Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Katrina McKinnon and I founded CopySmiths.
CopySmiths is a content shop. We write blog articles for eCommerce stores and affiliate sites.
Writing one blog article is dead easy. Writing 3 articles takes a bit more commitment. Whereas writing 10 articles every month for years on end is incredibly challenging, and so most people give up.
We offer an easy, delightful, and interesting content solution for our clients. CopySmiths are blog article specialists and do everything from keyword research, title writing, and topic clusters right through to writing, editing, graphics and then publishing to your blog.
As such, the business is growing. We started in 2020 with 2 clients and 4 writers. In mid-2022, our roster now includes 100+ clients and 40+ writers.
It wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t read a particular book that utterly changed my business life.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
For 20+ years I built eCommerce stores and managed online marketing campaigns for clients, but in 2019 I noticed something wild was happening with a handful of client blogs we had created.
In one blog, organic traffic blew up from 800 to 150,000+ unique views per month, over 15 months.
And for another client, we added $250,000 to their monthly online sales in 6 months, solely from their blog traffic.
In contrast, the advertising, email marketing, and backlink outreach campaigns we also ran were working just fine, but they were nothing mind-blowing or interesting.
I had been so desperate to achieve growth for these clients, at all costs, that I had thrown everything I knew about blogging at the blogs. I had read that you could get sales from blogging so I thought I would give it a shot.
Our work was crazy-messy, unstructured, and unplanned, but…it worked well. Sensationally so!
The ease with which we gained organic traffic was an aha moment for me. I had slogged away for 20 years growing traffic for our clients from traditional channels. Nothing worked so easily or quickly as blogging.
I closed the 20-year-old agency and started CopySmiths.com. I knew I needed a plan. I needed something more than just a hunch that it would work. So, I read a book about how to build a business.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Running a digital agency is all about selling your time. I learned that if I wanted something done properly I would need to do it myself.
However, this is a limiting belief.
It means that I could never truly scale a business and free myself from the daily grind. I could never create a productized service if I continued to sell my time.
Instead, I ended up in a rather stressful job of my own making, where I was responsible for everything from high-level strategies and managing client expectations right down to plugging the right keywords into Adwords and emptying the trash.
During one of my less stressed moments, I came across a book called “Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less” by Sam Carpenter.
It’s an easy, quick read. Not too many pages. Cute story. All of that!
Carpenter lead me through a series of trials and tribulations, and how he solved each issue that came across his desk.
But it soon dawned on me that “Work the System” has a deeper lesson for entrepreneurs, especially if you read it slowly and carefully.
It is similar to “The E-Myth” by Michael E. Gerber in that it compares the idea of working in a business to working on a business, but for me, it took that concept one step further.
Carpenter showed me how to set up systems and processes that truly enabled me to scale my new business to a larger, more profitable size than my agency had ever achieved.
As soon as I put the book down, I started writing my business operating system based on the ideas and templates from “Work the System.”
We started very simply by using Google Sites to write our first standard operating processes (SOP). It is a free tool that’s easy to use, can be themed to match your brand, and it’s super fast to make changes.
The initial steps I took were to break down how I did particular processes by first recording a screencast walking through the task, and then converting these into step-by-step actions. You can choose anything for your very first SOP, such as how to create an invoice for a client, how to write an article brief, or how to move a task in a queue.
I now have CopySmiths Hub, an internal knowledge base. It has 100s of training documents, standard operating processes, videos, graphics, and more.
We’ve trained 100s of writers and team members over 2 years, completely hands-off and remotely. Each writer in our team uses CopySmiths Hub to produce our product - high-quality blog articles for our clients.
Our productized service has been designed, prototyped, and developed by writing our knowledge base, page by page and word by word.
To build our team, we posted jobs on Facebook Groups such as Awesome Writers & Transcribers in Kenya and the Cult of Copy Job Board. We discovered that it was important to create a personal connection with each community, so I made screencast tours of our training and what they could expect when they joined CopySmiths.
Each applicant was asked to respond to a few questions about their experience and provide examples of their work. We manually whittled down 1,000s of applications to find our core team of writers.
We discovered that some applicants were ghostwriters for other writers. This means that the person we were speaking to wasn’t the person who would eventually be on our writing team. Unfortunately, this behavior is perfectly acceptable in some other cultures and it can be hard to detect during the interview process. As such, we keep a careful eye on the tone of voice in every article and if it varies wildly, we’ll chat to the writer about whether they are drop servicing, or not.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I launched CopySmiths under the guise of my old agency name in early 2020. I wanted to test whether our product was sufficiently interesting and effective for clients before I went through an entire rebranding process.
We had $100,000 cash in the bank to work out how to transition from a consulting agency to a productized service.
In February 2020, I spoke at the eCommerce Fuel conference and shared my experiences with building a remote writing team, scaling with business systems, and the impact that this had on our agency clients’ blogs.
After my presentation was over and I had flown home, my first new client phoned. Could we help him increase organic traffic for his gift pen store? He was sick and tired of spending huge money on paid advertising.
The first article we wrote ended up being a huge smash hit for Dayspring Pens. To this day, it is still the top-performing blog article on his store and continues to bring in $10,000s in revenue, all for the cost of a single article.
I have also discovered that speaking on podcasts is an excellent way to build a story around the CopySmiths value proposition and help new clients find our work.
With this type of success, I wanted to get serious about appearing on more podcasts. We could either run an outreach campaign in-house or hire a podcast booking agency. We chose the latter option to get started more quickly, and without having to write our internal processes.
I interviewed two podcast booking agencies and eventually settled on PodcastGuesting.Pro. They were hungry for our business, have loads of experience with producing podcasts, and offered a no-risk option; either they’d find good podcasts or I could get my money back.
As of writing, we’ve only been working with PGP for one month so it’s still early days. However, the first couple of podcast interviews have been booked and I’m hoping that they will be as successful as the first podcasts I guested on.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Fortunately, Dayspring Pens referred CopySmiths to others in the eCommerce Fuel community and it’s never really stopped!
From that first, super-special client, we gained the confidence we needed to create a new business name, branding, website, and internal processes, hire managers, writers, editors, quality checkers, publishers, virtual assistants, and more.
We built a website with colorful branding and tried to hone our message. It was a slow process of writing and rewriting our messaging, slowly adding new client case studies, building out our now very extensive FAQ, and adding more content to our blog.
In particular, clients have reacted favorably to our FAQ as it is extensive, detailed, and includes screencasts showing our work in action. This was a surprise, but people often comment that they don’t have any further questions about our service because it’s all in our FAQ.
Another thing that made it incredibly easy to build our website was that we engaged WP Runner very early on in the process. For a small fee, they will complete an unlimited (i.e. approximately 24) tweaks to our website every month. We break down each task that we need done into smaller tasks and feed them into the WP Runner system every day, and every day, bit by bit our website improves
For example, we were able to get them to add a side column to our blog so we could create a better reading experience for visitors. We’ve also asked them to create new pages, embed videos, and move sections around. Each tweak only takes 30 minutes, and it means our website keeps moving forward every single day. Total game-changer for our business!
The biggest lesson that I learned was that I needed to find product-market fit, and then the rest of the growth would take care of itself. When I had a good solution (ie. quality blog articles, at scale) for eCommerce stores then the work could speak for itself, and people would buy our content.
Referrals have become our biggest driver of sales growth, but we still needed to remind busy store owners that we are here and available.
When you’re the best people will come to you. This makes marketing much easier.
So, I created an AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread in the private eCommerce Fuel community forum. Being available to answer questions, and making it known, has given others a chance to connect with me and vice-versa. The same thread, if managed carefully, can continue to offer referrals for years.
To stay on the radar, I started.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
CopySmiths is growing slowly, not too quickly, not out of control, not so quickly that I have to grip onto a fast-moving train with only my fingernails. So, it’s good. Exactly how it should be.
Luckily, our clients are happy and experiencing growth too. Here are three screenshots that show when we began writing for LOOV Food and how it’s going so far.
(Content ALWAYS works, it just takes time!)
Now that we have a good product-market fit, our processes are solid, our branding is fine and our team is happily productive, we are focused on sharing our story online. That’s the next step; share our story and how we can help other businesses.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Through starting this new business I have learned to trust myself and just do the work that’s needed. I now try to avoid listening to other people’s plans for my business.
I learned this from Brené Brown’s talk about the man in the arena. It’s well worth listening to:
Loads of people will have the best intentions and offer their best advice, but at the end of the day I’m the one sitting in front of my computer screen and I have to find my path forward. What is it that I will choose to do with my time?
Occasionally a client will ask if we can extend our service to something we don’t do, such as writing an About page. It feels like a good idea at the time because they’re willing to pay us good money to do this for them.
However, I’ve learned that I have to stay the course and keep CopySmiths very simple with its service offering. This leads to fewer complications with training, processes, and the team overall.
With a simpler service offering, we can specialize and become very skilled at doing one thing in particular - blog articles for eCommerce stores - and this becomes our service differentiator in the market.
It’s far easier to find customers when you offer a specialized service than to find anyone who will buy anything.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Monday.com to run our content queues. It’s an ingenious tool that has enabled me to build a platform without hiring expensive software engineers.
We use Google Sites to run our Intranet and Writer Training. It’s free, easy to use, and forces us to focus on writing good processes, rather than distracting us with loads of features and add-ons.
We use Basecamp to manage administrative tasks such as payroll, changes to our website, improvements to our training, and general chit-chat.
We use Google Docs to manage our article writing. We’ve investigated Grammarly, Pro Writing Aid, and other writing tools, but didn’t feel that any would offer significant value over Google Docs.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I love listening to the following podcasts:
This podcast offers an amusing view of how famous people have built their businesses or empires. Ben goes into a great deal of detail about how these people came to be so successful in their lives and then finds commonalities between them.
Andrew interviews entrepreneurs who are on their business journey. He delves into exactly how much money they’re making, the challenges they’ve faced, and what they see in the future. There’s always an interesting person with an interesting story.
One of my favorites, Andrew dives into the intricacies of running an eCommerce store. There are certainly some beginner-style conversations that suit people just starting their eCommerce journey, But he’s also able to extract higher-level information from some extremely successful store owners, which makes for an insightful listen.
The best book is:
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If I had to start over, I would specialize in a niche offering and try to be the absolute best at that one thing. When you’re the best people will come to you. This makes marketing much easier.
My top tips include:
Get involved in a private online community. Give information and ideas freely. You’ll make friends from all around the world who each have something to give you in return. I have learned many lessons from my online friends. Their experiences and insights give me the courage to keep building my own business.
Give information and ideas freely to others. I love sharing what I know with anyone who’ll listen. Talking about content marketing and blogging in particular is one of my favorite topics, and I know that others also have their favorite topics too. When an exchange of ideas happens I gain valuable insights that I would have never thought to ask. I love always learning.
Hire people from Kenya. The Kenyan people are underemployed and overqualified, and just need to be given a chance to get involved in the online job market. You can start by hiring via Upwork, but I recommend shifting over to Kenyan Facebook Groups where the real people hang out.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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