Episode 9 – Rachel Mazza – Shutting Down a Profitable Agency

August 08, 2019

On this week’s episode, I’m joined by Rachel Mazza. Rachel is a copywriter who made the difficult decision in 2018 to shut down a profitable content agency that she had built, which offered a productized service that provided content designed to convert visitors into customers for affiliate sites.

In this episode, Rachel discusses the importance of having rules of engagement for creative services like copywriting, the difficult decision she faced with shutting down the SEO Conversion Content agency and the problems of working with “lottery ticket clients”.

Sites, Books and Resources Mentioned:


Kevin Graham: Hey, guys. Kevin Graham here, and today, on the podcast, I have a good friend of mine, Rachel Mazza. Rachel and I first met in 2014 in Chiang Mai in Thailand. We spent a bunch of time hanging out in what she likes to describe as a mosquito-ridden dive bar with puppies, so I'm super excited to have her on the show to talk about her trajectory through running a business. Please welcome Rachel Mazza.
Rachel Mazza: Thanks for having me.
Kevin Graham: It's my pleasure. So for the listeners who might not know about you and the business that we're going to talk about today, can you give us a brief rundown on who you are and what your company did?
Rachel Mazza: Yes, so I am a direct response copywriter, which is just a complicated way of saying that I write words that sell stuff. Direct response is pretty self-explanatory. You drive traffic to sales copy that's specifically designed to target a particular audience, and then you get to see the direct response of those readers engaging with that copy. What I do is I work with media buyers and publishers to create long-form sales pages that we drive traffic to, and then I also work with business owners and entrepreneurs to convert higher off of their cold traffic funnels.
Kevin Graham: Right, so your core focus these days is online businesses and online business owners. Is that right?
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, so mostly information publishers, and then I've recently started doing direct mail, which is super fun because it's like stepping back into the '60s and '70s, which is where I originally studied all the sales copy from that time. Big famous copywriters like Gary Halbert or Gary Bencivenga, they had a copy in newspapers or things that you would mail physically to someone's house, and I'm working with some publishers in the UK that do direct mail. That's very new to me, but up until probably a month ago, it's been 100% online.
Kevin Graham: Right, and just as a little side note as well, you actually run a podcast about this as well, so do you want to drop a quick little pitch for that in, and then we'll continue on with the interview?
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, definitely. That's called The Business of Writing Podcast, and I host that with my cohost, Laura, who is a ghost writer. She brings the craft side of things, and I bring the sales copy side of things, and we talk about how to get paid really well as a professional writer, so that's been a lot of fun too.
Kevin Graham: Cool, so can you tell me about how you got started in your entrepreneurial journey?
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, so I've been working for myself now for six or seven years. Actually, before we started recording, we were trying to figure out exactly how long it's been because it's been a while now, but I got started after leaving my job. At the time, I was living in Australia and taking what I thought was a vacation to Thailand before heading home to the USA, and that's where I met you, Kevin.
Rachel Mazza: While living in Australia, I was selling government-funded training to business owners. I'd go into a KFC or a McDonald's franchise, and I talk to the owner and say, "Hey, did you know the government will pay you to train your employees in hospitality certification?" or something along those lines, and so when I left, I started writing textbooks and training materials for these training companies that I had sold the training for.
Rachel Mazza: That's technical writing, and I was just doing it as a side hustle, but that's where I learned that you could actually get paid to be a writer, and I learned that I wanted to do more of that, and there was only one of me, so I started hiring my friends to write the stuff as well. I was terrible at making a profit, so I would just take a very tiny markup and pay my friends most of the money, but that got me known as the go-to technical writer in that market, and that experience and the lessons learned there eventually led me to start a full-time marketing agency.
Rachel Mazza: That evolved over time, and I wanted to be closer and closer to the money and to the sale because I knew that would be more valuable to clients if I could point to what I wrote and say, "This copy right here just made you 60% more money," or whatever it is, and so I shifted gears a bit over time and focused exclusively on sales copy so that I could be a lot closer to the sale and have a lot bigger impact on the sale.
Kevin Graham: Right, and I remember around 2015 or 2016, you started service that was focused more on that sales copy for affiliate marketers. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, definitely. Before I had started that agency, I had this marketing agency, and part of that was we would do SEO, so search engine optimization, and so I was in the SEO community, and I noticed that a lot of my SEO friends and colleagues were having a lot of trouble converting on their websites, so when they're driving SEO copy, and so I saw that need in the market, and the agency that I started focused on providing sales copy exclusively for affiliate marketers and people driving SEO to affiliate sites, or client sites, or service-based sites. We worked a lot with keyword optimization, but it all focused back on using that buyer psychology and that sales psychology to create copy that was specifically designed to target those readers.
Kevin Graham: Yeah, and I remember when you were running that business, you had a lot of high name like high-profile endorsements from big names in the affiliate marketing space.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, that was probably the main factor of why the agency was so successful so quickly. I think we hit six figures within five or six months, and that was definitely because there were big name SEO and affiliate marketer professionals that were sending us their audiences and also endorsing us, and so I would say the main success of that agency was because of having affiliates that send us business.
Kevin Graham: Right, so did you have any goals when you started that specific section of that agency working on SEO content?
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, so I had left a full-time consulting job where I was consulting on... as the marketing director for a SaaS company, and that ended, that contract ended, and so I needed to relaunch and do something new. I knew I didn't want to go back to technical writing, and I knew that I was really great at content marketing. I'm really great at sales copy, and so the goal was just to develop a full-time income and not have to go get another job or not have to go get another full-time job because I wanted to diversify, and I wanted to work with different types of clients.
Rachel Mazza: The agency I had was successful pretty quickly, and I learned that I didn't love running an agency because everything is accelerated and all the challenges that come with running a team. I think we had 50 people or so came along with that, and so I realized that I wasn't writing as much as I wanted to and that there were a lot of reasons for that, so eventually, I actually shut down the agency, which was very, very scary for me because that was my full-time income and relaunched as a solo freelancer to work directly with clients again.
Rachel Mazza: That was really scary because I essentially turned off the tap on this money machine, and now it was either I go to work and get paid or there's no money coming in, and it had been a while since all of the revenue and all the income relied solely on me. My goal at first was to replace all the revenue from the agency, but just from working with freelance clients directly, and because of the nature of a lot of copy projects, they're very intense. There's a lot of research, and planning, and studying in each project, and I knew I needed to do that with one to two clients per month because you can only work with a couple of clients per month when you're doing these high level copy projects. The goal was to generate the same revenue that a team of 15 working on sales copy at the agency could produce, but do it all myself with clients at a higher level.
Kevin Graham: Right, and that's kind of that company of one idea where potentially, as you grow the team and put more and more people in there, the amount that you're actually earning off of that starts to decrease, and also, you start to hit this point where you're sort of further removed from practicing the art that got you started in this thing in the first place.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, definitely.
Kevin Graham: How long did it take you to then get things back going when you went back to being a solo practitioner?
Rachel Mazza: Probably a lot less than if I just stopped freaking out the first couple of months, but I would say within six months, I had gotten back to the point where I felt I was not panicking and I was thinking, "Okay. The house isn't going to blow up. I can find clients when I need them." But it was probably a solid six months before I realized that everything was going to be okay and that I made a good decision relaunching as a full-time freelancer again.
Kevin Graham: Cool, so if we go back to the SEO content agency again for a moment, can you tell me about a point in that business where you started to get some initial traction, and what would you attribute that success to?
Rachel Mazza: With the agency, I think a lot of the traction came from having those affiliate endorsements. We had several different business owners, and SEO professionals, and marketers that would both endorse us to our audience because they were influencers in the industry, but also, they ran big SEO agencies, and so they would send us most of their business. I think that was a big part of, which is very different today than what I do today because I work almost solely on referral, and so it's not like we're taking a whole bunch of business on at once. It's just me and my keyboard.
Kevin Graham: Right. Cool. Yeah, so what led you to then close down the agency if it was doing so well?
Rachel Mazza: That was a really tough decision, and it was the first time in my life that I decided to pull the plug on something that was actually working and doing really well. If you were anyone that I talked to at that time, I apologize for being such a mess because I was just so conflicted about this, and I think ultimately, it was that.
Rachel Mazza: A couple of things. I didn't love managing a team instead of writing. Like I've managed teams before and I currently have a very small team that helps me at my current business, but it was 15 writers, a couple of editors, some people working on SEO, project managers, and assistants, and I just... There were so many moving pieces that I always felt like it was like slightly out of control, and that's probably just a personality trait of mine. I kind of like to keep everything under my control, which is easy when you're the only one working in the business, but I didn't love managing a team, and I had missed writing.
Rachel Mazza: But also, I think that we approached the wrong market for where I wanted to take my career. A lot of times, in SEO and affiliate marketing, people are working with low budgets because SEO takes a long time to generate traffic sometimes, and so these people that we were working with and that we were marketing to were used to paying the lowest amount of money possible for some content, and a lot of them were also new to the industry and still learning, and so I think they didn't recognize the value of really high-performance sales copy.
Rachel Mazza: That was one of the biggest shifts when I relaunched was working with business owners and marketers who valued copy and knew that had a direct impact on their bottom line, and so I was able to charge five times, six times more than what we were charging at the agency just by shifting the types of clients that I worked with.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, it wasn't a good fit for where I wanted to take my business in the future, but it was exactly what I needed at the time, and so it was a tough decision to make that choice to shut down the agency, but we all evolve and our businesses evolve over time. Now, I can see that's the right choice, thankfully in retrospect.
Kevin Graham: Yeah, and that's always an issue when you find yourself in a market like that where people are sort of extremely price-sensitive and might be used to paying for lower quality, cheaper content, or anything else, and so therefore, they're anchored on those lower prices, and you come along with a much higher quality product, but it's just not what they're used to paying. They're used to paying low prices and getting low quality content, which for a lot of basic affiliate sites is potentially all you need, but if you want a high-converting site, then you're going to need that higher quality content, which costs more, but these people might not be ready to pay those amounts for it.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, and that taught me a lot of lessons too. These days, I try to avoid working what I call lottery ticket clients, and that's when the client looks at you as their lottery ticket like your copy or your marketing is going to single-handedly save their business, and so I don't want to be anyone's lottery ticket, and I certainly don't want to be... don't want anyone to give me their last pennies and hope for a miracle because any marketing SEO, copy, you just don't know what's going to work until you test it.
Rachel Mazza: If you're hoping for some sort of miracle, you don't have the freedom and the flexibility to test and see what works because if anyone tells you that the results are guaranteed, then they either don't know what they're doing or they're lying to you, so just being able to work with business owners that understand that and have a little bit more flexibility to test marketing ideas and give it the time needed in order to dig into the research and the markets is just such a big difference.
Kevin Graham: Yeah, and that's really interesting that you've managed to define those sort of people, as you called them, lottery ticket clients where... like you've built that persona of where they are in their business and personal lives, and what it is that they are hoping for by purchasing a service, so it's really cool that you were able to build that persona to even use it as a negative filter for people that you don't want to work with.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, and I think a big reason that I got so much traction as I relaunched as a full-time freelancer was right out of the gate, I was terrified of shutting down this agency, and I knew that I need to replace that income, and so I went and found a mentor straight out of the gate, and I knew what I needed to do, but I hadn't done that before, and I went and found somebody that had done that. I found my current mentor, Kevin Rogers, who runs a community called Copy Chief. I found him and hired him to help guide that process, and it's definitely been the number one best thing I could have done for my business.
Rachel Mazza: Kevin is still my mentor today, and I constantly rely on his guidance and tough love when I need it, but now we work together on some different projects as well. Even that relationship has evolved, and we're having fun exploring that new side of that relationship as well, but that was a big reason that I was able to relaunch so quickly was just hiring someone who had been there and made all the mistakes, and that made a big difference.
Kevin Graham: Yeah, and like working with mentors and coaches can certainly help speed up the time to achieve success because, yeah, in most of these cases, they've been there before. They can see you're about to make the same mistakes they've made or can just steer your way from them in the first place.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah.
Kevin Graham: It's definitely good working with those sorts of people.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, definitely.
Kevin Graham: I know we keep going back to the agency, and I know it's a bit of a sore point in your professional career, but can you tell me about an unexpected crisis that happened in the agency and how you handled it?
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, and I wouldn't say it's a sore point as much as just... It was two years ago, and it feels like when you run your own business, life just moves so much faster because you evolve so quickly when you're dealing with everything coming at you and you're the one making the decisions, so it's less of a sore point. It's more... I just feel like that was like a different lifetime.
Rachel Mazza: But yeah, at the agency, I think probably the... If we had to pick a crisis, it would probably just be people that were unhappy with the product. Like we talked about, the biggest challenge for me was working with clients, and I guess at the agency, I would call them customers because people were buying a productized service. They were buying packages of sales copy. I think when that happens, you open the door to working with people that you haven't filtered to meet your, what I call, rules of engagement, your ROE, so people have to have a certain number of criteria that they meet in order to be a good fit to work with you.
Rachel Mazza: When you have a productized service like that where anyone can just hit the buy button and order, you remove that filter. We had several instances where people would order, and I don't know what they expected because we provided copy that was much higher quality than most of the industry was providing. But again, I think they were looking for a miracle or they were kind of these lottery ticket clients and they wanted high-end premium sales copy, but they were buying a productized service that was made by a team designed to get things out quickly and at a quality level, but it's not the same as having a solo copywriter come in and dig into your market for three to four weeks and craft a message specifically for you.
Rachel Mazza: There were several instances where we had people who were unhappy with the content, and they would always say the same thing. They say, "I'm going to go all over the Internet, and I'm going to just talk (beep) about you everywhere, and go into these private groups, and go into these review sites, and I'm just going to tell everyone how terrible you are unless you give me all my money back or unless you write me 10 more pages," or something like that.
Rachel Mazza: When people talk like that, I know that it actually has nothing to do with the product that they've received or the service that we provided, and it's more about that they're not being professional about the relationship because we would always try and fix the situation, and do what we could to fix the copy if there was a miscommunication, but a lot of times, the people that were threatening to go slander our name around weren't interested in fixing it. They just were angry.
Rachel Mazza: I think that was the biggest crisis is we had a couple instances where people just threatened to go slander our name all over the Internet, which of course doesn't really matter, right? I mean, if you have thousands of good reviews and endorsements, then it doesn't matter if one or two hotheads goes and talk (beep) about you, but I think it was more just the emotional impact from that where I knew that we did good work, and it was really important to me that I put out good work and provide really good service and a really good product, and I think that was what really felt (beep) about that kind of situation. I mean, oh, in terms of handling it, we just do our best, and eventually, you have to say like, "Okay. Sorry. I'll give you your money back, and there's nothing more we can do. Good luck."
Kevin Graham: Yeah, and like when your identity is so closely wrapped in with the business, like those attacks that people make like really hurt because you do just start to... Your mind just goes on, and on, and on like thinking about all the different repercussions of, "Hey, maybe this one person is the one person who's absolutely going to ruin this business for me," or just even seeing any negative feedback out there about anything that you've done is not enjoyable to see.
Rachel Mazza: Right, and that's one thing. As a freelancer and any good freelancer worth their salt, I think one of our biggest faults is that we care so much. We care too much, and so we really care. We want to do a good job, and we want... Especially in writing, it's almost like a direct reflection of you. Right? That's tough when someone just refuses to work with you, and try and fix a situation that they're not happy with, and that's another big reason that I shut down the agency and I just work directly with clients is because I want to work with people who I can develop long-term business relationships with, and in order to do that, you need to be able to filter people whether or not they're a good fit to work with you. Right?
Rachel Mazza: That's another reason. It just wasn't for me to have that open door where anyone could click the buy button and work with you. I definitely prefer working with a bit of a filter and being able to put people through that list of ROEs, the rules of engagement, and make sure that I can do good work for them because sometimes they're not businesses that's set up to benefit from direct response copy, and also, make sure that there's a cultural and personality fit there that I can keep an eye out for any red flags of people that might be a problem later down the road.
Kevin Graham: Yeah, definitely. Now that you're back or relaunched as a solo copywriter, what's one thing about your business that makes you excited today?
Rachel Mazza: I don't know. This is probably all copywriters, but I love seeing the results. It is like such a dopamine rush when you have spent the last... sometimes three months working on a single sales page, and then they put it out there, they drive the traffic to it, and you get to see the numbers come in, so that to me is the most exciting thing. Because I'm working as a solo freelancer, that's 100% on me, right? It's 100% my win. it's 100% my fault if it doesn't work, and also, it's 100% me to manage the client, build that relationship. I think when something works and works well, that's the biggest high in the world for me, and I think that's what I really love.
Kevin Graham: Before we hit record, you said that some of the stuff you're doing now is like physical direct response mail, so have you managed to get your hands on some of the physical mail items that are going out yet?
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, that's so fun. I've done two now. Sometimes, it takes... These are big magalogs, right, and so sometimes they take six months to create, but I've just sent off the final copy for the first two, and they go out for mailing next week, and so they're going to mail me one. I'm actually really excited because it's like... It's very rare that you get something mailed to your house that you created, and I even headed the design on that project, and the formatting, and everything, and so that's going to be really exciting to see.
Kevin Graham: Yeah, so for people like both like yourself and me, like when most of the work that we're doing is digital, is electronic, when you get one of those rare physical artifacts of your work and can hold it in your hand, like it is such a rewarding thing.
Rachel Mazza: Especially because print is limited, right? It costs money to print every single page. Where on the internet, internet is free like you don't have to pay for a certain word count, or you can fill up a page with as much copy as you want, but when you're doing direct mail, you physically have to print those different pages, and they have to fit together in a book. That costs money, and so there's a lot of pressure to make it extra good because every single issue that goes out cost the client money where it's not quite the same with internet marketing, so that's really excited to see the culmination of all those efforts, and that strategy, and that planning, and .... Yeah, that's a different level of planning, and it's been a lot of fun to work on.
Kevin Graham: Yeah, so where do you see the future of this solo version of your practice?
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, probably more consulting rather than done-for-you copy. Right now, I'm at a point where I book out two to three months in advance and clients put down deposits to work with me, which is awesome, but that's limited. Right? When you work on these big projects, you can work, only work with one to two clients a month, and so I'd like to move more into consulting so that I can work with more people.
Rachel Mazza: In that situation, I would come in and take a look at the sales funnels and the copy of a business, and I would work with their existing team to improve the weak spots in their funnels, and I work with a lot of clients on their cold traffic funnels because I specialize in presale copy that warms up cold or skeptical audiences. I like solving those problems and working on that strategy, so I'll probably come in more as a consultant with business owners who already have a team that I can work with directly.
Kevin Graham: Cool, and so that would be really exciting to come in as that high-level consultant. You've proven yourself over these last five plus years, and then you can go there and be the expert.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, and that almost takes all the best parts of running an agency that I loved in terms of managing and leveraging a team, but none of the crappy parts like not being able to dig into the writing or not having to manage all the backend niggly admin stuff.
Kevin Graham: Definitely, so we're going to move onto the next segment of the podcast now. This is the section that... Generally, the next few words I'm about to say have ended up on the cutting room floor, so we'll see if it makes it in off of today's episode. This is the section where I try and make a few bucks off of the Amazon affiliate links by recommending or linking to the books that you recommend.
Rachel Mazza: Awesome.
Kevin Graham: What books do you think had the biggest impact on you in deciding to become an entrepreneur?
Rachel Mazza: In deciding to become an entrepreneur, probably Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson because that was one of those books that was just at the right time and the right place, and helped me take a leap toward making a big decision to leave my current job, and take a risk, and go travel, and start working for myself. That's the story of how Richard Branson started Virgin Records and all his businesses, and flew in a hot air balloon across the ocean, and just took all these risks. He has such a whimsical, fun outlook on life and how life should work, and so that kind of gave me the courage to make similar decisions for myself.
Kevin Graham: I remember he had like a number of those books out over the years, and I'm not sure if this was the one that I read or not, but the one that of his that I read was around like 2001, 2002, he published it.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah. Yup. This would be... I think it was one of his first ones, and so this would be that, that first one. Yeah.
Kevin Graham: Cool, and your second one you're about to mention there?
Rachel Mazza: There was another book called The Big Leap, which is all about... It sounds kind of woo-woo, but it's like working in your zone of excellence, and so it's like... It's spending your time and your energy on things that you are really, really good at, and enjoy, and would do forever for hours and hours without thinking like it's work, and that was all about kind of shifting your mindset about where you should put your energy and where you should have other people come in and take some of the things off your plate that drain your energy, and so that was a big, big shift and was also another catalyst for much needed change in my life.
Kevin Graham: Right. That one actually sounds really good, so I'm going to go download that on Kindle after this episode.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, that was a life-changing one for me, The Big Leap.
Kevin Graham: What about books that have had the biggest impact in the last couple of years?
Rachel Mazza: Well, in the last couple of years, I read the Profit First book, and it's basically a way to think about your finances as a business owner or your personal finances, and it completely revolutionized how I manage my money and is a big reason that I keep a lot more of it these days. That has had a huge impact recently in the last three, four years is adjusting the way I manage my money to match that Profit First system. That's by a guy named Mike Michalowicz, who wrote another great book called The Pumpkin Plan, which is also a great business management book, and he's like this funny, quirky guy, so his stuff is fun to read.
Rachel Mazza: Another one that recently has had a big impact on me is a book called Never Split the Difference, and it's a book about negotiation, and it's a super fun read because it's written by this former FBI hostage negotiator, and you learn all these business negotiation skills from hearing about his experience saving hostages from terrorists and kidnappers, and so he takes a lot of those high-intense situations and the negotiation skills that the FBI uses and teaches you how to apply the same thing in business, and so that's a fun read, but also really valuable stuff to learn.
Kevin Graham: Yeah. On Profit First, I know that one's been going around in the private business community that I'm a member of, and a lot of people in there have been talking about that book lately. I'm actually part way through reading it myself at the moment, and Never Split the Difference has also been mentioned several times there. I haven't read it yet, but I keep hearing that recommendation, so I should probably add that to my list as well.
Rachel Mazza: Yeah, that's a good audio book too, the Never Split the Difference.
Kevin Graham: Cool, so to wrap it up here and give you another little chance to pitch, where can our listeners connect with you and find out more about you as well as your services?
Rachel Mazza: Anything that's not Facebook Messenger. No, I'm notoriously terrible at anything involving social media chat, so don't message me on social media, but the best place is probably my website. It's rachelmazza.com, and I've got a lot of free training on there about copy, and freelancing, and making good money as a freelancer, and how to increase your conversions with copy and such, but through my website is probably the best way to contact me because I can get more info about what you're working on and how I can help.
Kevin Graham: I will include a link to that in the show notes, and as well, do you want to drop one last pitch in there for the podcast?
Rachel Mazza: Sure. Yeah, and you know what? That's just a fun side project right now, and so it's stress-free listening because you're not going to be pitched on stuff, but that's The Business of Writing Podcast, so it's businessofwritingpodcast.com, and if you're interested in making good money as a writer or even improving your writing either for yourself, your business, or with clients, that is a fun show. Laura and I talk a lot about what we've learned over the past nearly decade as professional writers, but we also have a lot of really great guests on the show sharing their experience as well.
Kevin Graham: Cool. Well, it's been great having you on the show today, Rachel. I'm looking forward to hanging out again sometime or somewhere around the world sometime soon. Thanks for coming on the show.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top