From Upwork Freelancer To Building $40K/Month Content Business

Published: July 22nd, 2022
Luka Karsten Breitig
The Happy Beavers
from Tallinn, Estland
started September 2017
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

We started with just me as a freelance translator, and now we have 10 full-time employees and around 150 freelancers who work for my company The Happy Beavers regularly. We have specialized in larger clients who want to implement SEO investments through content creation. In these cases, we advise on the strategic planning, create the guidelines for implementation and then sometimes create hundreds of texts in a short period with which the client can be expected to rank highly. With this approach, we have already had many partners from start-ups to Silicon Valley companies, and this year we are placing particular emphasis on growth in our business.

We are also working on an AI that can automatically recognize how good a text an author has written is. It will be very interesting for our company to soon bring a product to the market that can significantly increase the quality of content published on the internet, in addition to our content writing and translation services.

When I started, I did plan to start a company of my own - but a completely different business idea. This was just a side hustle providing me with the money on the way until I get there. However, this was more successful than the other project, so I turned to this full-time in the end.

Now we have 10 full-time employees and are actively looking for more, than 150 freelancers and professional service businesses with a lot of growth potential.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

After other start-up ideas of mine didn't work out, I took a full-time job.

My main goal was always to work remotely, but this job didn't allow me to do that. So I started earning extra money on Upwork. I just wanted to collect some good reviews and thought about what I could start with.

Since I used to be a journalist and am therefore excellent with the written German language, I took a job as a proofreader for a book. I only gave a random value as a fee, I didn't even know what people usually earn doing that. In the end, the client was very satisfied.

And not only that, my first client was an Asian New Religion that was expanding into the German market and was looking for someone to translate all their marketing materials. So with my first client as a freelancer, I immediately had someone who would accompany my journey for years. In the end, other clients followed, enough for me to quit my job and make my dream of working and traveling come true.

Later, there were more and more assignments, also in other languages, so that I eventually built up a company. We didn't have it easy, we had to cope with two existential crises with Corona and the Russian invasion of Ukraine (half of our core team has a strong connection to Ukraine). Now we are working on becoming the technological leader in content creation.

Take us through the process of getting your first jobs and clients.

Everything came about practically by chance. At first, I just did myself what many people in this world do - proofread and translated texts. In the process, I also made many mistakes from which I could learn.

At some point, other languages emerged, so the first translators started working for us. So, step by step, we went from being a freelancer to a company. After that, we also started writing articles - and managed that very well, so we also worked with large international companies.

But our vision was always not just to do what others do, but to do our work better than the market average. We can now say that we have completed the learning phase. And we have asked ourselves why copywriters repeat certain mistakes more often and whether software cannot automatically show how good a text is. That's what we're building now.

Describe the process of going from freelancer to building a business.

We have built our company very strongly through Upwork, which is certainly unusual for a western company. But that's simply how it developed. We now have one of the highest ranking profiles on the platform and get inbound leads, even though we now prefer to pursue other growth channels.

It helps that we are a relatively high turnover for Upwork and at the same time rank #1 for many matching jobs with 99% customer satisfaction. But that also took a lot of sweat, after all, you have to build up a profile like that first. At the same time, the dependence on a platform and the high commissions are not so cool. But you also have to see that we wouldn't have had access to large companies that are also on this platform so quickly otherwise.

For someone who wants to be successful on Upwork, there are only two important tips: 1) Build a profile that stands out from the crowd. I hired a British standup comedian to write a funny profile text, which immediately doubled sales after I changed the copy. I've never invested money in anything so wisely. 2) You have to work your way up. The first reviews for your profile are all about reaching 5 stars, absolutely not about money. Even if you work for free, you have to make that investment. Only with a few good reviews can you look for new clients who pay close to normal. In the end, Upwork is always a place where people are looking for cheap services, so you will meet a certain number of customers.

So the conclusion is: Is it worthwhile to build up a profile on Upwork? If you want to be entrepreneurial and not just a freelancer, then certainly not. But once you have done it anyway, you have potentially gained a good acquisition channel for a long time.

When it came to herding people, I made pretty much every mistake you can make. But the most important thing is that I learned from these mistakes and got better and better. For example, I assumed for a long time that you should always hire the most qualified applicant for a job. This led to some employees getting bored in certain positions (and I can understand it somewhere). Instead, I now look more at identifying for myself what challenges I can offer the person. This leads to the fact that an entry-level employee may be better suited for something than someone with years of experience. And also just because someone says they would do a job despite being overqualified, doesn't mean that will still hold in a few weeks.

But if you try to scale an agency business, you will always run into the problem that the business model is difficult to scale. With each new assignment, you need the corresponding number of project managers and linguists - who you may have to keep paying even if there are fewer assignments. At the same time, you have to be competitive with freelancers that a client could easily find and hire on certain platforms. It is very difficult to maintain this balance. At the moment, our solution is to focus on certain projects and be extremely good at them. What we do best at the moment, for example, is to create a high number of SEO texts in a short time, multilingual if necessary. This is how we found our niche, where we can grow best.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

We have relied on sales from the very beginning to gain customers. We see that this process works very well for us. Unfortunately, sales are getting a bad reputation because it is so incompetently implemented by many market players.

Here are five things we successfully do differently:

  • When we cold contact potential customers, we personalize emails, which increases conversion. We follow a certain structure for cold contacts: researching the right contact, finding a personal hook that clearly shows the recipient that this is not another mass email, then a short description of a problem we are solving and showing a solution with us. That's all that belongs in the first email - and by no means send a presentation with it!

  • We don't talk about ourselves, we talk about our potential customer and their business. Nobody wants to hear general sales blah-blah. Instead, we give the customer a clear answer to the question: Why should I be interested in this?

  • We don't just understand the content, we understand business. Our clients appreciate that we can advise them holistically. We like to give marketing tips that have nothing to do with our business, simply because we have special knowledge.

  • We don't see sales (only) as a numbers game but prefer to contact fewer leads in a more targeted way.

  • We invest a lot in further training for sales, and we always want to be at the forefront. In the future, our sales staff will receive a training budget which they can use for their further development in the field.

At the moment we only have one person actively doing sales other than myself (but we are going to hire more very soon). The sales cycle can take a few weeks to months, depending on the size of the company. Not everyone is willing to invest in content just when we get in touch. That's why it's important to keep your sales pipeline full so that you can constantly win new customers. It usually doesn't take many meetings - one or two are enough, as long as you talk to the decision-maker right from the start.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We now fully understand where we stand in the market, who we sell to, what differentiates us from competitors and what we do particularly well. Therefore, we are now working on scaling our business growth and are especially looking for candidates to support us in sales.

Don't fall in love with your product. Keep an objective distance, this will help you make good decisions. As soon as you are more convinced of your product than your (potential) customers, you make emotional mistakes.

At the same time, we are one of the first content creation companies to understand how to harness AI. We have hired a developer who is building an AI that can analyze web content. So we take subjective evaluation out of the equation and can potentially suggest improvements for any text in any language so that more people will read the article and like it.

We have already built software that allows us to organize huge amounts of texts in a short time and still with high quality. Our unique selling point is that we have an excellent QA team that ensures rigorous quality in everything we produce.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

For a long time, we hired the most qualified applicant for a job we could find. Because why wouldn't we, right? But we were struggling with a high turnaround. The solution is not to hire the most qualified applicant, but the most suitable one for the position. That can also be someone very young who shows a lot of motivation for it.

In general, we have noticed that motivation is the most important criterion for success at work. There are no experts for our company except the people who work here. The knowledge of what to do can be acquired on the job for many positions and much information is publicly available. Therefore, we have a very young team with people who want to achieve something, which is a great working atmosphere.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Here are our four favorite tools:

- Missive: We love shared inboxes for emails because we can edit messages extremely easily and without forwarding them.

- Cloudron: The time has come for our company to host on its server instead of using simple web hosting. Cloudron makes this extremely easy.

- Clickup: Indispensable for project management, we now organise our entire company in Clickup.

- Airtable: Airtable is the basic foundation of all our technology, we have built numerous functions based on Airtable and still haven't used its full potential of it, it seems.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

The books that have helped me most to build this business happen to both have the same title: "Traction". Once by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, the second by Gino Wickman. (I found the second one when I was looking for a link to the first book, pure coincidence). The first book is about trying different growth techniques and seeing which one scales, while the second describes the "operating system" of a company.

However, most of the knowledge I got was not through books but paid to coach because the content was specific to my case and not as general as in books. So I am a big fan of working with real experts, even if it costs money.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Don't fall in love with your product. Keep an objective distance, this will help you make good decisions. As soon as you are more convinced of your product than your (potential) customers, you make emotional mistakes.

Especially if you are testing a new idea, the worst thing you can do is to build the product before you sell it. Think about the quickest way to validate your idea. I recommend that the very first thing you do is to build a sales presentation and talk to your target audience at a conference or by cold calling. This way you will find out if your features are wanted. And then you can spend time and resources more consciously on developing a business by focusing on what matters.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are always looking for qualified and/or new, talented writers in various languages on a self-employed basis. In addition, we are always happy to receive applications in the field of sales; we also train newcomers in the field, as we know a lot about it. As project managers, we take detail-oriented applicants with previous linguistic experience but beware: the hardest part of the job is QA of everything we produce, not everyone can do that. Our applicants page lists current positions at all times.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!