Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, Starter Story community! My name is Julia McCoy. In 2011, I dropped out of college at 19 years old to learn how to use my heartfelt passion for writing to make money online, taking a huge risk that paid off in a big way. I started my primary business, a content writing agency called Express Writers, just three months after learning how to write, coding my own website, and putting in my last $75 to buy a domain, hosting, and a freelancer’s help to publish the site.
I’ve put in over nine years of steady hard work to grow our brand. Our primary growth vehicle has been content marketing, a field I stumbled into and fell in love with. Our services are online writing services to brands of all types and sizes. We specialize in three levels of content -- general, expert, and specialist, and my goal since the beginning has been to hire, train, and find the best writers at each level. At the specialist level, we find, headhunt, and train niche expert copywriters (example: we find, hire, and train attorneys to become top content creators for our law firm clients). We are unique from almost every competitor because of our intensive process for finding and training writing talent.
Today, my agency has passed the 30,000th completed project mark, and this October, we just celebrated the launch of the second iteration of our Content Shop, a custom-built eCommerce platform that we built from scratch where our clients’ content orders are placed and fulfilled at. In 2018, when I was 27, we hit and surpassed the $80k MRR mark. This year, because of a few ups and downs from COVID times, we’ve averaged about $70k in MRR.
We serve an ongoing number of clients every month. Our website earns a little over 100,000 organic visitors a month, and my agency’s Write Blog is read by 14,000 subscribers. When I look back at our humble beginnings of nothing more than $75, I’m proud of how far we’ve come today.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I found the freelance writing market in 2011 after signing up to sites that offered writing work. It was a fairly new and burgeoning market at the time, even if the rates offered on the platforms I started on were abysmal. Taking a ton of low-paying gigs was how I molded my first online writing skills. As I accumulated work, continually hit my deadlines, and exceeded expectations, the work brought referral work. Within three months of starting my entire freelance writing pursuit, I had more work than I could handle. So, I started a business, created it on the spot, and named it Express Writers.
We got clients on day one and continued to get them because I went and got them. I would get up at 4 a.m. and send out 100 emails a day to new leads.
We’ve never had funding. We’ve never sought it. Everything was a day-by-day, gut-instinct, move-fast process, and we have always had to pivot and learn how to reshape and reapproach when failures happened. I went with it and found joy because I was walking in my passion (writing). What I’ve learned is that this move-fast process is behind some of the most successful businesses in the world. Success loves speed. Failure attaches to slowness. Our quick responses and agile adaptations, or the “hard-knocks life” if you want to describe it more accurately, helped us maintain and grow our place in the market.
I move fast, think fast, and act quickly because of the pressurized, crazy environment I grew up in. This year, I’ve begun to publicly tell that story… the “other” side of my story, which is that I grew up in my father’s religious, abusive cult. I know -- shocker!
I escaped my father’s cult in the middle of the night at 21 years old, and my business, Express Writers, was both my lifeline and my way out of the cult. I had no idea when I started it that it would be where it is today. I continually pause to express gratitude for where I’m at in life. Technically, I shouldn’t be here at all, if you know my full story. This February, I published just that -- my life story in the book Woman Rising: A True Story, on Amazon. It took me three years to write. The reason I’ve felt the calling to tell my full story, without holding anything back, is because I believe it will impact and inspire anyone, at any age, to go follow their dreams, act on intuition, and seek their passion knowing that they have a fighting chance to succeed. If I escaped my father’s abusive cult while starting a business, you can follow your passion and succeed at it, too.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Everything in my service-based business Express Writers was digital, of course, so my entire existence was online.
In the beginning, I made some very simple commitments, which continue to live in our brand guidelines, statements, and website’s about page: I had a goal of hiring the best writers on the web. And together, we would create the best content on the web. To honor this commitment in the truest way possible, I decided to be a walking case study of what I sold. Way back in 2011, I thought, why not commit to blogging as a way to grow Express Writers? If I’m known through blogging, won’t people buy into our writing services without hesitation?
Little did I know what an incredible marketing commitment this would be for us. After I sat down and researched my keyword terms, my team and I produced one blog a week around each term. It worked tremendously well. The prospects that found us were so ready to buy, it was unbelievable sometimes. I didn’t have to physically shake someone’s hand in 2013 to receive a $5,000 paycheck from them. Coming from the poverty-stricken, anti-digital mindset I grew up in at my father’s house, this was mind-boggling. I continued to grow our reach, our name, and the recognition of what we did through guest blogging.
Every year I continued repeating and implementing the process and learned everything along the way. As my skills grew and I began to know and understand the content strategy, SEO, blogging, email copywriting, ad copy, landing pages, those skills were reflected in what we were able to sell. I could now train writers to become what I was good at. I wrote a ton of internal training, and we began to train all the writers we hired in all the top formats clients needed.
We grew steadily in traffic and clients and sales, year after year, simply through blogging around a focus keyword our audience was using once a week. I got better at what I did, wrote and published books on how to do content, and studied my craft daily. I was in everything. I grew my team slowly but surely, hiring as the needs came up. I learned everything as I went. It was a holistic, natural, non-forced way to grow a business. And I didn’t even know the big picture while walking through it. I simply kept working hard and took the next step that felt like a natural evolution forward. I never play small, so each step has always been big. My team and I go for the gusto. And it pays off.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I launched Express Writers in 2011, and it was an elbow-grease style, “just-go-for-it” launch. I had a business idea, and I wanted to start it. I didn’t even think about funding, seeking investment, or any of it. I just wanted to see if my dreams could pay off. All I had was $75 in savings, and I used that to buy a domain name, hosting, and get a designer to help, and did everything else myself. Every time I made even a little bit of profit, I put it right back into the business.
We got clients on day one and continued to get them because I went and got them. I was extremely proactive. In the first two years, before we were known and before I learned how to set up content marketing in a way that would earn leads for me, I would get up at 4 a.m. and send out 100 emails a day to new leads. That was along with being my own writer, manager, editor, and content marketer publishing blogs in my own agency.
When the writers I would hire fell behind, I’d pick up the work and finish writing it for the client. I put in insane amounts of grueling hard work, working sometimes from 4 a.m. till 11 p.m. I was motivated because of the freedom I had (I’d just escaped a cult), and by the sheer fact that I was following my passion for a living. It was a ton of insanely hard work in the early years.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
If I was to try to explain our client retention strategy in the clearest terms possible, I would have to say we use and rely on all the old, foundational business principles in an online, service-based, e-commerce business model.
We don’t contract anyone. We don’t have subscriptions. You buy anytime, what you need when you need it. No tracking system tells you to come back, no automaton. We create great content, get known that way, and focus on staying committed to all of our clients and the quality of their projects. People come first, always, and we maintain a close-knit, high-performing, inner team.
We believe the one day we stop worrying about performing at our best is the day we stop attracting and retaining customers. Everything else falls by the wayside. Our subscriber count doesn’t even matter. Our followers on social media profiles matter far less. In the end, what matters is the ROI of what we do. (Isn’t that true for every business?)
Every year after inception, we’ve had slow but steady growth. We took out a loan once to pay for the development of the Content Shop, and that loan is completely paid off. Everything else was simply us putting the business profits back into our business. Our business is debt-free. It is the best feeling in the world to run that way, so I’m not sure we’ll ever change it.
By the third and fourth year, I learned how to put out less and better content, refine the hiring process to filter out hundreds of applicants and find the gems. And in 2016, I implemented and executed a very practical, ROI-focused content strategy, complete with an editorial calendar and all the pieces in place to see and predict future content success.
After implementing a smart content strategy, every content piece I published pulled in leads, our income grew, and my time chasing a million marketing rabbit holes declined heavily. It was a great move. After teaching myself this skill, I built a course on it so I could train my team and others to know this skill, too. Today, I teach workshops and three courses. Teaching is one of my favorite, most rewarding tasks -- and it has always tied into our agency’s success since I write the core of our materials that trains and shapes our writers. To me, teaching is a continual learning process. I’ll always be an active practitioner.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our growth has been steady, slow, and sure. We don’t track a ton of metrics. In fact, in the end, I only track two numbers: traffic and monthly revenue. If revenue isn’t up, I look at what we’re doing, and we use coupons and discounts created in our eCommerce platform to end the month and close sales. We hit eight annual gross figures in our seventh year of business (2018). If we’d pushed for that any sooner, we might have broken.
Traffic has never once been down in nine years of consistent weekly blogging. That is the power of consistent content at work. I haven’t missed a week (we have over 1,300 published blogs by now -- some weeks we publish more), and we have consistent upward growth. Every year, we make our site better. Every day, I look at all our communications and make sure the team is performing. Every day, we review client feedback and fix anything that went awry, as soon as we can.
Striving for excellence as a personal and business standard will never fail you. Working hard will get you there.
Is it worth it? It’s the tough question we ask day in, day out. If it’s not, it goes. That goes for what you sell to your clients, your marketing, and especially, your team. For example, because it was adding unnecessary stress to an already-crazy time for my team, I recently stopped our weekly meetings over COVID and converted the call we used to have into a Slack channel dedicated to discussing growth.
We’re not as much about hitting gigantic “next numbers” as we are about maintaining a steady, sure, sustainable growth track record. I like keeping our core agency team small and high-performing, and not overgrowing too quickly. COVID did hit some of our clients and impacted our year, but we’re still on track for a very-close-to-eight-figure year.
Our future looks bright with the launch of October of our new site and eCommerce platform for clients and writers. This is essentially Express Writers 2.0 for us, and we’re excited to see what the next year brings. For more on this, read my Write Blog about the years put in to see this massive project through.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Trusting the wrong people was by far one of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way while running my business. I had no idea just how evil, dishonest, and copycat people could be till I started a business. I’ve seen it all, from people we just hired going completely missing on their first project to getting scammed from people I thought I could trust.
In 2016, I had to hire completely new staff when the two managers I’d trusted to run my agency (manage projects, oversee writers and editors) scammed us and stole $80,000 over a series of eight months. It was a hell-fire type of lesson-learned year. We rebuilt from the ground up and today, I now have an amazing team of people that truly care about our clients, performing well, and succeeding together.
Honestly, I’ve had many run-ins with dishonest, low-integrity people, who have tried to copy my business model and steal clients after working for me. I know how to recognize and trust my gut anytime I feel someone is not honest. I will not let that person get close to me or my business. I guard my circle daily. With the right people in your circle, the right things happen. Quite the opposite with the wrong people.
I’ve learned that this translates to clients as well as your team, and so we fire bad clients (the ones that harass and sometimes even belittle my team) as quickly as possible. We do not tolerate bad behavior.
It’s one of the most important pieces of advice I would share with someone that is in the growing phases of a business with potential. Guard your business circle, very carefully.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use our own fully custom-built eCommerce platform in WordPress. Our site is run on WordPress. Besides our (new) website, which is the vehicle for everything we do -- from our content marketing to our sales quotes and order fulfillment, we use Stripe and PayPal for payment gateways, Slack for team communication, and Google Drive (Docs, Sheets) for collaboratively-shared files.
We built our own CMS because nothing fit both sides of what we needed (both for client orders and team projects). We tried over 50 individual project management systems before building ours. We’ve put over $200k of our business revenue back into the venture of custom platform development, which has not been an easy journey.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I think it’s important to remember that everyone’s journey looks different, and so it’s important to remember that you can’t just clone the contents of a book or take the route someone else took and quickly be successful. Too many try to do that and get lost not pursuing their own creative, unique ideas.
That said, I do have some favorite resources:
Because I have crossed paths with so many dishonest people, this book was a real eye-opener for me, in small doses: The 48 Laws of Power* by Robert Greene *.** It may be too shocking and negative for others that do not need this guide. In a nutshell, it is a roadmap on how to think and act manipulatively. It will open your eyes to the patterns around you and show you evil. Just never become a practitioner!
Jon Morrow runs SmartBlogger.com, and it’s one of my favorite blogs online to read.
Seth Godin writes amazing books.
The End of Average by Todd Rose will open your eyes to the systemized, incorrect thinking of “average” in our society.
Dr. Ai Addyson-Zhang, who I am writing a new book called Skip the Degree, is a great resource. Her Wednesday Facebook live show #ClassroomWithoutWalls is incredibly insightful and inspiring for entrepreneurs at all stages.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Focus over FOMO. Less is more. More no’s are critical to say the right yes’s. Go back to the tried-and-true, and watch out for the flashy metrics.
Striving for excellence as a personal and business standard will never fail you. Working hard will get you there.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are almost always hiring writers, and sometimes, editors as well. Pay rates are determined and set at the level we hire at (two to three levels available, depending on experience). Our interview process is rigorous, and we look for humble, hungry, and talented individuals. Fill out a writer or editor inquiry.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Visit Express Writers at expresswriters.com, and watch my founding story on YouTube here.
- My online courses and guides can be found at Content Hacker™.
- Follow me on Instagram @fementrepreneur.
- Read my books on Amazon.
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