James Chartrand Interview
In this interview learn from James Chartrand of how to take your freelancing to the next level. She outlines ways you can grow from a freelancer into an agency, sell your own educational products, and increase your revenue. She runs Men with Pens where she manages a team of creatives that deliver copywriting and graphic design services.
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Editors Note: This audio interview was originally commissioned for Netsetter; however, that blog was put on permanent hiatus, so we’ve placed it here on FreelanceSwtich for you to enjoy.
Transcription of Audio Interview
Thursday Bram: Hi, this is Thursday Bram with Netsetter and I’m here with James Chartrand of Men with Pens. James, could you tell us a little bit about what you do?
James Chartrand: I’m the owner of Men with Pens, which is a graphic design agency and a copyrighting agency as well. We offer a full service, one stop shop for anyone who wants to take an offline business online, or who wants to take an online business and make it better.
Thursday Bram: I know that you’ve got a couple of e-books, how do having products as well as services play in together in your business?
James Chartrand: I think having products is a really important part, especially when you’re a service based business, because you only have so much energy and so much time in a day, but you still have to earn money. So you have to find other ways to bring in passive income that helps you make a decent living, make a good living, and still have enough free time to do the things that you’d like to do. Very much part of the freelancer lifestyle of building your own schedule and having the available time and money so that you can enjoy your life instead of working day in and day out.
So products are an important part of my business, not a main part of the business yet, though we’re working on expanding the store and getting some new books in, looking in to developing courses, all that so that we can balance out working, doing creative services, and selling products to help us keep our sanity going.
Thursday Bram: How do you keep those products in balance? Like how do you find the time to work on them when you have client work and how do you prioritize what you’re working on?
James Chartrand: I consider myself my own client. My business is my client as much as anyone else is my client as well. It’s really easy for people and freelancers and solopreneurs to get a great idea for a product that they can develop, but when a client comes with money they set their own product aside, no matter how much success that product could bring them if they did develop it. So what happens is that everybody has lots of product ideas or ideas they’d like to pursue that are sitting on the back burner, and they work on it a little bit, they chip away at it, but it never really gets done.
The only way around that is to consider yourself and your business as important a client as anyone else, in fact your first client. You’re responsibility is to your business to make sure it succeeds. So you want to put all the chances on your side.
So when I get a great idea that I know I want to pursue, that I know will bring me better success and more of what I want, I make that a priority. I will schedule that in just like any other project and I will make the time to work on it. Even if it’s just an hour a week, it still progresses along and it gets done. Sometimes I give it more attention and it gets four hours a week. Sometimes the whole week goes to that project. But it gets scheduled in as if I’m my own client.
Thursday Bram: Wonderful. So you started out as a freelance writer and have built up a team. Could you talk about how you got your start and how you educated yourself about writing?
James Chartrand: My start was very simply someone said, “You’re a really good writer, why don’t you see if there’s work online.” At the time I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have income, and I was pretty much at the end of my rope as far as what to do for money. I had two kids to support as well, so it was getting a little bit urgent. Low and behold there was writing work online.
I got the glorious sum of $2.00 for 500 words, and I thought that was absolutely brilliant. Here I was doing something I enjoyed and getting paid for it. Of course I was absolutely clueless. I had no idea what I was doing online.
But it didn’t take me long to figure the game out. When you browse around and you see how clients behave and how other peers behave and what’s going on, and you read various blogs and sites, you learn very quickly. If you take the time to do that, of course. You have to expand your horizons and read around and absorb as much information as you can. So it was pretty easy to see that there’s plenty of work available at much better rates, and it’s just a question of finding the ways to go after it and get it.
I decided that I wanted to develop a team, have other people work with me, and of course make a little bit of profit on the work that they did, together become stronger. So I started hiring other people and learned the kind of people I like to work with, the kind of people I needed to work with me, the kind of skills these people needed to have. At one point I had 30 people working for me, so I had quite the stable going on, and then I realized I didn’t want that big of a stable. I didn’t’ want to be a content mill in that sense.
So I downsized and I decided what I wanted to be, what I wanted my business to be, and narrowed it down to a very small team of highly skilled specialists. I headhunted people that fit right within the business, that had the same mindset, that had exactly what I was looking for, and who also wanted to be part of a team as well. There you have it, here we are today.
Thursday Bram: Have you found that you’re doing less writing because you’re working with a team, or does it free you up from some of the other tasks to focus on your writing?
James Chartrand:There’s actually a whole bunch of benefits to working with other people. I oversee every project that comes through our doors. I’m involved in every one and everyone gets my attention. So I’m always there and present. But I can benefit from having, for example working with Taylor, very often she’ll write a great base and I’ll come and put my magic sprinkles on it. Or sometimes I’m booked and busy, but the client is happy to work with Taylor and we can serve more people that way.
So it does free up my time and it lets me do more of what I enjoy doing as opposed to what I don’t really feel like doing. I think it’s an effective use of my time, and it’s also great to be able to help other people do what they love. Everybody does their own thing and their own specialty, and we all work together to make a really great team.
Thursday Bram: Did you have to change the way that you work or build a system to allow you to work with a team? Especially when you were working with 30 people.
James Chartrand: Yeah, you do have to have some pretty good systems in place. You have to know what you want from people, first and foremost. It’s not enough to say, “Write three pages on X.” You really have to get precise about what you want from them and be very, very specific. Communication is the biggest benefit to a great job, and the biggest barrier to a terrible job. So you really have to develop clear, clear communication with people to make sure you get the results that you want and you need.
Thursday Bram: Do you use any tools in particular that you’d recommend?
James Chartrand: Actually, I’ve browsed the Internet for thousands and thousands of tools, from project management to time management and everything in between, and frankly Gmail and Google services are the winner. They’ve come out ahead every time. You can add what you want and develop a really good system that works for you all within the same place. It sounds silly that such a simple thing would be the winner, but I’ve perused software that costs $500.00 a month and tried it out and it just doesn’t work.
Thursday Bram: Okay. I’d like to shift gears a little bit and talk about how you’ve marketed Men with Pens and how you’ve built it up.
James Chartrand: Sure.
Thursday Bram: One of the things that I first saw you doing was your guest posts on Copyblogger, that’s how I found your site.
James Chartrand: Yeah.
Thursday Bram: What led you to the guest posting strategy and how did you get on Copyblogger?
James Chartrand: I can’t remember exactly when I remembered that guest posting was a marketing option, or that people would even accept guest posts. But whenever I did discover it, it just seemed logical to me to find the biggest, best site that I could that would bring me credibility and maximum exposure. If I’m going to spend my time and energy, I’m going to put that time and energy into the place that’s going to bring me back the best returns.
So it just seemed natural to me that if I wanted to be known, that was the best place to be known. It was the place to go at the time, and it still is, quite frankly. I mean Copyblogger (Skip in tape).
And as far as landing a gig there, quite simply I asked.
Thursday Bram: Mm hmm.
James Chartrand: I have no fear about asking for what I want. The worst I could hear was no, and I wouldn’t have been any worse off than I was before. And the best I could hear was yes. So to me it was a no-brainer. I simply contacted Brian and asked if he was interested, and he was.
Thursday Bram: Wonderful. And you’ve got a very solid blog yourself. It’s won several awards for writing blogs, hasn’t it?
James Chartrand: We’ve been listed in the top ten blogs for writers a few times. It’s got very high PR, it’s got a great Alexa. There’s been plenty of exposure around the Web. It seems that we’re really well known for our blog and the services that we offer. So that’s really great.
Thursday Bram: When you’re writing the blog for your company, do you approach it any differently than guest posts that you’ll be putting up elsewhere? How do you make sure that it really markets you?
James Chartrand: Well, I don’t write guest posts is the number one rule. I never, never sit down and think I’m going to write a guest post for Freelance Switch or for Copyblogger, or for any other blog. I just don’t write for them first. I write for me and my blog first.
So everything that I sit down to write is always written with the intention of showing up on Men with Pens. But when you get to the end and you sit back and you say, “Wow, that was a really good post. That was really good.” That’s the one you give away.
So you look at it and you say, “Where would this be the best fit?” If it’s about copyrighting, Copyblogger should have it. If it’s about freelancing, Freelance Switch or Freelance Folder should get it. You decide that way. So it’s always written for Men with Pens first and it’s never written with guest post in mind.
Thursday Bram: Very interesting. What other strategies do you use for marketing Men with Pens?
James Chartrand: I do some banner advertising here and there, but the returns are low for the price that it costs. Sadly, because it’s a really easy way to market. I hang out on Twitter, you can find me at @MenWithPens on Twitter. I’m there every day, often extensively. Though I don’t particularly market there, I just hang out and chat, which seems to work very well, I think, when people are just looking to goof off in general.
I guess post here and there. I use word of mouth a great deal. A lot of our business simply comes from people who have seen our work elsewhere and they’ve just realized that this is what they want and they come to us. So word of mouth and referrals is a huge, huge part of our marketing, which is great because it means I don’t have to do anything except do a great job.
Thursday Bram: That is very efficient. (Laughter) So where do you see your business going in the future, especially concerning that you’ve already reached working with 30 people at a time and found that it wasn’t the right option for you?
James Chartrand: I have always, always kept in mind a vision of being the resource, the agency, the guys that everyone wants. That’s always, always in the back of my mind, and a lot of steps that we’ve made over the years have been to work towards that. A lot of steps that I’m taking this year in 2010 are definitely towards working to achieve that vision.
I’d like to be a recognized agency, not just in the U.S. because I’m very popular there already, but in different areas of the world. Australia is a target market for me, Canada. I’d like to definitely have people recognize my name no matter where I go.
Thursday Bram: I know that you’re based in Canada and you do a lot of work in the U.S.; how is planning for an international expansion for Australia shaping things for you and for other countries like that?
James Chartrand: Actually it’s, you know, as much as there’s divisions between the countries where there are border lines, when you’re online there is no division. It’s just a name that you call a sector that you haven’t really played in yet. To me, working with American clients is not really much different from working with Australian clients; I just have to change my time zone. It’s the same needs, it’s the same people.
Same thing with working with people in France or Great Britain. I mean there are no borders anymore, so it’s just who do I want to reach, where are they located? And I just go show up there and be present.
Thursday Bram: Okay. Well, that’s pretty much all of the questions that I have except for just one, and this is the one that we always tend wind up with.
James Chartrand: Oh, the trick question. (Laughter)
Thursday Bram: All right, so if you were to only be able to tell somebody interested in building a career for themselves or a business for themselves online one thing before they started, what would you tell them?
James Chartrand: I would tell them make sure you’re dedicated and in it for the long haul. You might be successful in three months, there’s a good chance it’s going to take you a year. It is no different now than it is to going out on the street and building a business from scratch in a physical location. So be dedicated and understand that you’ve got work ahead of you and you’re not going to be rich within three months.
If you are and it works to your advantage, that’s fantastic. It still happens. But the odds are not in your favor anymore and it’s just like any other business.
Thursday Bram: Wonderful advice.
James Chartrand: Kind of depressing advice, I’m sorry. But it’s realistic and I think that’s important that people understand that.
Thursday Bram: Yes, yeah. Okay, well our readers can find you at MenwithPens.ca, correct?
James Chartrand: Yup, that’s it.
Thursday Bram: And on Twitter @MenwithPens.
James Chartrand: That’s right.
Thursday Bram: All right, thank you for joining us.
James Chartrand: Thanks very much for having me; I appreciate that.