PODCAST S2/E5: The 3 Questions Ben’s Asked Most Often

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In this podcast episode, Ben looks back on thousands of reader emails and discusses the three questions he’s asked most often about remote working and freelancing.

As well as chatting about the popularity of writing work, Alex and Ben also discuss the world of blogging, and Ben has a bit of a rant about people using poor quality laptops!

Included in this podcast:

  • How can you make money from writing? (1:20)
  • Should someone start a blog? (9:28)
  • What is the best laptop to buy? (17:07)

Supplementary Links and Information

Full Transcription

We have edited some repeat words and unclear passages to enhance readability.

ALEX: Welcome to the HomeWorkingClub podcast. I’m Alex and with me as ever is Ben. How are you today, Ben?

BEN: I’m good, Alex. How are you?

ALEX: Not too bad. Just filling the paddling pool to take advantage of the late summer… to get the weather conversation out of the way early.

BEN: Is the paddling pool for you or for your daughter?

ALEX: Well, technically, it’s for my daughter. But you know… I’ll count it as playing with her as I sit in the paddling pool and she cries.

BEN: Fair enough.

ALEX: So today we are talking about the three questions Ben is asked most often by readers of HomeWorkingClub. Now, this is over a period of time and I suspect we shall cover more than just three subject areas.

But Ben, you get asked a lot of questions, don’t you?

BEN: I do. I mean, I did look in my email folder for customer emails and there are literally thousands in there.

But there are some very, very common themes. So there are the three… I’ve listed them. Alex already knows what they are.

We’re going to just go through each of them and hopefully provide some interesting insights for you all.

ALEX: Well, the first one goes back to pretty much the genesis of HomeWorkingClub as a site… which is, “How do I make money from writing?”

Which was the question you asked yourself all those years ago, wasn’t it?

BEN: I guess it was, yeah. It is hands down the question I’m asked most often.

For loyal listeners of the podcast… and thank you very much to you if you’re one of them… it is something that we’ve covered before in a previous podcast, which we called “Why Does Everybody Want to be a Writer?”. Which I will put in the show notes in case anyone wants to explore this subject in more depth.

But, yeah, it does look like lots of people are interested in the idea of writing. I’m always a little bit sceptical as to people’s motivations. I wonder if people just don’t realise how many other options there are of things that people could do freelance or working from home.

So, how do you make money from writing?

Well, there is plenty of work out there. There’s tonnes of work out there. Writing is the main thing my wife does as a freelance activity and she is absolutely drowning in work at the moment.

But I also kind of wonder if people really realise what it means to be a writer who earns money from writing. If you think about it, clients who are going to pay you to write are going to want to see some kind of return on investment from that writing that you do for them.

Which means… and I said exactly this in an email to a reader over the weekend, with the best will in the world… you are going to, most of the time, be helping to turn the cogs of a corporate machine with the writing that you do. And I do wonder just how much that aligns with this kind of dream of sitting in a writing room like J. K. Rowling, just sort of being inspired and putting your fingers to the keyboard and thoroughly enjoying writing.

ALEX: A ???? on the south side of Paris with a typewriter and a bottle of absinthe. Yeah.

BEN: Exactly.

It’s really not like that when actually you’re writing about the 10 best paddleboard manufacturers and stuff like that… that’s a completely random one…

ALEX: That sounds a lot more interesting than some of the jobs I’ve seen.

BEN: You know. It’s not that random, because my wife did write for a client about paddleboards last year. So she probably knows a lot about them now.

My point is that a lot of time you’re going to be writing about stuff that is kind of commercial in nature. That’s where… not where all the money is, but it’s where a lot of the money is.

ALEX: I’ve got a friend who is an incredibly talented writer. He’s a published author. He’s worked as a journalist. He is a brilliant writer! I suspect that one day, when he turns his hand to something, he’ll probably find himself in the non-fiction sections of bookshops.

But he writes a lot of commercial articles and I’ve unfortunately read several of them and they are deathly dull. But, because he’s talented, he can turn those out very quickly, they are to a high standard…and that’s the thing. For him it’s a good, quick way to make some money.

BEN: Yeah. I mean the same for me. I spent years writing about cybersecurity, and I think I must have written different variations on articles about anti-virus and VPN for months and months of my life.

As you say, they become very easy to write. You are quite often sort of bashing out 1000 words per hour really quite easily. And that’s again where the money is. When you are a specialist in a particular subject area like that, there’s really good money in it.

When you’re kind of more of a generalist… I think this is where the gap is between the sort of dream and the reality, which is… Yes, you can make money from writing. Yes, there are thousands of gigs out there making money from writing. Do they meet that dream of sitting in a beautiful room, being inspired? No, a lot of them don’t.

I think maybe for some people blogging, which we’re going to mention a bit in a moment, or perhaps even self-publishing and just writing about something that you really know about or even… people self publish fiction books and do incredibly well out of it as well.

ALEX: E. L. James’ “50 Shades of Grey” was self-published, wasn’t it?

BEN: Yes, and you’ve now managed to mention “50 Shades of Grey” in two different podcast episodes, Alex.

ALEX: Have I?

BEN: Yes.

ALEX: I’ve never read it!

BEN: We believe you. Maybe underneath the show notes, if anyone wants to comment whether they believe Alex has read “50 Shades of Grey” or not.

I have, as it goes.

ALEX: Now that I do believe.

BEN: It was terribly written, to be fair. But my wife seemed to enjoy the whole series, so we’ll say no more about that.

ALEX: Let’s get back on to the subject matter of the podcast!

So, this question, “How do I make money from writing?”… We’ve touched on it a lot. I think it comes back to this point that absolutely… and I’m going to use the HomeWorkingClub clich√© number one of “Pay your Dues”.

Work hard. You’re not going to suddenly land that fantastic commission to write travel articles and go and stay in hotels around the world. All that kind of thing. You will be having to take some jobs where it is using your skills to help other people who don’t have them. And that can mean absolutely anything. Can’t it?

BEN: It does. But I think also, it is good that you use that example. This was completely unplanned but I have been paid to write travel articles and restaurant reviews and things like that over the years. When you get to do stuff like that, it is brilliant! I mean, it really is fantastic.

I remember a particular time when I was getting paid to review train routes and literally travelling and making notes sitting on a lovely train seat. It was fabulous. So yeah, you can get to the stage where you get… when you’ve paid your dues… There we go. We’ve said it twice in the podcast already… and you’ve got regular clients.

When you get to the point where you find a client where you really buy into what their company does, into their ethos, into their values and you’re being paid to write that kind of stuff it can be really fantastic.

What I also want to add to this is… this is going to sound harsh and I said something similar to this last time we discussed writing… you do need to be really good at it.

I think not everyone is perhaps as good at it as perhaps they think they might be. And there are very different styles of writing. I think web-based writing is very kind of snappy. Very short sentences and short paragraphs.

Something I particularly find with people who are very academically gifted… people who’ve done degrees and Masters and Doctorates… often write in the way that they were taught at university. Which means long paragraphs that sort of introduce a concept, discuss it and then conclude it all within the length of one paragraph. That’s not what online writing clients usually want.

So, for a lot of people, there’s quite a lot of adaptation to be done from what you… I’ve done this the other way around when I started studying a degree from home in 2009. I started doing web writing for my university assignments and the lecturers absolutely hated it. It was just like, “this isn’t how you do academic writing.”

I now see it in reverse all the time. I get very clever academic people saying, “Oh, I know that I’ve got the skills for writing.” And I think, “Yeah, you maybe have, but you will have to adapt them an awful lot for what the majority of clients want.”

ALEX: Yeah. Actually, that does lead to another question you get asked a lot. And actually, a great way to improve your writing style, to find out what your style is, to enjoy writing… is to start a blog on something that you are interested in. Because that’s the easiest way to get into it.

So you get asked very often, “Should somebody start a blog?”

BEN: Yeah. Question two: Should I start a blog?

One I’m asked a lot. I think a lot of the reason people ask this question is because there are so so many “make money online” sites that focus on writing a blog.

One of the reasons for that is that web hosting solutions… which is what you need… a web host in order for your blog to have somewhere to live online… those web hosting companies pay absolutely enormous affiliate commissions. That’s really because once someone sets up a blog, if it’s successful, it could be there for years, if not decades. The web hosting companies make money every single year, which is why they can afford to pay their affiliates such big commissions.

Should you start a blog?

My simple answer to that is yes. For all kinds of reasons.

The first one, as Alex alluded to, is it is a brilliant way to practise your writing. It is a brilliant way to showcase your writing if you want to apply for freelance writing work.

It’s a really fun way to sort of engage with a passion or a hobby as well because we all love writing about the things that we’re genuinely interested in. So yeah, massive reasons to start a blog.

Where it gets a little bit more cloudy is, “Should you start a blog as a way to make money?”

Now people do make huge, huge amounts of money from blogs. A lot of the people who make the most money from their blogs are the ones who sell blogging courses and web hosting. That’s kind of what I was saying before.

I think a lot of the blogs that make the most money are things like what I call “best X for Y sites”. So they do things like “Best Paddleboards for Beginners” and… let’s give you a sneak preview of the next question… “Best Laptops for Freelancers”… which I actually rank first for on Google at the time of saying this.

So the idea is you will catch people who are in the research phase of a purchase… I don’t know, best desk fans for home offices… something like that. So you review them, and then if someone then goes ahead and clicks your link into Amazon and buys one, you get a commission. That is essentially, in a nutshell, what affiliate marketing is. And that’s one of the main ways that people make money from blogs.

So this kind of takes us on to where the problem is.

I think a lot of people think, “Oh, I’ll start a blog and I’ll call it myname.com and I’ll talk about all my interests.” Well, unless you’re fortunate enough that there are people out there with exactly your interests… which for me would be vintage disco music, retro computers… right now, healthy eating and Weight Watchers.

Yeah, there are thousands of people interested in each of those things. But, why would someone follow a personal blog about all of those things? They won’t. They’ll follow a blog which is about specifically the things that they’re interested in.

So with a blog, you’ve really got to niche down. Like, for example, a fitness blog where you have a fitness trainer that’s selling “Build Your Abs in 30 Days” courses and things like that. That’s where the big money in blogging is. It’s about niching down into a specific subject.

Similar to the question about writing, it’s, I think, perhaps a little bit of a gap between the dream and the reality. But, should you start a blog? Absolutely. Yes. It’s really fun!

The technical learning curve is really fun as well because you’re building more and more skills as you learn about how to format your posts, how to use WordPress, how to build email lists. You are building really valuable skills as you do it.

Should you start a blog because you’re hoping it’s going to make you rich in six months? No. Yes, you can earn really, really good money from blogs but after you put a year of very hard work into it.

ALEX: There we go.

BEN: I really went off on one there…

ALEX: You did. Didn’t you?

BEN: I clearly feel quite passionate about that.

ALEX: I’m just deleting the new blog that I was about to set up. [Laughs]

I think that’s true. I think it’s something that comes out. The other thing is you have the experience of doing this. Effectively, you started off blogging years and years ago and that sort of morphed into HomeWorkingClub really, didn’t it?

The difference I see between people who are really committed to this is… you’ve got to keep doing it regularly. You’ve got to think, “Yes, it’s fantastic”… and I’ve done this before… The first four or five posts automatically write themselves. But what are you going to be doing next year?

If it’s something that you want to do as a hobby, that’s fair enough. But if it’s something that you would like to actually make some money out of, then you’ve got to be thinking, “Am I going to be able to provide enough content?”

You know, an article a day for the next year is a significant thing, if that’s what you’re going to do. Even an article a week is quite significant if you’re talking about that long.

Are you interested enough to keep you going? Is the subject matter interesting enough and provide enough information to keep it going? And, of course, as you say, “Is anyone going to read it?”

BEN: I’ve made that mistake in the past.

The first blog I started up in 2008… it’s a bit abandoned now because it’s a blog about moving to Portugal and I moved to Portugal but then I moved back to the UK… but it was very successful while I was in Portugal, it spawned a book that has sold, I think, about 4000 copies now. So that was fantastic.

I thoroughly enjoyed doing that. I also had a food and wine blog, which I really enjoyed.

But once I kind of learned how to do it, I did jump on a couple of fads/trends and think, “Oh, that’s a bit of a thing at the moment, let’s do a blog about that.” None of those blogs went anywhere because I just wasn’t interested enough to keep it going.

I’m going to put a link in the show notes to an article I wrote on my other website, WriteBlogEarn.com, about finding your best niche for a blog. One of the things I say in the article is… if you think you’re going to start a blog about something, sit with a piece of paper and write down the first 20 posts you’re going to write. If it’s difficult… If after 15 you’re thinking, “Hmm, what are the other ones?”…

Those first 20 ideas should just flood onto that piece of paper in minutes. If they don’t, you’ve got to ask yourself the question, as Alex said… six months from now, what are you going to be writing about?

I think that’s one of the reasons I got into home working. I love the fact that home working facilitated our move to Portugal. The fact it supports the kind of really balanced family life that we have now. And I could write 100 article ideas now, even after having written over 350 already.

ALEX: And you do. I’ve seen the notice board with the upcoming ideas It is not a word of a lie. The man is an ideas factory.

BEN: My issue with HomeWorkingClub is quite literally… enough resource and time… my own time just to write all the stuff I’ve got down there. I’ve got ideas on that list that I’ve had up there for years. I just haven’t got to yet.

ALEX: So while we’re talking about how time poor you are, the final question you get asked is one that I asked you myself not all that long ago.

It’s not so much the question… it’s the response to your response, apparently, that is quite common… which is, “What’s the best laptop to buy, Ben?”

BEN: Yes. I did say to Alex before we recorded this… perhaps forgetting that he had asked me the question himself… “Oh, I really hate being asked that question.”

So the question is, “What laptop should I buy?”

Now, I’ve been asked this since long, long before HomeWorkingClub was even thought about because I’ve been doing IT consultancy since 2004. And even before that, I worked in a technical role. So, even if you’re like the office head of IT, like I was, all the people on the team ask, “What laptop should I buy for home?”

Asking what laptop should I buy is literally like saying what colour car should I get? And the most logical answer to it is, “I don’t know.”

It’s a really complicated question. And it raises so many other questions… What do you plan to do with that laptop? How much money do you have to spend on it? What’s your budget? How long do you want it to last? What kind of warranty you do you need?

I think I’ve probably made my point. But there is an article…

ALEX: Yes, Ben. You’ve made your point.

BEN: There is an article on the site about the best laptops for freelancers… and I’m going to do one soon on the best laptops for writers as well… where I kind of go into not only my recommendations but also the considerations you should have when you’re choosing.

I’m not going to…sorry to disappoint anyone… going to say, “Well, I think you should buy the… I don’t know…. the Toshiba whatever… I don’t think Toshiba even make laptops anymore. I can’t just say…

ALEX: I’ve got one in front of me.

BEN: Oh, really?

Well, the thing is, laptops cost anything from $300 to… I think a fully kitted out latest MacBook Pro is over $6000 now. So it really depends.

One thing I will say is, when people say, “What laptop should I buy?” and then I take the time to go into the other questions with them… quite often I will actually get pushed as far as saying, “All right, I recommend that one.” and mentioning a particular one. And they’ll say, “I didn’t want to spend as much as that.” By which point I’m going red and steam is coming out of my ears.

ALEX: I mean, what kind of a horrible person would do that, Ben?

BEN: I know.

My point here is that laptops have got much more expensive in recent years. I wouldn’t pretend to really know why that is. I think a lot of it is that Apple kind of pushed the boundaries of what they charge for MacBooks and nowadays equivalent spec Windows PC laptops are getting just as expensive.

I think it used to be… sort of the cost of a premium laptop was say about ¬£1000 or $1000. Now it’s more like double that. So, when you read articles on budget laptops, they are now not talking about $400, they’re talking about $700 or $800.

But you do very much get what you pay for. These cheap laptops don’t have good ergonomics. They don’t have good build quality. Yes, there are some diamonds in the rough on the budget ranges but I do always encourage people to spend as much as they can…

Especially if it’s for starting a freelance career, or remote working, or something like that because you are going to spend an enormous number of hours with that laptop.

I shudder to think how many hours I spend in front of mine because when I’ve finished the working day a lot of my leisure time is spent staring at a laptop as well, if I’m being honest. I think, some days, easily over 12 hours I’m looking at my lovely MacBook.

It is like buying a mattress. You don’t want to skimp on buying a mattress. And you don’t want to skimp on buying a laptop because tiny little slowdowns and inconveniences with laptops… you’re going be using it every day for anything from 3 to 5 years… they’re really going to get to you.

I would say economise on something else and just don’t economise too much when you buy one.

If you actually have that question, “What laptop should I buy?”, on the tip of your tongue at the moment, I will put a link to that article in the show notes. Which does give some helpful advice and ask the kind of questions I would ask if you asked me.

ALEX: I mean, if it’s any consolation, Ben, the laptop that you recommended I buy would have been absolutely perfect if it had cost about half the price. So, you know, I mean, you got the spec absolutely right but…

BEN: Well, I’m sorry.

ALEX: So there we go. Just to prove that I can annoy Ben as much as the next person.

Having said that… he’s absolutely right. There’s no way that you can skimp on actually doing the research yourself, working out what it is that you need, because only you know what actually you can afford to do without and what you desperately need.

As Ben says, those annoyance factors… what’s going to annoy you further down the line.

BEN: I should maybe be more patient because…

ALEX: NO!

BEN: I think people do just want a quick answer to that. People aren’t particularly interested. They just want something that’s going to do the job. The same as if I had a heating engineer around and I’d be just like, “Well, tell me what central heating or air conditioning I need.” I wouldn’t care about the bars of pressure or anything like that any more than the average sort of non-technical laptop buyer cares.

But I think it is slightly different. This is something you’re going to be spending an awful lot of time staring at and having to use.

ALEX: I think that would be fine if you were talking about people asking the question for stuff that they’re going to use as a home laptop. But in your role with HomeWorkingClub, where people trust your advice, I think you’re quite right to be hesitant on it because this is a working tool.

It’s not like somebody coming round to fix light bulbs in the house or something like that. It is more a case of somebody, you know… a tree surgeon saying which chainsaw you should get. There are significant financial implications for making the wrong choice.

BEN: Yes, very much so.

ALEX: I said that. I don’t know anything about chainsaws so… I could be wrong, maybe there’s just one type.

BEN: I’m almost glad, to be honest.

ALEX: Maybe there’s a blog in it.

So, is there anything else, Ben? I think, so far, we’ve had: “How do you make money from writing?”, “Should I start a blog?” and, “What laptop should I buy?”

I think that sort of covers a lot of the areas. I mean, we could probably talk for hours and hours with all the different questions you get asked.

If you have any strange questions you’d like to ask Ben… How can they get in touch, Ben?

BEN: Yeah. Do you know what? I think that would be a really nice way to end this… ask me some more questions. My email is here and if I get asked enough, we could maybe make them the subject for a future podcast.

ALEX: I would absolutely love that. So do be creative as well. The other thing that I would ask… you’ve been kind enough to listen this far, do please like, subscribe and share the podcast. It really does help people to find it.

It helps us to feel that we’re being listened to… rather than just two grumpy middle-aged men sat in sheds talking about chainsaws.

Have you got anything else you’d like to add before we sign off?

BEN: No, I don’t think so. But thank you very much for listening.

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