Expert Q&A: Alan Black

Alan Black is director of Blackad Ltd. He writes digital copy, and teaches clients to do the same.

alan black1. When did you realise you wanted to start your own business?

Probably in the womb – many of my family members have their own small businesses. Joiners, chimney sweeps – you name it. That was a massive influence.

I also worked in part-time jobs when I was at school and university. Those shifts taught me something vital – don’t end up stuck in a job just because it’s there. You need to keep moving forwards.

Finally, when I landed my first copywriting role after university, it was obvious that the freelancers got paid a lot more than the staff. I was earning a low starter wage, and saw freelancing as the way to riches beyond avarice. (Or at least a slightly better class of lunchtime sandwich.)

2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

I did a few copywriting jobs for people I knew through the agency I worked for. My first big break came from a fantastic independent coffee roaster called Matthew Algie – a friend worked there.

I worked on everything from their packaging copy to their customer magazine. A fantastic introduction to the world of doing it on your own. They’re a client to this day – around 17 years later.

To begin with, I was freelancing in parallel with my regular job as copywriter. When I was earning more from freelancing than the 9-5, it was time to make the move.

The biggest hurdle was a psychological one. I needed to convince myself I could continue to pay the bills. So I put aside three months’ salary in savings and went for it.

3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

Happy clients breed more work. Which breeds more referrals. And so it goes. We get almost all of our big projects through word of mouth. Our website works well for us too, as do some very specific directories, such as the Econsultancy supplier directory and the Drum directory.

4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

Be clear about the scope of work from the beginning, and set clear expectations around rework and timings. Clients like to know what they’re going to get, and when. We’re also pretty ruthless about sticking to the costs we quote, unless the client really is being a bit cheeky by adding on extra  work. In truth, we’d rather swallow the difference than see a client have a tricky budget discussion with their boss.

5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

We work with big blue chip clients – banks, government departments and telecoms companies. So late payment is pretty  rare for us these days. Typically, we find it’s an oversight – and not malice – that’s behind the late payment.

New private sector clients have to pay us an engagement fee before we start work, and they need to make stage payments. Once they’ve established a line of credit with us, we move to a more civilised arrangement. Public sector clients are uniformly brilliant at paying, so we don’t worry about them too much.

We’ve got an excellent accounts person who gets our invoices out on time, sends out statements and chases up late payments over the phone.

Oh, and always, always get a purchase order number before you start the work. If the client doesn’t use a purchase order system, get them to confirm the order and the price in a quick email.

6. What does your typical work day look like?

Check emails before I leave the house. Get on the bike – ride the six miles to work and take a shower at the office. Rattle through the admin and the emails. Then flip between briefing calls, meetings and actually writing the copy.

I’m at it from around 8am to around 6pm. I try to keep evening and weekend work to a minimum, but sometimes it’s the only way to get a project delivered on deadline.

7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at Business Unleashed?

Outsource your invoicing and accounting to people you can trust. It’s the best decision I ever made – I can concentrate on the stuff that keeps our clients happy. While someone else can concentrate on making sure the cash keeps flowing.

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