#038: From $5 to a Viable Writing Business: How Nathan Collier Is ‘Grouponizing’ His Way to Success

I’m NOT a fan of websites like Elance or oDesk.

But occasionally I’ll meet a writer who has launched a successful freelance business using these services.

Nathan Collier is a perfect example. Nathan launched his freelance writing business on the side last summer. And in just a few months he’s been able to land a handful of decent-paying clients using Elance.

Here’s the really impressive part. He’s done this by “Grouponizing” his services. In other words, rather than subscribing to the notion that every project must be at least somewhat profitable, Nathan is willing to work at a loss in order to prove himself to the client.

Once the client sees the quality of the work, he then proposes other projects at higher margins.

In this interview, Nathan details his strategy and how it works. He explains how to pick the right prospects to work with. And how he builds the value and makes it almost irresistible to hire him at higher rates.

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 or on Stitcher to get this show delivered straight to the Podcasts app on your smart phone, tablet or iPod.

Tell us about yourself ?

Nathan has been creating, writing and marketing content for about 10 years. He currently works fulltime in the marketing department of a software company. His background is journalism. He has an English degree and recently completed a Masters in business.

Why did you decide to try freelance writing?

Having finished his Masters degree, Nathan had only about six months before he had to start paying back his student loans. His monthly payments aren’t huge, but they’re not insignificant either. He began to consider freelancing as a way to generate extra income.

He knows how to write already. The challenge was how to land a client.

Why did you pick Elance as a place to start?

Nathan wanted to find out if someone would pay him to do this work on the side. He used Elance to find out. He started searching for clients who:

  1. Already had content but needed it re-written.
  2. Needed longer-term help.

How long did it take before you had a real conversation with a prospect?

Nathan started sending out proposals in mid-August. Within two weeks he was talking to a prospect about work.

Elance can be intimidating. You’re competing with people from around the globe and prices can be crazy low. But for Nathan, his priority wasn’t to make money. It was to see if he could get someone to hire him.

His first prospect was a recruiter who needed someone to re-write 15 job descriptions. About 20 people bid on the project. Nathan offered to do three of the job descriptions for $5. If the prospect liked them, then they would talk about the remaining 12.

How did he react?

The prospect agreed to Nathan’s proposal and was happy with the results. Nathan then charged him $5 for each of the 12 remaining job descriptions.

It wasn’t extremely profitable. But it accomplished what Nathan set out to do.

Were you worried that this wasn’t sustainable?

Nathan knew that Elance wasn’t the most profitable way of building a side business. But he was thrilled to discover that he could land work this way. It gave him a taste of what it means to freelance.

It wasn’t about the money. It was about going through the process.

What’s happened since?

Nathan continues to submit proposals on Elance. He’s also started networking to land work outside of Elance.

After he completed the job description project, the client asked him to re-write a few email templates. Nathan again charged $5 for each. Over the next few weeks, additional projects trickled in.

Then, about a month later, the client contacted him to write, set up and manage his monthly email responders.

Nathan knew that this project would take more time. He said he’d get back to the client with a proposal.

Nathan had never done a full proposal before. He relied on the “email of understanding” shared by Katherine Andes when she was interviewed for episode 20 of this podcast.

Nathan estimated how long it would take him to do the work each month. He then researched freelancing rates on the Internet and included links to these rates in his proposal.

The client wanted four emails per month. Nathan quoted $550.

The client had sticker shock, but he didn’t argue with the price. Instead they agreed that Nathan would do half the work for half the quoted rate (two emails per month for $275).

Where do you go from here?

Nathan recently landed a new client via a referral from the first client. Again, Nathan started with a low quote for a small job and then quoted a higher amount for future work.

Nathan is okay with losing money on the first transaction. His focus is the lifetime value of the customer.

Today, Nathan continues to work for these clients. He’s also started building the tools freelancers need to grow their business, such as referrals, testimonials, a portfolio and a website.

What would you advise someone who’s starting out and not sure where to start?

Go get your first paying client. Charge only $5 if you have to. Getting paid for that first job will completely shift your thinking.

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Till next time,