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Interview with a Creative Business Owner: Monica Shepherd, Mark My Words

So I was excited to have this chat with Monica Shepherd, who’s a copywriter at Mark My Words. Monica started copywriting the same year I did, 2010, and we had a lot of shared experiences. A lot she said really resonated with me, and I think it will with you, too.

Walk me through your journey of growing your business. What was the thing that made you dive in?

To be honest I think it was mostly driven by a desire to be in control of my own life. After university I’d gone overseas, and when I came back it was the recession in New Zealand so I took pretty much whatever job I could get, and I ended up in a law firm. And that environment, that structure, the hierarchy, the tying in of your worth to a job title, none of that sat well with me. It was really misaligned with how I wanted to live my life.

It wasn’t like I had these aspirations to be a digital nomad or anything – but if my friend flies in from overseas and I want to pick them up from the airport, or if I want to have lunch with my mum, or if it’s a nice day and I just want to go to the beach in the afternoon, I actually want to be able to make those decisions.

It wasn’t like I didn’t want to work, I just wanted to be in control of how and where and when that was.

What are the things you value most in your life and work?

Definitely flexibility and variety.

It’s not that I have an issue with authority, but I like being in control of my own choices and lifestyle. In saying that workload often tends to dictate that I don’t have a lot of freedom, but then that’s also my choice!

What do you do in your business to make those a priority?

I guess working from home is an element of that, so I have the flexibility to structure things around other things I enjoy. I live by the beach, so I make sure I can get down there every day and get away from my desk, to have that mental head space as well.

Being able to work with clients whose values and visions align with my own is a big thing. When you do work you love you feel more energised and you do it quicker, so you get space around your work for doing other things.

What have you struggled with as a creative business owner?

Definitely imposter syndrome! It’s funny – I get people who are just starting out approaching me and asking me questions, and I think ‘I still feel like that sometimes!’

So it’s hard not to compare, but I’m forever reminding myself ‘stay in your own lane, focus on your own business, you never really know what is going on’. I’ve got a great business, I get referrals all the time, I’m never short of work, and all those are the things that really matter.

And then understanding my worth, pricing, that kind of stuff. I think for any creative it’s very hard to constantly put a price on your services – especially in a small-to-medium-sized space where not everyone is going to have budget, and there are plenty of people who are going to tell you you’re too expensive! And then you see other people charging a lot more than you and you go, ‘oh hang on’. As a creative it’s hard – you create because that’s who you are as a person, but you also have to be judged and have your worth tied into that.

How do you deal with that?

I did do a mindset course with a woman called Linda Perry, who’s a mindset coach but is also a copywriter herself. It was quite interesting, because you have to unpack a lot of your own deep-set beliefs, and go back to ‘why do those beliefs exist in me?’ It’s also about getting an outsider’s perspective on the value I give with the work I do, and recognising it’s not just words on a piece of paper but the knowledge and awareness and experience and everything else that comes into it. You’re not selling services to someone who doesn’t need it, your clients need help with stuff so their business does better. Looking at it from that perspective can help shift that mindset from ‘I feel bad charging someone for this.’

What do you love most about your business?

I don’t think this was something that drove me initially, but I realised that I really love learning. And I love the people I get to meet, and the businesses I get to engage with. There are really cool people doing really cool things out there, and sometimes I look back on my week and I go ‘man, I learnt some random stuff this week’. None of it’s really useful in the big scheme of things, but it’s just interesting!

What’s been one real game changer in your business?

I definitely think saying no to work that doesn’t feel good or align with what feels right for me. We all start out saying yes to everything because we need to pay our bills and we need to make it work, even if it’s work you don’t really want to do or clients you don’t really want to work with. That’s a confidence thing that comes with time, but I think the sooner you can figure out who you do really want to work with, the better.

In saying that I don’t niche into a particular kind of industry, but I do niche into the kind of clients I want to work with. By that I mean their values – I chat to them and get a feeling for them, and if I feel like someone’s really not that invested in their project or if I can tell they don’t really appreciate the value of copywriting, then they’re probably not going to be the right fit. There are also obviously industries I’m not interested in supporting, because of personal values.

The first time you’re like ‘oh my god I’m saying no’ and then afterwards you feel empowered because you made a decision that feels right. And I’ll tell you what, the number of times my gut has been saying ‘no’ and I’ve done it anyway, it’s always been a shitshow. That gut feeling, you just can’t ignore it.

What are your aspirations? Short/long term?

I am going to be launching a course, because everyone’s got a course, why not me?! That’s actually a mindset thing I had to get over as well – because everyone’s got a course, what’s the point in adding another one? I had to tell myself that there’s always someone out there you can help.

Selling time for money is a hard business model to maintain, you can’t just keep putting up your prices and you can’t just keep working. It’s hard when you’re in a creative business like this – your brain doesn’t always want to work, so it’s about figuring out other ways to keep helping people but find better balance with my own business.

Long term, I don’t have aspirations to grow beyond myself.  I have tried having people involved as other copywriters on my ‘team’ and also outsourcing, but I’m not a manager. For me in my business it’s better to have other support, like a virtual assistant or someone to take care of the technical side of my platform. That kind of stuff is where I need support rather than writing. I was still quite controlling of what went out to clients, and that didn’t work out very well time-wise for me.

And when I think about it, my goal from day one was freedom, and having a team that I was responsible for didn’t give me freedom. I totally admire people who can build a big business, and build those teams, but it’s just not for me, and it’s really important for people to reconcile with that – not judge it as good or bad, or successful or not successful.

What does success look like for you?

Success to me is having balance, to be able to do what I want.

I think it’s really important that you get to define your own success. For someone, that might be working two days a week and having the rest of the week with their children, or it might be growing their agency to five people. It doesn’t matter, as long as it feels good for you and works for you, and gives you the life that you want. And that’s always been my focus and it’s what I always have to remind myself to come back to as well – the ultimate goal here is to have that freedom and flexibility. That’s my version of success.

This is where some of that social stuff can be quite damaging, I think. People are talking about how much they earned, seven figures and earning $10k for a single page, and you start to go, ‘should that be a way of measuring my own success?’ And you can get misled into thinking, ‘well, if that’s what they’re doing, am I failing because I’m not hitting those same targets?’ But you just never know what’s going on behind the scenes. And also, revenue and what people are actually taking home at the end of the day are two different things.

You’ve got to try not to read into stuff, and stay in your own lane. What matters is that I’ve got clients consistently, I’ve got a good income from my business, I get found by people, I get referred by people. Those are the kind of KPIs I want in my business.

 I’ve got great relationships and I’m trusted by people – and I think that comes from having that confidence and not feeling like you’re being led by trends.

Top 5 Takeaways

  1. Working with people who share your values and inspire you to do your best work is massively important. You’ll enjoy everything more, get more done, and feel great about the work you do.
  2. Comparing yourself to other people on the internet never helped anyone. It’s your business, and you’re free to be you – and you never see the parts that they’re not sharing online.
  3. There’s so much more to your work and your worth than what’s on the surface! You’ve got knowledge, experience and skills that can help people. Don’t feel bad or be shy charging for it – what you do is valuable. There’s always someone you can help, even if you feel like everyone’s doing what you do. Only you can do it your way.
  4. It’s empowering to say no to work that, for whatever reason, doesn’t gel with you. Listen to your gut – if something feels off about the project, it’s for a reason.
  5. You get to create your own version of success. If you’re getting what you want from your business and your life, then you can consider yourself successful, and that’s not for anyone else to judge.

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