When is a freelance writer not a freelance writer? When she gets so busy that she morphs into an agency with admin staff, project managers and 25-plus writers in her stable.
That is Wintress Odom’s story. About 15 years ago, she started as a freelance writer on a whim when she graduated college. As an early adopter of SEO best practices, her one-woman business grew quickly, and she was forced to consider turning away clients. Instead, Odom, now 40, learned the art of managing other writers. After several years, she launched The Writers for Hire, which now has an office and a handful of full-time staff members with a client list that includes Forbes, Mitsubishi and International Trade Center.
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Like any job, managing and owning a writing agency has its ups and downs.
Mediabistro asked Odom about her journey, as well as the pros and cons of running a company, and why a freelancer might want to write for an agency like The Writers for Hire.
When you were in college, what did you imagine you would do with your career?
At one point, I was convinced I was going to be a science fiction author, so I wrote about an eighth of a book, and I never finished it. Then I started writing other people’s books for money, and that was much more lucrative.
I have a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. If I weren’t going to do something in writing, which is my passion, I would have done something outside; working at a state park or a zoo, working with or studying animals. When I got out of college, my husband and I had a bazillion ideas about what we wanted to do—baseball training camps, vending machines, etc.
The one thing we didn’t talk about was working for other people, so we were destined to work for ourselves.
What does an average day look like for you?
I’m the owner, so I do everything that needs to be done that doesn’t get done by other people. That is the definition of a small business owner.
Right now, we are redoing our website, so that is taking up a lot of my time. But on a daily basis, I do a lot of sales calls, quoting and proposing, assigning projects and some project management. I don’t handle all of the sales anymore since I have some help with that—but if it is a larger job, I am part of the final sale and proposal.
I also work with our accountant, adjusting plans and pricing to make sure we are staying on target. And coming up with ideas that make the company grow.
How does being a writer help you manage writers?
I think it is a very different skill set writing and managing. Some people make good managers, but poor writers and many writers can barely manage themselves, let alone other people.
Being a writer does have its advantages because I understand the work. I can tell them when something isn’t right. A client can be totally satisfied with junk if they don’t know any better. They come to you because you are the expert. When I’m managing, I can give that level of insight that is really important to maintaining the quality of the work.
What can you do as an agency that you wouldn’t be able to do on your own?
First of all, we can take on very large and complex jobs that there is no possible way an individual freelancer could handle. For example, we are currently rewriting all of the content for a university here in Texas. There were 300 pages in the first phase and 300 in the second. It has to be done in three months. There is a project manager and seven to eight writers who are each devoting 20 to 25 hours a week. If you don’t have the systems in place, it can be an email nightmare to try to pull together 300 pages with edits flying around. There are few places I know who can handle that, so in that way we are pretty unique.
For clients, it means that when a writer goes on vacation, there is always someone who can do whatever they need when they need it to their style guidelines. Because we have a large group of writers, if a client needs something in two hours we can do that, whereas for an individual freelancer they might have other projects and deadlines.
As a team, we are focused on sharing knowledge and encourage people within the team to reach out to our other writers if a client needs a specialist in an area. A client might need a copywriter, but also they come to us for a technical manual. The person doing the copywriting may not be great at a technical manual. That way someone else in our company can help that writer get up to speed and the client doesn’t need to find a different freelancer.
Price-wise, do you feel like you can compete with a single freelancer or do overhead costs of running an agency bump up the price for clients?
I think we are competitive. Most of the freelancers we work with charge us less than they would charge the client directly. That is because we provide an incredible service. We take a lot of the cost and load off them. We pay all the marketing costs. They don’t worry about accounting or collections. That is the business end of writing. They just get to write. If an individual freelancer has 40 hours in a work week, they might spend 20 hours finding work or managing non-billable hours writing up proposals or networking. They have to then charge more for the hours they are actually billing. With us, they can charge less but make the same at the end of the week because they are not tied up in all those other activities.
What are some of the challenges of running an agency?
You have to be really, really good at organization. I suggest that anyone who intends on running a business at least take some college course or find a seminar or go to an accountant or small business consultant to give you some starting advice. I had to learn every financial mistake the hard way.
You have to like managing people, and you need to be comfortable giving feedback that is not always good. And this might sound cliche, but you need to have the spirit and desire to be an entrepreneur.
Do you still do any writing?
Not really, however I still do some editing. It happened gradually—one day I woke up and thought, “Gee, I haven’t written in awhile.”
Do you miss writing on a day to day basis?
For a while, I did miss it. When I get to write, I still enjoy it, but at this point, I am also happy managing.
How lucrative is running an agency compared to freelancing, bearing in mind there are six-figure freelancers out there?
Over the years I have made a ton of money, more than I thought I could, and certainly more than I could have as a single freelancer. However, some years, my freelancers have made more than I did. I am also building something that will have worth in and of itself—that end worth will eventually be the payout. My desire is to have something that is a saleable asset. That is something you can’t have as an individual freelancer because you are the asset, you are the business.
I do not intend to sell anytime soon though; I love to work. I would have to find something else to do, and I like doing this.
How do you find freelancers and what type of writer piques your interest?
Where the agency really thrives is more technical writing with industries such as medical, oil and gas, financial, petrochemical, logistics, business consultants (as in high-level business consulting, like Accenture). That type of writing requires somebody that is passionate about learning very difficult subjects, then taking that material and making something useful out of that. What I don’t have a ton of need for are those with stronger desire to be on the lighter side of writing—travel writers, fashion bloggers. That is not our clientele.
Usually, potential writers email us, and we try to get back pretty quickly. We do an interview and give them an internal assignment like writing a post for our blog. The ones we bring on get internal training on our process, and then we start them out on smaller projects under a veteran team manager.