Getting started as a freelancer can be daunting at the best of times. For many in Africa, Asia and across the world, content writing has become one of the most popular ways to earn a living as a freelancer. But is it really as easy as some people think?
And, for a non-native English speaker, what are the struggles that the average copywriter or content writer will face?
We caught up with Matthew Iyiola of Freelancematthew.com for his story about how he went from struggles to success as a Nigerian content writer.
Q: What’s your name and where are you based?
My name is Matthew Iyiola and I’m based in Nigeria. I was born and raised here and as at the time of writing, I’ve never left.
Q: Why did you decide to get into freelance content writing?
I guess it was really a way for me to earn online (like all those “make an extra 5k a month” gurus say.) There aren’t many jobs for young people in Nigeria and earning in a global market sounded really attractive.
Turns out, I was quite good at writing, so I just ran with it. Took a couple of courses, worked with a few agencies and just built up my skills from there.
As for specialising, it kind of stumbled onto it. I knew I had to specialise because there were a lot of challenges stacked against me and I needed to find a way to stand out.
I started by specialising in writing for the fitness industry because I love health and fitness. But then I started working with health and fitness coaches, and now I’ve broadened my horizon to focus on working with people in the coaching industry. Who knows what I’ll be specialising in tomorrow. Lol
I also pivoted into copywriting because I realised I actually understood the basics enough to be decent at it. I was lucky enough to land a couple of copywriting gigs, and when I delivered, the client actually got results. My copy actually worked!
And since copywriters earn way more than content writers (for the most part) I thought it might be smart to work in that direction. Plus, I get to stick out above the crowd as a copywriter because it’s on a different level, people recognize the value, and they are less likely to lowball me.
Q: What did you need to do to get started? What were the barriers to entry (if any) and how did you overcome them? Did you do any courses, need to buy equipment etc?
A friend actually drew me into it. He somehow got a writing gig with a client from the US. But he couldn’t write for shit (I wonder how he got it to begin with), so he outsourced it to me and paid me maybe 30% of the actual fee. After a while I figured I should try to get my own clients and get paid better for my services.
The barriers to entry were huge. I created an upwork account in the beginning and landing jobs was an absolute nightmare. I was new and from Nigeria (a non-native english country) so those odds were stacked against me. I submitted proposal after proposal and I could just feel my confidence dropping with each rejection or when the clients didn’t get back to me.
I tried everything to make it work. I took upwork certification tests. I recorded a video for my profile. I even took jobs with the most ridiculous rates just so I could get some reviews. But I didn’t find as much success as I knew was possible.
At this time, I started taking a ton of courses to learn and also for their certifications. I listed them on my LinkedIn and tried to include them in my upwork proposals. They didn’t seem to make a difference. I landed a couple of jobs, but the pay was shit and the success rate made me feel like I could find a better way to make things happen.
I already had a laptop at the time so I didn’t need to get any equipment.
Just thinking back to that time with upwork gives me palpitations. Haha. Hated, hated it!
Q: What has your experience been like with finding clients? Have there been issues with clients? For example not paying, pulling out when finding out you’re not based in UK/US, lowballing you etc
There were a ton of issues man. Lowballing was a big one. I remember one time, an upwork client was paying me $10 for 500 words. We completed a couple of contracts that way, then he came back and said he found someone else who could do the job for half the price.
He wanted me to match the price or he would leave. And I just couldn’t because when you take out upwork’s 20%, the rest couldn’t even cover my bandwidth bills.
Another problem was not being from the US/UK. Clients would explicitly state they must be native English speakers and then list countries they didn’t want applications from.
Even now that I’ve taken my business of upwork and instead focus exclusively on LinkedIn and networking, I still find people who don’t want to work with anyone outside the US/UK. I was recently passed up on an opportunity to be a remote content writer for a pretty big company, and their reason was that they had to hire someone in the UK for tax purposes.
That’s part of why I don’t really reach out to large companies. They either want to lowball me because of my country of origin or refuse to hire me outrightly.
As for the paying part, I’ve been pretty lucky to find reasonable people since leaving upwork. There’s this one client who didn’t want to pay me but I was smart enough to break the work into milestones. I immediately stopped working when the first miletone wasn’t settled.
I cut my losses and wasn’t too bummed because the amount wasn’t significant.
Q: Have you ever used any content platforms such as Upwork, Fiverr etc? What has your experience been like with this….?
Yes, Upwork. It SUCKED!!!
Q: What are your goals for your business? Have you hit any of them yet? How do you measure your success?
As ridiculous as it may sound, my goal in the beginning was to just not be treated like shit. I just wanted to meet people who would acknowledge that I could bring something to the table, and be willing to pay what I’m worth. I wasn’t even crazy about landing the jobs. I just wanted people to see me.
I’m lucky enough to have had that.
So the next goal was to land a couple of well-paying jobs and not worry about putting food on the table and paying for bandwidth. I’m lucky to have gotten that as well.
The new goal is to grow, increase my brand and get known by medium to large sized companies. At that level, I hope to be able to hire and train Nigerian writers and outsource work to them.
I know how hard it is to make it as a writer and I’d love to give them work, and basically provide a chance of success for them as well. I have a couple of Nigerian writers reaching out to me right now but I don’t have the time or resources to vet them, bring them up to speed skillswise, give them work, and actually pay them a fair sum.
I hope to get there pretty soon, though.
Q: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned since you started freelancing?
Making it as a Nigerian writer in the global market is not as hard as you might think (especially from the expected stigma of being a non-native speaker.) However, you’ll have to deal with a lot of tough choices and try new and scary things to actually get there. I know now that it’s possible, and I basically have the roadmap to do it again if I had to.
I might not be as lucky the second time around to meet the same amazing and open minded people, but I’m sure I can make it happen.
Q: What advice would you give anyone from Africa/Asia etc looking to break into freelancing?
Get as much experience as you can. Take on a few shitty low paying jobs just to understand what clients are looking for. Many of these jobs actually trickle down from the kind of companies you want to work with anyway.
It’s also a good idea to work with a couple of agencies, no matter how small the pay. The experience will also be invaluable.
Finally, when you want to start earning the big bucks (and think you have the skills to deliver), you should probably go off upwork. Explore opportunities where your personality can shine through. You’re already at a disadvantage on freelancing platforms because your location is one of the first things people see.
What you want to do is leverage on what makes you unique, let people see that. I know it sounds a little corny, but it works! And if you’re half as good as most freelancers, you’ll make steady progress.
Q: What was an unexpected challenge you faced?
Getting paid was a challenge I never thought I’d face. Back when I was on upwork, the platform allowed you to add a local bank account, but the conversion rate was highway robbery. They would convert usd to my local currency for 30% less than it was worth. So after paying 20% to upwork, I’d lose another large chunk to exchange.
When I struck out on my own, it was even worse. Most platforms didn’t support Nigerian users and the ones that did were still pulling the same exchange BS (including payoneer.)
Recently, a Nigerian startup solved this problem and started giving us fair rates which has been a massive blessing. The best part is that they serve all of Africa and integrate pretty well with payoneer.
The service is www.grey.co in case you wanna include it. They are awesome!
Now I can receive payment globally and still get a fair exchange rate. Doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but trust me, it is.