I Left My Job As A Journalist In The City To Start A $360K/Month Copywriting Agency
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi - my name is Derryck Strachan and I’m the founder of Big Star Copywriting. We are one of the UK’s leading copywriting agencies. We work with a wide variety of clients in both B2B and B2C and from start-ups to multinationals. Although our main focus is on copywriting - mainly web pages, blogs, product descriptions - we support that with digital marketing services including SEO and Paid Search. Current and previous clients include Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, New Era, Lloyds, Handy.com, Screwfix, and many others.
After a difficult time due to Covid, we’re back on track and currently approaching revenues of approx. $30,000 per month and growing.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My first job, straight out of University, was as a staff writer for a major record label - I spent my time interviewing everyone from the Flaming Lips to Madness. I went on to become a press officer working with acts like David Byrne, Boy George, Iggy Pop, and many others. It was a wild time working in London in the late 90s at the height of Britpop but I wanted to be on the more creative side of things so I became a freelance journalist working for Rough Guides, BBC, Amazon, Time-Life, and many others while taking the odd gig as a commercial writer for music projects for Heineken, Accenture, and others.
My then-girlfriend (now wife) and I decided to take a break from the City and we moved to the Devon countryside. That pretty much put an end to my music industry work so I pivoted to working as a food writer and restaurant critic for Time Out and AA Guides. That led me to a stint working as a marketing person for a new cookery school where I found myself doing a bit of everything including teaching Thai cookery.
Before setting up a copywriting agency, I hadn’t ever considered myself a copywriter - to me, it meant an old-school ad agency “copy and concept” person. But a friend pointed out that I’d been making my living as a writer for more than a decade so I accepted the mantle. I soon discovered that there was a rapidly growing demand for content for SEO and very quickly we became a writing partner for fast-expanding SEO agencies like Greenlight, MediaRun, Clickthrough, and others.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
For the first year or so of the business, it was just me but the demand for content in high volume meant that I had to look for other freelancers to support me. I tried to find people locally to me and struggled to get the quality or variety of experience that I needed - some of those early projects were hairy and consisted of long days and nights of editing as I tried to make sense of work of very varied quality.
You’ve got to be consistent across your brand, your message, your target customer, your service, and the outcome you promise.
This led to some decisions fairly early on that have defined the shape of the business to this date. First, casting our net wider to take on writers from all over the UK and secondly employing a full-time editor to manage the team and ensure quality control. Also, the nature of the work we were getting - high volume, affordable content aimed at generating search results - defined our position for many years and this model continues to work for us. Still, there’s pressure to keep down prices for many brands but we provide a better quality outcome than many content mills that offer cheaper prices.
Describe the process of launching the business.
During the two years or so I spent at the cookery school, I learned a lot about internet marketing - doing SEO and PPC ads 10x-ed the income over a few months. When my contract came to an end in 2005 I didn’t have much of a plan as to what I’d do next.
My friend was a web designer and he built three very basic websites in a day - I think I paid him around $50 each! One was a restaurant consultancy - very much like Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares; one was selling Thai cookery courses and the third was a copywriting service which I called “Copywriting Devon”, hoping to rank highly for local keywords.
I set up limited PPC campaigns for all three - the restaurant consultancy just got weird inquiries like a food manufacturer who wanted to work out how to inject chickens with marinade (I assume not while they were still alive!), the Thai cookery business didn’t get any takers but the copywriting business got inquiries almost from day one. Our best performing ad was “London copy, Devon prices”
The business that enabled us to grow was from newly formed SEO agencies who needed content in large volume. When I started, Copywriting Devon was just my name as a freelancer but it quickly became an agency with an editor and a large team of writers so we rebranded as Big Star Content in 2007 and then later - when I realized that the word “content” wasn’t hitting the mark - as Big Star Copywriting.
Before the crash in 2008, we were working with 5 - 6 large agencies writing an incredible number of articles and web pages. We were averaging £2 - £3000 per month per agency but that almost immediately contracted to £200 - £300 per month. We had a difficult few months and it made me concentrate more on building direct relationships with businesses rather than going via a gatekeeper.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
For us, attracting new customers is down to SEO and a lesser extent Google Ads. Google Ads was brilliant 10 - 15 years ago and we were making multiple times our investment but now the market is crowded, the cost per click is much higher and the quality of leads seems to be much worse. Our quality leads come from SEO for sure - again, this is much harder than it used to be but it still works very well.
Attracting customers is something I think we have a handle on, although I’m always questioning whether our positioning is strong enough: do people have a full understanding of what we can do for them? Copywriting is a very crowded marketplace - there are no real barriers to entry - and for a generalist agency like ours, it’s hard to find a way to stand out. It’s not sexy necessarily but we’ve been focusing on customer service, value for money, and expertise. Many businesses who use us have been burned by bad experiences with freelancers who they can never get hold of or cheaper agencies who haven’t delivered the goods.
We perform well in SEO as we create lots of useful content, target long-tail keywords, and promote our content on social media. At the moment we’re investing in Instagram - it’s not a natural home for B2B but we’re testing ideas out and the content looks great. I see it as a slow burner.
Retention is tricky. For smaller customers, they tend to need a new website copy which is done in a day or two and that’s that. We may not hear from them again for another 2 - 3 years. That’s why we’ve developed other services to help them market their site - we’ve written the site, now we’ll help you get traffic and conversions. The best larger clients tend to be eCommerce because they need regular product descriptions every season. However, our focus is slowly moving to B2B - our B2B clients tend to be more like partnerships, where the interaction is two-way, which is ultimately more rewarding.
Now, a sensible funnel that works for us is to focus on marketing our copywriting services first and foremost and then offering happy clients our digital marketing services which are charged on a retainer basis. We only market these services to existing clients with whom we’ve built trust through great writing and good service.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Covid hit us hard and in surprising ways - there was a brutal week before the Government announced their financial support. We were doing a lot of travel work which ended immediately but we also lost clients in the insurance sector who are normally very robust but were seeing mass cancellation from leisure and hospitality. On the other hand, we also had a musical instrument retailer who normally suffer badly in times of crisis who were reporting it was like Christmas every day.
So 2020 wasn’t the best year and it’s taken until May for us to see greener shoots - in terms of inquiries we had more in May 2021 than any time previously so businesses are keen to get back to work.
In the short term, we’re focusing on project management to make sure everything is running as efficiently as possible but also looking to build more permanent relationships with clients where we can show the value of what we do. For a long time, Big Star has been a lifestyle business for me but recently I’ve built a really good team of people where there is a great balance of youth, energy, and experience.
That’s spurred me on to want to build the business to see what it can become and I’ve been working with a financial expert to develop a plan to achieve £1m turnover in five years - which would be roughly 3 - to 4 times our current size. This income would be spread over two teams of copywriters, one team managing SEO and Ads, and another on social media. I think there are also opportunities in creating a benchmark online copywriting course, as well as offer real-world training to individuals and organizations.
To achieve this we’re looking to increase our spend on SEO particularly as well as our use of outreach on LinkedIn which has been effective on a small scale. We’re looking to reach more customers, particularly those who need copy for new websites or redeveloped sites. I think there is an opportunity not only to increase the number of retained clients through upselling to digital marketing services but to build our strategic services at the front end of this relationship too. For example, positioning is becoming more and more important as customers want less choice and attention spans online diminish. We already offer an affordable and effective process for positioning.
We are already international in our focus, with clients in but the number of inquiries from US businesses has increased over the last two years and we are looking at ways to reach out to this market. We’ve already worked with several US clients and we know we’re competitive and far more professional than a lot of similar services we’ve encountered.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve tried lots of things over the years to try to diversify the business - including offering copywriting training courses, strategic services, social media marketing, etc. Sometimes the timing has been wrong (in the case of offering tone of voice and brand story about five years before they were even a thing), and sometimes I haven’t had the courage of my convictions or the budget (training). Occasionally I’ve been guilty of following “outliers” - like when we landed the social media for a sponsor of the show Big Brother which was phenomenally well paid. I proceeded to focus all our marketing on “social media services” for about 3 months until I realized we weren’t known in the space and didn’t have a clear offer.
There has always been a part of me that has wanted to offer a more consultative service where we can have closer relationships with the owners or decision-makers of the business, get more involved in strategy, and ultimately be more proactive in helping businesses improve their marketing using content. This has been a difficult message to get across alongside our relatively lower cost high-volume writing services but we seem to be breaking through with this now and I imagine the business will move more and more toward this position.
Essentially the lesson here has been you’ve got to be consistent across your brand, your message, your target customer, your service, and the outcome you promise - it has to make sense very quickly to the customer otherwise they won’t pick up the phone or even if they do buy from you, they’re unwilling to move to higher-cost services if you start at a low rate.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use HubSpot for managing lead generation, BuzzSumo and AnswerThePublic for article ideas, various keyword tools (including Moz and SEMRush) as well as Yoast for checking SEO.
For writing, there are some essential tools: we use Copyscape to check that writing is original and not duplicated, we use Grammarly for the first round of proofing. We also have to use several project management tools which vary from client to client but include Basecamp and Teams - internally we do everything by email which works fine!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Copyblogger was great early on. It made me realize there was a whole load of people out there like me even when no one knew what SEO was - let alone an SEO copywriter! Perry Marshall was also a big influence early on for his Adwords knowledge which has paid me back many times over.
Like everyone else who considers themselves entrepreneurial I’ve read and re-read Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Work Week. Not sure if I’ve got close to that yet but I’m certainly more preoccupied with efficiency than I am with profit.
Recently I’ve been getting more and more into brand positioning and so I’ve been diving into Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow, Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout and Brand Leadership by David Aaker and Erich Joachimsthaler. Everyone who has a business should understand the market position.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My advice to freelance copywriters out there who are hustling to get clients by emailing CVs etc is to spend money on marketing yourself. Buy ads or pay for digital marketing services. It should get you more and better leads and allow you the opportunity to grow beyond being a one-man-band.
To everyone with a business, I’d continue banging on about market position - you have to instantly communicate with a potential customer who you are and why they should buy from you. If you don’t you’ll be left behind. So choose a position, nail your colors to the mast and show people what you stand for.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re not looking for anyone immediately but if I could wave a magic wand then I would want to receive an email from a project manager or account manager who is devoted to systems and processes and could work part-time with us to streamline our systems and set us up for our growth plans over the next few years.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Read our blog
- Want to talk copy? Email: [email protected]
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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