Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”
I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.
HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.
To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.
Name: Alex Franzen
Location: Portland, Oregon
Profession: Freelance writer, editor, and communication consultant
You’ve been a self-employed writer for a pretty long time—over 7 years. Think back to when you were just getting started. Can you remember how you got your very first client? How did you convince people to hire you, back when nobody knew about you?
A few days after quitting my full-time job in radio broadcasting, I got my laptop, I went to a coffee shop, I drank several shots of espresso, and then I started emailing every single person that I knew.
I emailed my parents, my college professors, friends from high school, former coworkers, anyone I could think of. I wrote a personal email to each person and I said, “Hey! I’m freelancing now, and I’m looking for projects.” I gave a little update on my life, and then I shared some info about the types of writing projects I was interested in doing.
I ended each email by saying, “If you’d like to hire me, or if you happen to meet anyone who’s looking for someone like me, let me know!”
I probably sent out 50 or 60 of those emails over the course of a week. By the end of that week, almost everyone had responded with encouragement and positivity (“Congrats on your new career, that’s so great!”). Several people had ideas for me—people I ought to contact, publications and marketing agencies that might need writers. Plus, 2 or 3 people wanted to hire me.
It wasn’t a huge amount of work—just 2 or 3 small projects—but it was a start! And of course, things snowballed from there. Happy clients wanted to hire me again, or they’d talk about me to their colleagues, and then those people would contact me. One project led to another. After a year or so, my calendar was pretty darn full!
You’ve had some pretty “fancy” clients over the years—big companies like Hewlett-Packard, for example. How did you get hired to do a writing project for HP?
It’s a really funny story. I booked a cabin for a weekend vacation with my boyfriend. Not a cabin, exactly, more like a “tiny house” by the ocean. I never got to meet the owners of the house in person—we just corresponded via email, and they left the keys for us in a lockbox with a secret code so that we could let ourselves in.
Anyway… it was such a beautiful house, and we had a wonderful, romantic weekend. At the end of the weekend, I wrote a little “thank you” note to say, “We loved your house. It’s so beautiful! Thanks for making our vacation so special!”
I left that note on the kitchen counter. I figured the owners of the house would find it there eventually. And they did.
A little while later, I got an email from one of the owners. She told me that she’d discovered my note. She said it was really touching—nobody writes handwritten notes anymore these days, and that note really made her day. Also, she had Googled me, and she was impressed with my website. She worked at Hewlett-Packard and she wanted to hire me for a project. I was like, “Whoa, seriously?”
And that’s how it happened! You never know how one email—or handwritten note—might change the course of your life!
What’s your favorite thing about your work?
Oh man, so many things! I am very quiet and introverted, so I love the fact that I can work at home, listen to whatever music I want, and that I don’t have to attend a zillion annoying meetings all day long. Or commute to work. Or wear “real” clothes! Haha!
I also love how much diversity I get to enjoy. One day, I’m working with a client on a book manuscript about gluten-free cooking. The next day, I’m working with another client on a podcast script about “what to say if a creepy guy approaches you at the gym,” or product descriptions for a new line of organic candles and scented lip balms. It’s always something different.
As someone with a million different interests, it’s really fun to “bounce around” and dive into so many types of industries and perspectives. I’m always doing the same thing—writing—but the subject matter changes with every project, and I love that.
What was one of the scariest or most humiliating moments of your career, and how did you get through it?
A couple months after starting my freelance writing business, I got a phone call—at 11pm at night—from a number I didn’t recognize. I answered. The caller introduced herself. I recognized her name, because we had met briefly at a conference awhile back, but I didn’t know much about her, and I had no idea why she might be calling me.
She proceeded to HYSTERICALLY tell me that I was “stealing her business model” and that she would “take legal action” if I didn’t stop. My heart started pounding into my throat. I’m not good in “combative” situations, and I felt totally paralyzed.
I asked her to explain why, exactly, she felt I was “stealing her business model.” She basically told me, “You work with clients on résumé editing projects, but that’s MY thing, and I was doing that first.” I remember thinking to myself, “Um, so you’re saying there can only be ONE résumé editor in the entire world… and that person is you? Huhhh?” Her explanation made no sense.
Afterwards, I called my dad, who happens to be a lawyer. He told me, “You’re not doing anything wrong—she’s being ridiculous.” He helped me put together a firm, sensible email saying, “You’re accusing me of something which isn’t true, and here’s why…” which I sent to this woman. She didn’t bother me again after that.
But OH MY GOD. It was totally stressful. For about 72 hours, my stomach felt like it was full of battery acid. And after that, I took my personal phone number off my website—I didn’t want people calling me out of the blue, especially at random hours of the night!
If someone is interested in becoming a professional, self-employed writer like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?
1. Email every single person you know.
In each email, say something like, “This is what I’m doing now… these are the types of writing projects I’d love to do… these are some samples of my work… and I’m available! If you’d like to hire me, or if you know someone who might need someone like me, let me know.” Email as many people as you can. You never know who might want to hire you on the spot, or who might be able to make an introduction for you.
2. Talk about what you’re doing constantly. (Don’t limit yourself to “just email.”)
Meet people for coffee. Send hand-written letters. Schedule a walk to catch up with an old friend. Talk to people about what you’re doing, everywhere you go, all day long. Again, you just never know who might be able to hire you or help you out. The more people that know about what you’re doing, the better.
3. Put a website together!
If you’re trying to get clients to hire you, most likely, the very first they’re going to say is, “Can I see your website?” or “Do you have any writing samples that I can check out?” They want to get a little “taste” of what you can do. So, you’ve got to put together a website. It doesn’t have to be fancy—my first site was just a free WordPress template with a photo of my face that I took with my cell phone while sitting in my car! Seriously!
My first website didn’t look that great—but it was something. It was better than nothing. It got me started. You’ve got to take that first, awkward step and get things into motion. If you don’t take that first step, then nothing happens.
ONE MORE THING…
Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Alex? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)
YOUR #1 CAREER GOAL: ACHIEVED
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