When I asked for your input, Bob asked for realistic, hard-hitting details about what a newbie can expect his or her first year. It seemed like a good place to start.
Now, I guess it depends on what "first year" means. My first half year (from June 13, 2005 to December 31, 2005) was up and down. I think my best month I cleared $6,000. Another month I made only $1,000 and had to go into debt to pay the bills. That was scary.
During this whole time I was doing a variety of things to market my business. Calling local business people, setting up my lead generation web site, and attending seminars. The best thing I did was go to Big Seminar on Harlan Kilstein's advice. I've traced my first Big Seminar to over $30,000 in fees. I've stopped counting now.
My first complete year as a freelance copywriter (2006) was much better. In fact, I just discovered I have a tax bill in excess of $10,000. And that's after itemized deductions and an income-reducing technique that is possible with LLCs. Yikes!
(Side note: I'm convinced that if Americans had to write checks to pay their taxes, they would demand a reduction in how much their income is taxed. I imagine we could get back to pre-World War 1 tax rates of about 3-5%. Wouldn't that be nice?)
During your first year, the most critical ingredient to your success will be... ACTION!
Don't overly concern yourself with HOW various things will be done. Don't over-analyze. Simply do lots of things and you'll eventually "self correct" and do the things that need doing.
Of course, this is not very efficient, but efficiency is not what you're looking for at first. You're simply trying to get things done and figure out what works... and what doesn't. Later on, after you've had success, you can pare back and start looking at ways to become more efficient.
Two things you absolutely must not neglect in your first year:
Self-Marketing. Let it never cease. Whether times are good or bad, you must always be marketing your service. This is vital.
Bookkeeping. This year I didn't do any bookkeeping until the end of August. What a pain. I had to spend a day and a half tracking down statements, visiting my CPA, and figuring out my income and expenses. This is not fun. Much better to stay on top of it month by month or quarter by quarter at least.
Speaking of your business structure, it's probably best in most cases to be set up as an LLC, if for no other reason than to protect your personal assets. You may also wind up paying less in taxes as an LLC versus a sole proprietorship. (But hey, what do I know? I'm definitely not a tax expert. That's why I work with a CPA.)
Another thing to expect in your first year: surprises.
No two clients will be the same until you've had a few of them. Then you may start to notice patterns. But don't sweat about this too much. Just get out there and gain experience.
Also, in the interest of being candid, I have been fired by a client and I have fired clients. Neither is very much fun.
In the case where I was fired, it was just weird. I hadn't even written the final copy yet. It was never tested. From my point of view, it was very subjective. I simply thanked God for removing me from a wrong relationship and moved on.
In other cases, I've had to move away from clients who abuse my time or violate my trust. I believe John Carlton once said you're not a real copywriter until you've been screwed out of all or part of a fee. That happened to me in Month 3 (September 2005). It's happened only a few times since, mostly due to my lack of experience with recurring commissions. Sometimes I wind up with a trustworthy client, sometimes not. But you can't worry about that stuff. It happens. Just learn and move on.
Something else I've learned is that most projects always take longer than expected. Therefore, budget more time than you think you'll need. You'll most likely need all of it.
Why does this happen? Because clients will change terms on you... decide to go in a different direction than originally planned. Or you'll have a death in the family... or a blizzard or two that require literally hours of shoveling just to get basic necessities (like food). Whatever. There a million reasons a project may go longer than expected, and almost never for the reasons you might think.
Okay, that's enough for now. If I think of more, I'll post it later. In the mean time, if you have questions, please post them below.