Zen and the Art of Building a Freelance Business with Elise Dopson

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Ever thought about leaving your agency or in-house job to become a freelance writer? Freelance writers are an integral part of the digital marketing landscape. There’s a whole army out there supporting both marketing agencies and other businesses directly. Content is, after all, the cornerstone of SEO, and someone’s out there writing it.

Elise Dopson is a remarkable freelancer. She got her start when she was just 12 years old. She has gone on to craft an incredible career writing about SaaS, SEO, and content marketing. She’s also the co-founder of Peak Freelance, a brand new membership program for freelance writers. There, she provides a ton of resources and expert tips, as well as a place where freelancers can come together to share stories and information. 

The highlights:

  • [1:49] Elise’s story.
  • [5:04] The business side of freelance.
  • [6:21] Common mistakes and solutions.
  • [8:21] About Peak Freelance.
  • [11:38] SEO as a necessary skillset for freelancers.
  • [12:47] Setting expectations with clients.
  • [16:49] Finding SMEs for long-form pieces.
  • [17:53] Tips for getting started.
  • [20:03] Managing workflow and cashflow.
  • [21:11] Elise’s cause. 

The insights: 

The Elise Dopson origin story

Elise began at 12 with a blog. She’s 23 now and has been doing the job for over 10 years. She started learning about SEO when she learned it was better to draw people to her website than it was to drag them.

By the time she got to college, her blogs were already making her a bit of income on the side. 

This led to an in-house Agency job, where she worked as a copywriter but had a chance to explore other aspects of the digital marketing business as well. 

She began freelancing on the side with the blessing of her boss and was considering a trip to university. – only to decline enrollment in just three months. 

“I just went freelance.”

The business side of freelance

Elise may have an edge on many freelance writers. Most of us really are writers and authors at heart. The business side of the equation is a distant second, takes time to learn, and doesn’t always come naturally.

Elise is different.

“When I was younger I always thought of myself as a businesswoman. When people asked me what I wanted to do, I wanted to run a business. But it’s so much harder than you think.

I got my first client through referral. I basically gave the lowest rate I could think of based on the hourly rate I was doing at my job. I just learned that was never going to get me anywhere.

I needed a business. I could subcontract, work out if I needed a bit of wriggle room either way, and make a reasonable wage for myself. I needed to up the rates.”

Even business people struggle with how to set rates for freelance writing jobs…which is something any freelancer will tell you that they do, indeed, struggle with.

Common business management mistakes and solutions

Elise said the first thing she struggled with was figuring out how to manage her workload.

“At first it was a spreadsheet. That was a mistake.”

Now she uses Asana.

A friend of hers recently launched Freelance Planner though, and Elise has been using it. 

“It basically puts all your work in there, and you can tick off what you’re up to.”

project planner for freelancers

The second thing she struggled with was setting her rates. 

“I always figured my hourly rate as a freelancer should be similar to what you earn in-house, and that’s so wrong. If you’re in-house your agency pays for insurance, everything you can think of that you don’t get as a freelancer.

As a freelancer, I feel you have to add all of those benefits onto your price.”

She suggests Freelancers who are specialists should feel free to charge more. 

“If there’s a ton of demand for SaaS writers and there’s not enough good ones then your rate can be pushed up from that.”

The creation and growth of Peak Freelance

Peak Freelance is a new membership community for freelance writers. It includes interviews with experts, exclusive content on methods Elise has used to scale her business, and a Slack group where freelancers can chat and find friends or pass jobs to one another.

peak freelance membership

“I’m basically creating something I wish I had three years ago. The biggest thing I felt personally when I left my job was: I’m on my own now.

What can I do to meet friends? And then, when I decided to meet friends in the space, it was a massive kind of spurring on for me.”

She says meeting people through the community makes her feel less alone.

It also gives her people to pass work to if she is overbooked, and that people do the same for her.

She says freelancers can make connections through Twitter, but it’s much harder for new freelancers or for freelancers who don’t have a lot of followers. At Peak Freelance, follower count and experience level don’t detract from access.

SEO as a necessary skillset for freelancers

Do freelancers need to know SEO?

“It depends on the clients you’re working with. In SaaS specifically there’s a lot of content around people who are not getting to the website from search. They’re getting there from email. It’s the previous customers that are coming back to the website.”

She says knowledge of SEO is good but not essential.

“But to be honest, most clients do want SEO content. That’s where the money is. That’s where they can plow as much budget in because they’re getting traffic to their website.”

Setting expectations with clients

Elise ensures every client fills out a brief before the work begins.

“That has details about the keywords they want to target, the goal of the piece, who’s going to be reading it, headline ideas, things like that.”

She then does an outline, using Google to see what’s ranking already. Then she uses it to try to do better.

“I do have a gripe. It’s called parasite content. I wrote about this on my blog recently. It’s basically the massive, really strong websites in an industry that rank top regardless of whether the content itself is any good.

So, sometimes I go to Google and I type the keyword I’m writing about into Google, and sometimes it’s just crap. It’s the site that’s got the power that’s bringing it up.”

Sometimes she has to look a little lower than the top results to locate pieces worth competing with.

Finding SMEs for long-form pieces

Elise makes heavy use of Help a Reporter Out, or HARO.

“I’ll send a HARO query. I’ll tie up the whole piece into one question, then I’ll send that through HARO, and then I’ll comb through the answers and follow up with people who have got quotes that could fit in but are not perfect as they are.”

haro

She says that’s the secret, because it’s easy to get “a lot of rubbish” on HARO. 

She also keeps a CRM of all the relationships she’s built through her freelance business.

“I have a column for their name, a column for their Twitter handle, a column for their email, and then a column for their subject matter expertise.

So, if I’m writing a piece about direct-to-eCommerce I’ll filter the CRM by that expertise, and then I’ll reach out to those people and say: “look, I’m writing a piece, do you want to get involved?”

She says this method has helped her build relationships and has opened the door to additional opportunities. It also probably helps her avoid scrambling for sources at the last minute, which is always nice! 

She does have a method for vetting sources that she meets, which is important. Often people answer on HARO but are not true experts.

“I look at the company they’re working for. If they’re freelance, I look at the types of clients they’ve worked with. If they’re big name brands most people know about, I’m pretty safe to say they’re an expert on the topic.

I also look at their Twitter profile. Not just at how many followers they’ve got, but what kind of followers they’ve got. Anyone can get 1,000 followers and not be any good, but if the people that are following them are experts as well, I feel like it’s another trust factor for me to trust them as well, if other people do.”

Tips for getting started as a freelancer

Elise has some advice for people who want to go freelance.

“The first one is to make the most of your network that you’ve already got. I got my first client from my boss’ friend, and I wouldn’t have got that without telling my boss that I was thinking of going freelance.”

She notes you should also contact everyone you know when you get started.

“Just say, look, I’m going freelance, if you need any help or know anyone that needs any help just point them in my direction.”

She does note this can be hard for brand new freelancers. One thing that can help there is volunteer work: it can net you a few well-connected people who will send you on for paid work, and will create a portfolio. Yet introductions from referrals can also help break the barriers, and that’s where contacting the entire network comes in.

“My second one would be to save enough money.”

She said her first month she made about 200 pounds. 

“I said to myself: look, if this doesn’t work out in six months I’ll just go back to my job.”

But she had the six-month buffer of income in the bank to fall back on in the first place. People who go freelance without that buffer don’t have that choice.

Managing workflow and cashflow

Elise suggests getting as many clients as possible on retainer.

“I do service one-off clients but they’re not my favorite because it really is hard to manage.”

About 70% of Elise’s business comes with a retainer and a 1-year contract. Many of her clients renew, year after year. 

“At least I know I’m working on this, this month. I’m bringing this much money in. I plan that on my calendar so I know exactly when I’ve got spaces to fit ad hoc projects in.”

What's your right now cause?

Elise asks people to consider donating to a local food bank.

“I’ve just read a book that’s called Lowborn by Kerry Hudson. It’s about growing up in poverty in the UK. The author goes back to her roots, really, and sees what her living place then is like now. It’s really eye opening, really interesting. A lot of people in the UK can’t afford to eat. We’re like the 6th richest economy in the whole world.”

She says she doesn’t really know how that works, but…

“Instead of complaining about it, I just want people to do something about it. Even $20 a month. Just drop that food off at a food bank, and it will be put to good use.”

Connect with Elise Dopson

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Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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