Note from Yaro: This blog post was originally a two-part series I wrote in January 2005, shortly after this blog was first created. I combined the two parts into this one article, which details how I started and grew my online editing business, BetterEdit. I was still 100% focused on the business when I wrote this, and very new to blogging. Enjoy!
Now that I have been running BetterEdit for a number of years and having started and closed or sold a number of other small enterprises along the way, I can look back on what I have done.
During this time I have learned to focus and take action to a much greater depth than I used to. I have also learned and begun to practice working on online one project at a time. I think now is a good time to take you through a brief history of my entrepreneur’s journey so you can see the processes I went through to significantly improve my focus and thus my business results.
The BetterEdit Origin Story
I started BetterEdit around 2000-2001. I received the initial idea from www.cyberedit.com (now http://www.essayedge.com) after reading a news article in a Yahoo magazine about Geoff Cook the founder of the business.
Geoff started his business in 1997 editing student entrance essays to get into colleges in the United States. Without going into too much detail, Geoff’s business was very successful and he himself became a millionaire. This article from Wired Magazine is one of the most important publicity articles Geoff received and really helped to increase his exposure and inform the consumer of his business.
I took the idea and applied it to the Australian marketplace, which is a bit different because students don’t have to write an entrance paper to get into university. However there are a lot of international students with English as a second language in Australia, so I believed that proofreading and editing could be a market.
At the time I had just completed a group essay project, which was a perfect case study experience for me. One of my group members from Asia had awful English and I spent a whole night editing his writing. I had also just learned HTML and was eager to build websites as I was falling in love with the Internet.
My mother’s partner was out of work and being a trained teacher was quite a capable editor, so I had all the ingredients. I spent a couple of days building the website and a business was born.
Fairly soon after the launch of the website I left the business to focus on my studies. I wasn’t in the right place in my life to devote the energy BetterEdit needed.
The business stagnated for a year, but it was not completely dead because we had a few loyal clients. It wasn’t growing because no one was doing anything to market it.
Fast forward to 2003 and I had just returned from a trip to Tasmania with a girlfriend. This was meant to be the start of a fruit picking journey around Australia but ended prematurely. I also broke up with my girlfriend. I had no job, I was a business graduate with no desire to return to studies and no commitments to anything. Talk about an opportunity!
I decided to give BetterEdit a really good shot and went to work on it. Over the first few years without me, my family had managed to locate one or two good contract editors by sending job notices to the local universities. I checked that they were still willing to receive editing work, which they were. The website was still up and the email systems were working fine. All I needed to do was get the word out that our service was there.
When I returned focus to my business I was starting with the infrastructure in place, a few thousand dollars in savings and a desire (or lack of) to never get a full-time day job. I should also point out that most of my friends were in full-time day jobs just out of university and earning nice graduate salaries.
My dad suggested I get a normal job first, get some experience and then maybe do my own thing. Alas, my desire to control my own timetable dictated that I didn’t want to be ANYWHERE before 9AM, especially working for someone else, so I decided working on BetterEdit was worth a shot for at least the freedom of choice it allowed me regarding my working hours. Let’s not forget I totally believed in the idea as well, so I had to give it a proper shot.
The Australian Government Lends A Hand
One day I was driving in the car with my dad and I was talking about how I knew if I could just get the word out there my business would be successful. If I had more money for advertising I could try many different things.
My dad started talking about a friend of his that was getting paid to write a book. I asked my dad if I could speak to this guy. One phone call later and I had learned about the New Enterprise Incentives Scheme (NEIS) program.
The NEIS program is a government funded scheme that pays ‘life support’ income to you every two weeks for a year while you run your business. I went to an information session about the program, and two months later, after writing a business plan, fronting a panel interview and securing a mentor, was officially on NEIS support.
I received just under $200 AUD per week, which technically I was supposed to use to support myself while running my business. Since I was still living at home with minimal expenses I could use the money towards marketing BetterEdit.com.
If you are an Australian and you would like to learn more about the NEIS program try googling for the latest info about it. If you are not an Australian I suggest you hunt around for similar business start-up grants or sponsorship programs as they can provide much-needed cash and mentoring.
The NEIS program did two things for me –
- It gave me a little cash-flow to play with
- It confirmed psychologically that I was running my business full-time and taking it seriously
I can’t stress how important that second point was for me. I now had justification to work full time towards making my business successful. I was getting paid to do it.
With a new found determination, I went to work to get my business off the ground.
Marketing My Online Business
How do you market an online editing business? That is a tough question!
I’m still not sure how best to do this but back a few years ago I had tested only one method, putting up posters at university campuses.
I knew this worked to a degree, but being a good business student I had a lot more ideas to try, and try I did.
Here are the methods I tested to market my business…
1. Buying Ads In Print Magazines
Over the next twelve months I tried the following methods to advertise (this is not in sequential – it’s all a bit of a blur now as I think back on this time):
I collected all the magazines at the newsagent that targeted writers. There weren’t many but I figured this would be a good way to reach the author/writer market all around the world.
I researched all the ad rates for each magazine. Unfortunately, it was just too expensive to do a traditional advertisement but a few magazines had classified sections which were under $100 to advertise in, so I tested this method. One American magazine I put an ad in for three issues, two others for one issue. The result, not one client initially, but fast forward about six months and I got one query.
Not a good start.
I decided to focus only on the student market and would leave the author and business editing markets for a while.
I came across a business in Australia that specialized in advertising in campus newspapers. They acted as an agent for a bunch of the leading student produced publications at the biggest universities around Australia.
I decided to spend up big on this one, which was a mistake. I should have tested smaller.
I can’t remember how much I spent exactly, but around $1,000-$2,000 went in to target a lot of university campuses. I don’t recall picking up one client from this method, but I wasn’t very good at tracking referrals back then.
Needless to say, my overall Return On Investment (ROI) was poor.
I came to the conclusion that the people that read student papers were not my market. I don’t think international students struggling with English will pick up a campus magazine. More often these publications serve as an outlet for budding journalists and activists to have a rant about whatever issue was pissing them off at the time. Political wannabes, union members and social activists were reading these publications, certainly not my target market.
2. University Student Clubs And Societies
I decided that not only was I going to target students, it was international students that really were my primary marketplace. My niche was narrowing.
How do you reach international students? I thought international student clubs and societies, of which there are many at every university, were worth trying.
You’d think it would be easy to sponsor clubs and societies at universities. They always seem to be running an event so I expected them to be eager to contact me after I tempted them with the sponsorship carrot. It wasn’t the case though.
Initially, I hit resistance from student unions to even just get the contact details for clubs and when I finally did locate email addresses or leave notes in pigeon holes, the response was poor.
It turned out that the small clubs were so disorganized that they could never get their act together to work with me and the big clubs were so professional I had to spend $500 to get even the tiniest amount of exposure.
I spent $500 in cash and prize sponsorship to sponsor a huge talent competition run by a group of Taiwanese clubs. This let me run a PowerPoint slide along with the other sponsors at the event. My slide was shown about every ten minutes for about ten seconds during the whole show on two large projectors. My banner was also listed as a sponsor of the event in the event timetable brochure.
The net result: three queries and one job. Again this was very bad ROI.
During this time I also arranged to have little ads in email newsletters sent to various clubs and had flyers distributed in welcome bags during orientation week. Neither of these methods proved very fruitful.
3. Free Publicity Using Press Releases
I had more success in terms of ROI when I managed to get some free publicity in a local newspaper and in a small pocket-sized Internet magazine. I was actually surprised at how easy it was to arrange and it only cost me time.
As I wrote earlier, Geoff Cook used his story as a tool for free publicity. A young person running an Internet business from his dorm room at Harvard during the Dotcom Boom was something interesting and helped him get unbelievable free coverage that literally pushed the awareness of his business to a global scale. I didn’t expect that outcome, but I could certainly leverage my age as a story.
I had recently made it to the top 100 finalist round of a fairly well known Australian youth business plan competition called the Nescafe BigBreak. I didn’t get to the winners stage where I could compete for cash, but I thought it was a good selling point and something I could use for publicity.
I wrote out a small press release highlighting my age, that I was a young person starting an Internet business and that I had recently been a finalist in a national youth business competition.
I tried to make it as easy as I could for a journalist to use my story and emailed off three different sized press releases and some media captures of my business logo and website. I sent it to the editors and journalists of my local papers and Internet related magazines.
Two responded positively and I got a feature article in the North West News and NetGuide magazine.
Posters Still Provide The Best ROI
During the time I experimented with different marketing methods, I never stopped putting out posters every week. I made sure that each university campus in my hometown had a fresh run of posters at least every three weeks (I planned for every two but I got lazy).
Most of the editing jobs were coming from posters, repeat clients or word of mouth referrals (people recommending our service to friends).
Since posters cost me about $0.04 each and a little labor and time, it was providing much better ROI than any other method I tried. While walking around campuses putting up posters was becoming very tiring and I dreamed of the day I could hire someone to do it for me, it was very good for me physically too. The exercise and opportunity to get away from the computer and be outdoors was refreshing my mind.
Often I came up with ideas while walking around a campus. The exercise and ‘meditation’ of doing something repetitive and mundane was helping me be more productive and ultimately helping my business.
After these marketing experiments, I continued to test different promotional methods. In particular, I started to increase my online marketing methods. I posted in forums and newsgroups, wrote more press releases, worked on my website copy, and built incoming links to help my website improve search engine rankings.
BetterEdit Founder (Exited In 2007)