I’ll never forget the look in her eyes.
It was somewhere near the beginning of August 2018. My wife was standing in my office with tears streaming down her cheeks. I hated every second of it.
She was struggling. She was scared. She was beaten down and worn out, and she felt desperate.
Because of me and the decisions I had made for my career and our family.
“I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t.”
Before I go any further, I’d like to just make it clear that she wasn’t talking about our marriage. We’ve always been rock-solid and there’s never been a question about that. I knew she didn’t mean us. Thank God for that.
But 2018 – and even the years before it – had been very hard on us. And she was at her breaking point.
From more money than we could imagine to a complete and utter financial collapse
I quit my job a month after we got married in 2010.
I was working second shift and every other weekend. Once we got back from the honeymoon, we weren’t eating meals together anymore. We were barely in bed at the same time. It was the most important year of our marriage – where we would learn how to live together and how our marriage was going to work – and we couldn’t even be together.
On my wife’s urging, I left that job and immediately began chasing down freelance writing clients. I was able to scrape together something of an income. Buffeted by her income as an x-ray technologist, we survived.
I continued learning and growing my writing business, eventually settling into financial copywriting. The work seemed to be out there, and I hustled my face off to try and grab whatever work I could.
By the end of 2012, we were starting to reach the end of our rope. In the last three months of the year, I grossed about $2,500 total. We swiped whatever credit cards we could to get through Christmas, and then hoped that, somehow, I could right my portion of the ship in 2013.
On January 3rd, 2013, I was offered a monthly retainer with a copywriting client. That retainer was enough for us to comfortably cover our budget.
Any other copy work I got became extra money. My wife’s income became extra money. I even hit it big with this client and earned significant royalties on some copy I wrote. It was all extra money.
We took that extra money and socked it at debt at a feverish pace. We had combined for six figures in debt, from student loans to two cars to a pile of credit cards.
One by one, we paid them off, celebrating along the way.
By September 2014, we were raking in money, and we had a brand-new baby boy that we had longed for. Life was good.
In November of that year, my retainer client let me go for to-this-day-unknown reasons.
My client base started to shrink.
In spring 2015, in the span of a couple weeks, we learned that our accountant messed up our numbers and we owed $10,000 in taxes that year…
…then we were notified that we would be kicked out of the townhouse we were renting (also never explained why)…
…and then one of our cats died.
For the next few years, my income dwindled. It cut in half in 2015. Then in 2017, it cut in half again.
I tried lots of different pursuits, but couldn’t seem to get anything going. Meanwhile, my wife went down to half-time at work. We had another baby in 2017, and I told her to quit her job entirely.
I believed that I could support the family.
By the end of 2017, we were running out of options. Freelance work was just not anywhere I was looking, and it was getting bad.
I quit freelancing in December and focused my energy on my wood shop.
Due to a series of errors in pricing my work, I spent 2018 working 60-hour weeks. It wasn’t uncommon for me to work until anywhere between 1:00-4:00am every night, including weekends.
And the money was getting worse and worse.
We fell behind on nearly every bill. We spent every month worrying about whether or not we would be kicked out of our current townhouse because we were consistently 3-4 weeks late on rent.
The stress was mounting. So were the tears.
In our lowest moment, my wife took the kids to a rummage sale at a local high school, hoping to be able to get a winter coat for our older boy and maybe a pair of boots.
She had a handful of cash that she kept out of the checking account. She didn’t have enough cash for the coat and the boots, so she went with the coat.
Our son spotted a cool Ninja Turtles t-shirt. It was $2.50.
My wife had maxed out her cash, but wanted to get the shirt for the boy. She took it up to the register and swiped her debit card.
She texted me, and I checked the account. Something had come out that morning, and we had less than a dollar in our checking account.
We literally couldn’t afford a $2.50 shirt.
Rock bottom would have been an upgrade
She was humiliated. I was humiliated.
What kind of provider was I? I couldn’t even give my family two bucks to spend?
In the summer of 2018, I discovered ghostwriting. I managed to take out the World’s Worst Loan to barely cover enough of the fees to work with a coach who connected me with some ghostwriting clients who were looking to pay thousands of dollars per book.
I had some experience in writing fiction – I began writing my own series in 2015. Gradually, I started working with these clients.
But it continued to spiral. I was learning on the fly, and I still had dozens of woodworking orders to fulfill. The 60-hour weeks didn’t stop, and we had done so much damage to our finances that, even though I added a couple thousand dollars a month, we were still completely and utterly underwater.
So that brings us to August 2018, and my wife’s ultimatum.
“We need to move out of this townhouse into somebody else’s house and I’m going back to work.”
There was definitely an argument to be made there. But for my own personal reasons – and I’m not defending them here – I didn’t want to take up either of those options.
Instead, I looked at my workload, my little client base, and the calendar, and I offered up a compromise: “I’m not saying no. But give me until the end of August. If, on August 31st, we don’t see enough potential in where my business is headed, then we will start to look at those options.”
Then, I got to work
I stacked up whatever ghostwriting work I could get, feverishly contacting clients and nudging my ghostwriting coach – to whom I still owed thousands of dollars in unpaid fees – to get me more work.
August 31st came and went, and things were starting to look up.
While on-site at a customer’s home to measure for floating shelves, my phone pinged. It was a ghostwriting client offering to double my monthly workload.
That meant I would be making just shy of what our budget would need every month, guaranteed.
I excitedly agreed. By the end of 2018, I had a handful of ghostwriting projects going at a time.
I shut down the wood shop in January to retool my prices (then immediately apologized to my wife, as I honestly was charging 1/3 of what I should have been charging!). I reopened it on a part-time basis, and pretty much nobody argued with the higher rates.
A copywriting client that I worked with on a single project in early 2018 came back to me and offered me a couple thousand bucks per project for a steady stream of projects. I took them up on it.
Then, I got an email from an old colleague – who actually hired me for my first copywriting retainer in 2013.
After a few conversations, I joined his team as a copywriter on retainer – and I landed a contract worth twice what we were hoping,
What a difference a year makes
It sounds great. And it is. But 2019 has definitely been a trying year.
Money is flowing again, but it took almost half a year for it to settle into any kind of consistency. And the damage that had been done for the last 5 years was monumental.
We went from almost debt free to six figures in debt once again.
We were months behind on rent, utilities, and other debts.
The money was going out as quickly as we could make it while we tried to catch our breath again.
Clients came and went, as my ability to juggle this massive amount of work really led to some clients walking away.
Today, I have a killer ghostwriting client who is taking the time to teach me the fundamentals of storytelling that I’m missing.
I have a copywriting client who pays me a retainer fee, and I’m even earning some royalties on the work so far.
I have another copywriting client who is sending me small copy jobs consistently.
I have a blogging client that is good for a few hundred bucks a month.
And I am working with a copywriting coach to organize that side of my business in a way that I can keep a steady stream of clients on the side to keep the pressure off the work.
Oh, and my wood shop is still popular, and I could market myself at any time to drum up more work.
And… I have an audience that is eager to read more of my books whenever I can get them published.
In August 2018, we didn’t know what we were going to do. We were helpless, stressed, and desperate.
As we reached fall 2019, my struggle has shifted from, Where am I going to get work? to How can I handle this much work? for the first time in my decade-plus working for myself.
But here’s the key: it didn’t happen overnight.
2019 was the culmination of a lot of factors
There are very specific reasons why things started falling my way in 2019:
- Ghostwriting: If things hadn’t gone sour in 2015, I wouldn’t have even looked into publishing my own books. If I hadn’t looked into publishing my own books, I wouldn’t have followed one author’s blog. If I hadn’t followed that author’s blog, I wouldn’t have seen that ghostwriting coach’s guest post. If I hadn’t seen that post, I wouldn’t have contacted him or ever gotten into ghostwriting in the first place.
- Copywriting, Part 1: I wouldn’t have gotten that retainer if I hadn’t stayed in touch with the guy who hired me originally years ago. Maintaining that relationship – which didn’t pay a dime for years – resulted in this one finally breaking through.
- Copywriting, Part 2: In 2015, I worked a single, lower-paying copy job for a finance client. My copy didn’t do well, and everyone moved on. But I was in their database of copywriters. Three years later, when they were looking for a writer to work with, they went to the well and called up old copywriters – me being one of them. That turned into a $10,000 gig in 2018 (money that we sorely needed), and then a steady stream of work since then.
- Wood Shop: I wouldn’t have a nice little side income of wood shop orders if I hadn’t undersold myself in 2018. Because I was so cheap, I sold a lot of orders. My client base loved working with me, and I built a reputation that just about sells itself now, even though I’m charging so much more.
Do you see?
Despite the “If You Give A Mouse a Cookie” nature of those bullet points (sorry – I have kids), can you see how my past failures led to setting up the building blocks that has led to my current success?
The moment it struck me
Every 4-6 weeks, I log into my business accounting software and categorize my transactions, double-check my income, and just get a quick overview of where I’m at.
I did that two days ago, and I was stunned to see: our revenue for 2019 is just a few thousand dollars away from matching my 2013 revenue – when things were good.
And that’s with about 4-5 months of struggle at the beginning of the year.
In my worst moments, I never thought we’d get back here again. I had to message my wife and tell her (and of course, her immediate reaction was, “Where the heck did it all go?”).
Yet, it’s even better now, because that income is spread across 4-5 different streams of income, with more coming behind it.
If one client walks away, it’s okay. I can turn a few “levers” and start ramping up some other income.
At the end of 2014, one client walked away and it completely ruined us.
We’re in a better position now.
The point of this story
This isn’t me bragging about how good I have it, or me trying to convince you of how bad things used to be for us. I don’t need – or want – your pity.
What I want you to see is that, despite the worst… there was good on the other side.
If you’re going through hell, keep going. Listen to your instincts.
Don’t be blind to the struggles. Adjust and adapt your strategy as time goes on. If something’s not working, don’t be afraid to shift.
But the bottom isn’t the end unless you say it’s the end.
Work your face off and claw your way out of it. Make the decisions that are right for you and your family. Learn. Lick your wounds. Dust yourself off, and keep fighting.
You don’t know how your past struggles are going to set yourself up for future success.
Then, when you get there, keep fighting. Success doesn’t last forever. Keep a long-term view, and keep working hard.
The lessons you’ve learned might be exactly what you need to avoid that struggle again in the future.
Me? I’m just getting started. And I’m not going to let the past mistakes happen again.
What about you?