I’ve had the privilege of my writing being published on Forbes, Mashable, TechCrunch, Time, Fast Company, VentureBeat, Entrepreneur, and several other publications, and if you aspire to see your writing in mainstream publications like these, perhaps there is something in my story that will help you get there.
The writing I’ve had published has brought me speaking opportunities, a book deal, and more than 1000% growth for my business. I’ve been able to interview and network with my marketing and business heroes, all in the last two and a half years. Prior to that, my writing had never appeared in a mainstream publication. I was just a guy nobody had heard of, posting here and there on my blog, with a small handful of readers. This is the story of how everything changed.
10 Years of Solitude
I started blogging before blogs existed. There wasn’t any strategy. I didn’t have a plan. I just enjoyed writing. When I started blogging I didn’t care if anyone read what I was writing. I wrote for myself, and if anyone else enjoyed it, that was icing on the cake.
In the first 10 years I wrote over 700 blog posts. I didn’t write consistently. I might blog 10 times one week, and then not blog for a month. Sometimes I didn’t blog for several months, and then I would return with a flurry of activity.
I wrote about entrepreneurship, and the experiences I was having. Most of my writing didn’t attract any comments. Occasionally some of my writing, like my post about 75 ways to tell you might be an entrepreneur, seemed to strike a chord. But my blog never brought me any business. No client ever contacted me and said “I was reading what you wrote on your blog and I want to hire your agency!” No publisher ever asked me to compile my blog posts and turn them into a book. As near as I could tell, the people reading my blog were mostly family and friends, and I was ok with that.
Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time and despite this, you almost mess it all up anyway.
In 2012 I was talking with Cheryl Snapp, a friend of mine who runs a PR agency. She had helped me get an article published on the Fast Company website after I told her I wanted to get some logos from big publications to display on my company website, you know, in an “As seen in…” section. I noticed Cheryl had written some articles for Forbes, and I casually asked her how she landed that gig. She explained to me that Forbes had a few hundred paid staff writers, but several hundred unpaid “contributors” who wrote for free. She told me she thought it was worth asking to see if Forbes might be interested in me as one of their contributors. “If they take you on, you need to write an article once a week. My editor from Forbes is coming to town in two weeks, I’ll introduce you!” she told me. That sounded cool. There was just one problem. I was really busy already. I didn’t think I had time to write an article every week. Thank heavens I kept my mouth shut.
Two weeks later I went to the event where I met Tom Post, then-editor of the entrepreneurship section of Forbes. Cheryl arranged for me to talk to him while he and I were in line dishing up lunch. I assume he didn’t know anything about me yet, so I was surprised when he said “I read your article in Fast Company. I wish you had published it in Forbes.” I wasn’t able to get more out than a stammered “Thanks…” before he followed up by saying “I’ve also been reading your blog. I like what you’ve got there. We’d like you to write the same stuff for Forbes.” All I could say was “Sure, I’d love to!”
10 years of blogging with nothing to show for it but my own self satisfaction, and the next thing I know I’m writing for Forbes.
But then the real work began.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. But if you only have one basket, take good care of that basket [tweet that!]. My first goal when I started writing for Forbes, the one I repeated to myself every time I submitted a new post, was “Don’t mess this up, don’t mess this up, don’t mess this up.” But I did mess up–twice. The first time was when I posted something about politics. Tom told me to never do that again. He made it clear I was brought on to write about entrepreneurship and I should stick to my subject. Another time I mentioned in a public forum that I was getting too many requests from startups that wanted me to write articles about them. The way I worded my complaint made it sound like I was too busy to write for Forbes. Tom found my comments, and told me since I was too busy we might as well part ways. I pleaded my case, explained what I meant, and he gave me another chance.
With Forbes I had all my eggs in one basket, which was a distinct improvement over having no basket at all. But I realized it could disappear at any moment, and it would be a good idea to branch out and write for other outlets and leverage my work at Forbes to do so.
My first attempt was to get into TechCrunch. I wrote an article about a tech company, submitted it, and it was rejected without comment. I asked for feedback, and I got one sentence. I didn’t understand what the sentence meant, and still don’t, but I recognized one thing–different publications are looking for different things. What works for Forbes isn’t what works for TechCrunch or Mashable, and as a writer it’s best to respect those differences rather than try to convince an editor they don’t know what they’re doing. As it turned out, the article that wasn’t the right fit for TechCrunch was the right fit for VentureBeat.
Which Way Is Up?
Each publication sits within a hierarchy of sorts. Forbes is a top tier publication. Your hometown newspaper is somewhere lower. Even though I could publish everything I wrote in Forbes, I tried to spread my writing around as much as I could, just in case. I figured even if I somehow lost Forbes, I would then have evidence of my writing in many other places, and I could use that to pitch other top tier publications. I moved downward in the hierarchy and wrote for regional and niche publications you may not have heard of, like the South China Morning Post (the “New York Times of Hong Kong”), Hong Kong Business Magazine, Marketing Magazine, and TechinAsia.
At the same time I kept trying to make lateral moves. VentureBeat was one of those. Then I got in with Entrepreneur, which has been another great outlet for me. One of my recent articles on Entrepreneur was syndicated by Time, allowing me to claim that publication as another big name in my quiver. And I kept on pitching TechCrunch, as well as Mashable, but to no avail.
Sometimes It’s Who You Know
My intro to Fast Company and Forbes came through a friend. Similarly, when I got into TechCrunch and Mashable it would also be because of who I knew. I had submitted work to Mashable before, but without any response. Then, through pure serendipity, my agency hired a part-time writer who happened to have written some pieces for Mashable. I told her about my desire to write for Mashable, so she put me in touch with her editor. I pitched the editor on a piece I had written, it was well received, and then…that editor went on maternity leave for two months. I’m all about maternity leave and babies, but I wish I would have gotten my article submitted a week earlier. For the next two months I couldn’t do anything but wait.
When the editor returned she reviewed my article again and published it. I was in! Now that I have a relationship, I still have to submit articles, but I get feedback rather than the silent treatment. But that doesn’t mean everything I write gets in. One of my pieces was rejected, due to Mashable having published too many articles on a similar topic lately. No problem, I just published it on Forbes instead, where it has received 30,000 views. For me, that’s pretty good, since most of my posts attract around 4000 views. That’s another benefit of writing for a bunch of places–if it doesn’t work in one place, you can pitch the same content somewhere else. And Forbes always has my back. That’s why they end up with 80% of my writing.
TechCrunch was also a personal connection. After reaching out to several writers there and trying to get feedback on why I was getting rejected, I gave up. But then I happened to meet a TechCrunch writer, started a correspondence with him, and then met him in person for dinner. My intent wasn’t to pitch him on anything, but I was curious to know more about TechCrunch. It wasn’t until months later when I was writing a story for Forbes that I realized I had something that might be a good fit for the big TC. I sent it to my friend and asked him if he thought it was something TechCrunch would be interested in. The next thing I knew he had given it to his editor, his editor contacted me, and then it was published. Oh wait, that’s not quite how it happened. In reality his publisher told me the article wasn’t the right fit but, but…he said if I rewrote it (and he gave me some specific tips) then it might be. I rewrote the article, resubmitted it, and then it got published.
That’s the start of my story. But yours doesn’t need to take 10+ years, or even two, to come to fruition. Things are a bit clearer in hindsight, and if I had to do it over again, here’s the 7-point plan I would put into action.
- Blog. Yes, I would still set up a blog, but I would focus in on one niche topic. Become the expert on that one topic, and resist the temptation to write about anything else. Do this well enough, and the publications may come to you and you can skip all the other steps.
- Start niche. When you start reaching out to get published elsewhere, start locally, or with a niche publication, and work your way up. Use your blog as evidence you can produce the kind of content they want.
- Leverage. As soon as you get three or more pieces published in one place, leverage that to get into another, slightly up the totem pole, until you get to a top tier publication. Then leverage your work sideways. At this point, it’s easier to approach editors because they can see they don’t have to test you, because someone else has already done that for them.
- Educate yourself. I got a pitch today from a company that wants me to write an article about them for TechCrunch. The problem is, their business is definitely not something most TechCrunch readers would be interested in. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the guy who sent me the pitch doesn’t read TechCrunch, or he would also know this, and he never would have pitched me. If you don’t regularly read a publication, don’t count on being able to pitch them successfully.
- Network. Get to know who the writers are at the publications you want to write for. Read what they write. Follow them on Twitter. I create Twitter lists for each publication, like this. If you can meet writers in person, so much the better. Never introduce yourself to a writer by saying “I really want to write for your publication, can you help me get in?” Writers introduce friends, not random strangers, to their editors. What writers are more willing to do is give advice, so ask for advice. Write an article, send it to a writer, and ask “Do you think this is the type of article your publication would be interested in? Why or why not?”
- Keep pitching. I gave up too easily with TechCrunch and Mashable. I was saved only by coincidental meetings with people who could and were willing to help me. What I now realize is that I probably could have gotten in with both of them two years ago if I had been willing to write five articles for each one, rather than writing one or two and then giving up. Remember, it’s never a waste to write an article. If it gets rejected, just publish it somewhere else. If nobody else will publish it, you’ve always got your blog.
- Once you get in. For good heavens, feed the editor! She didn’t bring you on so you could write one article and disappear. Keep sending content on a regular basis and keep the relationship alive.
If you’re focused, you can execute this plan within six months and be writing for just about any publication you want.