Why Creative Word Fairies Need Business Plans, Too
In my past posts to The Freelance Life, we talked about what you need to have in place before you quit your day job. But as I said at the end of that piece, after you’ve started pitching and making connections and saving a start-up fund, there is still one more entirely critical thing that you need to do: Write a business plan.
I cannot overstate this: Having a business plan is essential. It might actually be the most important thing you can do to get a freelance career off the ground — and yet, almost nobody bothers to do it. This is because I am my mother’s only child.
When I first got laid off in 2005 and decided to go freelance, I think it is reasonable to say my parents were apprehensive. All of my other former co-workers were papering every HR department in publishing with their resumes in order to land another job with a sensible biweekly paycheck. I was out buying a highly impractical desk from West Elm, with which to launch my new career as a writer. (Note to Past Virginia: A rolling ottoman cube, while light blue and adorable in a very early 2000s way, does not make a comfortable desk chair, or really, any kind of sense.) It was all very shades of Lena Dunham, back before the actual Lena Dunham had finished middle school or whatever.
So my mom (who worked in finance for 30 years and can write business plans in her sleep) sat me down and explained that if I wanted to progress beyond the freelance writer stereotype of ramen and pajamas, I was going to need to treat this career like a business (because it is one) and have a business plan.
Now, cue the itchiness and anxiety that I am sure you are also experiencing at the use of the phrase “business plan.” I stopped taking math my freshman year of college. The whole point of being a freelance writer is so that you don’t have to be all corporate and wear suits and use jargon like… I don’t even know the jargon anymore. I did one internship in corporate PR in college because it paid while magazine internships, um, don’t, and I was out.
So I get it. We creative people are not business plan writing people. If it makes you more comfortable, you can call this something more woo-woo, like a Dream Lab or a Writer’s Road Map or a Magical Amazing Life Plan.
I call it a business plan because that is what it is. Also, I am not very woo-woo and as a writer, I get plenty of time to be creative already. Mostly because I wrote the damn business plan.
I will say (and this should make everyone hyperventilating feel better): Anyone reading this with, say, an actual MBA, might roll their eyes at my repeated use of this term. There are a few spreadsheets coming up, but overall, my plan is entirely lacking in pie graphs or words like “amortization” (whee, jargon!). Yes, this is a business, but it’s also a one-person operation and a creative endeavor. So my genius mother very helpfully distilled all that business plan jargon that applies to companies with hundreds of employees and multi-million dollar budgets down to just a few key elements that apply to the self-employed writer.
Each section requires a fair amount of explanation and I’ve already devoted over 500 words towards convincing you that you need to write this plan in the first place. So I’m going to give each section it’s own post and we’ll talk it all through over the next few weeks. Today we’ll start with what I think is the most fun part (there’s no math!) although I admit it can also be a little scary.
Section 1: Professional Goals
In real business-plan-speak, this section would be called something like “Executive Summary,” and you would summarize what your business is and outline your mission or vision. That’s critical if your business is some sort of digital start-up and nobody has the foggiest idea what you’re talking about, but our business is pretty simple: “Be a writer.” And thus, the mission is also simple: “Write stuff. Get paid.” Feel free to elaborate on that if you want. Otherwise, skip ahead and start breaking down exactly what and where you want to write by setting some professional goals.
Hopefully, you’ve already got some thoughts about this. I mean, you’re planning to quit your day job, right? There must be some motivating factors beyond said day job not lighting your professional fire. Boil this down to 3 to 5 bullet points — specific, actionable things that you hope to accomplish in your first year as a freelance writer. Depending how plugged in to the industry you are, and how much ground work you’ve already been laying, your list might include some of the following:
Meet X NUMBER of new editors and fellow writers.
Start a blog and post X NUMBER of times per week.
Send out X NUMBER of pitches every month.
Land repeat assignments with ANY PUBLICATION that has ever published you before.
Break into X NUMBER of new publications (no matter whether they are fancy or not!).
Write and publish SOME SPECIFIC STORY that you’ve been working on in your heart already for awhile.
Get published in FANCY NAME PUBLICATION(S).
The list goes on. When you’re thinking about how to fill in those X NUMBER blanks, I suggest setting a range: 2-4, say, or even 5-10. Gives you more wiggle room than “exactly 10.” You need to make these goals precise yet also flexible. That is why the last two are broken out separately. A goal like “Get THIS SPECIFIC STORY that I’ve been working on in my heart published in THIS EXACT FANCY NAME PUBLICATION” is way too limiting. That publication could send you a rejection notice next month and then where are you?
But while you’re being flexible, do dream big. I just opened up my very first business plan to see what I actually set as goals back then and it included, among other things, being published in the New York Times, writing a non-fiction book proposal and writing an entire young adult novel. All in the first year I was hoping to use writing exclusively to pay my bills. So. Yeah. I have a tendency to overreach. Needless to say, most of that did not happen in the first year. Some of it still hasn’t happened. But then there was this, which hit newsstands on September 7, 2006 — exactly one year and three days into my freelance career.
So get a few big goals in the mix, because if you don’t, you’ll never make them real. But do include some more attainable things on the list too, so you don’t feel like a giant failure at the end of the year.
And acknowledge right now that this list can be subject to change. In fact — I’ll explain more about this in future posts – you’re going to look at this list pretty often. At the very least, once every three months (that would be quarterly in business-plan-speak). And then you’ll have a little come to Jesus with yourself about whether the goals were realistic enough, whether you’re working hard enough to pursue them, and whether you’re making any progress or you need to recalibrate. Probably, you’ll recalibrate a little. This is cool.
PS. You might be wondering why none of these goals have to do with how much money you’ll make as a freelance writer. Don’t worry! You’re going to be setting those goals (yes, it’s actually more than one) coming up next. Stay tuned.