Building a Successful Business: Content Mills vs. Private Clients

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This is the second part of Big Grey Horse Media’s Building a Successful Business series.  Today, we zoom in on the dilemma some writers have: content mills vs. private clients. Check out our Marketing Guide for Writers if you need help marketing your business and snagging the gigs.

One of my favorite forums had a lively discussion that turned into a small debate about content mills vs. private clients. It’s the same old argument, with writers on both sides, and each declaring why they work for the mills. Or not.

It was a highly agreeable discussion that was quite friendly, but it boiled down to a few specifics I find questionable.

Specifically, the idea that content mill writers hold is that marketing isn’t worth the time spent. Or it’s too much time spent on an unpaid activity, and they want money now. So why market when you can write a $3-$25 article? This logic makes sense, but my take is different.

What happens when you have to pay taxes?

Remember that those $3-$25 articles get chopped in half – fast. You’re not working for an employer, you’re a subcontractor/freelancer. You’ve got absolutely no benefits except that you are working from home (a big benefit, for sure, but that’s not a safe model to build a business upon).

What happens when the work runs out?

Content mills are businesses. There are no guarantees. This business model is not out to protect writers. The mills are a business like any other and the profits that are made line the pockets of the business’ owners.

More importantly, when the work is gone, you better have more content mills on the schedule or you’re screwed. You’d think freelance writers would operate from this premise and work regularly with several mills. While a few smart writers do spread their work out, the majority DO NOT.

Myth

Private Clients are hard to find and the time spent marketing to find private clients is unpaid.Why would I want to spend hours looking for work in a highly competitive market when I can crank out five $3 articles at XYZ content mill? My hourly rate is then secured at $15 an hour, which ain’t too bad.

The Truth

I’ve found that content mill work also has the unpaid time or downtime, too.

  • Time spent looking for articles in a queue.
  • Time spent refreshing a screen when there is nothing and you’re hoping something will appear.
  • Time spent finding those content mills.
  • Time spent filling out applications and turning in samples/clips.
  • Time spent on administrative tasks (which we ALL do, no matter who the client is or how they roll).
  • Time spent posting in forums, Facebook pages, etc. that the mills offer as their “writer water cooler”.
  • Time spent dealing with edits, rejections, appeals.

For me, working with higher paying clients is a dream come true. Content mill work can be easy because once you’re in, work is in a queue and “handed” to you, seemingly without struggle.

The problem with this model is the lack of personalization. It’s crowdsourcing. While that’s certainly one solid business model in our new way of working, it can bite many people in the arse if they’re not careful.

While the work is there, the light shines brightly upon everyone who’s working.

When the pickings are slim, well, mass panic and a huge exodus occurs.

I’m not slamming the mills or anyone who works with them. I’ve done it myself and from time to time, will pick up work to test the business model.

But it’s not worth it, for me, to do it long term or as my primary way of making money. Too unstable, the pay SUCKS, and everyone is treated the same.

Don’t be afraid to pick up a private client – or fill your list exclusively with private clients. You don’t have to travel to their locations, either. I’ve worked with clients from around the world and made it work.

I prefer the meetings and greetings and kissing babies and shaking hands simply because I’m my father’s daughter. He was a very successful entrepreneur and marketing/sales was his specialty. What he did to rise from a poor family to being worth millions by the time he was in his 40s are the same principles people talk about today.

Relationships. Taking care of your customers.

So when you’re looking for work, whether it’s a mill or something else, take care of your customer. The mill probably won’t have too many ways for you to be a shining star, but you can cut your teeth on the gig and learn. If you choose to work with this business model, there’s nothing wrong with that. It has excellent points and it has limitations. As long as you realize that crowdsourcing can run out, and as long as you have back up plans or more income to rely upon, then I say go for it.

I don’t have the luxury of relying upon anyone’s income but my own. While I have multiple income streams, I have to watch my money carefully and be aware because there’s no one else to look to if my money runs out.

Private clients rock because the opportunity exists to package a deal and make it work over the long run. And if you over-deliver and rock the gig, you get referrals.

Word-of-mouth marketing is powerful, folks. And you won’t get this from a mill.

When you get exclusive, private client work, it’s solely on YOUR terms. It’s YOUR work – the project isn’t going anywhere if you step away from the computer. You’ve set the parameters with your customer and as long as you deliver what you’ve promised in the time frame you’ve discussed, it’s your gig.

And please, please, please don’t take what the bottom-feeder, crab apple clients want as real work. Sure, it’s work, but it’s the most distasteful work around, and it’s abundant. This is not the pool that you want to cast your net into.

I want to show the bright side of stepping away from the mills – not because I think they are wrong or bad – because I fear some people get the wrong impression about private clients and how to work with them. It’s not the huge pain you think it might be, especially when all things are considered and the entire picture is in focus.

Dealing with private clients means you factor in the administrative, downtime, and marketing costs. It’s not like you throw away the time you are unable to bill.

You factor those costs into your overall pricing structure.

You can’t do that with a mill. The price is set and it’s up to you to make it work (taxes, admin time, downtime, vacations, holidays, savings, expenses, etc.).

If you have questions, need some guidance, or want to talk with me about a project, contact me. I’m here to help!

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About Laura Townshend 91 Articles
Laura's a native Texan. Besides loving Texas and horses, she's a marketing consultant, writer, and blogger who lives in the western Hill Country of Central Texas with her husband, their daughter, and a bunch of dogs and cats. Reach her at laura@biggreyhorse.com.

4 Comments Posted

  1. Hey Laura, and great post! While I do still use Elance, my sole focus is now on getting corporate clients, and slowly but surely it’s happening. And it’s such a relief!

    Another thing I’d like to add if I may? The system of feedback on Elance and other content mills is heavily stacked against the writer, especially at the beginning. A couple of not great reviews (even 4/5 will hurt) can easily derail a writers profile.

    In contrast, a nice private gig is normally much higher paid, they’re often more patient, and while I don’t recommend asking for handholding, they’re generally happier to work with you to get a fantastic finished product. And the feedback? A glowing testimonial that you can choose to show, or not show, on your website.
    John Detlefs recently posted..The Anatomy of a Proven Successful Elance Proposal.

    • Hi John!

      I think you are one of the lucky writers on eLance. There are people who are able to make it work, just as there are writers who make content mills work. I can’t and won’t knock that – we all have the right to choose to work the way we want.

      But as you say, private clients are better clients to have. And for all the reasons I pointed out, plus a few I didn’t cover. It’s your work, your project, your relationship with another business. You are helping them to solve problems and get a better ROI than they’ve previously experienced. You can be a superstar! 🙂

      Content mills won’t ever elevate you to that status. You’re one of many…

      I really appreciate you stopping by and reading. There will be more in the Building a Successful Business series, so come back when you have time.

      Good luck with your endeavors!

      • Thanks for great post explaining the main differences between working for content mills and working for private clients.

        I’ve done both, and I know which one I prefer. It’s been many years since I wrote for a content mill, and I will never write for one again.

        The world of private clients is one where you are respected and treated with dignity as a professional – not as a stupid slave. The work is easier, and of course, much better paid. I am rarely ever asked to do revisions, and no one ever mentions CopyScape!

        I see so many decent writers struggling online to earn even $5 per 500 words when the reality is that they could be earning $50 or much more for the same kind of effort.

        This is my first visit to your blog, but it won’t be the last 🙂

        John.

        • Hi John!

          I couldn’t agree more with everything that you’ve said. Private clients ROCK! I will never knock someone for making a living the way that they choose. But…it’s a shame when those same people complain, moan, gripe, etc., about how content mills aren’t working. Well…why not try something else?

          For some reason, reaching outside the little boxes where these writers reside is tough. Why? I haven’t a clue. My guess is the writers are afraid of marketing. I’ve heard a plethora of excuses, and most are pretty lame. :-/

          Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate it and hope to see you again soon! We’ve got more in the Building a Successful Business Series on the way…stay tuned!

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