How I Broke Into Copywriting

My last post, where a disgruntled copywriter demanded “the truth” about creating wealth in copywriting, inspired copywriter Andrew Cavanagh to share the story of his beginnings on my forum:

“Here’s how I made my first ‘money’ in copywriting.”

Then one by one, other copywriters started adding their own. The responses were nothing short of amazing! Many of the stories show that there’s indeed hope. They also show that we were all struggling copywriters once, too.

And we didn’t all become overnight millionaires with million-dollar clients, as “Chuck,” the disillusioned copywriter, postulated.

I loved it so much that I posted my own story. I’ve decided to share it with you here. (By the way, the picture below is of me, circa 1991. A lot thinner, with glasses, and a lot more hair!)

Michel Fortin (1991)
Michel Fortin (1991)

Anyway, here is my story.

When I first started out, I was a salesperson. And the worst part was, I loathed cold-calling. Especially since I had this excruciating fear of rejection. I still have it. (If you know me, then you know about the story of my alcoholic father and how my fear was the result.)

Update: I first wrote this article in 2007. Since then, I discovered that I have ADHD and suffer from RSD, or Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, which explains why I fear rejection so much.

I accidentally stumbled onto copywriting not by chance or by education, but by desperation. You see, I dove into sales in order to fight my fears head-on. I was working on strict commissions at the time as a licensed insurance salesman. I also had a young family to support.

So I thought that the pressure would help kick me into gear. But I was doing so poorly that my family and I had to eat 25-cent ramen noodle packages for months! Eventually, I was forced to declare bankruptcy at 21 years old.

I remember that time like it was yesterday.

The humiliation and the hurt I felt was indescribable. In a matter of days, the car company repossessed my car, the landlord evicted us from our home, and my wife took our daughter and left me. (We eventually divorced.)

I was desperate to make money. So I had to find a way to get people to listen to my presentation. One day, the insurance company (Prudential Canada) requested feedback from sales reps for ideas to improve sales.

I may have feared rejection immensely, but I was always teeming with ideas. I didn’t realize it back then, but I was a natural at marketing.

So I sent a suggestion to the company, which was to have a rider that people could add to their life insurance policies, which would allot a portion of their coverage to a charitable organization of their choice.

Prudential loved my idea and launched a new product called (if memory serves) Charity Plus. They sent me a letter to thank me for my “contribution.” I even remember the sales manager reading it out loud to everyone at the next sales meeting. I was blushing with pride. We were both proud.

Excited, I decided to write letters to people within my territory offering them a free presentation to go over this new product with them. It was an open door, if you will. A perfect opportunity to reassess people’s policies.

That’s when I had a lightbulb moment and realized that this — writing salesletters — was my “way out” of doing cold-call prospecting.

I could mail to anyone asking if they would be willing to set an appointment with me. That way, I no longer had to be rejected. (It didn’t work at first. I tried several times and I was about to give up a number of times, too.)

But then, things “clicked.”

I started booking appointments and selling policies. I later became one of the top salespeople for this insurance company for about eight months in a row.

Problem is, I hated my job. I hated it because I had a poor territory (salespeople were assigned territories), and this was back in the old days when insurance agents also had to visit every single client each month to collect premiums.

(My territory was so poor, some paid their premiums with empty beer bottles!)

So I moved on.

Eventually, I found a job as a consultant for a hair restoration company. Some of their services included hair transplants and surgery, with a doctor on staff.

My main job was as a patient advocate, where I consulted clients on the appropriate hair restoration method for them. I was paid a very small base salary but with commissions on any sales I made.

Part of my job, among others (and similar to what I did in the insurance biz), was to help increase appointments of consultations with prospects.

That included writing copy for direct mail pieces, display ads in newspapers (with dense copy), information packages, and even infomercial scripts. Which is why I liked the job. I didn’t have to do any prospecting.

You see, the way it works is that people first read the ad or see the infomercial on TV, and then they request a free information kit to be mailed to them. If the client was interested, they would call to book a consultation with me.

During my first year, I noticed something peculiar. Before every consultation, the clinic asked prospects to fill out a form (e.g., asking about their medical history and other forms of hair replacement tried, etc).

If a prospect went ahead and bought, a client file was created. But if they didn’t, I would do some phone follow-up. And if that didn’t work either, their consult form was simply filed away in a storage box.

One day, I stumbled onto a bunch of these boxes in storage (I think there were 30-40 of them), which contained several years’ worth of filled-out consultation forms of clients who never bought.

That’s when a lightbulb lit up in my head.

It reminded me of my experience at the insurance company.

I asked my employer to buy a computer. (At the time, the only person with a computer was the accountant!) We hired a data entry clerk from a temp-help agency, and created a database of all these people who didn’t take action.

Next, I wrote a direct mail piece, which made a limited-time offer.

The direct mail touted some new hair replacement procedure that looked a lot more natural than its predecessor, as well as new advancements in the field of cosmetic surgery that were introduced since their last consultation.

That’s when things started to explode! I don’t remember the exact number, but this little direct mail campaign resulted in over a million dollars in sales.

(Keep in mind, the price range for hair restoration solutions ranged anywhere between $2,000 to $20,000, particularly in the case of hair transplants.)

I even remember on the last week of the promotion, there was a lineup outside the waiting room of people wanting to get a consultation before the promotion ended. I was obviously ecstatic. In fact, it was also my highest grossing week in terms of commissions. (It was around $7,000 Canadian.)

Since then, we repeated this feat several times. Many of my dense-copy display ads would get a ton of new clients and patients, and I was doing quite well.

My base salary at the time was $22,000. But I made a lot more than that in commissions. I think it was around $80,000 back in the early 90s.

Now, over the period of a few years, this company grew by leaps and bounds. I would say mostly because of my help. (Admittedly, my employer at the time, who was also my mentor, was a brilliant salesperson. I learned a lot from him.)

As the company grew, opening several franchises across North America, I was tasked with the job of hiring and training salespeople in them, and consulting their owners (including doctors on staff) on how to market themselves.

And yes, that included copywriting, too.

My employer flew me to almost every major city to conduct these trainings.

Here’s the problem.

While I’m on the road training other people about marketing and consulting, I wasn’t selling. So my income went back down to $22,000. I was getting worried.

He had hired another consultant to take my place, so I couldn’t go back to selling. But I was working really hard while the company made a ton of money. “There’s got to be something better than this,” I kept saying to myself.

So I approached my employer and asked for a raise. After much back-and-forth over several weeks, one day I was called into the meeting room. The office manager then said to me, “You’re doing fine work, Michel.”

“Oh, great,” I said to myself. “I can feel something good is going to happen!”

She said, “I know you’ve been working hard training all these franchises while not making any commissions like you used to. We want to give you a raise for your hard work and dedication.”

“Your new salary will be increased as of today by…

(I was grinning with anticipation.)

“… An extra $3,000.”

I said, “Oh, $3,000 a month! Great!”

“No, no,” she said, “your new annual salary is now $25,000.”

I was so disappointed. And angry.

Don’t forget, those were Canadian dollars (less than $17,000 USD) and nowhere near the $80,000 I made previously. As you can imagine, being partly responsible for their explosive growth, I felt rejected. And hurt.

Not willing to give up, I kept asking. But with every protest I made, they gave me a different reason as to why they couldn’t “afford” to raise it more.

So I quit the very next month.

It was the best decision I ever made.

I went freelance, and shortly thereafter created a company called “The Success Doctor.” (I specialized in doctors since I gained a lot of experience in that field. So the name implied “I help doctors become successful.”)

I wasn’t doing too bad. But I was still eking out a meager living charging anywhere between $100 to $500 per copywriting project. (My clients at the time were primarily local doctors with small offices.)

But some of them did work really well. My first royalty arrangement was while working for a hair transplant doctor in Toronto. I was getting paid a salary plus commissions plus a percentage of the clinic’s profits.

One day, while working for one doctor, a sales rep came to the clinic selling advertising space on this thing called “the world wide web.” Their services included a web page and a listing in their directory.

My curiosity was piqued.

You see, part of my job as a marketing consultant was writing copy in different media to get exposure for my clients. I was a big fan of the yellow pages. So this seemed like a natural complement.

Plus, I’ve been using BBS services (dialup bulletin boards) since I was 11 years old. So I knew this would be a good medium to advertise in.

Plus, since a lot of people saw our TV infomercials but failed to call for our information kit, it made perfect sense to be in as many places as possible when they finally did decide to do something about their hairloss.

So I created my client’s website in 1992.

Over time, I worked with other types of cosmetic surgeons. Then other types of doctors (e.g., dentists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, physiotherapists, etc). Then other types of professionals and service providers.

But as a result of that one sales rep’s presentation (which sold me on having a presence on the world wide web), I decided that I should have a website for myself, promoting my freelance work.

So I signed up on this new thing called Geocities back in 1994, and created my first website. It was nothing to sneeze at. It was just a simple, brochure-like web page with contact information. (I later registered “SuccessDoctor.com.”)

The result? Nothing. Not a single request.

Years before, however, I wrote a booklet called “The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning.” I used it as a way to get clients to hire me offline — the report was much like a salesletter in disguise. And it worked quite well.

So going online, I decided to digitize my report and offer it for free, especially if people joined my email list. (As far as I can tell, I was one of the first ones to do this way back then. At least in the freelance marketing or copywriting business.)

I started with some article marketing. I would chop my booklet into standalone articles, where the byline promoted the “rest of the articles” (i.e., the booklet).

It worked well. But the day my traffic and business really exploded was when I decided to let other people pass that booklet around. As a result of that little book, my site was bombarded with quote requests.

I was doing some salesletters and web page copy for as little as $300-$2,000 each. Mind you, I also did a lot of free ones at the time only to get my name out there and start building my portfolio. I also bartered a lot.

That’s when things started moving very quickly.

It was late 1998, and I made a bartering deal for a well-known marketer. I did his long web copy for just $2,000 in exchange for getting referrals from him and for publishing my articles to his list, which was part of our arrangement.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bottom line, it does take work. And there’s no such thing as “overnight riches.” Thinking that this happens when you first start out as a new copywriter is an illusion. It took me the better part of 20 years to get to where I am today.

However, with so much training and information available, it shouldn’t take that long for anyone with enough gumption, bouncebackability, and the right attitude to get there.

It may have taken me 20 years. But knowing what I now know, I can safely say that, if I were to lose everything once again, even overnight, I can easily make it all back — and then some — and do it in a lot less time.

To echo something my friend the late, great Gary Halbert once said, “If you’re a good copywriter, there’s no reason why you should be starving.”

There you have it!

Now let me ask you, what’s YOUR story?

About The Author

Avatar of Michel Fortin
Michel Fortin is a certified SEO consultant, content strategist, and marketing advisor helping plastic surgeons, cosmetic surgeons, and medical aesthetic clinics attract more patients. Since 1991, he helps cosmetic and aesthetic professionals increase their visibility and grow their practices. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.

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