I was about a year and a half into my business when I found myself in that awkward space between having a solid handle on things and having no idea which door to pick next.
What were the secrets I needed to know as an online entrepreneur? What should a successful online business prioritize? Why did all the online business coaches sound like they were selling six-and-seven-figure snake oil?
I had clients under my belt, and a solid head for strategy, but when it came to my business, I needed to hear from others like me to help illuminate all the potential paths forward. So I started making online entrepreneur friends and writing a lot of introductory emails.
Now, several years into my business, I’m the one getting a lot of Qs in my inbox about how I run my business.
In this two-part Solopreneur Series, my goal is to show you that there are many different approaches one can take when running a business.
I want to share what’s working for me, but also for other business owners running very different businesses in very different industries. And I want to show you that most of us are kind of making it up as we go along. 😉
1️⃣ KEEP READING FOR PART ONE -I told my newsletter community to Ask Me Anything and they delivered. Consider me grilled and the beans spilled.
2️⃣ STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO – Hot tips and honesty from business owners absolutely killing it in their fields (plus a few from my own informal “BP Board of Advisors.”)
FINAL DISCLAIMER: If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since I started my business in 2019 it’s this:
Being an online business owner is hard in part because you have no one telling you what to do, but also everyone on Instagram and YouTube telling you what to do.
At the end of the day, take what you need, leave what you don’t, and don’t be afraid to experiment and fail. You don’t need to know for certain if something is going to work before you try it. I promise the fall is never as bad as you think it’s going to be, and it makes the success all the sweeter.
ASK ME ANYTHING
The Online Entrepreneur (not so) Secrets from Courtney Fanning of Big Picture Branding
1) Where do your clients come from?
Referrals and search-engine-optimized content. (Example: Several brand refresh clients have come across my Brand Refresh Checklist, loved my approach and thinking, and subsequently applied to become a client.)
I’m also a HUGE advocate of gaining work through creative partnerships. I talk a lot about what tipped me off about why my audience wasn’t finding me and how I established my relationships with my design partners on the Intentional Creative podcast. (Listen on Apple or Spotify.)
2) Where do your digital product sales customers come from?
SEO, Pinterest, my email newsletter subscriber community.
3) How do you figure out the right tools for your business? Oh, and I’m on a tight budget…
I hear you and my best advice is to start with the free version of a tool you know someone else in your industry uses. It is such a time-suck to try and figure out how to adapt a tool or software to fit your process and needs so start with the software sans the bells and whistles and upgrade as you grow. I’ve also asked friends with similar process needs (designers, for example) to hop on a 15-minute call and walk me through their funnels and back-ends so I can literally “see” what I’d be getting myself into. I find most demos by the product companies themselves are too generic and don’t really answer my questions or help me realize what I don’t know.
Here are the tools I can vouch for as an online business and copywriter with ~15-20 clients a year and an email list under 5,000 subscribers, plus a few digital products in the BP Shop.
*Hyperlinks mean these are affiliate URLs I could earn a few pennies of commission on if you choose to subscribe to the product after clicking my link. It costs you nothing and I only vouch for products I personally use. Usually, I make no money at all, but on occasion I do. It’s a nice way to say “hey, thanks for saving me time and curating some great resources for me!”
Dubsado – CRM, Invoicing (Get 20% OFF with this affiliate link!)
Squarespace – Website platform + eCommerce POS
Showit – Website platform
The Contract Shop – Contracts and legalese for products, services, and courses
Loom – Video messaging platform
Zoom – Live video meeting platform
Canva – Photoshop, who?
Tailwind – Pinterest scheduler and management ($15 OFF with this affiliate link!)
Calendly – Online meeting scheduler (I’m now upgrading to Dubsado’s scheduler)
WaveApps – Accounting and bookkeeping software (FREE and more user-friendly than Quickbooks!)
Grammarly – Grammar and writing software + Chrome plugin
LastPass – Password management
Trello – Project management software
Zeroheight – Brand guide software and file management
Plann – Social media planning and scheduler
Social Squares – Curated lifestyle stock photography that doesn’t suck
Moyo – Mockups and lifestyle stock photography that looks like a Jenni Kayne ad
Google Business Suite – You may have heard of it…
4) What’s the key to figuring out your audience without all the guesswork?
Real-life research! I agree, we could make up a dream persona all day long, and they probably *do* exist in the way we imagine to some extent, but there is a lot of room for error. There are a number of places I snoop around to check if my assumptions about my audience are correct or way off base. I’ve compiled them into this handy Audience Research Checklist!
5) Are you afraid that you’re giving too much away and potential clients will just grab your freebies instead of working with you?
Nope. The person who is building their business off of freebies isn’t someone who is likely to invest in my 1-1 services (yet). They are a different segment of my audience that I can nurture and serve in a different way.
The punchline is this: The segment of your audience who is willing to invest in done-for-you services, is doing so because they want you to take the reins and do the work for them. They know you will do the work 1000x better and faster than if they attempted it themselves. They know a freebie can’t deliver that.
Someone who values your expertise but wants to do the work themselves, or can’t swing the budget right now, will spend their money with you in other ways if you earn their trust and give them some appropriate options.
Someone who is building up an arsenal of free templates with no intention of ever working with you isn’t a terrible loss because the time you spent creating the freebie was a one-time cost to you. A freebie will never be a substitute for your ability to personally apply your years of experience and skills. And obviously, your goal is to deliver as much value as possible, without giving up the castle. It’s a fine balance.
P.S. As I’ve built my business I’ve belonged to each of these categories. Ain’t no shame in the DIY game!
6) Do you advertise and where?
I’ve experimented with Google Adwords (unimpressed) and can’t bring myself to use Facebook ads. I’m not ruling it out on principle alone, but I’m saving that move for a higher-ticket course or product in the future. I really wish there was an alternative advertising method that could compete but for now, I’m focused on free and organic search methods.
7) Have you invested in SEO services?
I optimize my content and copy for SEO. It’s actually pretty straightforward and way easier than you think (grab my SEO for Copywriting Checklist to get started.) I’ve never paid someone to game the system or write generic blog posts hyper-focused on keywords. I much prefer to research what my audience is looking for and then teach truly valuable content from my personal perspective. My motto is, “write for humans first, and optimize for Google, second”.
8) Do you prefer Honeybook or Dubsado?
I’ve used Dubsado as a project collaborator and Honeybook as a client. I just started using Dubsado for my own business and hired Dubsado expert and fellow 90DBL alum Kate Hutcheson to set up my new client inquiry and onboarding funnel. The thing holding me back from committing to any CRM, full stop, was the fear that I didn’t have the right client process in place first. Now that I’m feeling solid on that front, I’m really glad to have Kate not only set everything up technically but strategically for my particular business. I know several people who have managed Dubsado on their own and conquered the learning curve, but they did say it was a serious time commitment to DIY. Dubsado won me over in the end with its flexibility.
9) Does it look bad that I’m using Canva for my proposals?
In the three years, I’ve used Canva for my proposals, I’ve yet to lose a client because it wasn’t automated in a CRM. Don’t spend money on a CRM until you know you can make a return on your investment.
The truth is, most of us are growing very slowly, yet we’re learning from those who grew very quickly. There comes a point when you have to recognize that what someone says you “have to have or do” just isn’t going to work for your business, and more importantly, your budget.
I’ve recently switched over to Dubsado (see above) but am SO glad I spent two years tweaking and refining my offerings and onboarding process before putting everything into a CRM (and having to build and rebuild my funnels over and over!) While I’m stoked for this next step in my biz, I’m actually trying to recreate that brochure-like feel my Canva proposals were known for because it reflects my brand of creativity.
But, TL;DR, I don’t think the medium matters. Prompt and professional communication is the client-signing clincher.
10) What’s your biggest challenge as a professional copywriter?
11) Copywriter secret weapon?
Grammarly but for switching from American-English to AUS or UK-English. Your brain is so good at auto-correcting while you’re proofreading that it’s impossible to catch all the -ou/-s/-amme and punctuation differences without it.
12) How do I figure out my brand voice? Why is it so hard?
My advice is to stop thinking about it. Just write. Your voice will start to come out naturally over time. If anything, pay closer attention to your tone or mood. Are you giving people anxiety? Are you calming? Are you reassured? Are you sounding like a used-car salesman?
The great news is unless you are working in a corporate or formal environment, you don’t need to fit in or follow every rule your high school English teacher taught you. The online business world is very personal and loves a good story. Focus on writing your brand story, keep writing (Grammarly helps), and if it helps, choose one person you know IRL and pretend you are writing everything specifically for them to read. (Designing your audience persona and mapping your brand messaging can help with this.)
13) I’m trying to hire a copywriter for my business/agency. How do you find someone who is a great fit and can deliver quality work within the branding parameters you’ve set up?
A good copywriter is actually a really good researcher. Ask them how much time they spend studying and researching versus writing. I spend probably 75% of my time gathering data, creating surveys for my clients to complete (or asking their audience to complete), studying my client’s industry and competitors…the list goes on.
When writing for an existing brand I always start with any existing brand and voice guides and then sit down with my clients to discuss what needs to evolve going forward. Has their audience shifted? Has the industry shifted? Have their offerings changed? What offerings will they have in the next year or two? What goals or metrics are we after and how can the messaging move us closer to those goals? Does anything else need to happen? (Bringing on a launch strategist, shooting new brand photography, hiring a social media agency, etc.) Once the big picture strategy is mapped out, then and only then do you have enough information to start writing.
A good copywriter is a chameleon, and there are a number of ways you can suss this out (writing exercises and assignments under different brand guidelines) but if you’re hiring a copywriter to join your team or agency, they need to be informational magpies (attention to detail is my pet peeve) and they need to be damn good detectives.
The last thing to consider is whether you’re willing to “train” them for 6-months to a year in your established or preferred frameworks. You’d just need to set this expectation ahead of time since the “master and apprentice” relationship is not common for most freelance positions.
14) How do you set up VIP days? Are they worth it?
My mind was recently blown when I discovered several of my creative peers ONLY offer VIP Days. This service is all the rage, but whether it’s worth it depends on what you are delivering and how much you can have pre-set before the big day.
VIP days were a great deal for my clients and a disaster for my mental energy. So, I recently switched to only offering VIP Days for existing clients because I’ve already dug into (or created) their brand strategy and know their business like the back of my hand. Nothing I create or write is templated — everything is 100% fresh. As a result, I found VIP days for new clients unfulfilling and exhausting. (Unfulfilling because I wanted more time for research and feedback, and exhausting because I always over-delivered — and always will. It is my nature.)
VIP days are great when an existing client needs me to build off of what we’ve already created together, like whipping up a new course sales page or an email sequence that fits within their existing brand ecosystem.
15) Why are we all on Instagram if our clients aren’t looking for us there and we hate it anyway?
Great question. FOMO. (And guilty as charged, over here.) I love using IG like a digital scrapbook but the demands have become so much and the lack of support for small and micro-businesses so poor that I’ve had to reevaluate how I want to use IG going forward.
If I wanted to build an audience on IG, I’d need to make it my full-time job, or at least shift around my business offerings so I had more time to become a one-woman social media agency. But I’m not building an audience on IG and my business DOESN’T depend on it to make money (in fact, IG depends on us to make its money) so I’m on it when I want to be and don’t feel guilty or post an apologetic “so it’s been a while story” when I’m off making actual money from my other business endeavors.
TL;DR: Do what you need to make money in your business and ignore the hype. Hype doesn’t pay the bills.
16) You’re a mom and a business owner — how do you manage your time?
I have full-time childcare so I can be at my desk M-F, 9 am-5 pm. None of this would be possible without childcare. End of story, full-stop.
Several of my peers have designed their work weeks so they can run robust businesses on a part-time schedule, to which I humbly bow down in reverence and awe.
It used to irk me when I announced I was leaving my job to start my own business that people assumed I would stay at home with my kids and work during nap times, but that was never the plan.
Whatever your plan is, I think it’s more important to manage your expectations than it is to manage your time. Some seasons of life are going to be fruitful and others are for planting seeds and waiting until the time is right.
(I sound so wise and chill here, but I assure you, I am a hot mess and always feel like I’m being pulled in opposite directions. ::virtual-hug::)
Tactically speaking, I’ve always been a master executionist but I time block my days. I do most of my writing in the morning when my brain is naturally hyper-focused and undistracted and save my admin, research, and strategy work for the afternoons so I can go down informational/educational rabbit holes without feeling guilty for not checking off many to-do boxes.
Fridays are reserved for my business. No client work, rarely a client call (only if absolutely necessary) and mornings are reserved for my own writing, and education/courses/self-education happen in the afternoon.
I’m not anywhere near perfect. Have I been known to lock myself in the bathroom to reply to an email while my children are screaming my name and the pot on the stove is burning? I’m only human.
17) Seriously though, why do you love Formula 1? What’s the appeal?
You’ve clearly been paying attention, so thank you for indulging me in this very unexpected personal development. If there’s one thing I love, it’s getting sucked into a world completely different from my own and learning everything about it. It’s why books and movies are my ultimate escape.
Netflix absolutely nails sports docuseries and F1: Drive to Survive is where it all started. (And if you haven’t seen The Last Dance, go forth, and get ready to finally understand the cultural appeal of a pair of Air Jordan’s).
“DTS” (as I call it) has PASSION, DRAMA, TENSION, and helllllla spicy slow-motion shots that make you feel like you’re in the car, in the track. This series brings such depth to a sport I never would have tuned into before.
I now watch the Grand Prix races IRL. I love that you can hear the drivers speaking to their engineers over the radio and the fact that the drivers go from checkered flag to media interviews within five minutes. Adrenaline still freshly coursing through their veins, they wear their hearts on their sleeves, give very honest interviews, and cry on international television. I love it. I love everything about it and I highly recommend you watch it and report back. #forzaFerrari