HerStory 7 - Debbie Stuttard
Today's blog guest is the wonderful Debbie Stuttard! I met Debbie a few years ago in the supper club scene in Manchester. Since then, we've both moved away from our adopted city, so it's great to catch up and hear all about her freelance copywriting business as well as the journey she's taken to get here.
Hey Debbie! Thank you so much for joining me! For everyone reading, do you want to tell us a little bit about your business?
I’m a freelance copywriter and have been doing this for five years now (it still feels new). I specialise in b2b and legal, although I will take on consumer brands if I think I can do them justice.
When I started my business, I dabbled in a bit of all sorts – web build, strategy, social media, PR etc. And, while I still do this for a couple of long-standing clients, I now only offer copywriting services. Mainly because I prefer writing to all other forms of marketing (and I’m not reliant on anyone else!).
Today, more and more businesses are looking for freelancers who are specialists in their field, so it makes sense to be an expert rather than a generalist. However I do work with a network of freelancers who are all brilliant at what they do.
I love your honesty in taking on clients that fit your specialism. I think there's very much a culture at the moment of trying to please too many and not really hitting the mark with anyone. All about playing to your strengths and interests. You've been on a bit of a varied career journey - what were you doing before you set up your business?
I wish I could tell you I’ve always been passionate about marketing but that would be a lie.
I started my career working for a MP as a political researcher/PR assistant. I was 100% set on a career in politics, and the marketing side was just something I had to do to get there. However, I soon fell out of love with politics due to the reality of daily shenanigans (long story!). When I left politics, PR was the obvious choice due to the experience I had gained.
Since then all my roles have been in marketing, but the most challenging was working for a b2b marketing agency in Manchester. I was there for five years, but I eventually grew tired of the demands of agency life. That said, my time there set me up with all the skills I needed to do what I’m doing now.
Huge change from the world of politics! There's so many stories of entrepreneurs being fed up of the corporate world and deciding to go alone. What was the main defining moment that made you take the leap to go freelance?
After the leaving the agency, I took a role as a marketing manager at a law firm. It quickly became apparent that the firm was in trouble and just a few months later it was threatened with administration. While I was reassured that my job was safe, it did make me think about how – as an employee- I was always at the mercy of someone else. So, as I knew redundancies were on the cards, I took the leap and went freelance. My boss was hugely supportive, and the law firm became my very first client.
I think sometimes, it doesn't matter the reassurances of other people, ultimately you've got to look after number one. Hugely proud of you for taking that leap into the unknown! As rewarding as it can be being your own boss, it can also be ridiculously stressful and consuming. How do you manage juggling your job and self care?
Honestly, my job is my self-care. I developed severe anxiety when working at the marketing agency and removing myself from that situation saved me. Today I work 9-5, Mon-Fri, and rarely take on work if it means I have to give up my free time.
I start my day by taking the dog for a walk, I stop for lunch, and I say no to potential new clients if I get a bad vibe. That doesn’t often happen (just two or three times in the last five years), but I can always tell if someone is going to be difficult. So I work with people I like, doing work I like, during hours I like. I’m very, very lucky.
I love that...'my job is self care'. It really is so important to set those boundaries and ensure your job works for you and not the other way round. Pooches help everything too! What impact has your job satisfaction had on you personally and mentally?
I’m a different person these days. I always strive to do a good job and make my clients happy, but I manage my anxiety at the same time. This means I do a better job for my clients and I’m happier and healthier all-round. I can’t stand the LinkedIn ethos of “always be working”. Anyone who lives life like that is missing out on all the good stuff! There is a good chance that they are also a dick.
Ha! This is SO true! The 'busy badge of honour' is something I'm very wary to not fall into the trap of. Working at your own pace and doing it in a way that brings pleasure is so important to get the best out of ourselves and our clients too.
We do bits of writing too, and sometimes (especially when anxiety is kicking off) we can struggle to put words to paper. How do you handle a writers block?
My first love was Stephen King, and he said: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” And yes, I know that sounds like LinkedIn bollocks.
I’m a copywriter, not a novelist. I write about the law, about plumbing parts, about cloud technology and exhibition stands, so writer’s block isn’t an issue. I do the research, put some words on paper and then make them mean something. It’s really not that hard. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t times when my brain is frazzled and I can’t write anymore. When that happens, I stop and take a break.
And that's so important to listen to those warning signs from your body too. From experience, trying to force a bit of work out can end up being counter productive. The world of digital is CONSTANTLY changing; how do you stay on top of trends in the world of copy writing?
I don’t (aside from keeping up with SEO). Trends come and go, and if you work in wider marketing, you need to know them. But as a copywriter you need to know three things:
· Who are you talking to and what do they need from you?
· What messages does the client want to convey and what do they want their audience to do?
· How can you write in a way that keeps the audience and the client happy?
When I first started out, I spent loads of time delving into strategy and trends, but it ALWAYS comes back to these three things. So, rather than charging my clients for additional insight that they don’t need, I keep my costs low and just crack on.
That's such a strong attitude to have. I think there's a lot of info being thrown around in the digital industry about trends and updates etc, but I'm finding a lot of it is white noise and probably making it appear to be A LOT more complicated than it needs to be. Of course there's major things to keep track of, but the finer intricacies I've learnt to not get too caught up on. People often lose sight of the fundamentals of marketing by constantly chasing their trend tails.
Other than keeping up with trends (or not!), what's the biggest struggle or difficulty you've had to overcome?
Two years ago I lost my biggest client when it went into administration. Not only did I lose out on £5k worth of invoices, but I was also left with very little work coming in. At that point I thought I might have to go back out and get a real job (*shudder*). But luckily things picked up and I got through it.
That's the biggest fear of any freelancer! The thought of giving in and going back to fully employed life is horrid and I'm so pleased things picked up quickly! I truly believe clients come and go at the right time and for the right reasons; for good or bad. It's just difficult to believe that sometimes when we've got bills looming.
Moving on from the crappy things about being freelance - what would you say your proudest moment so far is?
Probably the little things. I know that work I’ve done has helped win awards – even though my name is not associated with it – and that’s great. But when you get an email from a client saying how much they love working with you, or that you’ve helped them out of a fix, that’s what matters.
It's those bits of job satisfaction that drive us and keep us going. Especially as freelancers - it can be such a lonely world so any praise is always gratefully received and something to be celebrated. And I always love knowing that I've helped someone else, made their life a little easier.
Looking back to before you started up, is there one bit of advice you wish you'd had before you took the leap?
No. Because I ignored almost all the advice I was given (mainly “don’t do it”).
HA! Sometimes, the best advice is to not listen to advice. We found setting up, so many people tried to give us their 2 pence, and a lot of it was conflicting. In the end you've just got to do what works for you and block the rest out.
From the experience you've not gained, what's one bit of advice you'd give to someone else thinking about starting up on their own or going into copy writing?
My friend Abi Buckley (managing editor at Contentology) told me to “never work with anyone I wouldn’t go for a drink with”. I think that’s the best bit of advice I’ve ever received. I’d pass that on.
I was on the train going to see my folks in Aberdeen about a month ago and got talking to a PR from America. She HATED her job. By the time she got off the train, I had convinced her to give it up and start her own business. I hope she doesn’t regret that!
That's such good advice, which we've had in mind whilst we've recently been taking on new clients. And something we've already been sharing with others! (No pressure!)
RIght, final question which we ask everyone - what's your go-to song for when you're sitting down to a full day of work for the HerStory playlist?
I don’t really listen to music in the morning other than having the radio on (FIP radio is BRILLIANT). But I’d go for Dolly Parton’s 9-5! Always makes me smile!