Aja Frost is a 21 year old freelance extraordinaire who built a writing career from scratch as a full-time college student. She averages 21 articles a week and wrote over half a million words in a single year.
Calling Aja a writing powerhouse would be an understatement.
Aja's start as a creative entrepreneur was an accident - she contributed unpaid articles to her favorite publications for months, building her portfolio without making a penny. Down the line, paid offers started to roll in, showing Aja the potential her passion held.
Here's what she has to say...
Ashley: Hey, everyone. Ashley from Teachable and our Make Change newsletter. Hope everyone's doing well today. I'm sitting down with Aja Frost. Aja has done some really incredible freelancing. It's really impressive, so I'm thrilled to be talking to her about how she's done it. Do you want to introduce yourself?
Aja: I'm Aja. I'm a 21 year old college student. I've been freelance writing for the past three years and that's how I've been paying my way through college.
Ashley: Aja has done something incredible. She's been writing on average 21 articles a week as she's going through school. That's really incredible when you look at those statistics. How did that start? How did you get into freelancing, and how did you begin, because I know it's hard to get a foot in the door.
Aja: Definitely. I started off writing for free because I was a college freshman and I've always enjoyed writing. I really wanted something fun to do on the side, a creative outlet. I found a couple websites that I was already reading, and I reached out to editors and asked if they'd be interested in having some unpaid contributions, and they said yes.
Someone who found my work actually reached out and they didn't ask me how much I charged. They just said, "Oh, would you be willing to take X amount to write a couple posts per month?" And I said, "Yes. Yes, I would like to do that." And that's when I realized you can make money. And that's how I got started.
From then on out you've been charging what, per article, per hour? How does that work?
I always charge per article because I think that your worth it as a writer. It's more than just the amount of time that you put into a blog post. It's also based on how many readers you can bring, your unique expertise, your writing talent. So I think that unlike a lot of per hour jobs, it's much more about the value of a specific blog post or project.
Ashley: I've heard that too, being in writing. It's like do you want to get per hour, per project, or even cents per word. What do you think are the industry average rates for that because I know there's people listening and watching right now who are just starting to do exactly what you're doing?
Aja: I talk about rates a lot on my Wiselike profile and also in my eBook because I know that it's always been hard for me to figure out what other freelancers make. When I was starting out, then I did $50 to $60 for 500 words. Now that's probably more in the $300 rate. So I think that there's definitely a big scale.
I advise people to start out with a rate that you feel comfortable with. And then every single time you get the new client, up your rate by 15 to 20%. And you will be surprised.
The worst thing that can happen is someone says no, and they give you a lower offer. But you'll be surprised at how often people just take your rate and that way you can kind of steadily build up your income.
Ashley: Absolutely, absolutely. So, you've worked with some really big names. I think I saw Forbes, Time, The Next Web, Buffer, Inc. How did you get to a point where you were being accepted by all of these companies?
Aja: I think that there is this misconception that you have to be a super well-known writer to get those first brands to take you on. Really editors are just looking for reliable, good writers. So quality is the most important and being able to bring a good idea to the table is also really important.
I always tell people to spend a lot of time upfront researching the publication, familiarizing yourself with their content, so you can create that awesome pitch. Show the editor that you're worth taking the risk on an unknown quantity.
Once you have even just three or four big names under your belt, people will actually line up to hire you. It's really just getting over that first initial hump. I think that it's a lot easier to do than you would think.
People think you shouldn't even try because it won't happen. For me, the benefit of not knowing that people thought it was hard to try was that I just did it. And a couple of times I had to pitch people multiple times before they said yes. But being persistent really pays off as long as you're not being annoying.
Ashley: Looking at your website, it definitely adds legitimacy to who you are. What did your website look like at the beginning of you reaching out to people and what does it look like now?
Aja: This is actually my first professional website and I created it on Squarespace, highly recommend. It's very easy to use. You can make it look super nice. Before that I had kind of a clunky looking Wordpress site. I experimented with Wix. I had a lot of ugly sites before I had a nice one, so instead of sending people my website, I really would just send them relevant clips.
If I was pitching an article on social media, I would send them links to three articles about social media that I'd written for different publications. And that was kind of a way to bypass not having a nice looking website. But I really advise investing in one that looks great because people just find you so much more attractive when you have a nice looking website.
Ashley: Do people find you through that website? Or how do they reach out to you and how do you gather leads?
Aja: Yeah, all the time. Since I actually put up that website, I tend to get four or five prospective clients per week emailing me asking if I'm available. I think it's a combination of I put the link to my website in all my author bios, so I think they'll read an article on one site, click to my personal site, find my contact info, and reach out. And it's kind of...
Ashley: It kind of snowballs on itself.
Aja: Exactly, because the more you write for other people, then the easier you are to discover.
Ashley: What advice would you have for someone who's just starting out as a freelance writer?
Get a nice looking website as I learned. Don't make my mistake and wait too long. Be persistent, don't give up if the first four publications that you reach out to don't say yes to you because that's inevitable, and it doesn't mean you're not a good writer or that you don't have potential. It just means that you need to keep going and find that one editor who will say yes.
Spend time making sure you know what the publication wants because there's no easier way to have your email ignored than if you pitch a topic they've never covered before and never will or something that their audience isn't going to be interested in. So spending just a little bit more time upfront makes your chances for success so much higher.
Ashley: I've found all that to be extremely true. Here, in New York, I've got friends freelancing, doing the same. I've done it myself. And what you're saying is spot on. What is super interesting though is you did all of this while you're a full-time student. Which is not only impressive, but how? How did you write 21 articles a week as a full-time student?
Aja: The number one biggest reason for that productivity was just I love to write. So when other people might be watching Netflix or going on hikes, I find solace and energy and joy in writing. And you can't really teach that to someone else or instill that in someone else. They have to just have that.
But also I have gotten pretty good at time management. I use a modified version of GTD, get things done. So I write down every single task, project that pops into my head no matter how small it is. And I also assign deadlines and priority statuses to absolutely everything so that I guarantee that whatever I'm working on, it's always the most important, most pressing assignment whether it's for school or freelancing. And that has helped me stay on top of every single deadline.
Love what you do, which I know sounds corny, but it's true. And then also track everything religiously.
Ashley: Do you have any kind of dream publication that you're dying to write for, any kind of dream position that you're working toward?
I've been pretty lucky because so far everyone on my dream publication list, I've gotten the chance to write for. I used to really want to write for the New York Times, but since I'm not as interested in journalism anymore, the only way that I could get in the New York Times would be an opinion piece or a Modern Love piece.
I'm going to keep working on that. I'm trying to think of an opinion that I have that's unique enough and relevant enough to be in the New York Times, and when that happens, maybe I'll pitch them.
Ashley: I love just the way that you explained that right there. It's like you know what the outlet wants, and you're waiting to find that match rather than just writing something and throwing it out there. You're solving a painpoint for the Times rather than just writing something.
Aja: That's a great way to put it.
Ashley: You also wrote a book. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
It's called "How To Start A Freelance Writing Career From Scratch." It's the manual that I wish that I had had in freshman year, think it could have made that journey a little easier, a little less bumpy. So, it's just full of really practical advice, how to find your writing niches, how to find publications that'll pay you, how to write your first contract.
Ashley: Very cool. If it isn't too much to ask, what are one to two big tips for someone who's freelance writing that you're talking about in your book?
Aja: I think that I kind of mentioned this in some of my other answers, but so much of it comes down the pitch that you send to the editor. A lot of publications actually put pitch guidelines on their website and if you don't follow that format to a T, you're really doing yourself a disservice.
Following their guidelines, but then infusing your pitch with some personality and giving it your unique writing voice is really important because it's basically their preview for what you would produce if they hired you. So I think that crafting a pitch is one of the essential characteristics. Being able to craft a good pitch is one of the essential characteristics for an effective freelancer.
Ashley: Aja does have a job that she's moving into, but you're going to continue to freelance on the side which is awesome. So, tell me a little bit about how you expect your business to grow. If you do know, and maybe you don't.
Aja: I think one of the things about working full-time and also freelancing is I'm going to be incredibly selective about the projects that I take on. So I picture it more as just limiting my workload to one or two projects per month that I'm really excited about.
I'm actually not going to continue freelancing as a money generator. It's more just I really still want to have the freedom to write about all these things that maybe my day job doesn't relate to. So I think yeah, just looking at it as a creative venture rather than a money making one is going to be really important going forward.
Ashley: for everyone out there who might already be freelancing and struggling with how to get more clients, what would you tell them?
Aja: I would say that being proactive is really important. If you really want to get more clients, then look at a publication that you're already writing for, check out the other writers and see who they're writing for and contact them. Or even ask those other writers to connect you.
One of the things that I discovered that was really surprising was that every editor wants more writers. There's no such thing as having too many good content producers. So if you reach out, and like I said, you put a lot of energy into that pitch, they're going to be dying to hire you. And before you know it you'll have more projects than you can reasonably take on.
Ashley: Yeah, and I know that's a feeling so many people crave. To get real for a second, what are some of the struggles?
Aja: One of the freelancing struggles that most people don't really talk about is random or unpredictable income.
I have a car payment every month. I have rent every month, tuition. I have all of these very predictable expenses, but a lot of the clients, they're great people, but for some reason they don't feel the same urgency for paying you that they might for a traditional employee.
I've had some of my favorite clients take months to pay me just because something went wrong with payroll or they forgot to turn in the invoice.
It can be really frustrating to be sending your third follow-up email, "Hi, just wondering where that check is," because for you it's really important and it's your livelihood. And for them it's just kind of oh, that other thing that they need to get to before Friday and they may forget.
I have really struggled with that and kind of trying to remain calm and not bitter about the fact that some people don't pay me on time because I don't want to turn into an angry old woman. "Where's my money?"
Ashley: No, you don't. Do you have anything that works well for getting people to respond to you quicker? Do you have a system, a spreadsheet that you use to track?
Aja: I track everything in Trello because that's where I track all of my articles as well, so I found that it's easier just to have one universal app that I'd use.
I actually saw this study that you get paid two to five days faster if you say thank you on your invoice. So I started including in the notes, "Thank you for your business," smiley face. I don't know if that's really working. It does feel nicer, though, on my end.
I also use Paypal now as opposed to checks. Even though Paypal takes 3%, I found that it's much easier for my clients to send me money electronically.
Bill.com is another one that a lot of my recurring clients have started using and that one is awesome. And they don't take the 3% which is always nice. So I would definitely say do as many transactions as you can electronically.
Ashley: Before I let you go and end the interview, I was wondering, do you have any last minute advice for the people sitting out there who are looking at starting to freelance outside of their job?
I would say whatever you're interested in, there's a writing outlet that relates to that interest. And it doesn't just have to be writing. If you're really interested web design, do freelance web design.
But make sure it's something that you truly have a passion for or try to fit your business to your passion because when you're working outside the regular nine to five, you're doing more on top of that, or transitioning into freelance, it's a lot of hard of work. So the more you enjoy it, I think, the easier it will be.