or an online course.

Worried that you’ll make a fool out of yourself? As long as you’ve done a good job with the first two steps above (without overdoing it), you’ll probably surprise yourself (and your client!).

Another way to think of this approach: ready, fire, aim! in the podcast and blog. A concept we’ve discussed numerous times in the podcast and blog.

Flip the Pyramid!

Notice the “effort and time” pyramid that corresponds to this approach. You’re spending less time planning and preparing—and more time getting out there, looking for clients, working on projects and iterating as needed.

Maybe your first couple of projects were blog articles. You initially thought you’d enjoy that kind of writing. But after working with two clients on their blogs, you realized that you’re not cut out for short copy projects. You’d rather work on longer-format articles, reports and white papers.

No problem; you simply reposition yourself to go after that kind of work.

Or maybe you initially positioned yourself to write case studies for health care companies. But after prospecting like a champ, you haven’t been able to land a single case study project. Every client has asked you to help with something else. Maybe a brochure, a sales sheet, website copy and a few short reports.

As you took on these projects, you realized how much you enjoyed writing them. So you shifted your focus to finding and landing more of that work.

But you wouldn’t have known any of this had you not put yourself out there!

A coaching client of mine originally positioned herself as a copywriter for the education market. But as I nudged her to start prospecting (before she felt 100 percent ready), she landed clients who hired her for her ability to write persuasively in the client’s voice … and for her extensive business experience.

These clients were not in the education field. But that was OK. She took them on anyway. And now she’s starting to see that maybe the “education industry” angle she’s highlighting on her website might not be as effective as she originally thought.

Time will tell where she’ll end up. But I suspect that this client activity will take her down a different path. And because she’s enjoying the work and her new clients, I bet that in a few months she’ll revise her positioning and her website copy to better reflect where she’s actually getting traction with clients.

What do Starbucks, Pixar and Chipotle Have in Common?

This is not a new idea. When you look at successful businesses, most of them didn’t start out selling the products and services they sell today. Or doing things the way they do now.

Starbucks started out selling coffee beans and coffee equipment. Pixar was originally a computer company. 3M began as a mining operation. Nintendo started out selling playing cards.

In episode 39, I shared the story of how serendipity (spurred by a big dream and steady execution) took the founder of the restaurant chain Chipotle on a completely different path from his original plan.

These companies pivoted in the right direction once they got out there. No amount of studying, planning or focus group sessions could have put them on the best possible course.

They had to put themselves out there first.

And in episode 127, my coaching client Hannah Glenn talked about how she successfully refined her target market once she finally launched. She also explained why it would have been much harder to find the right niche without taking action and employing this rapid prototyping concept.

You Have to Face Your Fears

Here’s the harsh truth. Prospecting for clients is scary. Talking with potential clients is scary. Quoting a project is scary. Landing the project and writing the copy are scary.

And for many of us, these things are beyond scary. They’re terrifying!

Taking another copywriting course, reading another book or getting yet another certification—those things are easy as pie when compared to getting WAY out of your comfort zone and doing the really scary stuff.

But amazing things happen only when you get out of your comfort zone.

That’s when you get results. That’s when your business starts taking shape. And it’s when you start getting somewhere.

It’s time to stop planning. There’s a very good chance that you already have what you need. So just pack your bags and get in the car.

You’ll figure it out as you go.

 

 


Post Categories: Articles, Getting Clients

Leave A Reply (18 comments so far)

  • Katherine_Andes

    This is one of your best ever posts … and I’m glad I took a break from my client’s work to read it. My writing path is completely different from where I started, and happily so.

    • Wow, thank you, Katherine! That means a lot coming from you! 🙂

  • Lara Loest

    Brilliant Ed, thank you. I started out in journalism and have agency, non-prof and corporate copywriting and marketing experience so I naturally use the prototyping formula (without knowing that’s what it is!).

    Even so it’s great to know it’s the best path! Thank you.

  • Barry Desautels

    Excellent advice. It is so easy to avoid fear and doubt by going in a different, more comfortable direction.
    Thanks for a great post.

  • Thanks, Ed! This is super-helpful.

  • Michael Kerr

    I really appreciated this post. About 12 years ago I was working as a technical writer with a company near Sacramento, researching and comparing models of Rapid Prototyping. I hadn’t connected the dots between rapid prototyping and building my copywriting business, but your analogy makes perfect sense. This post certainly describes what I’ve been doing – reading more articles, taking more courses, etc. And I do already have what I need. I can now see clearly that it’s time to stop planning, pack my bags, get in the car, and drive.

  • Halona Black

    I love this article! I was just having a conversation with someone about all the talk about branding your business. The whole branding your business discussion should really happen with those who are about 2 to 3 years in to their business. That way you have practical knowledge about who you are and how you help your clients. It doesn’t make sense to hire a branding coach — or sit around for months at a time — trying to get it right the first time on your own. It really comes out through the experience of working with clients.

    • “That way you have practical knowledge about who you are and how you help your clients.” <— Very well said!

      Thanks for your comment, Halona.

  • Ellen Johnson Varughese

    I just signed up for a new course today — and then I read this article …

  • What Most People Do
    Study general copywriting fundamentals
    Study B2B copywriting fundamentals
    Agonize over which types of projects they’ll focus on
    Take another specialized course on how to write online copy
    Obsess and agonize over their “niche” decision
    Spend two months creating …
    Take one more specialized course on how to…

    Have you been spying on me, Ed?

    • Ha! No, haven’t been spying on you. After going through this myself and coaching several hundred writers, I just know the common patterns. 😉

  • I’m printing out the concluding section and taping it to my wall. It’s exactly what I need to tell myself every day.

  • Lisa Rothstein

    I’ve found that if you focus on who you can help (rather than thinking so much about yourself and how you “look”) you can get out there faster and with less agonizing. Then you can see if you actually enjoy the work and that kind of client and assignment, and if you’re any good at it, or if it only looked good on paper. It’s ok to find out the niche or service you picked is not for you — except if you spent a long time honing it. Then you might be tempted to not learn from actual experience because you’ve got so much invested in being “right” about your theoretical choices. Yet another reason to adopt the “ready, fire, aim” approach!

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