Custom Copy: Amber McNaught

Amber McNaught tells us how her fiance's health problems propelled her into running her own business

Amber McNaught needed to spend more time at home due to the health problems of her fiancé. So she set her own business using a spare bedroom as an office and has never looked back since.

Name: Amber McNaught Age: 30 Business: Custom-Copy.com Type of business: copywriting/website content Start date: February 2006

When did you first decide you wanted to start your own business? I’d always entertained vague notions of working for myself one day, but it wasn’t until my fiancé, Terry, was diagnosed with kidney failure in January 2004, that I really decided to go for it. As corny as it sounds, that was a real “road to Damascus” moment for us, and it really made me realise that life is far too short for vague notions. We registered our business name, wrote a business plan, and have never looked back.

Tell us about your businessCustom-Copy.com is an online copywriting, ghostwriting and PR firm. We’re slightly different in that we have an online store through which clients can purchase fixed-price copywriting packages, and we also sell ebooks, which are written by myself.

Was it your first business idea and where did it come from?My first business idea was Hot Igloo Productions, which is a website design and copywriting company: we design websites, provide content for them, and promote them through press releases and online marketing. Terry is a website designer, and I’m a writer, and we both wanted to work from home and run a business together: a business which combined our writing and design skills seemed the obvious solution, and that business is still going strong, so we must have done something right!

Was your decision to start a business inspired by any other companies or individuals? Before I made the decision to strike out on my own, I’d had a number of unsatisfying office jobs, so you could say that the decision was inspired by all of those dull jobs I had to work my way through to gain the skills and experience I needed to start up a business of my own!

What makes you think there’s a market for your business?When we started our first business, we concentrated solely on offering a website design service. So many of our clients came to us with no idea of how to create content for their sites, and how to promote them effectively, that I very quickly realised that there was a demand for an affordable copywriting and press release service. We also started to receive a large amount of enquiries from people asking us to ghost-write books for them: that wasn’t a service which most people would associate with web design, so I slowly became convinced of the need for a separate website concentrating on my own writing services – hence Custom-Copy.com!

Once you’d decided to start a business, what did you do first? We registered our business name with Companies House and applied for a business bank account. We also knew that our website would be our most important marketing tool, so we began to experiment with the design and contact for that.

What research did you do?We spent a lot of time investigating the legalities of starting a business, and finding out about tax, etc. Almost all of our research was carried out online, with a couple of calls to the bank and the Inland Revenue. I also spent time checking out the competition, particularly in our local area, and working out where we could fit in, how much we could charge, and what we’d have to do differently in order to make a go of things.

What advice did you seek? Most of the advice we sought was from people who were already running businesses. Terry’s brother owns a successful pub/restaurant in Kent, and my former boss had started his own online newspaper a few years earlier, and we felt that the experiences of people who’d actually been there and done that would be of more use to us than the help on offer from the government agencies. In retrospect, we should probably have taken the time to investigate everything available to us, but we found our first client almost right away, and were so caught up in the momentum of the business that we didn’t stop to think about what else may be out there!

Does the government need to provide more help to people trying to start a business? I think information about entrepreneurship should be made available at high school level. The education system tends to concentrate on training people to become employees and I think it would be helpful if issues surrounding starting a business and becoming self-employed were included in the careers-based teaching in schools.

Talk us through the process of writing your business plan. As someone who writes for a living, I really enjoyed preparing our business plan, and it helped to clarify our plans and highlight some of the obstacles we’d need to overcome. We didn’t have any help, or use special software: again, we researched business plan writing online, and downloaded some sample business plans to work from. How useful has your business plan been and do you think you’ll stick to it as your business begins to grow? I have to hold my hands up here and admit that our business plan is currently woefully out of date, as the business we originally started has evolved beyond what we could have imagined at the start. Rewriting it is part of my “to do” list for 2006!

How much did it cost to start the business? We started up on a shoestring. Luckily we already had an office of sorts in our home, with a computer and desk each, plus internet connection etc, so our only initial expenses were things like business cards and letter headed paper, which cost very little.

Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off? I still have most of my savings, and we’re still making enough to keep us going. In the time since we started our business, I’ve gone from being a complete shopaholic to one of the thriftiest people I know: I try to keep to a very strict budget, and, of course, working from home helps cut down on expenses, too!

Have you made any provisions for business not being as prosperous as expected? Please explain them.It’s those savings, again! I try to make sure that I have enough money in my account to see me through a few months at least, even if the business doesn’t make another penny. I think it’s important to have that safety net there, so that I can concentrate on building up the business, without having to worry about paying the bills every month.

How many hours are you working at the moment?Too many! I’m just a little bit of a workaholic, and it’s not uncommon for me to be tapping away at my computer at midnight. I’m very lucky to enjoy my work so much!

What about staff, is it just you? There are currently two of us working full time: myself, doing the writing/PR and marketing, and Terry taking care of web design and technical issues. I also use freelance writers at times, if the workload is very high, or if we have a request for a very specialist piece of writing. Red tape is another one of the reasons we prefer to use freelancers, and will continue to do so rather than taking on permanent members of staff.

What marketing and advertising have you done so far? Almost all of our marketing is done online and through word of mouth. I’ve dabbled in Google adwords, and have taken a couple of adverts out in ezines, but for the most part I prefer to market for free, through networking. I co-own a Scottish business networking group, Business Buzz, and that has been a great source of free marketing opportunities.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months time? I’d like to have a few regular clients for Custom-Copy, so that I’m in a position where I’m able to work for myself without worrying about paying the bills. I also plan to launch a network of other websites, and I’d like to see that get off the ground and start to bring in a profit.

What are the main obstacles to growth? I’d say the biggest obstacle at the moment is that I’m operating in a hugely competitive field, and there are a number of aspiring writers out there who are willing to offer their services for free in order to build their portfolio. It’s very hard to compete with someone who’s willing to work for free, and it then becomes difficult to convince clients that copywriting is a professional service, that they should pay for. There is a perception, sometimes, that writing is something that “anyone” can do, and I have to work hard to explain the benefits of professional copywriting.

How do you plan to overcome these? I’ve been writing professionally for many years now, and have a strong portfolio and client list which I can show people. I also find it very useful to collect testimonials from previous clients, to help convince prospective ones that the service really is as good as we claim it is.

Tell us about your website. It was very important to me to be able to update the website frequently, and to be able to make changes to it myself. As someone who writes web content for a living, I know how important it is to have frequently updated, unique content, so I made the decision to use a content management system to allow me to add content easily. I also needed an ecommerce solution, which would allow me to sell my services and ebooks online. In the end I decided to use Mambo, which is open source software which allows me to change things around to my heart’s content. While the content and user interface was obviously the most important part of the site, I also wanted a design which was fun and a little bit different, and I think we’ve managed to achieve that.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do? As I mentioned earlier, this is very much a lifestyle decision for me. I’d love to make a fortune and be able to retire in the next few years, but it’s also very important to me that I spend my days doing something I enjoy. If I can combine the two, I’ll be happy.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you’d done differently?It has been difficult at times to convince people that this is my job now, and not just a hobby. I still occasionally have people asking me when I’m going “back” to work, and asking what I do all day at home. The only thing I would change is that I wish I had started the business sooner. I spent many years working for other people when I could have been working for myself, and I wish I’d made the move quicker. Oh, and I also wish it hadn’t taken kidney failure to persuade us to go for it.

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business? It takes a lot of guts. There’s a real leap of faith involved in starting a business and you have to be totally committed to it. If you’re the type of person who really needs financial security, or who has a lot of financial commitments, it’s probably not for you. You also need to be prepared to work incredibly hard, and I think most people aren’t prepared for just how hard it can be. Again, it takes a lot of commitment and drive to keep plugging away at it, especially given that the rewards aren’t instant.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business?Try to have enough savings behind you to keep you afloat for at least six months, even if your business doesn’t make a penny in that time. Choose something you really enjoy, or you’ll find it very hard to put in the required hours to make it successful. Network. Keep learning and absorbing as much information and advice as you can take in. And don’t give up!

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