Erica Swallow is a MIT Sloan MBA candidate, entrepreneur, speaker, writer, and social media consultant through Southern Swallow, Inc. She has contributed articles to a wide variety of publications including Mashable, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, and the Huffington Post and kicked off her career as a social media and community consultant back in 2009 with the New York Times.
I spoke with Erica Swallow in July 2013 to get a better idea of the secrets behind her success. Below you will find a summary of Erica’s insights from the call, which touch on higher education, speaking engagements, contributing and sending pitches to major publications, building a client base as a freelancer, and finding work as a social media strategist or community manager.
Deciding Whether to Get a Degree
Erica is about to enter the MIT Sloan School of Management. She has chosen to get an MBA despite her already-impressive professional success because she works best in structured environments with organized social support networks (and also wants to set a new precedent for her family, as she is the first person in her lineage to graduate from college).
Erica’s best advice to someone choosing between continued education and independent ventures is to consider which sort of environment will work best for one’s personal style. If you like structure, regular feedback, and timelines, continued education might give you the perfect environment you need to foster your career. If, on the other hand, you enjoy independence and ambiguity/flexibility, an independent path may be ideal.
It should be noted that Erica is not using MIT’s Sloan to figure out what she wants to do (though she acknowledges it may shape her personal professional path). She already has intense personal drive and a very clear interest in entrepreneurship. Specifically, Erica will be leveraging her graduate school experience to work on a company she developed with a small group of friends during a StartupBus hackathon. Taking classes at MIT’s Sloan School will introduce her to resources and individuals that would take much longer to access should she be starting this company independently.
In short, one can learn from Erica that it may be worth it to go back to school if:
- You enjoy a structured environment
- You have a very clear idea of what you want from the experience
- You have every intention to fully utilize the resources made available to you as a student (people, groups, facilities, etc.)
- You wish to start a new career and need time and focus to develop it (in other words, you do not want to steal hours here and there after coming home from your day job)
Tips on Landing and Making the Most of Speaking Engagements
Erica has an impressive number of speaking engagements under her belt- especially when one considers that her first speaking engagements took place just one year after graduating from college. She has spoken everywhere from Prague to Sao Paulo, and typically has her travel expenses covered, though, aside from appearances within webinars and classes, she does not usually ask for speaking fees.
Most of Erica’s speaking engagements have resulted from organizations finding her work and reaching out to her directly, so at least based on Erica’s personal experience, one way to garner speaking opportunities is to:
- Regularly contribute articles to major publications
- Establish yourself as an expert in your field
- Write about major trends and developments in this field and provide high quality analysis
- Have an easy-to-understand digital identity
- Be easy to contact
When it comes to making the most of speaking engagements, Erica recommends:
- Writing off your meals and other small expenses while you travel (you are, after all, traveling for businesses)
- Utilizing your travel or conference/event attendance as a freelance writing opportunity by offering to cover it for various publications to which you contribute work
- Making the most of the conference or event at which you have been invited to speak by going to interesting talks, meeting new people, and developing new skills
- Continuing to work in the midst of your travels (if you’re a freelance writer of entrepreneur, there is a pretty good chance you can work from anywhere!)
Advice on Becoming a Contributor to Major Publications
Erica’s experience as a writer demonstrates a common domino effect experienced by freelance writers and journalists: get in with one good publication and watch additional opportunities roll in.
In Erica’s case, the all-important initial breakthrough involved the New York Times, where she worked as a social media consultant after finishing her undergraduate studies. Her work with the New York Times led to an opportunity to work full time with Mashable, which in turn lead to opportunities to contribute to additional publications, such as Forbes and Entrepreneur.
Each time Erica began contributing to a new publication, she added it as a new position to her LinkedIn profile. This method is far more effective than grouping all the publications to which one contributes under one position, as highlighting each company enables one to associate one’s profile with the publication (which will lead others to discover your work when conducting searches related to that publication on the site).
In short, if you want to become a contributor to major publications:
- Leverage your personal connections to get an in with at least one prestigious publication
- Regularly contribute high quality content
- Be sure to showcase your involvement with this publication on your LinkedIn profile
- Add additional any new publications to which you are invited to contribute as additional positions to your LinkedIn profile
How to Pitch Work to a Publication
Though in most cases, Erica has been approached by publications (rather than having to approach publications herself), she provided the following tips when it comes to sending over pitches (whether one is cold calling a publication or already a regular contributor):
- Provide a headline with a three-sentence synopsis
- Link to clips of your work (Eric recommends Contently as a good online writing portfolio tool)
- Be generally brief and friendly
Tips on Working as an Independent Consultant
Erica began freelancing in 2009, so that she could pursue her interests as a digital marketing consultant and writer as a freelancer.
Most of her initial clients came through referrals- specifically referrals from a previous colleague and mentor who provided similar freelance services and often had to turn away many potential clients due to her heavy workload.
New clients also discovered Erica through her published work (she did case study after case study for Mashable, which clearly demonstrated her experience in the field). After teaching a course about startup PR, Erica received even more inquiries from potential clients who discovered her through her classes (note: teaching has some additional perks as well- Erica makes a couple hundred dollars every month from a course she has on Udemy).
Some big lessons we can therefore take from Erica’s freelance experience are:
- When getting started, leverage your professional network
- Get to know someone else doing similar freelance work who does not have the capacity to accept every client that approaches him/her
- Publish work online that demonstrates your skills and expertise
- Teach classes related to your area of expertise
When it comes to establishing rates for one’s work, Erica has taken a very flexible approach. Her rates vary from client to client, are different depending on the type of work she does, and may be based on hourly work, weekly arrangements, clients’ set rates, or discrete projects.
Advice for Social Media Strategists and Community Managers
When asked to provide tips for those interested in building careers as social media strategists and community managers, Erica recommended:
- Getting your social media profiles in tip top shape (especially if you have not yet done any work for clients or employers)
- Building a robust following to clearly demonstrate that you know how to catch others’ attention and engage with followers
- Demonstrating enthusiasm, interest, and a willingness to learn
- Being able to speak intelligently about major trends related to social media and online communities
- Being able to refer to and speak intelligently about relevant cases (e.g. brands that have done very well with social media, businesses that have made mistakes on a platform from which others can learn, etc.)
- Maintaining a personal blog to which you contribute posts about your professional field (e.g. if you have a blog with three years’ worth of commentary about social media, potential clients can review a very concrete snapshot of your dedication, experience, and expertise)
Top-of-post photo by Hugo Liu