My Passion For Writing Led Me To Start A $12K/Month Content Marketing Agency
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Matt Flowers. I'm the Founder of Ethos Copywriting, a content marketing agency specializing in premium writing services, SEO, and marketing consulting.
From blog posts and whitepapers to eBooks and video scripts, we produce roughly 35,000 words per month. Since I opened the doors back in 2016, I've had the pleasure of partnering with over 80 businesses and organizations. Their particular industries have run the gamut, too. There's a good chance that, if you name it, I've probably written a piece about it.
Today, because of the power of the written word, Ethos pulls in about $130,000 annually. Not bad for starting a business from a laptop I bought with birthday gift cards.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I love telling stories. In my early teens, I realized I had a knack for it.
Feeling nostalgic a few months back, I actually cracked open a dust-topped shoebox full of old papers. Reading them through the lens of today, I realize I wasn't writing the typical high school melodrama. These pieces were bold like black coffee, poignant like autumn winds riding through late summer nights, visceral like stomach butterflies and gut feelings.
My writing journey continued in college. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) and a minor in English from Penn State University. Upon graduating in 2012, I moved back to my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. It was the end of the Great Recession, and the job market there was still recovering.
After sending nearly 100 resumes and cover letters, I landed a job as an educational assistant. While I did find the work rewarding, the pay was meager. So, as many entrepreneurial people do, I found a side hustle.
I started writing for an alternative newspaper, The Erie Reader. After my writing caught on, I earned my own column, "Outside Voices," where I interviewed Erieities about local issues.
Still living paycheck to paycheck, I earned my coaching certification and became one of Pennsylvania's first Unified Track and Field coaches, working with students with and without disabilities.
Lastly, on the weekend, I'd tour with my band, Falling Hollywood (now Fox Grotto). Ultimately, my songwriting experience was vital to my success as a copywriter. It helped me develop a proprietary tone, voice, and rhythm to my content.
Although the pay was low at my educational assistant job, it came with one major perk: I had summers off. It was during my fourth summer break that I started pounding the hot pavement with Ethos.
The idea to start a copywriting company came from the observation that content is everywhere. If you walk into the bank, there's a brochure about their new credit card. Go online shopping--every product has a description. Search for marketing agencies; their websites are brimming with verbiage.
So I asked myself: Who is writing all of this content? The answer: copywriters.
In a serendipitous turn of events, the day after I decided to start Ethos, I landed my first client.
I had told a friend of mine about my idea. In a meeting of his, a client voiced a need for a new business brochure. Later that day, my friend called me and asked, "How fast can you write a tri-fold brochure for a certified public accountant?"
I told him, “Give me two weeks.” I earned $150 for that brochure and probably spent more than 20 hours obsessing over it. As you can imagine, I didn't have my pricing down quite yet.
During the meeting in which I presented my work to that CPA, one of his clients came in. I got to talking with this guy, and a week later, I had my second writing gig.
Describe the process of launching the business.
For some reason, I got it in my head that every successful business needs a logo. I spent three straight weeks learning how to use Adobe Illustrator. I churned out dozens of tragically awful logos. They were bad enough to make a graphic designer go blind.
However, after watching hours of YouTube tutorials, reading forums about Illustrator, and taking some advice from friends, I managed to make a mark worth using.
From there, I researched a few website building options. After taking a couple of them for test drives, I ended up landing on Squarespace. Sidenote: Don't be afraid to take advantage of trial periods for web products! Just set up a calendar reminder so you can cancel your subscription before they start charging you.
Once equipped with a website and freshly printed business cards, I joined a coworking space. This move was one of the most critical strategic decisions I made early in the start-up phase.
First, it gave me a space to work and have meetings. Secondly, it extended my professional network and gave me access to business resources I wouldn't have otherwise had. Third, it made starting a business enjoyable.
It wasn't all boozy lunches and happy hours. But when they did happen, they weren't just good for networking; they were a time for catharsis. I got to share my trials with other business owners and learn from them.
By the end of summer, it was clear I wasn't going to be an educational assistant much longer. Three months after starting Ethos, I was making the same amount of money writing as in my full-time job. After six months, I was making more.
Additionally, my business expenses were next to nothing. All I needed was a laptop. That said, I've always been a proponent of using credit cards wisely.
Anytime there was a spending bonus and a zero percent annual percentage rate (APR) on a credit card, I took advantage of it. For instance, I found two cards with promotions where you had to spend $3000 and then you'd get $600 back. They also had zero percent APR for 20 months. So, I bought everything I thought I'd need: computers, monitors, hard drives, a new camera, etc.
Then, I divided my total spending by the number of months I had zero percent APR (e.g., $6000 divided by 20 months equals $300 monthly payments). I set up autopay and all but halted additional spending.
However, I did make one significant mistake when starting: I had no sense of how I should price my services. For nearly two years, I was significantly undercharging. For example, a piece that I'd charge $100 for when I started would go for about $400 today.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The secret sauce behind Ethos's staying power is our quality. Every piece we write is meticulously written, edited, and revised. We also take the time to understand precisely what the client needs, the voice, and tone they're looking for, and how to maximize their budget.
Furthermore, we write a lot of high-quality blog posts. Our current clients can use them as resources, and they're a primary ingredient in our search engine optimization strategy.
To date, all of our marketing is organic. We've never paid for Google Ads or social media ads. All the content we produce is entertaining, valuable, and inspirational. It’s what keeps people coming back and new people coming in.
I also schedule dates on my calendar to reach out to current and potential clients. For example, during the first week of each month, I reach out to three leads who didn't convert to see how they're doing. I personalize the message by reminding them why they reached out to Ethos initially, inquire about a specific aspect of their marketing strategy, and thank them for their time.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The business realized nearly a 45 percent increase in gross sales between 2020 and 2021. We're still an incredibly tight-knit team, with two writers and two editors.
However, with the client-side of the business running smoothly, we're now ramping up a new publication. This new site will utilize affiliate links and onsite ads to create a passive revenue stream for Ethos.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
This advice may sound unconventional, but it's critical for professional service-based businesses: Keep your contracts short in the beginning. Because you'll be testing pricing early on, you don't want clients grandfathered into old pricing. If I had to go back, every client would have been on a six-month contract. After that time was up, we'd renegotiate.
Also, even if—somehow—you have ample start-up capital, try learning how each area of your business works instead of hiring out the work. Handle your books, design a few elements of your website, and write some content. By doing so, you'll be better equipped to delegate and give directions when it comes time to find contractors and employees.
Moreover, if you're starting your company solo, get yourself a coworking membership. In my experience, the return on investment is staggering.
Lastly, you must build in time for life outside of work. Starting a business can quickly become an all-consuming endeavor. You'll have to make sacrifices, but be sure you're still there for your family and friends when they need you. I'm confident no one says to themselves on their deathbed, "I wish I would have worked more."
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
If you don't have a G Suite/Google Workspace account, get one. It provides storage, makes collaboration easier, and is excellent for video meetings.
Secondly, if you're strapped for start-up cash, look into WaveApps. It's free accounting software that lets you track income and expenses, generate financial statements, and send invoices.
Finally, when it comes to your website. I highly recommend Squarespace. It's easy to use, and you can add custom code when the time comes. Even after six years, I still run my site on Squarespace.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Honestly, I use books and podcasts to unwind. Because my workdays are long, I like to break away from shop talk where I can.
More so, I get motivated and inspired by people I meet. I think you can learn valuable lessons from just about anyone. And, if you feel like a person has life and work figured out, don’t be afraid to pick their brains.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Start by being undeniably great at one job. You can expand your product and service offerings later. When you're ramping up, find your niche and stick with it. Once you have that product or service on lock, pivot to offer more.
For instance, Ethos started by offering copywriting services. Today, we've expanded to email newsletter campaigns, SEO, marketing consulting, and a whole lot more.
Also, remember that only the extreme minority of small businesses are overnight successes. You're going to work hard, really hard. Don't focus on getting rich quickly. Be obsessed with doing your job well.
Finally, build a business that enables you to start another business. In my case, I started a real estate investment business last year. All too often, starting a business can distract entrepreneurs from plentiful opportunities on their peripheries. Keep your eyes peeled. You never know what else is out there for you.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are hiring! Ethos is currently looking for full-time and part-time content writers. Our writing projects demand quick turnarounds, a firm grasp of English grammar, and an overall competency for content composition and production. People can find out more on our careers page.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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