Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Austin L. Church, a writer and brand strategist. My wife and I live with our three professional mistake makers in Knoxville, Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains. After getting laid off during the recession back in 2009, I accidentally started my own freelance writing business, which eventually took me into selling an array of creative services, then developing iOS apps, then co-founding a tech startup, and then starting a branding and marketing studio called Balernum.
AustinLChurch.com where I started sharing what I have learned. My new course, Freelance Cake, is a business growth course for freelancers and consultants who want to make more money and enjoy more freedom at the same time. The launch in December went well, and this year, I plan to focus on scaling up sales from around $1,000 per month to $3,000.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I never wanted to be a businessman. My master’s thesis was a collection of my poems, for goodness sake! Yet, without a single marketing or business class, I went from having $486 to my name in April 2009 to my first big win (a $2,900 monthly marketing retainer) in less than six months.
That year, I ended up earning 24% more as a funemployed freelancer than I would have made in my salaried position at the marketing agency: “Wait, I get to make my own schedule, I can work from anywhere, and I make more?”
Needless to say, that’s when I was hooked.
Over the years, I have spoken with hundreds of creatives about their struggles. Some of them had trajectories similar to mine. Others told stories that broke my heart. Why do some freelancers and consultants thrive while others get trapped on the feast-or-famine rollercoaster?
One-on-one coaching is fun and effective, but in 2019, I began to feel more urgency around scaling up delivery of the principles and patterns responsible for my growth. Creating an online course was the obvious way to help more people. Freelance Cake distills a decade’s worth of insights from the business school of hard knocks into 22 core lessons spread across 6 focus areas: Psychology, Pipeline, Positioning, Pricing, Packaging, and Process.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Freelance Cake took between 230 and 250 hours to create. If I had known how difficult and time-consuming it was going to be, I never would have started!
Writing the content, editing the content, tossing out non-essential lessons, recording raw audio, going through post-production and audio editing, creating and polishing up all the supporting materials (over 50 checklists, templates, email scripts, cheat sheets, guides), setting up the course on Podia, working with my designer and project manager, and not losing my mind ended up being a six-month mental endurance race.
I flippantly announced in June that I would open enrollment in August. Ha. I barely managed to launch the course in December—four months later.
Thankfully, I was able to keep costs down. My designer friend gave me a disgustingly good deal on the visual identity ($1,500) and my other costs came out to less than $100, not counting my project manager’s salary.
Podia costs ~$30 per month, but Freelance Cake has no other ongoing costs.
My best decisions along the way were as follows:
- Recruiting beta testers to give me honest feedback on the content;
- Being very clear on brand strategy for Freelance Cake;
- Launching before I felt ready when the course was only 75% finished;
- Managing my expectations and not comparing this launch to other launches (my own and other people’s).
Describe the process of launching the business.
Product-market fit—that was my number one goal for Phase I. I wanted to get enough paying customers to break even and to get honest feedback.
I did not pull out all the stops. I did not call in all my favors. I launched exclusively to my email list, and I only posted once on Facebook and Twitter after the fact.
My subscribers started receiving teasers in June, and I created a special “early bird” segment of the list people where people could opt in to get access 24 hours before everyone else. Later, I sweetened the deal by offering a discount code to those early-bird subscribers.
Create the products you want to use. I first planned to make Freelance Cake a video course. But I don’t watch many videos. I do listen to a ton of audio. I like audio because I can learn while I’m on the go.
I made sales the first day, and more trickled in over the weekend. In retrospect, I’m glad that I gave myself permission to have fun with my launch. My emails were both informative and playful, and I received a lot of compliments. That’s always a good sign: People thanking you for sending them more emails!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
My growth advice is to keep showing up. I personally am not going to attempt to do ALL THE THINGS. I’m going to focus on what I’m best at writing and email marketing.
Two ways I plan to grow my list are with content marketing (publishing new posts on my blog and then syndicating to Medium and Medium publications) and with guesting on podcasts. What the two have in common is borrowing other people’s audiences.
Though I’ve had success with optimizing posts and getting them ranked them in the top ten, I don’t enjoy that process. I’d rather identify the people with thousands of engaged readers or listeners and create a ton of value for them. Then, at the end of the post or episode, I’ll give away something useful that enables people to apply or go deeper with what they have just learned. I’ve come to think of these freebies as hyper-contextualized upgrades. Create a one-of-a-kind lead magnet for a one-of-a-kind post or interview.
I use an InDesign or Pages template to keep all of these lead magnets on brand, and it really only takes me 15 minutes, half an hour max, to create something desirable.
For example, if I were to talk about using email outreach or LinkedIn for prospecting, I would give away the swipe file of messages that work for me.
All the people who want the freebie ends up on my list where I retain them by goofing off, telling stories, and creating A-ha! moments. Eventually, I will pitch the Freelance Cake course. None of this is earth-shattering, but can you think of a better asset to have in your business than a list of people who love to receive your emails? I can’t. That asset can travel with you from one platform to the next.
Always protect your ability to communicate directly with your prospects and customers.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Just last week I finished up with the first Freelance Cake cohort. I plan to follow up with them one by one and ask for brutal honesty.
I’ll use their feedback to iterate the course content, and then I’ll open enrollment again in the spring.
Meanwhile, I’ll work with my developers to wire up an evergreen funnel. Though I see the value in launches—they create urgency—I’d rather pivot to making course income more passive.
Make 1,000 people feel special, and you’ll have more momentum than you can handle.
I’ve got more products in my pipeline too. So once I get the course cashflowing predictably, I’ll explore ways to increase the lifetime value of each customer.
My long-term goals will be familiar to many Starter Story readers: financial freedom, time freedom, and creative freedom. I’d like to write more fiction and poetry, and I want to be the dad who is around so often that his kids get sick of him.
I also want to help 1,000,000 freelancers and consultants make $100,000. It won’t be hard to stay busy. Who knows? Maybe eventually I’ll start an entertaining business school for creatives.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Hmm… there are lots of lessons and principles I’d love to pass on. I guess that’s why I created Freelance Cake in the first place!
Five things come to mind quickly:
Pay attention to what wants to happen. It’s easy to get married to the strategy instead of the outcome. That causes us to ignore market feedback and our own intuition and common sense. The longer I worked on Freelance Cake, the more apparent it became that my original deadline wasn’t tenable. Not like “You just need to buckle down and be a good soldier,” but TOTALLY UNREALISTIC. I chose to slow down, hit the pressure release valve, and focus on quality over speed.
Create the products you want to use. I first planned to make Freelance Cake a video course. But I don’t watch many videos. I do listen to a ton of audio. Then, it finally hit me: I like audio because I can learn while I’m on the go. I needed to pivot my course to audio and make it for people like me. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard says something to that effect in Let My People Go Surfing: Only create products that you want to use.
Focus. I have started many ventures and launched many products. I have a bad tendency to finish and then move on to the next thing. The people I know who have had the most success with selling digital products are the ones who spent two, three, ten times as long promoting a product as they did building it. I have to fight my multi-passionate disorder and not shoot myself in the foot by giving up on a product too soon.
Right-size your goals. Most of us believe that picking lofty targets helps us stay motivated. Jon Acuff’s book Finish convinced me otherwise, and I’m glad that I backed off my original Freelance Cake sales goal. Once the smoke from the launch clear, I scrubbed my cold subscribers, and that group ended up being half my list. Translation: Over 50% of my email subscribers never opened a single launch email. Cutting my “real” number of subscribers in half effectively doubled my conversion rate and made me feel better about the launch as a whole.
Do a “pre-mortem.” You can check out The Knowledge Project episode with Daniel Kahneman where he explains the exercise or does a couple of Google searches. Doing a pre-mortem for Freelance Cake helped me manage my pre-launch anxiety, parse my post-launch impressions, and plan more effectively for the next phase of growth.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Right now, I’m using Podia for Freelance Cake. I did my research and polled my friends. I have been pleased, and Podia’s customer service has been top-notch.
Ulysses is my go-to app for writing, and I use Dropbox to store all my files. Temi does a surprisingly good job transcribing my voice memos—I sometimes write first drafts by speaking them. ConvertKit powers all my email marketing.
I started using Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner in September 2019, and with how crazy our fall ended up being, I credit having a single, analog anchor point for my goals and time management with the successful launch of Freelance Cake.
My Balernum team uses ClickUp for project management—love it!—but the college English professor in me has come to enjoy the old-fashioned written approach.
Honestly, the results speak for themselves: spending more time on planning and on deep work and less in digital rabbit holes has enabled me to make more progress on long-term goals faster. Go figure.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The best business-y book I have read over the last five or six years is Adam Grant’sGive and Take. In a way, the book gave me permission to be myself. I read one or two books a week, so it’s hard to pick favorites though Essentialism by Greg McKeown was a game-changer.
My favorite podcast right now is Shane Parrish’s The Knowledge Project. I always learn something new, and beyond the knowledge, I have received a lot of wisdom.
Finally, I’ll give a shout-out for ConvertKit’s Craft + Commerce conference, which has created many happy collisions for me.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I could write several books on the subject of advice for entrepreneurs. How about the greatest hits from last week?
Be careful whose advice you take. That person may define that ever-elusive opaque word “success” very differently than you do, and their advice may thus lead you to a place you don’t want to be.
The next best time is today. Freelance Cake was knocking around in my head for years. Why didn’t I create and launch it sooner? Well, reasons. I have wasted too much emotional energy picking apart my past choices and beating myself up for not starting five years ago. The better choice is to spend the same energy on serving others and solving important problems.
Stop believing in shortcuts. There are none. You may hear about growth hacking (which is really another way of saying “effective strategy”). But shortcuts cost you more time than the long way. What would you start doing today if you stopped believing in shortcuts? Spend a little time with that question.
Serve the one in front of you. It’s easy for entrepreneurs to think in grandiose terms and to steamroll the early subscriber, customer, fan. Make 1,000 people feel special, and you’ll have more momentum than you can handle.
Scale can be stupid. Entrepreneurs, particularly in software, like to talk about scale. But what if your product sucks? Scaling would simply mean creating a customer support nightmare for yourself.
Burning out is definitely stupid. You are your greatest asset. So driving yourself to a physical or mental breakdown is the height of stupidity. I know because I did it. As you face choices, ask, “Is this sustainable?” Choose sustainable.
Build your platform. I mean, duh. Yet, how often do we treat the audience as the means, not the end? Filmmaker Casey Niestat put it well: “Platform is not a stepping stone. It is the finish line.” Once you have a platform, you can create and sell whatever you want. Just ask Seth Godin or Tim Ferris.
Simplicity is a competitive advantage. The world is becoming more complex. Keeping that complexity at bay is an aptitude we can develop. If you can learn to major in the majors and delegate your minors, you will be unstoppable. You’ll also have a lot more peace and joy.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Balernum probably needs to hire another full-time social media strategist and content creator. We have gotten really good at starting and growing brands on Instagram and clients keep on trying to give us more of this type of work. So maybe I need to pay attention to what wants to happen...
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Thanks for the opportunity, Pat. It was fun to analyze my Freelance Cake venture with your questions as the framing.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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