#114: Using Demonstration Projects to Launch Your Freelance Business (or to Pivot Into New Areas)

There’s a pattern I’ve seen in virtually every freelance success story.

It goes like this: As you begin to move steadily in the direction of your goals, all kinds of serendipitous events begin to happen.

(Side note: When I say “begin to move steadily,” I don’t mean casual activity. I mean steady, deliberate, persistent and laser-focused action. Even when you don’t feel like it. And even when you think all hope is lost!)

Of course, those synchronicities don’t always happen immediately. And they’re not always obvious.

But as you look back at your success, it all starts to make sense. And you realize that taking steady and massive action despite the odds (and despite the obstacles) really paid off.

That’s why I love the story I’m about to share with you. Because it’s yet one more example of this fascinating pattern of success.

My guest is Robert McGuire, a journalist turned content writer and marketer and founder of McGuire Editorial, a content marketing agency.

You’ll hear how one of Robert’s side projects (something he refers to as a “demonstration project”) initially seemed like a failure—and how it ended up becoming a critical ingredient in his freelance and entrepreneurial success.

The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe in iTunes to get this show delivered straight to the Podcasts app on your smart phone, tablet or iPod.

Tell us about yourself

Robert has been a writer for over 20 years. He’s worked as a journalist and in marketing for non-profits. When he decided to go freelance, he found he could make more money in marketing than journalism.

For the last eight to nine years, Robert has been running a content development shop. Using a network of freelance writers, editors and marketers, he provides content marketing strategy, planning and editorial services to B2B “software as a service” companies.

Tell us about your demonstration project

Robert didn’t set out to create a demonstration project. It was only in retrospect that he realized that’s what it was.

His initial idea was to create a website that would generate recurring revenue and give him the freedom to travel. About four years ago, MOOCs (massive open online courses) was a popular topic. So he set up MOOC News and Reviews to dominate the space and run ads.

The site is now dormant and (thanks to a recent software update) somewhat broken.

Unfortunately, the site didn’t get enough traffic to generate much revenue. But it did attract a lot of attention.

At the time, lots of education technology startups needed marketing support. When these startups saw the site, many approached Robert to run their blogs and market their products.

So the site ended up being a demonstration project for his editorial skills.

How did your first prospect approach you?

His first prospect was a publishing company that approached him only a few days after the site’s official launch. The company was starting a professional journal on MOOOCs, and they wanted to take over Robert’s site. But it didn’t work out.

About a month later, an early stage start up approached him. They wanted Robert to write for them for free until they got acquired. He declined.

But eventually, the company was acquired, and they had the budget to pay him. So he accepted their offer.

The topic of whether to work for free to gain exposure is a hot topic among freelancers.

If you’re going to work for free to get exposure, work for yourself, not someone else.

MOOC News and Reviews was his way of doing that.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to engineer a similar scenario for themselves?

Learning happens best through projects. So putting together a demonstration project is a way to hack your own learning experience.

Clients care less and less about how much time you’ve spent in a classroom. They’re more interested in what you can demonstrate.

For example, think of hackathons. The point of a hackathon isn’t to develop a product you can sell. It’s to demonstrate what you can do.

Another example is Jonathan Haber’s “Degree of Freedom.” In this project, Haber pulls together free resources with he goal of building an online learning experience that’s equivalent to a undergrad degree. He ending up getting consulting gigs and a book deal from the project.

Passion projects often lead to new—and frequently surprising—opportunities.

But be strategic about how you work for free. How you can use the project to network, learn something new and have something to show prospects?

What else are you up to?

Today, Robert is developing Nation1099, an online community for solopreneurs. It provides insights, news and advice for professionals doing project-based work in the gig economy, including writers, software engineers, management consultants, etc.

The site grew out of Robert’s struggles to run his own business. Most business publications are aimed at small or big businesses. Few are geared to solopreneurs.

Tell us more about your consulting firm

After landing that first client through MOOC News and Reviews, Robert’s business has continued to grow. Eventually, he became overwhelmed with deliverables and hired some subcontractors to help—which required a big psychological shift.

Today, he works directly with clients to develop content strategy, set up editorial calendars and put together creative briefs. Then, he organizes freelance writers to deliver the content.

How can listeners learn more about you?

Robert’s consulting firm: McGuire Editorial


Twitter: @robertwmcguire