Interview with Freelance Writing Agency Owner David Leonhardt

Last Updated on: November 28th, 2021

image of Lorraine Reguly and David Leonhardt

4David Leonhardt is a freelance writing agency owner. He runs THGM Writers, a freelance writing agency that services primarily individuals and small businesses. You might remember him from when he gave you advice about what to do when your writing business grows too big for its britches.

Today, he’s here to participate in an exclusive interview, where he will reveal things he’s never revealed online before! I asked him to be a guest again because many freelance writers eventually pivot, and take their business in a new direction. For me, it was changing the focus to freelance editing instead of writing. For David, it was taking his business to another level by turning his business into an agency (where there is less work to do and the profit is bigger).

Whatever you decide to do with your freelance writing business is up to you. My advice is to find a decision you are happy with, so you experience positivity every day of your life! After all, being happy is part of your entrepreneurial excellence!

Interview with Freelance Writing Agency Owner David Leonhardt

1: How and when did you get into freelance writing?

– Were you initially a blogger who guest-posted and got hired by someone to write posts for their site?

– How did you find your writing gigs THEN?

– Are you still a freelance writer?

– If so, how do find your writing gigs NOW?

This is a long story (but I’ll make it short). I did not set out to be a writer. I actually set out to be a motivational speaker. I wrote my book. I set up my website. I discovered I was good at SEO. This was back in 2003-2004. Yes, there was SEO back then! So. I wrote about SEO and website promotion.

A couple of articles later (in particular, one on WebPro News writing about Google’s November 2003 algorithm update), I had three standing SEO clients. I wrote to promote their websites and to promote my services. And I wrote just for fun, because I have always loved to write. The more I wrote, the more people asked me to write for them. But those were mostly one-offs—the real money at the time was in monthly SEO clients.

Although I run a freelance writer agency now, I do very little of the writing myself. I’ve taken on a day job to reduce the feast-or-famine effects of ghostwriting, and I am more efficient having team members write the big projects. I still write wedding speeches (best man, maid-of-honor, etc.), some blog articles, some short bios, etc. Just the small, fun stuff for me. I also spend my spare time hiking and climbing rocks!

David rock climbing

David hiking in 2013

2: Let’s talk money!

– Did you charge per word or per article?

– What were your rates THEN, and how have they evolved over the years?

– Can you please provide some advice to people currently freelance writing?

I always charge per project. That applies to what I write and what our team writes. For the most part, the fee is based on word count, or on minutes, in the case of screenplays, but there are sometimes additional factors. A typical 50,000-word book might cost C$16,000, whereas a typical best man or maid-of-honor speech might cost just $260.

I sold myself short in the early days. Frankly, having a hungry team pushed me to raise rates to keep up with industry standards, so I thank them for that. I know, I know—what industry standards? My philosophy is simple. We charge enough to keep good writers working with us, and no more. If somebody wants to shop on price, I invite them to do so, and then I let them know we’ll be happy to fix the mistakes made by their cent-a-word ghostwriters. “See you in a couple of months!”

3: When did you discover that you could outsource your writing gigs?

– Where did you find other writers to write for you?

When I gave up on the motivational speaking gigs that never worked out, I set up a website to promote the two things I could do well and sell well—SEO and writing. That’s when the writing requests started coming in, slowly at first, then picking up speed. News releases. Blog posts. Sci-fi novels. Screenplays. Homework (which I refuse to do!). Everything. I can write a mean blog article, and I have written some pretty good books for clients (which I describe on my bio page), but I could not handle that many requests, and fiction is not my strength. Fortunately, the same rankings that brought in the writing requests also brought in the writers. Five of our first team members are still with us, and this year, my offspring started getting involved.

One thing I did early on, which I believe helped me attract more clients, is put testimonials right on our service pages, such as our ghostwriter page, rather than shuffling them all off to a “testimonials” page.

4: What made you start your own freelance writing agency?

– How did you do it? (Discuss your journey from writer to entrepreneur.)

– What laws did you need to take into consideration?

– What fees/licenses are involved/required?

– Approximately how many writers do you currently have on your payroll?

A couple of years later, I realized that incorporation could have some benefits. We were already operating as The Happy Guy Marketing, but it was time to make it official. The hope was that the company could accumulate some capital to pay out dividends as we eased into retirement. So my wife and I set up a 50-50 incorporation. But we were effectively acting as an agency already.

The main laws that concern us are:

  • Business registration
  • Copyright, to protect our clients
  • Employment, to ensure that our team members remain independent entities and not employees
  • Taxes—we need to collect GST/HST from Canadian clients
  • Full financial reporting

Our main fees are those associated with maintaining our website, and lots of banking fees. There is a reason bank stocks have always been such a good investment. And it goes without saying that the main expenses in our ledgers are the payments to our writers.

The amazing thing about having a team of freelancers is that we are totally flexible to expand or contract as the feasts and famines swirl and sway around us. Right now, there are 12 active writers up on my whiteboard, but another five I could call on if I needed for specialty projects.

5: What are some of the bookkeeping strategies and software you use?

– Can you discuss the evolution of your initial techniques/software to what you use now?

Our bookkeeping hasn’t changed much since the beginning, other than being a bit better organized. Invoices are prepared in Word, based on a template. All records are entered in Excel, again in a template. We use software to file taxes quickly, but I have no idea what that software would be. I really try to stick to words and avoid the numbers and leave the numbers to my wife, the CFO.

6: How do you keep everything organized?

– Do you have a system or systems in place?

– Do your writers/employees have access to a master calendar, or it is only you who keeps track of things?

I keep an Outlook folder for each client. And I keep a list of names each writer is working with on a whiteboard so that I can see at a glance what each one’s workload looks like. Each name is accompanied by a symbol that tells me whether they are just a lead assigned, or if they have been sent a contract or invoice, or if they have made a payment and can really be called a client.

I have a folder on my laptop for all the invoices and contracts.

There is no calendar—trying to get almost any client to stick to a calendar would be the very definition of this place (yes, there is Hell on Earth!). Our writers work at the pace of the payments, and that pace is 100% at the client’s discretion. The writer lets me know when an invoicing milestone has been reached, and we invoice for the next payment.

7: How do your writers “get” their gigs?

– How do YOU get gigs?

– Do you have a lot of repeat clients?

– Do you work with major brands or companies?

Once I’ve done triage, mainly on ability/willingness to pay, I assign the most appropriate writer from the team. I assign some to me, especially speeches such as this commencement speech and this speech about staying in school.

Repeat clients are our second-biggest source of gigs (after the search engine queries), with client referrals and clients gained through networking being two other big sources. Right now, we’re working with seven repeat clients, and another seven names are still up on the whiteboard because they have indicated they intend to hire us for additional projects (a few of them likely will).

We rarely work with companies. Most of our work is with individuals, some work is with small businesses (or self-employed individuals), such as blog posts, some business speeches, and web content. But most of the projects—certainly those that are big enough to pay well—are memoirs, fiction manuscripts, screenplays, and the occasional self-help book, which are largely sought by individuals.

8: What never-before-revealed secrets can you share with the world about what you do?

– Do you have any other information you would like to add?

I am totally transparent with our writers on how the funding flows from clients to them. I get out of the way, when it comes to the creative process. It’s 100% a matter of trust.

I know that is not the case with many agencies. I have heard of agencies that don’t even let the clients speak directly to the ghostwriters. Judging by what they charge, I’m guessing they keep at least 60% of the revenue, and that’s why they are afraid of letting their writers connect directly with the clients. But how can you deliver a quality manuscript in the client’s voice without direct contact?

Once the writer starts working, I don’t want to do anything more, except collect the next installment. I see myself as an enabler, not as a pimp. I trust my writers and I need them to trust me.

9: What never-before-revealed secrets can you share about what you do?

I don’t really have any secrets to tell. Even that one above isn’t much of a secret.

Are You Going to Open a Freelance Writing Agency?

If you want to take your freelance writing business to the next level, you could consider opening your own agency. You could also explore other avenues, if your heart simply isn’t in it anymore, like I did when I made the switch to editing and helping others become authors!

Whatever you decide to do, I wish you the best of luck!

face pic of David Leonhardt


David Leonhardt runs THGM Writers, a freelance writing agency that services primarily individuals and small businesses. Over the years, he has worked in public relations and government relations, before getting into freelance SEO and writing, and finally founding his agency. Deep in the heart of rural Eastern Ontario, he can still be found writing because he just can’t help himself!

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