Let's welcome Michael Kwan, freelance writer and author of Beyond the Margins: An Indispensable Guide for First-Time Freelance Writers, Designers, and Other Work-From-Home Professionals. Michael sent me a copy of the e-book for review, and he graciously took the time to answer some of my questions.
Beyond the Margins focuses on beginning freelancers and offers a well-rounded look at the choices to be made and the work involved in building a successful freelance business. If you're new to this game and looking for an overview of what the freelance life is like, I wholeheartedly recommend Michael's book. You can learn more about Beyond the Margins in my interview with Michael below, get your copy today on Amazon, or learn more about the author at his blog, Beyond the Rhetoric.
Michael Kwan on Beyond the Margins
Why did you decide to write Beyond the Margins? What do you hope new freelance writers will take from, or do with, the information you offer?
When I first started out as a freelance writer, I didn't have a mentor. I didn't have a guide. I didn't take the time to research all the different aspects of running a home-based business, only looking up information on a need-to-know basis. It was all foreign and novel and overwhelming.
With Beyond the Margins, the goal is to arm those people who are just starting out with the fundamental knowledge they'll need to succeed. Each person, each business and each situation is different, but there are core elements that will be common among all beginning freelancers. My hope is that readers of the book will gain a better sense of what to expect from wearing all these different hats. My hope is that they'll feel better prepared and more confident to attack the world of freelancing.
In your section where you talk about freelance writing scams, you mention that you fell for a couple of them yourself early on. Can you tell us about the worst freelance scam you got sucked into when you were starting out, and how you handled it when you realized the "gig" wasn't quite what it was cracked up to be?
It sounds cliche, but if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This is a story that I discuss briefly in the book as well. It was relatively early on in my career and I was asked to write an article on a particular topic for a particular site. This was mostly business as usual, except the payment was contingent on the article getting to the front page of Digg. The rate was also a fair bit higher than what I was charging at the time.
I knew full well how difficult it was to get any content "Dugg," but this client told me that he had an "army" of users who could "guarantee" the article would get to that infinitely valuable Digg front page. I believed him. The article was great and he agreed it was great.
Unfortunately, this "army" never really materialized and the Digg count for the article remained in the low double-digits several days later. In order to get the front page of Digg, you oftentimes need hundreds or even thousands of Diggs. Because the article "underperformed," I never got a penny out of the job and the client got to retain the article on his site to use as he saw fit. When I confronted him about the lack of payment, he said that he never "guaranteed" the Digg, even though the word "guarantee" was definitely used in our earlier conversations.
It was just one article. I tried my best to maintain a level of professionalism through the whole ordeal and, at the end of it, I simply let it go. These days, I never accept a project where payment is contingent on a factor I cannot control. I also almost never accept a project without some form of pre-payment or deposit in place. If you don't protect yourself, no one else will.
You mention social networking and the fact that different social media outlets will be better for different industries one might specialize in. But do you think there's a front-runner for freelance writers in general, especially given that you can narrow down an industry or niche focus on most of them these days? If they can only make time for one of the major networks, which would you recommend and why?
As much as I enjoy my time on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, the level of social engagement that I receive on those networks is dwarfed by the engagement that I receive on Facebook. Getting active "likes" and "comments" on a Facebook page can be very challenging these days, because of Facebook's growing pay-to-play model for business pages. However, I am finding that engagement on my personal profile is far stronger than the amount of conversation that I get through Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram.
It's important to remember that social networks will never replace the value of actual networking. The reason why I am able to foster strong business relationships through Facebook is that I have oftentimes forged relationships with these contacts outside of Facebook already. They know who I am. They know what I do. And by showing up in their news feed now and then, I can be constantly on their radar. My best business contacts are also my "real" friends. People are far more likely to do business with someone they like.
The best strategy is to spend the most time on the social network where your clients and contacts spend the most time. For me, that's Facebook.
You talk about self-motivation and how it falls on freelancers to keep their own enthusiasm up so they can reach their goals. What is your personal motivation to push through the tougher times?
It's important to recognize that the struggle to find motivation never really goes away. You're going to have your good days, just as you're going to have your bad days. The key is recognizing this conundrum and addressing it accordingly. For some, gamification can be really effective.
For my part, motivation comes from two places. First, working on the various projects for my clients provides me with the freedom to pursue "passion" projects on the side. Not all of the work you do is going to be particularly exciting or fulfilling, but they need to be done to pay the bills. However, by taking on those projects, you can then afford yourself the time and money to work on the things that you do love. Indeed, Beyond the Margins was a passion project of mine and I couldn't be prouder to see it finally get published.
Second, and this has become increasingly relevant in the last few months, I look toward the bigger picture. Any time that I have to ask myself why I'm doing what I'm doing, I realize that I'm working toward a greater goal. In the early days, it was about building my business. Then, it was about saving up to buy our first home. And now, it's recognizing that I am going to responsible for a new baby. Everything will be about and for this kid.
You bring up the issue of freelancers "trading hours for dollars" and how that's inherently limiting, recommending passive income sources as a supplement to freelance earnings. You suggest selling "stock" content, such as photographers selling stock images. In the past, writers could sell stock content through private label rights (PLR) packages, but with duplicate content penalties affecting republication and "spun" rewrites it's a much less attractive option now. You mention selling premium white papers as one option for writers, but many don't write them or want to pursue business-oriented writing projects like that. Is there any way a feature writer or web content writer can take a similar approach? What "stock" project might you recommend to them?
The most important aspect to a passive income source is that it can continue to generate income time and time again. And while neither of these strategies is completely passive, they may be among the most viable. First, build a content blog or, time and resources permitting, a family of content blogs. With a good monetization mix and the right SEO strategies at play, a blog can be a consistent source of revenue. Many of the most popular posts on my personal blog today are ones that I wrote several years ago. They still generate traffic and they still generate cashflow.
The second strategy is one that I am only beginning to build now and that is with writing books and e-books. I had previously co-authored a book, but Beyond the Margins is the first book that carries my sole byline. Part of the goal here was to provide content that is reasonably evergreen, so that Beyond the Margins can still be relevant for at least the next few years. It can continue to sell and generate royalties. As I continue to work on more books moving forward, my library will grow and cross-selling will become easier.
As an aside, don't be afraid to experiment with a side hustle unrelated to writing. This could have the added benefit of feeling like a break from work, even though it could become a good source of income too.
About Michael Kwan
Michael Kwan is a full-time freelance writer from the Vancouver area in Canada. He recently published Beyond the Margins, a guide for freelancers who want to grow their young businesses and succeed in the challenging world of entrepreneurship.