Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Candid Look At Running A Writing Agency

My Writing Team: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly...

It’s been about three months since I started subbing out writing work to other freelance writers.

I now have 8-10 people that I regularly use as a pool to subcontract to. It's working quite well most days but it's very hard on other days.

The purpose of today’s blog post is to share my experience as I like to do. Also, to help others who are thinking about outsourcing writing work to understand the scope of this kind of thing as well as to help people who work for other writers learn a bit about the structure. Maybe it’ll help you see what you need to do to be a better team member ;) It’s been a real learning experience so far.

A Few Gripes: (The Bad)

-When people ask for work and then disappear. I had a new person ask for all the work I could give to help her with her a financial gap and then she disappeared, never to be heard from again. Of course this left me scrambling because I had deadlines. Lesson learned. Now I don’t try out hard deadline assignments on new team members and if you mess up your first try with me, you probably won’t get a second chance.

-When people don't understand the brief but wait until the due date to ask questions. If you can’t write it straight away, I wish you’d at least read the thing before putting it on the back burner so you can be sure you know what to do and how much time it’ll take you. Don’t go by word count requirements alone!

-When people miss deadlines. (In my books, deadline is very literal. Not everyone else realises they're causing the 'death' of my business if they miss my deadline.) My client relationships have been built on my effort and my ability to meet deadlines so I really need team members to do the same. If they can’t meet them, they need to tell me ASAP. This is improving as I’m getting a pretty solid team together after three months time.

-When people don’t follow the brief. i.e.: they say they read the directions but decided to do it another way. Um, No. The client gave directions for a reason. If you’re not sure, ask and please don’t improvise.

-When people select “ok to all’ on spell check or grammar check. If you don’t proof your work yourself, you’re causing me extra work. Word makes stupid mistakes. I once had to manually undo possessive apostrophes for a plural on a very keyword dense set of documents. I’d have sent it back but it came to me the day I had to hand it in.

-When you don’t tell me you have the assignment. I need to know you have it and that the e-mail didn’t go into an abyss. I have to often chase a few days after assigning something to make sure someone has it.

-A few projects have come in so horribly written that I’ve had to pay out of my own pocket to get them fixed. Thankfully these are few and far between.

What Works Really Well:(the good)

It’s not all bad, honest! I love having the team and am enjoying it overall. I have some people writing on the team who are brilliant writers who hand work in on time, every time and whose work is flawless all (or most)of the time.

The team thing is beginning to evolve into what I intended it to do, to allow me to focus on getting the work I want and writing what I want. I don’t have to write 11,000 words a day anymore on anything and everything to cover all my client needs. I also haven’t had to turn away any clients either and I can bring on new ones.

Team members get a flow of work without risk. The rates might be a bit lower than what they get on their own but they don’t have to hunt for the work and don’t have to assume the risk with new clients of not getting paid. The also get the benefit of my experience in the business. A few team members have taken full advantage of my mentoring which I enjoy

I’m developing some great working relationships and even some friendships too and am getting to know team members strengths so I’m now to the point three months in where I see some assignments come in and know automatically who would be perfect for them. I have a skills sheet with a list of what everyone likes and wants to write so not only do people get work but they can get work they like that can help them build their own career. This will happen more as time goes on because I’m building a list of specialties and that will help me find suitable work to target.

Another thing that works really well is that sometimes team members take on low paying or pain in the butt assignments to help me cover a need. Those that do this get a special spot on my ‘nice’ list which means I reserve better gigs for them. (Better pay, more fun, longer deadlines) I have clients that do the same for me.

The Commission. (This is kinda the uglyish part but I’m sure it’ll get better)

The commission is small and usually only around 25%. I have a few clients that pay better so I can take a bit more and a few bulk clients where I get less. For the commission I get, I have to pay paypal service charges, write out directions, manage a lot of files and paper back and forth and talk to the client and the team member as well as do editing and proofreading. There’s also issuing invoices, paying invoices and following up not to mention the odd rewrite if a team member has left or not worked out and the client has come back later with a problem with the work. Some might say it’s a lot of work for the money involved. $2.50 on a $10 article doesn’t go very far.

In my first month of subbing, I took a huge dip in income because I spent more time on the admin side than anything. As I get more familiar with team member strengths, it's costing me less of my time and efforts because I'm quickly learning who to sub to. And, as I get higher paying gigs, I can raise rates for both myself and the team.

When I first started the whole money end of things ran very smoothly too as I’d pay each writer out of each payment and take out my %. But lately, I’ve had some delinquent clients and slow payers that have thrown things off and for example, I’m making less than minimum wage for the year so far for myself because I’m paying team members out of assignments I’m doing myself to keep things manageable. It’s a tricky balancing act but all in all, it’s going quite well and I plan to keep doing this.

My Writing Biz

So, I sub to others and I sub for others as well who are more seasoned than I. It's great...I have mentors and I do mentoring. That's something I love about this biz, the ability to share with one another instead of holding our cards close to our chest and being greedy. Managing my business this way gives me a team with a great pool of knowledge and specialties and helps me build my writing career and take it in the direction I want. Will I do this forever? I’m not sure but at the moment it’s a very symbiotic relationship.


Sharon Hurley Hall said...

Dana, this is a great post. I did something like this after I'd been running the team for a while, and had been thinking of revisiting the idea, but there's no need. I think I'll just tell everyone to read this. Consider yourself stubmbled ;)

Dana Prince said...

Thanks, Sharon!
Your sage advice on team management has helped me considerably. I'd do a lot more stumbling and fumbling if I didn't have the ability to bounce ideas off you (and share the odd vent, lol)

suewrite said...

I agree with Sharon, this is a great post Dana, and as always an easy read.

Anonymous said...

Working with a team isn't easy. But it seems like you're going about it the wrong way - the post gives me the impression that it's all about you and your reputation.

In a team situation, your team is your reputation. You mention working less than minimum wage and complaining about the workload - but I feel bad for the writers who are getting far less than what they should be to boost your business's reputation.

Your goal should not be to increase your own income at their expense - your goal should be to increase their income, period.

It also sounds like you're rapping your nose badly with some writers who aren't professional or underskilled - this is a major problem with low pay.

Unfortunately, unless you turn this around, your team business won't survive or will start to get a bad rap for low-quality, cheap work.

Is that really what you want?

Running a team business isn't easy, it isn't for everyone, and it takes a great deal of managerial skills to pull it off well.

I think that until you've managed to increase your own rates to something more in line with writers' industry rates, it may be a better idea to focus on improving your own business before bringing in other people.

I know I'm coming down hard, but I can't help but feel like this type of situation just pulls down the writing industry even further into a bad situation. We're already fighting low wages and a negative perception - but yet, what you're doing is actually encouraging that type of environment. It's a subject I feel very strongly about.

Dana Prince said...


You have the right to your opinion and not everyone is built for this kind of business and not everyone is good at managing. I may have listed some bad points in my post but I'm also in the very early days of managing my little business so I'm sharing my growing pains. I do tell my clients that I sub out work and so it is absolutely about my reputation. Some of the clients I have pay me a rate that includes an editing fee as I'm acting as their editor so that they don't have to manage multiple writers. I want to work with people that make that job easier. I'm not really butting heads with anyone but I've worked with some interesting personalities so far which is part of what I think happens when you learn to manage others.

I do a fair amount of mentoring as well for team members who want it so it isn't just about me. On my team I have some seasoned writers who don't want to hunt for work. I also have some new people who may only use me for a little while to build experience and then move on to their own higher paying gigs and that's fine with me and where the symbiotic part of the relationship comes in.

For the record, I also believe that many of us are paid far too little for the work we do and it is up to us to change it. I'm working on changing my situation and raising my rates and I don't think I'm being unfair to anyone.

I've done many lower paying gigs and am working my way up. As I'm getting new gigs, I'm subbing some of my older gigs which I don't think is a negative. I'm helping other writers who want the help and the work and I'm not making my fortune by leaching off their hard work.

As for paying myself a lower wage temporarily due to bounced e-checks or slow paying clients, that's something I've chosen to do right now to account for some slow paying clients so that my team members aren't left waiting to be paid. That's a choice I've made. This blog post wasn't me bitching, it was sharing my progress on something I'm doing in my career.

My team won't get a bad rap for poor quality because as I said, I have paid out of pocket to have work redone or done it myself to ensure the client gets the quality they are accustomed to from me.

The people who take work from me know the rates when they sign on and my rates are definitely not the bottom of the barrel as far as freelance writing jobs go. I'm working on raising rates for the team as well as myself.

So, this little post was my sharing my progress in a specific area as I often do on this blog. I don't think what I'm doing is pulling down the industry. I think I'm helping myself move up and pay my bills while helping some new writers along the way.

Laura said...

Hi Dana!

It's a great peek at the other side. Thanks for this perspective.

Dana Prince said...

Thanks for stopping by, Laura. It's been awhile! Hope all is well with you :)