[The Freelance Life] Finishing Up Your Business Plan


Alright, alright, it’s finally time for us to finish up these business plans that we started oh so long ago.

The good news is, if you’ve already written up your professional goals and financial goals, you are basically set for the year — especially if this is your first year writing a business plan. Those are the most essential parts because now you know how much money your business will make and what you need to do to make that money. And have a warm and fuzzy feeling about your career, all at the same time.

But there is one other big element that I include in my business plans year to year, so today I’m going to give you that run down. And I’ve split it into two sections because if you’re brand new to the business, the way I do this section now won’t be helpful to you. But if you’ve been freelancing a bit — even dabbling — give this whole post a read because you should probably do both parts.

  • FOR THE NEWBIES: Client Prospects

So you’ve got all these goals. You’ve got all this enthusiasm. But who the heck is going to pay you to do all this stuff? It’s time to get a bit more granular after all that big picture talk and decide who you’re going to target to get you some work.

Start by making a giant list of everybody you know who could potentially pay you to write stuff. Yes, this is very What Color Is My Parachute. But you need to know who you know. Next, make a list of all of the places you would love to write for but don’t know anyone there yet. If your lists are very long, it’s probably a good idea to rank them or categorize them in some way — maybe of the folks you know, some are more sure bets than others? Maybe you don’t know anybody so it’s better to sort all the unknowns into different markets or seeming accessibility? Futz around with this for awhile.

When you feel like you have a good sense of who all your potential clients are, get out your calendar and plot in 1-3 names from each list every week. (I’d say go with two you know and one you don’t, but up to you.) These are the folks you’re going to reach out to every week with story pitches. I suggest 1 to 3 names because I think that’s manageable, given how much work you need to put into writing good pitches. You may want to do more or less depending on your time, of course. But I also say 1 to 3 because I think otherwise, the temptation is to send out 50 pitches in your first week and then go jump off a bridge. Pitching is basically sort of horrible and often an exercise in futility, so stagger it out.

Also, when I first started freelancing and was feeling overwhelmed by my potential client list, a very wise and much more seasoned freelancer told me to breathe because “it’s always good to have a few more people to contact.” She was very genius. You actually never want to get to the end of this list.

What you want to happen is that after a few weeks of doing this religiously scheduled pitching (a lot of it stone cold to strangers), you land an assignment and then another one and then a snowball effect takes over and pretty soon you are too busy working on actual paying assignments to keep pitching this frequently. But eventually, a lull will crop up and you’ll start to panic about your ability to feed yourself — and that’s when you go back to the list.


I’m not going to lie. This is kind of my favorite part. Successful freelancing is alll about client relations — I often think that the six years I spent working part time in a bookstore during high school and college prepared me for this job better than anything else I’ve done, because I learned so much about customer service. There is a lot of going above and beyond in this job to keep your client happy. Happy clients means more work for you. So that’s kind of a no-brainer.

But all too often, I see this “keep the client happy” mentality translate to writers doing anything to keep terrible clients happy — even though they aren’t getting paid fairly or scoring awesome clips or getting anything else out of the relationship. This is because of fear: Writers think that they are bad at getting work so they have to hang on to every editor who gives them the time of day and take any level of abuse.

So listen up, because this comes straight from my mom, who, as I already told you, is very very wise: They are not worth it. If you are putting all your eggs in terrible client baskets, you are losing money and wasting time that could be spent getting better work.

Enter client evaluations, because if you don’t take the time to figure out who are the great clients and who are the sh*tty ones, you might not realize that you’re investing lots of effort and love into a client that is never going to get you where you need to be. (Terrible clients aren’t always obvious — as in, screaming and withholding paychecks terrible. Sometimes it’s more… subtle. Think emotional manipulation and psychological abuse that leaves no visible scars.)

So when I do this part of my business plan, I make a big list of all of the magazines, websites and other clients that I’ve written for over the past year. Then I grade them on the following factors:

  •  How Long They Take to Pay (on a scale of 1-10). Everybody takes forever, but the average seems to be 90 days — so are they above average, below average or just average? 
  • Rate of Pay (1-15). I have another blog post coming up asap to discuss this in more detail, but Cliff Notes: It doesn’t matter so much whether a client pays $2 per word or not. It matters how much time you spent on the assignment for the fee. Do the math. If you were making minimum wage, they get minimum points here. 
  • Prestige (1-10). I mean, let’s face it, we’re all doing this to see our names in lights (or on the cover of the New York Times) right? Really, I think of prestige as having two parts: Will my Granddad want to take this article in to show off to his physical therapist? (That would be almost all of them, because my Granddad is the best… so everyone seems to get points here.) And, will other editors be likely to read this article in the course of their everyday business and then think “Ah ha! I should hire her to write for us!”? (That is fewer places. So those places get a lot more points.) 
  • Good Clip (1-10). I know, this sounds like prestige, but what I really mean is: Was this a story that filled your heart and mouth with pure joy? Even if it was for a less prestigious publication, that is rad. There are plenty of stories every year that are pleasant enough but I cannot honestly say will make the world a better place or made me a better person to write. Getting those stories is a privilege. Mad points to the client who made it possible.
  • Editor Awesomeness (1-10). Maybe the most important thing on this list (okay after getting paid). Do you have a good rapport with the editor you’re writing for? Because boy does that make this job more fun. Not to mention, more likely to lead to future assignments and riches and glory. 
  • Clear Assignment (1-10). This might sound like a repeat of Editor Awesomeness, but it’s really more about how the whole magazine works together — because you can have an awesome editor, but if there is a crazy editor-in-chief prone to changing his or her mind at the drop of the hat, that makes pinning down your assignment a lot trickier. If they all seem to be on the same page most of the time you are set up for much more success. 
  • Hassle-Free Revise (1-10). Note that this doesn’t say “no revise.” 99 percent of clients will need you to revise your story. But is it one big revise, followed by a handful of follow-up questions? Or is it two or three rounds of ripping everything apart? Or what I call the Slow Death Revise — where they don’t really make you do all that much rewriting and it seems so lovely, until they’re sending you emails five times a day with “just a few more questions” most of which are unanswerable by man or God. 
  • Fact-checker Awesomeness (1-5). The magazine’s fact-checker is your very best friend in the whole world, because he or she makes sure that you didn’t screw up something really boneheaded — or at least, if you did (you probably did, I always do) they catch it before it goes to print and everybody knows about it. (Sometime if you get me drunk, I will tell you my Very Worst Most Humiliating Fact-Check Fail story. Otherwise, I take it to my grave.) So a magazine with awesome fact-checkers who go over your story with a fine tooth comb but also don’t make you insane in the process gets big points from me. 
  • Repeat Business (1-10). Pretty self-explanatory. Did you get more work? Then you like this client more than the one that went AWOL after one beautiful night together. 
  • New Market (1-10). This one is optional but I encourage it even if you are passionate about only writing for, say, news magazines or lady magazines or dog enthusiast magazines. In this economy, it pays to diversify. So if a client is from a market where I’m less well-established, I get excited about it. 

Feel free to tinker with the categories based on your own experiences of course. My list gives us a nice even ten. And as you can see from the score ranges above, if we make them all worth 10 points, then we have a possible total of 100 points for each client. (Actually, I don’t make them all worth 10 because some things are more important to me than others; that’s why Rate of Pay is worth 15 points and Fact-Checker Awesomeness is worth 5 points, but you can do your own math.)

So, of course, I put this all into a spreadsheet, grade each client on every category and then total up the results. Then you can give every client a letter grade based on their numeric score, just like my biology teacher did in 12th grade. Feel free to employ a curve if necessary if you’re a tough grader, just like my biology teacher did in 12th grade.

Now it’s like you’re a hostess at a cool restaurant with an unlisted phone number, sorting through your A-List, B-List, C-List and D-List clients. The A-Listers are the people who should get your most love and attention this year. Send them lots of pitches, make lunch plans, offer to babysit their kids (don’t do that, I told you not to be creepy). When it comes to the lower grades, you may have to make some tough choices. First, take a good long look at why they scored so badly and ask yourself: Is it them or me? If you screwed up a deadline or otherwise botched a job, the editor in question is fully entitled to be less than awesome to you. Maybe you can do some repair work. Or maybe it’s a mutual failing, but there are some real pros to working with them, so it’s worth trying to do a little trouble-shooting.

Or maybe they are a truly terrible client and you should never work for them again. Or at least, not go out of your way to do so.

In addition to the grading, I like to write little report card summaries for myself, detailing why a client is so amazing or not. This is very helpful because you might let a C or D-list client fall off your radar for awhile… but then suddenly they come back to you three years later because a new editor works there or whatever. Then you can look back at why things went sour the first time and decide whether it’s worth a second chance. (It usually is, in my book, anyway.)

The last part of my client evaluations involves looking at anyone who scored well in past years but either dropped a grade or I simply didn’t write for in the past year. It’s good to pinpoint why that happened — did your editor leave the magazine? Did they change focus? Did you drop the ball on pitching? Decide whether you need to step up your efforts in that department or not.

Bottom line: Clients are your everything. Understanding which relationships to prioritize and which to cut loose will make you more efficient and better at providing great service to the folks who really deserve your love — which will make it easier to achieve all those goals you set in the first parts of your plan.

And that, my friends, brings us to the end of Business Plan Writing 101. Hopefully you have a clear road map of what you want your business to look like, how much money you want to make, and what you need to do to get there.

And I’m wide open to hearing your thoughts and questions on this — are there other elements that would be genius to include that I just haven’t thought of? Do you have even more beautifully color-coded spreadsheets (like that’s possible)? Share your brilliance, please! 


[Image: PS98 First Grade Report Card from 1950, via Herbie in the Hills.]

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1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Jane Kauer
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Wow, Virginia, this is amazingly clear and well-stated and funny. As someone who is thinking about how to get a job, though not freelance, I want to say that it is very helpful to read this post. Not because I would use all of the strategies in the way you share them so clearly, but because your analysis and characterizations are helpful for thinking simply about how to think about the job-looking process. Most relevant to my own situation is the point about “let them go if they are toxic”; well said, hard to follow, but good to have this message reinforced from all sides! So, thanks for your writing… though it is daunting to post even a comment under such an excellent piece of writing. Thanks for your willingness to share.

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