Categories
Copywriting

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?

Categories
Marketing

Are All Business People Dishonest?

Seems I'm ranting a lot these days, and a little more opinionated than the norm. Perhaps it's my back problem, which is killing me, that's making me more sensitive or irritable. I don't know.

But something someone recently said in my copywriters forum irritated me. And it's not what this person said specifically, but the mindset behind it that's bothering me.

In a thread about an Internet marketer who was recently arrested (yes, it had something to do with forced continuity, but it had more to do with refusing refunds and avoiding customers than it had to do with forced continuity itself), one member said:

“There is NO such thing as an honest business man. (…) Ask any accountant.”

Now, I have no clue as to why this person said this. And my opinion here is not about this person specifically. Again, it's about the thinking process that some people have when they make such assertions.

Personally, I believe this view of business people is skewed, off, and wrong. It's destructive, too.

In fact, copywriter Marcia Yudkin said it best. In her reply, she said this gem: “I feel sorry for you. That is a terrible philosophy to hold, hurtful to you and hurtful to the honest people who deal with you.”

Well said.

I know what the original commentator was trying to say, but I wouldn't have said “dishonest.” I believe the word choice is wrong because of the implication. Are all business people really dishonest?

Saying it that way can be easily misconstrued. And it can also be easily misinterpreted, too.

That's the power of words. That's what makes us copywriters, too.

We choose our words carefully. The words we use can be incredibly powerful — both good and bad.

If “dishonest” is referring to communications, I'll be the first to admit that we do exaggerate from time to time. We try to put our product in its best possible light. We focus more on the benefits than we do on the downfalls.

But you know, that's not reserved to business people only.

We do it when we try to explain a movie we love to our friends. Or when we bolster our ego talking about a great deal we got at the local store. Or when we court a potential life partner.

It's human nature.

Words have emotional impact. Even with the most logical, analytical people out there. Our choice of words can make or break the sale, whether the product is good or not. Just as words can make or break relationships, court cases, even wars.

For example, real estate agents will say they sell “homes,” not houses. Dentists will say they create beautiful “smiles,” not “teeth.” We tell stories to communicate a product's purpose or brand. We use words that paint vivid mental pictures.

(I recommend Seth Godin's book, “All Marketers Are Liars.” By the way, Seth is referring to the power of telling stories in marketing.)

But to say all business people are dishonest, and even implying that one should ask any accountant, is a terribly skewed vision of the world. And I'm speaking generally, not just about business itself.

Business people do try to make maximum profit with every transaction, and they will try to do it at the least amount of expense.

That's business.

The difference is, the honest ones will do so at the service of others, while the dishonest ones will do so at the expense of others.

Making a profit can be seen by a lot of people as “dishonest.” I'm a capitalist through and through, and I believe in win-win. I don't see anything wrong with mutually beneficial transactions, which is what business is and should be, in my opinion.

We sell products and services that benefit our customers. But just as much as we are responsible not to mislead, lie, or deceive, customers are just as responsible for their own lives, their own decisions, and their own actions.

What I have a problem with is, some people do see any kind of marketing, or any kind of selling, as dishonest.

And for some reason, that bothers me.

For example, in the same vein as “all business people are dishonest,” some have said, in the recent forced continuity debate, that all marketing is unethical.

They say that a product should sell by itself based on its own merit. And that marketing and selling (and to that I would add copywriting) exist because it's the only way to sell a poor product that can't sell itself.

Oh, really?

If so, then we must be all psychics, because we should know about all the good products in the world. We should rely only on word-of-mouth — we all have friends who will tell us what we need to know, right?

And we should all buy everything that “is good” (even though “good” is subjective and personal) solely because they alone merit our attention, our patronage, and our money.

Forget about life getting in the way.

Forget about competition.

Forget about our innate fear of loss.

Forget about the state of the economy.

Forget about the need for marketing to help better decide how we spend our money.

And forget our natural proclivities to want to be secure, to procrastinate, to avoid making bad decisions, and to save our money to buy only what we need — not what we want. (Goodness forbid we buy what we want, not what we need!)

Obviously, that's wrong. At least to me, it is.

My opinion?

(Here comes the rant.)

In my experience, people who think all marketing is unethical or that all business people are dishonest are usually people who feel everything should be free.

Now, I'm not trying to start a political debate regarding capitalism versus socialism. I'm talking about people who have a sense of entitlement, especially those who whine and complain all the time.

People who bitch about businesses exploiting them are just as much trying to exploit businesses themselves by always trying to find, or haggling for, a good deal.

This is called “projection.” (I'll come back to this in a moment.)

People who feel that they deserve great products and great customer service (which is a given and expected) but for the least amount of money possible.

People who feel they should get the most by working (or paying) the least.

These people who have a sense of entitlement blame others all the time, never take responsibility for their own circumstances, victimize themselves constantly, and whine all the time about how unfair the world is.

To them, not only are all business people dishonest and all marketing unethical, but also everything costs too much. They automatically assume that all marketing is a scam, and that they, in turn, will do their darnedest best to scam businesses, too.

They will suck them for freebies. They will never buy anything. They let coupons and deals dictate their lives. And they will be the first ones to pounce on any mistake a marketer makes — such as a grocery store accidentally pricing an item too low.

They're the ones who think, “if it's that good, then it should be cheap… Or free.”

They try to get the most by paying the least (now tell me, how different is that from the business owner who tries to make the most profit with the least expense?).

People who make such assertions should look in the mirror first.

In a recent blog post, one of my favorite authors and speakers, Larry Winget, talked about banning one of his blog commentators who was toxic, always negative, and went out of his way to badmouth Larry.

This person was so incensed, even to the point of going on Amazon and giving every book Larry wrote a bad review.

In that blog post, I commented that, if only the bad commentators would put as much work into, well, working on their own success, I betcha they wouldn't find the time to bitch.

They would be too busy being successful.

Larry once noted that the hardest thing one can and will ever do in their lives is to look at themselves in the mirror and say, “It's all my fault.”

These “bad commentators” aren't looking in the mirror as they should be. And I would venture to say that people who don't look in the mirror expect everything else to be one. (That's what I mean by “projection.”)

Remember the old Einstein saying that, when your only tool is hammer you see every problem as a nail? It's the same idea, here.

That is, when these faultfinders blame others, they are projecting their own self-loathing onto others.

Similarly, what I found is that those who whine and complain are usually the ones who aren't happy with themselves, and feel the need to blame others.

And they put a lot of work, effort, and even money into dragging other people down, or into whining about how bad things are (e.g., how broke and tired they are, or how scammed they've been).

Why don't they spend all that energy and money on getting ahead instead? Or dare I say it, into starting a business, and — here's a novel concept — marketing and selling themselves?

Go figure.

In Larry's program, “Success is Your Own (Damn) Fault,” he quotes the Sanborn Maxim, which goes: “The customers who are willing to pay you the least will always demand the most.”

While that might be true in terms of money, I think it's the same with everything else.

For example, “The people who are willing to pay you the least respect will always demand the most.” (And I believe they're the ones who deserve it the least, too.)

I agree that there are some business people out there who are dishonest. Thinking that all of them are honest is just as skewed as the converse.

But that kind of thinking can be a lot more hurtful and damaging than the simple comment “there is no such thing as an honest business person.” Damaging to oneself as it is to others.

In conclusion, let me quote something Michelle MacPherson said, a marketer I admire a lot, which sums it all up beautifully:

“If you don't take responsibility for your own actions in life and instead hand that responsibility (in the form of blame) to someone else, you have no power (you've effectively given that power to someone else, since it's ‘not your fault'). If you have no power, you'll never have success — you'll just spend your days blaming others for your lack thereof.”

Thanks for listening.

P.S.: What do you think of the new blog design? Just a larger font, more whitespace, and less “busyness.” It's based on your feedback, which I appreciate immensely.