Learn how Nigel built his $10k/month content-marketing microbusiness after becoming unemployed – and seemingly unemployable – at 40.
1. Hello! Who are you and what is your business?
My name is Nigel Bowen and I am the founder of Content Sherpa.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved words and wanted to make a living as a writer. Back when I graduated from uni, it was still feasible to make a (modest) living as a journalist and I did that for around 15 years. Then one day I woke up at age 40 – with two young children and a wife on maternity leave to support – and found that I no longer had a job and my industry was in a death spiral.
While I’d like to pretend I had a brilliant business plan and the foresight to see how content marketing was going to take off, the reality is I just answered an ad one day from a content marketing agency. At the time, I had no idea what a content marketing agency was, but I was delighted when the staff there started sending a lot of my work my way. In stark contrast to the legacy media publications I was still doing a little bit of work for, the agency paid reasonable rates and processed my invoices in a timely manner.
I then started producing content – articles, blog posts, case studies, e-books, infographics, social media posts, whitepapers how-to guides and thought-leadership pieces – for other content marketing agencies, PR firms, custom publishing houses, government agencies, educational institutions, Australian companies and multinational corporations.
Most of the time, clients wanted articles that were around 800 words long and I was usually able to charge A$1 a word. In a good week, I might write 3-4 articles. Even during the slow weeks, I usually managed to write 1-2. Over four years, I attracted more and better-paying clients and got to the point where I was earning a six-figure income for the first time in my life.
I work from home and don’t have any staff, so my overheads are pretty low. Like most people in this line of work, I have periods of feast and famine. But, overall, through some combination of tireless hustling, hard work and luck I’ve managed to make a go of being self-employed and now can’t imagine ever returning to wage slavery.
2. How do you attract and retain your customers?
When I first started out, I took a spray-and-pray approach to attracting customers. If there was some indication a business might be in the market for a content provider, I’d cold email them. One of my more intelligent decisions was to invest time and money in creating a good website and growing my LinkedIn network early on. I presume that 99 per cent of people who are considering hiring me look at my website first and they often tell me that they found it reassuringly impressive.
Somewhat ironically given my line of work, I don’t think any Jedi marketing techniques will work miracles. You can and should make potential customers aware of the product or service you are offering. However, you need to deliver a quality product or service to generate repeat business and enjoy long-term success.
3. What were your challenges and obstacles of growing your business?
The main challenge I’ve faced with my business is either having too much work or too little. When you’re a one-man-band, it is difficult to get the balance right.
I’ve experimented with farming out work to other writers at various times, but I never found a way to make that financially viable both for myself and the writer I was sending work to. These days I either just work really long hours to get big jobs done or respectfully decline them. Having too little work is more worrying than having too much. I’ve found I can avoid that situation – most of the time – by making sure I make time to keep pitching for future work even when I’m stressing out about getting through all the work I already have booked in.
When I first got into content marketing, much of the content I produced was for cashed-up financial institutions – banks, insurance companies, superannuation funds. In recent years, I’ve pivoted to doing a lot more work for tech companies, but I guess most businesses are essentially tech businesses nowadays.
4. What has been helpful to help you to grow your business?
There are a lot of overpriced and dubiously qualified ‘entrepreneurial gurus’ out there, but it’s worth taking some time to sort the wheat from the chaff and locate a wise man or woman who can give you the benefit of their experience.
Face-to-face mentoring is great if it’s available. If it is not, you can learn plenty by reading books by Scott Adams, Michael Gerber, Dan Kennedy, Cal Newport, Peter Thiel and listening to podcasts featuring people such as James Althucher, Naval Ravikant and Eric Weinstein.
5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?
Producing content is an art rather than a science. Unfortunately, you can’t entirely systemise the process in the way Henry Ford did with cars or Ray Kroc did with hamburgers. Nonetheless, you need to learn from trial and error what is the most efficient way to get the necessary research, writing and revisions done.
I’ve found the most important thing is to get a clear and comprehensive brief from the client and raise any issues you have with it at the start of the process. Ideally, you want your client to sign a contract that explicitly sets out the rights and responsibilities of both parties.
6. What are your plans for the future?
I’m old enough to remember the pre-Internet era and I don’t think people appreciate just how incredible the time we are living in now is. Or how much the near future will resemble a sci-fi movie. Barring exceptional events, I’ll be working for another couple of decades. I’m excited at the prospect of making a good living explaining miraculous technological developments to the general public as we approach 2040. (Hopefully, the singularity will have occurred before I reach retirement age.)
7. Where can we learn more about you?
I’ve got a Twitter account (@NigeBowen) but I’ve never been much of a tweeter. If anybody wants to reach out, the best way to do it is via LinkedIn.
Questions by Robin Vander Heyden