How to Survive Your First Recession (or Any Other Disaster) as a Freelance Copywriter

How to Survive Your First Recession (or Any Other Disaster) as a Freelance Copywriter

While the world at large is discovering Zoom and hoarding toilet paper, I am celebrating a milestone in my freelance copywriting business.

No, it wasn’t hitting the six-figure mark.

And no, I didn’t score an interview on an episode of MarieTV. At least yet.

It’s that I received the following email from a client in response to the COVID-19 outbreak around the world….

And I turned down the offer.

Before you type out a “WHY DIDN’T YOU TAKE THE OFFER TO GET PAID EARLY” comment, let me be clear…

I am grateful that after years of hard work, I attract clients who give a eff about their freelancers.

But I prepared my business for moments like this.

Did I predict that a pandemic would single-handedly destroy the world economy in a few weeks? Not necessarily.

But thanks to a decade of work as a disaster policy researcher and emergency manager, I know there’s a way to plan for a recession, pandemic or anything else that could put you out of business.

So I made the most of my social distancing time and broke it down for you – step by step.

By the time you finish this article, you’ll learn…

  • Why government officials don’t know a thing about running a business (let alone preparing them)
  • What the world’s greatest copywriting formula can teach you about emergency planning
  • The 5 types of emergency scenarios your business should be thinking about

So turn off Netflix, grab a cup of coffee or tea, and let’s get started.

Why government officials don’t know a thing about running a business (let alone preparing them)

Here’s the truth:

Most government workers advising businesses on emergency planning don’t have a clue what it means to run a business.

And when I say “most”, I mean me. Back then, at least.

Why would I? I had a 50 hour work week, $0 deductible health insurance (Good luck finding that as a freelancer), and a pension plan. So when I gave up my cushy government job to become a freelance copywriter, I found myself imagining all the things that could go wrong with my new career.

Like what happens if I have no clients for months on end?

What if I lose our Internet connection right before an important presentation?

Or what if I (gulp) expose myself to a killer virus with no known cure?

So I went back to my own experience as an emergency manager. What exactly did I tell business owners when they asked for advice on how to get prepared?

First, I would have scheduled an hour-long presentation and showed a video similar to this

View in FEMA Multimedia Library

Then I would send them to a website with worksheets like the one on Knowing Your Risks below…

And assuming that these 2 things didn’t bore the living daylights out of them, I might send over the following business continuity planning diagram from Ready.gov.Source: Ready.gov

Did I do my duty as an emergency manager? Sure.

Did this help business owners protect themselves from an emergency? Probably, but who has the time to do it all? We’re called “small businesses” for a reason.

So forget I showed you any of that, and let’s talk about what you can do to get your business prepared, using a copywriting formula you may be familiar with.

What Problem, Agitation, Solution Can Teach You About Emergency Planning

If you’ve ever written a single line of copy, you should know that the world’s greatest copywriting formula is Problem, Agitation, Solution (P.A.S.).

Why does P.A.S. work so well? Because it’s simple, it’s effective, and it takes the reader seamlessly through the stages of awareness.

And emergency managers do the same thing to practice their emergency plans. We just call it a tabletop exercise.

For emergency management newbies (Which is probably 99% of you because you’re reading a copywriting blog), here are 4 phases of running an emergency preparedness program:

  1. Planning,
  2. Implementation,
  3. Testing & Exercise, and
  4. Program Improvement.

Source: Ready.gov

Planning is more or less writing all the procedures of what you would do if a disaster happens and putting in a giant 3-ring binder…

Testing & Exercise is what happens when the entity (in this case, your business) goes through the mental or physical process of seeing if what you wrote down as a procedure works for a specific scenario.

So once you Plan, you Implement what you wrote down, run through a Test or Exercise, and then do Program Improvement as a result of the Test or Exercise.

Anyway, within Testing & Exercises are various types of drills you can do within an emergency management program, and the one you need to know about is called a tabletop exercise.

A tabletop exercise is one of the lowest-touch exercises to pull off because all it takes is a select group of people, a few hours and a conversation centered around a scenario or two.

It works because you verbally or mentally walk through a Problem, Agitation, and Solution…

And you can do it without, errr… physically recreating an emergency…

Or experiencing a real emergency first-hand.

twister

Now that you understand what a tabletop exercise is let me walk you through 5 emergency scenarios that could affect your freelance copywriting business.

The emergency scenarios are:

  1. You can’t work for an extended period
  2. The physical place you work is malfunctioning or uninhabitable
  3. External threats to your business assets
  4. You are under government order to stay where you are
  5. You lose work or can’t find work due to economic conditions

I’ll give you a specific example of each and break it down using the Problem, Agitation, Solution formula.

ONE: You can’t work for an extended period

Something like: A chronic disease diagnosis or a heavy body injury (Like getting into a car accident).

Problem

You’re feeling tired and burnt out from serving clients, writing a book, and pursuing a graduate degree. You decide to take some time off to do self-care and schedule that yearly checkup you’ve been putting off for the last 15 years.

You notice something’s off with your body and let your doctor know, who orders a scan “just to be safe,” but thinks you’re fine. Which you are. Phew.

Agitation

3 months later, you go back in for another scan “just to be safe,” and what was “fine” 3 months ago is a tumor. So you go back for surgery to remove the growth. And then do another 9-hour surgery so tumors don’t come back.

The surgery went fine, but the doctors also think you might have bladder cancer too.

Oh, did I mention that your dad died in a car wreck a few weeks ago?

Solution

Note that this isn’t a B.S. scenario; this was my husband’s life in 2015. He’s been cancer-free since 2016. I won’t bore you with the details of his recovery, but I will leave you with this photo of us before his 9-hour surgery.

Assuming this hasn’t happened to you, let me take you through my thought process of planning for the possibility of cancer relapse. Ultimately, it came down to 3 things…

1. Really good health insurance

If you’re a freelancer, health insurance sucks. It’s even worse when you’re dealing with a chronic disease that requires regular lab work and tests.

So I focused on changing our business structure to qualify for a group health insurance plan. It’s almost (but not quite) as good as what I had as a full-time employee.

2. Long-term disability insurance

We decided against purchasing long-term disability insurance but it’s worth mentioning. Buying a long-term disability policy can give you up to 90 days worth of wages if you can’t work for whatever reason.

3. Life insurance

We also decided against this. Life insurance doesn’t make sense if you have a pre-existing health condition, but it’s worth some research if you’re a healthy individual and want to make sure your family is taken care of if something happens to you.

To sum it all up

Based on my personal experience, preparing for this scenario is all about figuring out how you can cover costs if you can’t earn income for an extended period.

If buying insurance is difficult or not an option, you could sub all of these things by having an emergency fund.

TWO: The physical place you conduct your work is malfunctioning or uninhabitable

Something like: A power outage, fire, hurricane, tornado, earthquake.

Problem

It’s a cold winter day, and the weather forecast is predicting the biggest snowstorm in 15 years. Meteorologists are recommending that people stay off the highways and work from home.

You live on a giant hill and don’t own an all-wheel-drive vehicle, so you’re most likely stuck inside your house anyway when the storm hits. Luckily, you’re a freelancer. Your commute is down the stairs and to the right.

Agitation

Except your power is known to be a problem, especially in the winter. About an hour before you’re about to give an important copy presentation, the lights start flickering and BOOM, your power is out.

Meaning? Your Internet is out—no Zoom call for you today.

Solution

Note: This exact situation hasn’t happened to me yet, but I know it’s coming considering my power goes out all. the. time.

So what would I do?

1. Keep an eye on the weather

Simple enough, right? You can do this by watching the local news, using a mobile app, or listening to an all-hazards radio if the power is already out. I like to go to the source and read National Weather Service alerts.

2. Have a backup mode of communication with my clients (and another backup to the backup)

If I think that the weather is going to be a problem, I reach out to my clients in advance to figure out an alternative mode of communication.

To make sure my cell phone doesn’t lose power, I keep it on the charger AND make sure I have a battery pack charged in case the call runs long.

3. Buy a generator

In this scenario, the power may be out…but the Internet likely isn’t.

So my husband and I finally took the plunge and bought a generator to run the electrical circuits to our router during a power outage.

I don’t recommend doing this unless you have a family member or friend who knows something about wiring electricity, but it’s worth mentioning.

To sum it up

Hazards like snowstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes are going to happen… but it’s ultimately up to you to control how they affect your business.

In general, this scenario is all about staying aware of what’s going on with where you live and making sure you have a backup plan if your Internet, power, or software tools stop working.

THREE: There is an external threat to your business’s money or assets

Something like: Equipment theft, an IRS tax audit, or a business deal goes south.

Problem

You’re an aspiring copywriter who wants to get a few clients under your belt. After creating a profile on Upwork, you score your first gig with an agency! You’re excited to start…but the contract they sent over is full of typos.

Agitation

To make sure you’re doing the right thing, you ask a close friend to look over the contract. Meanwhile, the agency needs to run a background check and asks you to scan in your driver’s license and your social security card.

When your friend Googles the agency, they find reviews of people who say there’s no work available, and it’s all a scam to steal your identity. You immediately stop contact…but they already have your information.

Solution

A friend of mine went through this situation when she was looking for temp work after finishing graduate school. Luckily she never got as far as giving out her social security number, but what if she had?

Here’s what I’d do if this happened to me…

1. Turn on credit monitoring

You can do a lot with a driver’s license and a social security number, so I’d personally be on the lookout for whether new credit card accounts get opened in your name.

2. Change your passwords

Did you know that an email address and password are only worth about $2.30 on the dark web? So basically, if a cybercriminal has some of your personal identifying information (Like a driver’s license or a social security number), they can pay someone for the other data needed to go on a major shopping spree.

Source: Keeper Security

In general, it’s not a bad idea to check that all your online accounts all have unique, hard-to-guess passwords. I like to keep mine in a password safe like 1Password.

3. Get a really good lawyer

It’s nice when your friends are willing to read over your business contracts, but it’s nicer when that friend happens to be a lawyer.

Why? Because they know what red flags to look for. I’ll never forget what a friend once told me about using a lawyer to review contracts…

It’s not that I don’t trust [them]. It’s that I don’t want to trust [them].

For more on picking out a lawyer for your business, check out these Copywriter Club podcast episodes with legal experts Christina Scalera and Danielle Liss.

To sum this up

The work we do as freelancers on the Internet makes us highly susceptible to cybercrime like this scenario. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what you’re doing to make sure your information (and your clients’ information) is secure.

I like this checklist from Techlore if you’re looking for ideas on how to protect your business.

FOUR: You are under government order to stay where you are

Something like: An active shooter event, terrorist event, biological agent attack or pandemic.

(AKA everything you wish you’d known a month ago.)

Problem

A few dozen elderly patients at a long-term care facility 5 miles from your house develop symptoms of a new flu-like virus with no known cure.

You’re concerned and make a point to avoid running errands in the area, but it doesn’t necessarily affect your business since you have clients from all around the world.

Agitation

The local school district shuts down after officials discover that students from some of the high schools regularly volunteer at the same long-term care facility. Because it’s not clear how the virus spreads, they switch all their students to telelearning.

All of a sudden, you’re not just juggling client work – you’re now homeschooling your kids. Also weirdly enough, there’s no toilet paper to be found anywhere.

Solution

I do live 5 miles away from THE long-term care facility in Washington state, but luckily, my daughter is only a year old, meaning her “curriculum” is more songs and fingerplays.

Which is already overwhelming. So imagine if she had real school. With classes and homework.

Here’s what I’d do…

1. Outsource whatever you can

You still need to do the stuff that makes your household run. So let Instacart deal with finding toilet paper, yeast, or whatever else people are stockpiling.

Plus, you’re giving work to people who need it right now. Just make sure to set up a sanitization station.

2. Block your calendar

I’m complete crap at this, so I’ll defer to the experts: Jo herself and this awesome webinar Nikki Elbaz put together.

3. Stay as healthy as possible

This is a pandemic, people. Meaning that even if you don’t have the killer virus, you want to avoid going to the emergency room.

So take your vitamins. Stock up on over-the-counter medications like Tylenol and Benadryl. Learn some basic first aid. Basically, do whatever you can to avoid physically going to the doctor.

To sum it all up

Pandemics are hard to take seriously because they only happen every hundred years. You can’t see them, and nothing can be done to prevent the spread of disease beyond washing your hands a ton and avoiding close contact with people.

However.

The benefit of a pandemic is that there is advance notice, so it’s never a bad idea to stay updated on the news around the world and prepare for a “stay at home” scenario by stocking up on extra food, water, and other supplies.

As for the sudden switch to telemedicine and K-12 distance learning…never in a million years would I have written that into a tabletop exercise. Well played, COVID-19.

Scenario #5: You lose work or can’t land work due to economic conditions

Something like: Economic recession, deflation, or inflation

Again, we have real-life to draw inspiration from!

Problem

A killer virus with no known cure infects hundreds of thousands of people around the world, putting all financial markets around the world into a recession.

You’re concerned, but you’ve positioned yourself as an industry expert and have delivered great wins for your clients. But now you’re not sure if it’s the right time to raise your rates.

Agitation

Your long-time client sends you a Slack message, asking you to meet outside your regularly scheduled time. You later find out that their major investors have pulled out, meaning they can no longer afford your services.

Solution

I hate to be the pessimist here, but this could happen to any of us in the next coming weeks.

Read on for some ideas on what you can do to keep your business afloat.

1. Expand your niche

Remember all that advice about finding your niche? It works like crazy during a period of economic prosperity…but it might not work as well if the industry you picked is crumbling as we speak.

So think outside the box. What other experiences can you draw from that could help people right now? Do your current clients need additional services beyond copywriting?

It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s something that could help you pay the bills IF you needed it.

2. Go through every business expense and ask yourself, “Do I need this?”

Yeah, I know it’s boring. But every transaction matters right now. If your boat were sinking, you’d start throwing non-essential items overboard. The same goes for your business.

You can import your transactions into a tool like Mint or Quicken for further analysis. But honestly, I prefer to print out my bank and credit card statements and go through them with a highlighter.

Source: NORTHFOLK on Unsplash

3. Apply for financial assistance with the Small Business Association (SBA)

If all else fails and you need to cover payroll or other expenses sooner than later, the Small Business Association can help. Some of them are grants; some of them are loans.

Obviously, read the fine print. If your business strapped for cash, there is no shame in asking for help. That’s what the government does best in an emergency.

Now it’s your turn

You and I could come up with scenarios all day even worse than reality (Zombies, anyone?). Still, it doesn’t change the fact that as a copywriter, you already have the skills you need to survive your first recession, pandemic, or any other disaster that could put you out of business.

By simply using the Problem, Agitation, Solution formula, you can walk through almost any situation and figure out ways you might prepare or respond to them.

Again, the 5 types of emergency scenarios are…

  1. You can’t work for an extended period
  2. The physical place you work is malfunctioning or uninhabitable
  3. External threats to your business assets
  4. You are under government order to stay where you are
  5. You lose work or can’t find work due to economic conditions

And if you’re still not convinced this exercise is worth the time, keep in mind that 40-60% of businesses never reopen after a disaster.

Besides time, what do you have to lose – especially if it could prevent your career as a freelance copywriter from becoming part of a statistic?

Give it a try, come up with your own scenarios, and let me know what you think.

Stay safe,

Sophia

P.S. Struggling to figure out what you actually need to get your business prepared for an emergency? I’m working on a checklist for you. Sign up here to get notified when it’s live.

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