Elaine Pofeldt on Collaboration, Scaling Up and Creating Your Seven Figure Author Business

Elaine Pofeldt What does it take for an author to create a seven figure business? A team of writers. A marketing department? Offices around the world?

The answers may surprise you.

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specialises in small business, entrepreneurship and careers.

She is the author of The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business, a look at how entrepreneurs are hitting seven-figure revenue in businesses where they are the only employees

In this podcast episode, Elaine explains:

  • How writers and creative entrepreneurs can create a seven-figure business
  • What her writing routine looks like and why physical exercise is so important
  • Why outsourcing and collaboration are so important if you want to scale your author business

And lots more

Listen now

Transcript Below

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast, with Bryan Collins. Here, you'll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan: Would you like to turn your writing into a business, or how about a million dollar business? Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins, and I recently read the book, The Million Dollar One Person Business: Make Great Money. Work the Way You Like. Have the Life You Want, by Elaine Pofeldt.

Bryan: Elaine is a freelance writer, and she has written for publications like Forbes, and she's also interviewed and written extensively about entrepreneurs, who have turned their businesses into million dollar businesses. The people that Elaine has interviewed are running one person businesses. They're bloggers, and they're writers, and they're creative professionals.

Bryan: Elaine wrote about what she discovered in her book, and when I recently had the chance to speak to Elaine, I started asking her why did she decide to write The Million Dollar One Person Business.

Bryan: Well, Elaine, I really enjoyed reading your book, and I was wondering if you could tell me why you decided to write it.

Elaine: Sure, Bryan, and I'm so glad that you enjoyed it. I have been a writer about entrepreneurship for a long time, and one of the things I noticed was almost all of the coverage of entrepreneurial companies focuses on the massively scalable startups that we see out in Silicon Valley, but the vast majority of business owners are owners of one person businesses around the world. In interviewing them, I found that they were very happy people, they were really enjoying personal fulfillment in their businesses, and a great lifestyle, and they were getting almost no coverage.

Elaine: I was very excited to discover in the U.S. Census Bureau statistics that there was a pocket of these businesses, that government here called them non-employer businesses, that were getting to the range of 1 to 2.49 million in revenue, with no employees. I got curious, and I wrote a blog post about it, and people started writing to me. They were very curious to find out a little bit more about what they were doing than I had mentioned. I focused on their industries, like retail, for instance, or manufacturing, and they said, “Well, I need to start a million dollar one person business, myself, and I need to know exactly what they're doing. Are they doing eCommerce? What are they selling?”

Elaine: The challenge is that the Census Bureau will not tell you, as a layperson or a journalist, what other people put on their Census Bureau surveys, so I wrote to the readers and I asked them to tell me if they were one of these businesses, what were they doing? About five of them wrote back to me. I wrote a post about them on Forbes, and it went viral, and I was off to the races, I guess, with this topic. I found people were very interested, and every time I found out about another story, they are kind of a needle in a haystack, even though their numbers are growing, I would cover it. Several years later, an agent had been following them. She suggested that I do a book on it, and that was how the book came to be.

Bryan: When I was reading the book, you talk about some of the ways that people have created one person businesses. For example, they made creative use of automation, and outsourcing, and so on. I was particularly interested in outsourcing. That seems like a great way to accomplish more if you're a one person business and perhaps you don't have the resources or the time to do it all yourself.

Elaine: Absolutely, Bryan. That's a great tool for so many who have a good business idea with the potential to scale to one million in revenue. Where it starts is having the right type of business. There are certain categories, where people are more likely to get there than others. What I found, and not just looking at the [inaudible 00:03:44], but my own interviews with more than 50 business owners, in these categories, a lot of them are in eCommerce, professional services, personal services, like being a fitness trainer or a nutritionist. Manufacturing is an area where now people can outsource the manufacturing. Real estate is another one, and then informational marketing, things like creating a course or webinars, that sort of thing.

Elaine: That increases your odds because there is easier potential to get to one million there, but once you have a good business model, then yes, it's definitely important not to do all of the work in the business yourself. For most people in the beginning of the business, they're in the do it yourself stage out of necessity because you don't have the cashflow to just go out and hire 10 contractors to do everything for you, unless you've saved up a lot of money for the business and just tap into your savings. Most people haven't, so what happens is, usually, after about a year, people will have enough cashflow to outsource something, maybe their automating.

Elaine: In the meantime, they try to do their scheduling, for instance, using online scheduling apps to save a little time there. It starts adding up, and then they say, “Okay, I've got to take the next step, so maybe I'll bring on a bookkeeper. I don't like bookkeeping,” or “I am an accountant, I don't like marketing. I don't want to do my web design. Let me get someone at a marketing firm to do that stuff for me,” and then it may grow as the company grows, but that frees up the owner to focus on the strategy of growing the business, the big picture activities, like meeting with enterprise clients, who have the potential to do a lot of business.

Elaine: That then enables them to get out of that zone that many freelance businesses and one person businesses are in, which is kind of a world of pain, at times. They're scrambling from one project to another, and expenses that come up unexpectedly can really cause stress for them. That's kind of why I wrote the book, to help people get out of that survival mode and more into a mode, where if you're looking at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, they're really achieving their full potential.

Bryan: Yes, that classic balance between do you spend time on your business, or do you spend money on it. I know you profiled one particular entrepreneur, who started out as a writer, and then created a series of books around nutritional products. He appears to be doing quite well.

Elaine: Yes, Megan Telpner. She is doing very well. She worked in advertising, and she went on a trip and became very ill. It turned out she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, and she was determined to heal herself. She didn't like the treatments that were being offered to her, so she went back to school, left the career in advertising, and studied nutrition, but she brought her copywriting skills and visual skills to the business. She created a blog where she posted every day. I had her on a panel, and she told us she had posted every day for four years, so that's prolific, and gradually built up a following, and then her first product was PDF file that she sold by email because this was about 11 years ago, so it wasn't as easy to market certain things online. She sent it to people she knew. It was called the Three Day Green Smoothie Fast, and she sold it for $10.

Elaine: When that sold, it gave her a little bit of momentum and inspiration to up the ante, and she started introducing new products. She wound up writing two books under the UnDiet brand. It's her cooking methods and nutritional ideas, and then she, out of that franchise, created the Academy of Culinary Nutrition, where she teaches other people how to cook the way that she does. That's kept on growing. Now, she does some coaching, too, of people hoping to build their nutrition practices. She doesn't do one-on-one consulting anymore in the nutrition field. She's scaled her messaging through the school, and her writing, and other things that she does, and reaches a very wide audience that way.

Bryan: Yeah. I was struck by one particular thing you said, the consistency of her writing and how she published articles nearly every day for four years until she built an audience. You also hit a great point, which is that the tools 11 years ago were much harder to use and made it more difficult to market. Do you think the tools that are available today to people who want to set up a one person business, like a writer, for example, make it easier to market your work or to sell to customers and readers?

Elaine: Absolutely. One thing that has continued to grow is freelance platforms, so places like Upwork. For someone who's a new writer, that doesn't have a lot of connections, that can be a great place to start marketing your work.

Elaine: A lot of times, what I've found in my own business, is the best business that comes is through word of mouth because when people know your value, inherently you have an advantage in terms of getting paid what you're worth. When you're new, you have to start somewhere, so the platforms can be a really great way to build up your personal brand, and a lot of people stay on them and find that they get a lot of great recurring work as well, so that's a tool.

Elaine: General tools, think about the website. I remember, when I first started businesses 11 years ago, I was doing some consulting for a client and we were pricing out how much it would cost to build a website, which is a pretty simple website. At that time, it was $50,000. It had a little bit of an eCommerce component, but now with Shopify, with Weebly, with Squarespace, with WordPress, a lot of those tools have gotten so easy to use, you don't even need a web developer, and they're very inexpensive. You never spend $50,000 on a website for a company of the size that I was quoting. It sounds basic, but that's a very powerful tool.

Elaine: Our phone, right. There's so much you can do. You could just be sitting on the train, posting on social media, which has really only grown in the last 10 to 15 years, about your business, or engaging with customers that way. That's a very powerful tool. Literally, it's a sales tool, where you can actually sell your writing too.

Elaine: I know, when I go to book events for my book, sometimes they ask me to sell the book at a little table at the end of the event. Well, where am I selling them? On my phone, using Square. By the way, the phone has usually been used for a marketing activity, which is doing a Facebook Live of the event for people who are fans of the book and couldn't come, and it's tracking my mileage when I drive back from the event for my accountant.

Elaine: When you think about these low-cost tools that are accessible to pretty much everyone today, it's amazing what you can do as a writer, for sure.

Bryan: Yeah. I mean, even when is self-published a few years ago, it was quite difficult to do with the tools that were available then, whereas now, you can use a tool like Xulon to self-publish much more easily.

Bryan: One other thing I'm particularly interested in is how does somebody decide that a one person business is right for them, because you hear about many people who start a business, and then want to hire people, and scale it up, and turn it into something bigger?

Elaine: I don't think you have to decide at the outset. I think starting a business is a little bit like starting a family. You never know where things will lead and things are not entirely under your control.

Elaine: The first step is always, as a one person business or partnership in terms of starting up, right, you're not going to start with a team of 100, but my premise in the book, and my strong belief, is that if you build a very strong, profitable, in demand one person business or a partnership, then you'll have options. You can have the option of keeping it a boutique-sized business that offers you a great lifestyle, and often the highest profit that you'll get in the life of that business because as you add employees, the profits will go down, generally speaking, or you'll have the opportunity to scale.

Elaine: When I was fact checking the book, what I found hilarious was some of the owners had scaled beyond one person and they would apologize, and say, “Elaine, I'm so sorry, I don't think I can be in the book anymore because I hired somebody,” and I would say, “Awesome. That's great that you hired somebody because you knew that you needed to and you had the cashflow to support it because you ran a great one person business.” I'm definitely not against scaling. I think you have to see how much demand there is for what you're selling, and what you can charge for it, before you can figure out if you can support employees.

Elaine: There are lifestyle considerations too. Some people don't like to manage other people, and there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that you don't like to do that, and just keeping it very lean and having contractors, where it's a looser type of relationship, so you don't have to go through the process of recruiting in the most formal way, and setting up payroll, and all those types of activities, which some people are fine with, but some people just don't like.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I agree. When you don't have to spend time and energy on other people, you are free perhaps to work on your creative projects, which could be writing, or could be some other activity, or even just to take time off.

Bryan: One other thing I was particularly interested in is the idea of charging higher prices than your competitors. You talk there about one of the people in your book, who sold a PDF at a low price point, and you also talked about some people who have online courses that, I'm sure, they sell for almost higher price points. How do these people with successful one person businesses get to a place where they can charge a higher price point than their competitors?

Elaine: You have to be delivering value, so you have to be somewhat realistic about what you're offering. If you're a writer and it's your first year of being a professional writer, you're probably not going to be at the level you will be 10 years from now, so you may not be able to charge the highest possible prices right out of the starting gate, but if you're committed to getting better every day, and professional development, and just continual writing, because practice in this field is very, very important, you'll be able to charge higher prices. People will offer you higher prices because they'll see the value of your work, they'll see it being published out there and will know. just by reading it.

Elaine: These days, many of us don't have the heavy layer of the editing that used to exist. I remember when I was at Fortune, sometimes three editors on staff would read my copy. There might be even three copyeditors reading it, so you might have six people giving your work a second eye. That's very different than today's landscape, where you might be posting right onto a platform with no copyediting, let alone online editor, so people know that what they're seeing is somewhat unfiltered, and they can judge how polished your work is.

Elaine: That said, you do have to be active in looking at the value that you're providing. What you charged five years ago probably isn't appropriate if you're more experienced. Similar to in a job, where you might ask for a higher salary as you know your craft better. You have to be aware of it. Also, tracking metrics can be important. If you're doing something like copywriting, rather than journalism, then you may have opportunities to create reports for clients showing what results they have gotten from your work, so that can give you an argument in favor of charging more.

Elaine: I think what happens naturally, I know this happened in my own freelance business, you tend to undervalue your work a little bit in the beginning because even if you've been doing the work itself for a long time, you're just new to being in the business world. Over time, you'll start to see which clients are the most profitable, and I don't mean you should only take clients where you're just [inaudible 00:15:24] them high prices, but from both ends, it's a very reciprocal relationship. You're making enough profit to keep growing your business and they're getting really great results that allows them to grow their business. That's the idea.

Elaine: The other ones will fall away, where maybe it's a really big company and on paper they're paying you a lot, but they eat up all of your time, they don't respect your personal boundaries; it's Saturday night and they're calling you when you're out at dinner with your friends. You'll find that maybe that isn't worth it, and you'll have the luxury of having other clients and not having to say yes to that type of work.

Bryan: Yeah. It's great to have opportunities where you can say yes to work that excites you, and maybe turn down work that you're not quite as interested in. I know, in the past, I've had less success as a journalist when I've been more interested in copywriting, and that's something that's helped me, figuring that out.

Bryan: Of course, it's not all about just earning money for your business or to have more free time, you also talk in the book about how many of the people you feature had life long passions that they turned into businesses. I think there was one particular person you featured, Matt [Friel 00:16:24], who had a passion for video gaming. Do you think it's possible today for people to turn their passions into businesses like Matt Friel?

Elaine: Absolutely. I think that most of the types of businesses I profiled did emerge as passion. People need to make a living, of course, but the business in may ways is a means to an end, so that they can do what they love because when you have a corporate job, sometimes even if you're a writer on staff somewhere, half of your job is sitting in meetings, and administrative stuff, and office stuff, so you don't get that much time to actually do your craft. When you have your own business, there's a lot less of that type of activity, so you really can spend more time on creative work. I spend whole days where I'm just writing, and it's such a joy because it's what I love.

Elaine: I think for a lot of these folks, like Matt Friel, they get to do what they love. Now, he's a funny case. I have a little boy myself, and a lot of parents say to themselves, “My son or daughter, it often seems to be son, are playing too many video games. They should be out playing.” In his case, his parents thought it would be good for hand-eye coordination, so he got into it early and they, of course, kept it within limits, but he always had this passion. Years later, he realized that people like him, who have been lifelong fans of video games, like the vintage games, like the Mario Nintendo games, and so he started buying them up when they went on sale at Best Buy and places like that, and then he would resell them, and wound up building a business that way. I believe his revenue is about $3 million annually, and he did that through online sale.

Elaine: I laughed because I think, well, the parents who try to discourage their kids from too much screen time and that sort of thing, but in his case, it wound up paying off and he has a very active life. He does a lot of other things outside of the business, so it worked out really well to follow his passion.

Bryan: Three million in revenue, that's pretty impressive. Of course, I was struck there about what you said about spending your entire day writing and how that can be rewarding, but I would imagine, even for a writer, not all parts of the business are exciting or glamorous. Sometimes you have to do the work, even though you don't necessarily feel like it, so what does somebody do who feels passionate about something, but they've been working on it for a while and they're in a bit of a slump or they somehow need to get through it? How do they keep going and keep working on their business, even if they've lost a little bit of that initial motivation that they had at the start of the project?

Elaine: You have to have a balance in your workload. I often have projects where I just love doing them, but they either have a very long payday or they have a low payday, but they're personally important to me. You have to have some of those because otherwise you won't get excited about going to work, but you also have to have some financial sanity in your life too. You might have some bread and butter work. It might be writing routing web copy or something like that, that nobody is going to get super passionate about. Maybe it's like the third page of a website with the frequently asked questions, or something like that, but it pays the bills. You need that too, so you're not stressed because that can burn you out too, when your friends what to go out for drinks and you can't go out, or you can't pay your bills, or a tire blew out and now you can't drive your car until you save up the money to buy the tire. They will wear you down, so you do need the bread and butter work too.

Elaine: I think it's important to get out of the house if you're working from home, or even in a coworking space, and get some stimulation. Go to Meetup, or go to events in your industry, just to get out and talk to new people. It's really good for you.

Elaine: I know what I do, personally, every day. I have four children and I work from home, but even though I probably should be scrambling every single second that they're not here to get my work done before they get home from school, I have found over time that what gives me staying power is usually I do some type of a workout in the morning. I'll go to yoga, or go for a run, or go to a cycling class, and then I take another break often at lunchtime, and do something different. Say I did cycling, maybe I'll go to a yoga class, or something like that.

Elaine: It might sound sound a little fanatical, but it allows me to see other people, and so I'm not looking necessarily to be in a triathlon, or anything like that. I'm not doing it for that. It's more for the mental break and resetting my mind, so when I come back, I'm refreshed and I can also look at things with a new perspective, instead of I gotta hunker down and work for the next 10 hours. Sometimes I can think of a better solution, like you know what? This client is asking me to do something that maybe I shouldn't even be doing. Maybe this needs to be reworked by someone else before I even edit this. You'll come to things with a whole different mindset that saves you a lot of time, and then allows you the time then when the people you want to be with – in my case, my family – are home. You can actually do things with them, instead of being locked at your computer toiling away.

Elaine: I think that's important, but it kind of stems from getting out and being around other people, and not isolating yourself. Even if you're an introvert, you don't have to … When I'm in a yoga class, I'm not really talking to anyone. I'm there doing yoga, which is … Somehow, being around others is really, really important.

Bryan: Yeah. Yeah, I actually have spent a lot of time running and occasionally go to yoga as well, so I can empathize with what you're saying. Finally, I'm just curious, what's your number one tip for focusing on a project like writing a book over the long-term?

Elaine: You have to really think about why you're doing it because it is so much work and it's hard. If you really aren't passionate about the reasons you're doing it, it will be very hard to see it through.

Elaine: In my case, I just found every time I wrote about this topic, I really enjoyed it. It felt like there was a real thirst for the information in the marketplace. Every time I wrote pieces like this, I would hear from people, and a lot of them in very [inaudible 00:22:19]. There are people out there that are really connecting with this, and I have an opportunity to make an impact through this book. Even that drove me on.

Elaine: I'm actually working on my next book proposal, and as I've been working on it, I've been thinking, wow, I don't even remember what this was like. I think my mind purposely went blank because it was so hard. If I actually remembered how hard it was, I wouldn't do it again, but what has motivated me is it's the response of people like you, who connected with the book, and the many free agents out there around the world that write to me on social media. I've done events where I do panels for my book, and I meet them, and I see that it made a difference. That's been motivating me.

Elaine: Before you're at that point, when you're doing the first one, you really have to think about why, the whole why behind it. What will you bring to others through it and what will you gain from it by sticking with it, because it's not something where the payday is immediate from a book. Sometimes it could take a few years before you pay back the book advance. I know that's been the case with some of my friends, so you might not get any money from it other than the advance initially, so there's got to be something way beyond that, and getting focused on that. The yoga, and talking with friends, all those things will help you with that, also having an accountability partner. It could just be a good friend who checks in with you about this, how you're doing, and makes you feel a little guilty if you haven't been writing. That might be all it takes, but you need to put those things in place.

Bryan: Yeah. Yeah, I agree. Where can people find you and your book, Elaine?

Elaine: They can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter under my full name, Elaine Pofeldt, P-O-F-E-L-D-T, or on my website, themilliondollaronepersonbusiness.com. I hope they will write to me. I love hearing from other writers and from entrepreneurs. It helps make me a better journalist and writer, so please don't be shy about reaching out. I really welcome it.

Bryan: Thank you, Elaine. That was great.

Elaine: Thank you, Bryan. That was a lot of fun.

Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this podcast episode. If you did, please leave a rating on the iTunes Store, and if you want to accomplish more with your writing, please visit becomeawritertoday.com/join and I'll send you a free email course. Thanks for listening.

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