How I salvaged my failing SEO copywriting business

I know there are a lot of struggling freelancers out there trying to make enough to keep the lights on and build their business.

That’s why I counted myself lucky when Thunder Bay Media continued to perform for me.  Month after month I had inquiries through my site.  By mid 2010 I never had to go near freelance job sites because clients were breaking down my door to hire me.

That went on continuously and I burned the candle at both ends for years trying to keep up with all the work that came in, earning more than I ever had!

At least… it was great up until this last summer when my business all but imploded.

The success that I experienced was due to the fact that I did a lot of things right over the last few years.

  • I did some marketing here and there
  • I often revisited my content and focused on optimization
  • I used content marketing to build my visibility
  • Used educational content to help clients understand the value of my service (slashed my proposal/interview times and sold people on my services before ever calling me)

Now let me tell you where I went wrong and why my business collapsed beneath me abruptly:

Gas on the Candles:  I didn’t just burn the candle at both ends; I doused them in gasoline and lit them with flame throwers.  For years I worked 14+ hour days, even on weekends.  We took a trip to Disney – first family vacation ever.  I worked every day that week from the hotel room before we had family time.

The Result:  Complete and utter burn out that went on for months.  The only time I hit burnout this bad was when I was in EMS and had 6 months of nothing but patients who died in my ambulance or were already dead on scene.  This burnout made me hate writing, my clients, my office and everything about a self-made career I used to adore.

Little to No Marketing:  I know I said I did some marketing here and there – but it was nothing near the consistency we preach to clients.  I was so focused on all the work I had that I just kept pushing off my marketing.  “Do it tomorrow” went from days to weeks to months.  It didn’t help that I was so sick of writing from burn-out that I didn’t want to do anything for me.

The Result: As long-term clients finished up, orders started to trickle off.  Add to that the annual penny-pinching around September in a lot of regions coupled with tighter pockets around every presidential election and my business dried up – completely.  Two months with no new work and we were ripping through our savings quickly because my business had been fully supporting us since mid 2010.

Never Saying No: This goes right along with burnout.  Because the money was so good I never turned down a job.  Not only did this overwhelm me (hello burnout) but I took on bad clients that I never should have.  I had to devote extra time to fighting charge backs from clients who tried to steal their money back after work was completed.

The Result: I blew some deadlines which destroyed credibility with the good clients.  I had to turn down a job with one of the biggest energy suppliers in the Northeast because I was already so overbooked there was no way to squeeze them in.  Turned down an even bigger contract with Macy’s because I was overrun.  I didn’t spend enough time networking to even have an overflow of capable, trusted writers.

Operational Chaos: I prided myself on perfect book keeping for years.  Every invoice, every expense, every credit receipt, monthly P&L reports, etc.  When burn-out hit and I got overwhelmed, I lost my organization.

The Result: Some ugly money tracking issues and negative drafts on my business account.  I also completely forget one project after a deposit was made, forcing me to make a refund to a very upset client.  My projects got scrambled and I couldn’t prioritize things appropriately, resulting in some fubar’d deadlines and a lot of discounts on final invoices to make up for it.  Ultimately – money lost.

Picture me essentially sabotaging myself despite having a real head for business, referrals from every direction, and the ability to sell ice to Eskimos.  Come September I was faced with a very real problem:

I was going to have to close my business and go back to work just to make sure my family was fed and bills were paid.

I agonized and tried to figure out what went wrong for a week or so before finally deciding I should start looking for a job.  I threw my resume online and searched a bit, but it still felt wrong.  I wasn’t ready to give up yet.

I had to face harsh truths and look inward to admit what went wrong.  There’s no one else to blame.  I uncovered each of the points above and decided I wasn’t going down without a fight.

If I could save lives in the back of an ambulance doing 80 mph weaving through traffic, I could do this.

  • I immediately updated my site design to something more sleek and efficient and rewrote all the copy
  • I trimmed my services and increased my pricing (higher prices = better quality clients and you don’t work as hard to get paid as much)
  • I set limits on my work hours and stuck to it, forcing myself to schedule any new clients within available time blocks only.
  • More time with family  and hobbies to enjoy life and shake off the burn out.
  • Simplified backend operations to make it more efficient, requiring less of my time
  • Set client alerts for common red flags.  If I got an inquiry with these red flags, I would turn that client down.  No more saying “yes” to everything.
  • Marketing…  doing it.  Enough said.

The Result:  Within days of the new site design and copy I started getting flooded with orders again.  I was able to cherry pick the good clients and say no to the ones I could not or would not handle.  After two months of no orders and dire financial times where we were burning through savings, the business bounced right back to being profitable like nothing happened.

And I’ve learned some valuable lessons from it all that I was compelled to share in hopes of saving someone else from making a mistake I nearly made.

DO NOT take everything that comes your way or you risk serious burn out

DO take time not only for yourself and family, but also for marketing your business (daily if you can)

DO NOT focus on the pursuit of money – that’s the fastest route to burning out

DO become a champion for your own business, because no one else can be

DO NOT close your operation down, no matter how ugly it gets.  You can do it!

Lastly, DO invest in the courses that Heather offers.  I am in no way compensated for telling you that her SEO Copywriting Certification course and her business course will greatly reduce the chances of making grave errors in your business.  When things get ugly, what you can learn from Heather will save you.

If this post saves just one person from making the same mistakes I did, then I’m happy to have gone through hell and back.


Guest Author, Derek Cromwell

About the Author ~ Derek Cromwell

Derek Cromwell is a graduate of the Success Works SEO Copywriting Certification program and founder of  He fancies himself as a professional writer, peddling website copywriting and content marketing services to businesses around the globe.  He’s still trying to convince his family that he does more than sit at a computer playing Call of Duty all day, but they’re not buying it.


photo/image thanks to Sim, youn jin

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11 replies
  1. Debi says:

    Hi Derek –
    Read your article on my Work Anniversary Day – which couldn’t be more apropos!

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and your thoughts on creating balance between your work and personal life.

  2. Courtney Ramirez says:

    Derek – I could have written this myself (hopefully) one month into the future. I have been working like this for seven years, and although my prices have increased I am still struggling to set limits on my time. This weekend is my revamp and streamline – thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Christian says:

    Nice article Derek and thanks for the warnings. I’m no quitter so I hope business will go up again soon. Finally one comment, from The Netherlands your website is not reachable, is that correct? I see a Apace 2 Test Page.

  4. Herman Jooste says:

    Hi Derek, I have been there and have worked those same hours. It got to a stage where I had a lot of work and no money. Earlier this year I revamped my business model, got rid of all my small clients (I more than tripled my pricing), and have more work than ever from clients that pay. I am still struggling with the burnout. I still work insane hours and my family thinks I am a stranger. Worst of all I feel guilty if I take a time out.

  5. Kevin (UK-based copywriter) says:

    Congratulations on getting yourself back on track Derek.
    However, just out of interest, what kind of marketing did you specifically do?
    Direct mail? Email? Cold calling? Content marketing? SEO?
    And what type of clients did you specifically target? (Obviously not low grade ones.)

  6. Marianne Foscarini says:

    Great article, Derek. Thanks for sharing. Turning away clients is a huge obstacle for most of us. Learning to trust your instincts is good. But developing a proper marketing plan is better. And “just doing it” will hone those instincts and provide more potential customers to choose from. Thanks for the push to get back on track!

  7. Lucas MIlan says:

    These results are excellent. If someone doesn’t have experience in digital media and how to market it, they should go for an agency that can work on all the marketing aspects. What do you think about this?


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