Building from scratch - Copywriter Gareth Hancock
When Gareth was made redundant from the building trade he found himself out of work for months. A new dad at risk of losing his house, car, self-esteem... Until he found a freelance job site and started to wonder if he could make money online.
He'd try anything. What did he have to lose? No idea. No fear.
But plenty to gain from giving it a go.
Gareth started writing. Writing for money for strangers on the internet. He didn't know that might have a job title. But years later here is. He's built himself a career in copywriting from the ground up.
From freelancer.com, to a job in an agency, to striking out as 'That Content Shed' - a one man content agency, full of all the personality, potential and the work-life balance a dad of two could wish for.
More from Gareth Hancock
Who the hell is Steve Folland?
Steve's a freelancer helping businesses use and make video & audio content in much better ways. Find out more at stevefolland.com, track him down on Twitter/Instagram @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.
In 2015 he decided to create the freelance podcast (well, there weren't any others doing this then) where freelancers could learn from each other via their stories.
Check out Steve's Being Freelance Vlog that documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.
Transcript of Being Freelance podcast - freelance story of copywriter Gareth Hancock
Steve Folland: Freelance copywriter Gareth Hancock. Hey, Gareth!
Gareth Hancock: Hello, Steve, how are you doing?
Steve Folland: I'm good. Whereabouts in the UK are you based, by the way?
Gareth Hancock: I'm in Teeside, which is Middlesborough. Yeah, Teeside is the area which I'm based.
Steve Folland: Cool, okay. Now, as ever, how about we get started hearing how you got started being freelance?
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, sure. I'm going back about a decade now. So, I used to be in the building trade and I'd never had any sort of job in writing or anything like that, but in 2008 when the recession hit I was made redundant. I spent months looking for a job and then I got odd jobbers back in the building trade, so I was in and out of work and out or work, and eventually there was no work and I was on the dole for probably seven to eight months, and there was nothing, nothing at all. So I'd thought in my teenage years about writing, but writing to me then was you either write a book or you work for a magazine or newspaper. So, I just dismissed that. It's not the working class thing, if you know what I mean? The working class thing is usually to go out and get a manual labor job, especially from the area I'm from.
Gareth Hancock: I mean, at this point I had nothing to lose. I thought maybe I can look around for a job doing something online. I mean, I enjoyed working on the computer and doing bits and bobs. So, I stumbled across ... I can't remember how I stumbled across it, but I stumbled across the website Freelancer.com. I was looking around for jobs, not even particularly writing jobs. Just jobs I could do online to make a bit of money, because at this point it was getting bad financially. It was really bad financially, actually. So it was a case of I had to make some money, but I also had nothing to lose in whatever I tried at this point, because I couldn't get a job anywhere else.
Gareth Hancock: So I seen an advertisement for a content writing job, which was writing about ... I think it was something as dull as writing about ironing boards at the time, that first one. So they wanted samples from me, and so I wrote a sample. It's actually about football I wrote about, which had nothing to do with what they wanted, but they were happy with the quality for the writing, the standard of the writing. So I landed that gig and it took off that there. But I was stuck on the mills, Upwork and Freelancer, for a good three years, and it was a struggle. I seen a job at a local digital agency. They were look for a copywriter. By this time I knew what a copywriter was. I didn't have a clue what a copywriter was when I first started. I was just a writer of words. I still just write words now.
Gareth Hancock: So I applied for that job and I got it based on the strength of my freelance writing. I was in that job for two and a half years and then, as is usual with me and jobs, got laid off. That was last year, which was ... luckily by this point I had an understanding of freelancing so I came back into it with a fresh mindset and a knowledge of actually how to earn decent money with the knowledge I built up. That's when I started That Content Shed which is where I'm at now, which is I think just about a year old this month.
Steve Folland: Wow, do you know, man, what a story. So what were you doing in the building trade?
Gareth Hancock: I was a dry liner, which is ... not a lot of people know what a dry liner is, but it's basically putting plaster boards on walls. So I'm not quite as high tech as a plasterer, as fancy as a plasterer, but I basically done the job that enabled plasterers to do their job.
Steve Folland: So, being on benefits, trying to find work, not be able to find it for so long, as well. You said like seven to eight months at one point and then I'm guessing then you'd find a job for a little bit and then that would come to an end and the cycle starts again. That must be so soul-destroying when you're going through that.
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, it really was. I mean, at one point I was asked by the dole, asked if I could write my name as a test, because they thought I was just incapable of doing anything. I was as low as you could possibly go in terms of ... I couldn't find anything. They put me on courses and stuff, CV writing and things like that. I was sending CVs away and ... The worst it got was that we actually lost the house. The mortgage, we just couldn't pay it. My partner, she was at college at the time, she was training to be a teaching assistant, so she wasn't working either. She had placements, but these were all unpaid placements. We'd just had a young child, a two-year-old, so we lost the house and then eventually lost the car and basically had to start from scratch, from nothing.
Steve Folland: But as you say, that also gave you a place of no fear when you went on to Freelancer.com, for what's the worst that can happen?
Gareth Hancock: It was just, I had nothing to fall back on, so it had to work, really.
Steve Folland: You clearly had no portfolio to show as a copywriter because you didn't know what one was. So you were writing samples in order to win the particular work. What was your experience early on then, of winning work? What did you find worked when you were trying to win pieces of work? Especially, you know, you couldn't say, "I've done this, this and this."
Gareth Hancock: Yeah. I kind of picked up a knack of being able to pitch quite well early on, which it's a method that I still use to this day. It's just not be too formal in your pitch. I always try to use a bit of humor when I'm pitching, and I was honest with them. I would say basically, "Here I am, I've got two months experience but I think I can do a decent job for you." And I'd offer to write a test piece, and it was the test piece that usually sealed the deal, and that enabled me to get a rating then on Freelancer. Once you've a bit of a rating, it bumps you up a level above other entry level people. Because it is a race to the bottom on there, rates-wise, but I was managing to bag a bit of work against other writers.
Steve Folland: Yeah so as you're rated ... every time you do a job for somebody they mark you, basically. They give you a ... a bit like Trip Advisor. They give you a rating. So the rating rises, your portfolio of examples that you can share rises as well. You say "race to the bottom." Does that mean the experience wasn't great of those sites?
Gareth Hancock: I've given advice to a few writers recently, and my advice is, by all means start on Upwork but don't hang around there too long. It's because the cost of living in other countries is a lot lower than the cost of living in the UK, so it enables writers to charge a lower rate. And they're very competent writers, so if they can do the job for a fraction of the price I can do it for, you're struggling to find work. So I was having to almost match ... I was only just above what the writers in India could charge and stuff like that. I'm talking early on, I think my first few pieces were $5 an article. It sounds ridiculous now, but I didn't know any different then, so it didn't really bother me.
Steve Folland: Yeah, and it gave you that opportunity to get the experience. Like, somebody was paying you to write.
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, exactly. That's how I viewed it. Someone's paying me to write words, anyhow. That's not a bad life. That's how I viewed it.
Steve Folland: Yeah, but then does it transition? Did you start to sniff out the clients who maybe were willing to pay more?
Gareth Hancock: Yes. I managed to get a steady flow of actually regular clients. I ended up with two or three, so by probably a year, year and a half into that original stint of freelance and I'd picked up three regular clients and it stayed that way for a while. So I was able to just ... they were able to provide me with work. They basically owned their own agencies and they outsourced content. The rates still weren't great based on what I now charge, but yeah, it was steady work and it paid the bills, so it was all good.
Steve Folland: And you never transitioned off of the platform until you got that job working for an agency?
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, no, I was stuck, I didn't know any different. That's all it was to me. I didn't know of ... I mean, LinkedIn would have been around then, but I know I wasn't on there. It never occurred to me that I could go and pitch a local business, or maybe I'd done myself a disservice. I just thought I was just a content writer on a content mill. I didn't know any different.
Steve Folland: Did you anybody to talk to as you were going through this stage? Was there anybody else you knew doing similar things or people that you met in any way that knew what you were going through?
Gareth Hancock: No, no, nothing. I went it alone, completely. No one in my friends circles, all they see as is, he works from home, he must do nothing. And online, I didn't know anybody. I just went it alone. I had Twitter and Facebook and stuff, but I never knew of any Facebook writing groups like I do now, or I never linked with any of the copywriters on Twitter or anything like that. I was just completely on my own little bubble with the clients I was working for.
Steve Folland: How did you manage your workload, especially early on where you might be doing a lot of hours because you're having to find the work and then do the work, maybe do some samples, and therefore the temptation, I'm guessing, must be to take loads of work? Or actually, sometimes, presumably, you might apply for loads of jobs because you might not get them all, and then maybe they all come through. I don't know, that must be quite a thing to manage in itself.
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, well, it was definitely a case of applying for too many jobs at some point, and not being able to handle it, but then making myself handle it by working ridiculous hours. Eventually I got a just a stream of work coming in for those three clients, but I was still working a full day. I mean, I was churning out content, and there was days that I was doing 10,000 a day and stuff. There wasn't much of a work/life balance then, because the pay wasn't good enough to have a work/life balance, to be honest. It was work, work, work just so that the bills could get paid.
Steve Folland: So it must have felt great when you went and got that full-time job.
Gareth Hancock: Oh, the reason I looked ... I got fed up of ... it was a case of the bills were paid and then nothing left after that. That was soul-destroying, so I started to look around for ... just to be an employee somewhere so I could get a regular paycheck, a decent regular paycheck and have my tax sorted.... And that was massive, getting that job. I learned a lot there as well. Because they sent us on SEO courses and things and conferences, social media, so I learned a lot there and I got a lot of time to be able to read articles, which I did anyway, but it was always against the clock. I never had time for anything, but when I was in the full-time job I got time to read and learn and master my craft a bit.
Steve Folland: No, that's really great. So, when you then found yourself a couple of years later redundant, how did that then like ... where you think, actually, no, I can do this. I can be freelance and ... or did you think well, I'm going back to Freelancer.com? What was your mind at that time around?
Gareth Hancock: By this time I knew ... I was part of writing communities on LinkedIn and Facebook. I got LinkedIn as soon as I joined the digital marketing company, and then I knew what the crack was with LinkedIn. I got a better idea of how to be a successful freelancer then. So when we were notified there was going to be redundancies and the marketing department was getting obliterated, basically, I actually applied for voluntary. I done that partly to try and keep other people's jobs, because there was only a certain amount of people that were going, because I knew at this point that I could do it. I convinced myself and I convinced everyone that had listened that I could make a living. A good living. I could replace my wage with freelancing.
Steve Folland: So, how did you go about that?
Gareth Hancock: I started getting clients before I'd actually left, and doing a bit of work on the night, and I was doing bits and bobs that way. Then I created a website, just a bit of a portfolio, mentioned some of my previous freelance work on there, and then I just set myself up to go for it once I got laid off. And then once I had got laid off, I used what little pay that I had to build a website and to buy business cards and to buy the shed which I work in. I networked like crazy in them early days, online more than in person. Just put my name out there, just created blog posts and whatnot.
Steve Folland: So. When you were networking online, that would have been within groups and things that you mentioned earlier, what was paying off for you? Where was the work coming from?
Gareth Hancock: Definitely LinkedIn. I think that's 90% of my workload is LinkedIn.
Steve Folland: How do you got about getting work on LinkedIn?
Gareth Hancock: Early on it was just a case of, I'd just go on LinkedIn, I'd type in the search box "Freelance copywriter" and then I'd search for people's posts looking for copywriters and just leave a comment on the thread and send them a message and then have a little chat, and then send over some stuff via email. That's how ...
Steve Folland: I see, so it wasn't job ads, it was just people maybe saying, "Hey, I'm looking for a copywriter. Does anyone know any?" That sort of thing.
Gareth Hancock: Yeah. I thought with job ads, I mean, you're putting yourself up against a lot of people that were going to be more experienced than I was. Rather than do that, I'd look for people that are actively looking on LinkedIn and just go that way. I think it's easy to build up a bit of personal relationship that way, when you know who you talk to from the off.
Steve Folland: And do you get recurring work from lots of those people?
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, I'm at the stage now where I get tagged in a lot of things on LinkedIn, which is good. I've not had to pitch for a few months for work, really.
Steve Folland: What do you mean when you get tagged? As in, somebody sees something and thinks of you?
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, basically. So they'll see it and someone's looking for a copywriter and then another copywriter on there or someone maybe I've worked for would say, "Oh, Gareth might be decent at this role." And they'd tag me and then I'd see it and say, "Oh, hello, mate. I'll give you a buzz shortly."
Steve Folland: I loved when you mentioned your shed, because you call yourself That Content Shed, which is a brilliant name. Is that what you started using immediately after you'd been made redundant and you started afresh?
Gareth Hancock: I couldn't think of a name. While I was still at the agency, I was thinking of names and I was getting other people to try and think of names. We couldn't think of any. I can't even remember any of my own names. So my idea was I'm going to write content and I'm going to do it in a shed. That Content Shed - I just got laughed out of the building when I said I was going to be That Content Shed, but I thought, yeah, why not?
Steve Folland: I love it. I love your About page where it says, "What is That Content Shed?" And it says, "A one-man freelance content agency in a shed." Actually, the other thing a love about your site and that's the point of it, is I don't know, you said about making that informal connection. The way it comes across, it sounds like a human being. Did you try lots of different things or did you just go with what felt naturally?
Gareth Hancock: No, that was always my intention to write in that slightly humorous and just informal ... and the biggest praise I've ever got is just from my partner's cousin said that the website just was normal, which is always a brilliant compliment, which she just ... She's a hairdresser. She got what copywriting was and she got what I was doing. And that's all I want to be, just for normal people that don't know anything about copywriting or writing or SEO, to come on the site and just understand what the crack is with it.
Steve Folland: Do you find that because of the way you've written your website, do people say, "I want you to write this and I want it to sound like your website?" Do you get that kind of work now?
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, I do get a lot of that work. A lot of writing in that style, yeah. I still do more formal pieces of stuff every so often, but a lot of my work is based on what they've seen on the website, yeah. That tone of voice does help me stand out a bit online, so I do get quite a bit of work just from that tone of voice and the website, which is great.
Steve Folland: Yeah. You mentioned work/life balance being terrible when you were on Freelancer.com, especially early on. How is it now?
Gareth Hancock: Oh, much netter. Much, much better. I tend to rely on my phone a bit much when I'm doing the life thing. I'm always on my phone on Twitter and doing stuff like that, work-related, but I do spend a lot more time with my kids now. I've got two kids now and I don't work weekends, where previously I would have to book off a Saturday because I'd over-booked myself with work. I'd have to write across the Saturday, but now I can take weekends off. I usually only work afternoons during the week. There's only a couple of days a week where I work mornings.
Gareth Hancock: So I've got it just about right. I could do with putting my phone away a bit, but I've got it just about right, I think, yeah, it's good.
Steve Folland: I'm intrigued about that whole "I don't work mornings" thing. How did that come about?
Gareth Hancock: No, it's not due to laziness, it's due to necessity. My partner, she works mornings as a teaching assistant, and so we have a two-year-old, so I look after him in the mornings and we just go to the park and eat ice cream and go bowling, and we go the cinemas. It's brilliant.
Steve Folland: Oh man, can look for me as well every morning? That sounds-
Gareth Hancock: Absolutely. I think I'd need a lot of keg, though, wouldn't I?
Steve Folland: Yeah, that's true. How special is that, though? So you've got another year or two of that before the whole school thing kicks in, and that-
Gareth Hancock: He starts in September at a little morning nursery, but yeah, I've got another year of that before full-time school kicks in, yeah.
Steve Folland: I've done a similar thing in the past, as well, of looking after our daughter and things and one of the things can be well, I still seem to be taking on the same workload as if that wasn't happening, but I would just be doing it in the evening or staying up late, and shifting my day. Whereas you seem to have gone, "Well, no, actually maybe I just need this amount of work and I will just do it in the afternoons."
Gareth Hancock: Yeah when I got full-time, when I can properly full-time I will increase the work, but I'm lucky to have ... I've got a full-time wage and a part-time ... I guess if you added the hours up over a week, I probably do work full-time hours, because I mean, there are certain days when I will work till 9:00, 10:00 o'clock at night from 1:00 o'clock in the afternoon.
Steve Folland: But in order to do that, you have to presumably turn some work down.
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, I do have to turn the odd bit of work down. I've got a ... Trello is a godsend. Trello manages my life so I can see exactly what I can fit in, and I never want to let any clients down, so if I can't do it I just won't do it and I'll refer to someone else.
Steve Folland: How do you use Trello? Is there a particular thing that you've set up in order to make it work for you?
Gareth Hancock: Trello, oh, I love Trello. Absolutely love Trello. I can't get enough of Trello, yeah. So what I do is I have a column where it's just work to do and then I'll have a column to proof read and then work that's complete and sent, and invoices to send, invoices paid. Then I have a little bit of personal things to do, which is things on my own site. I mean, if Trello ever broke down, I'd be in bits.
Steve Folland: Yeah interesting, but you're using one board and it's all going on there and it's all progressing across, so you can just look at it and say, "Well, no, I just don't have space, I've already got this lined up."
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, and obviously with Trello you can set deadlines and stuff, so you know exactly when stuff's due, what needs to be done and when, so it's ideal.
Steve Folland: Yeah. How have you found dealing with the for business side of being freelance?
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, I earn what I earn and that pays the bills and I have enough left over. If I have a tax situation, I mean, I just take it on the nose. When I was freelancing previously, freelance version one, I never earned enough. I mean, tax was minimal. I never earned enough to actually pay that much tax, so I was never that offended by the tax bill when it came in. When I worked in the building trade, i also had to do self-assessment tax returns and stuff, so now I do all my own tax returns, so I'm pretty savvy that way. I'll just manage all of it myself, but when the tax bill comes, I'll just take the hit.
Steve Folland: When you say you take the hit, does the mean you've not put it to one side? You just think okay, it is what it is.
Gareth Hancock: It is, yeah. I just ... yeah. You're a bit down in the dumps for a day or so but then you pick yourself off the floor and pay it.
Steve Folland: Yeah. What I found, because I used to really struggle doing all that, and then I found that if I submitted it earlier, because you can do it after April, but it tells you how much you're going to owe the following January. You don't have to pay it but you know what you're liable for, therefore I could go, "Right, I'm going to put 200 quid a week into that account in order to ..." By the time you've hit the end of January, you've suddenly caught out. The other good thing about submitting it then is if ... you know where they take money on account? If you had paid too much or they thought you were going to earn too much and stuff like that, then it all gets adjusted, as well in that July payment. I'm by no means an expert, but that got me out of a hole.
Gareth Hancock: That's a great little tip there, yeah I think I'll go with that.
Steve Folland: If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Gareth Hancock: Oh, God. It would be to get out there and find other freelancers, befriend other freelancers online or in person. Network, because it gets lonely. It can get real lonely, I think. Since I've linked with other copywriters on Twitter and stuff, it's been a hell of a lot easier. If you talk to people knowing what you do and what you go through on a day-to-day basis, yes, it'd definitely be that. And don't stay on content mills too long.
Steve Folland: Have you moved that into real life, as in offline as well? Do you know other people ...
Gareth Hancock: Yeah, I've got a couple of friends locally now that are content writers, which is great. But yeah, still mostly online, but online for me is real life and normal, I'm on Twitter that often.
Steve Folland: Gareth, it's an absolute joy to speak to you. All the best being freelance.
Gareth Hancock: Yeah thanks, mate, much appreciated, thank you.