Jobs You’ve Never Heard Of: He writes words for coffee shops

Jobs You’ve Never Heard Of: A new, original series that profiles individuals with jobs that make us ask “What? People get paid to do that?” As parents, counselors, or college applicants, we know a lot about careers we’ve encountered, but not much about what other people do. The college journey is all about self-discovery — including exploration of professions we never knew existed. We hope this series shows you the real colorfulness in the world, inspires your imagination, and, as per our forte, sneaks you some insider tips on getting your foot in the door. 

“I was just a barista…I helped one coffee company add over a million more visitors to their website in 2019 from organic search alone,” says Garrett Oden, a master at helping coffee and food companies write the right words to sell their products. A history and theology major and ex-barista, he gives an insider peek into the daily life of a freelance copywriter, education and salaries, proudest accomplishments, tips for students to get started, and the meaningfulness of his job.

Garrett, thanks so much for being here! How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old kid?

If I had to explain what I do to a kid, I would say that all businesses have to use words to help people sell their products, and I help those businesses write words.

How would you develop that a bit more for teenagers who might be considering a future career?

I’d say that there are millions of businesses in the world, and each one of them is asked to tell people why they are different, why they matter, and why people should pay attention to them. I help those businesses communicate clearly why their products or services are worth paying attention to.

Do you help all types of businesses do that?

Specifically, I do copywriting, which is typically website copy, emails, writing content like case studies, white papers, or thought leadership articles. I only work with businesses that fit in one of three buckets. One is coffee. I come from the coffee industry; that’s where I came from professionally first, and I have a lot of work in the realm of coffee. The next is food and beverage. That might be a consumer packaged goods company, a meal kit company, or a restaurant chain. The third bucket is food technology, and that one’s the biggest bucket. That one includes restaurant software, commercial hardware, or gadgets consumers would use in their kitchen.

How did you learn the skills to be able to become a copywriter?

It started off with just blogging. I was working at a coffee shop that I eventually managed for a year. Before I managed, I wrote a blog about coffee documenting my own journey. I got an email from somebody saying that they were going to start a coffee company and that they wanted to hire me to write some articles for them. I realized that if I was going to make money doing this, I needed to step it up a notch.

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The biggest thing in terms of writing articles, which is where it all started, is just reading really good content. There are many companies who produce exceptional content that’s really fun and engaging to read, that’s really interesting and keeps your attention. Reading that and not reading things that are low-quality, low-effort articles that you would find on BuzzFeed knockoffs is important. Spending a lot of time reading and trying to emulate content that was really interesting to me was where those skills started. That’s more of the entertaining, engagement aspect of content.

But as I moved into conversion side, which is more about having a customer complete an action like making a sale or purchasing a product, that side was a lot harder to learn because it’s harder to pick up on why you respond in a certain way when you read certain stories or when you see things laid out on a page. For that, I had to actually do some real education: reading books and taking courses. There’s a lot of consumer psychology, how people behave when they’re reading things, different stages of how interested they are in in buying something. For that part, I got more formal, focused learning.

How were you able to transition from working in a coffee shop to where you are today?

I think a lot of people would look at that and say it doesn’t make sense how I ended up where I am, because I was just a barista and spent one year managing the shop, and now I’m in marketing, full-time freelancing, working in coffee. I pretty much just leveraged the experience as much as I could. It started off by reaching out to coffee companies and saying, “I have experience in coffee, and I have been learning these other skills. I think we can blend these two things together.” Coffee happened somewhat naturally; it was pretty easy.

When I switched to food and food technology, I was able to kind of pivot, coffee being related to food. That helped me when I would cold-email food companies, usually CPG (consumer packaged goods): “I don’t really have experience with CPG, necessarily, but I do have experience selling lots of coffee, and a lot of these principles are the same: writing content and emails about coffee lovers and your customers.”

I did the same thing with food technology, got into customer gadgets, selling business to consumer, then B2B. So there was a clear ladder. I used one thing and leveraged that little bit of experience that I had—not very much, but just enough to get my foot in the door—to get one client, and then I’d do the same thing over and over again until I finally landed where I really want to be, which is having a pretty even set of clients between all three buckets.

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Can you describe a typical day in your life?

For a while I had a lot of flexibility, which is how my wife and I were able to travel and work remotely. These days, I tend to keep a pretty standard schedule because I think it works better for my own productivity rhythms.  I’m usually sitting down in front of the computer by nine o’clock with coffee. I have a very detailed task management system that will review the tasks for the day and make sure that I am fitting them in properly in between any calls I might have. So I’m typically working from nine to one, and then I usually take an hour break for lunch because my wife also works from home and we hang out. Then I’ll usually go back to work from two to around six.

As a freelance copywriter, what is a tool you cannot live without?

I use Asana for my task management. I look at it probably 30 times a day. I can color-code my clients and look at it by calendar and see everything that’s coming up today and what’s coming up for the week. Sometimes I’ll use emojis to help indicate if something is a call or if something is research versus copywriting to help me visualize what the day is going to be like really easily. I did the sticky note to-do list for the day before Asana, and that worked all right, but once there was quite a bit of complexity in terms of having five-plus tasks a day, not all of them always get done. Being able to easily move tasks around digitally has been important for me. So Asana is definitely a big tool that I use.

What do you think people are surprised by when you tell them you’re a copywriter?

When I first started, I would tell people, “I write emails, or I write blogs for coffee and food companies.” They’d say, “People pay you to do that?” From an outside perspective, if you’re not a marketer, or if you don’t have experience in marketing, it seems weird that people would pay somebody else to write, because especially if you’re a competent writer, it might seem strange, like, why would somebody pay somebody else? It’s just writing. But there’s a lot more that goes into it than just writing. It’s not just communicating what you want to say, but it’s also having to balance the communication with earning the attention, maintaining the attention, and then hopefully driving whoever’s reading into some action. I think a lot of people miss the value of copywriting at first because they imagine that writing a blog is probably just like writing an essay. And that’s not really the case.

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Many of our readers are parents and counselors helping their students find a good fit major, college, or career. Did you attend college? If so, how did college contribute to where you are today?

I studied history and theology with the intent of becoming a missionary, so very different. I did learn in that schooling, which I loved very much, about not making assumptions and about what your audience is thinking or what they’re believing. It’s a “listen first” approach, which is important for anybody who’s doing marketing. If you make assumptions, you’re likely not going to land where you think you will in terms of how people perceive what you’re working on. So I did learn a lot about proper listening, cross-cultural listening, and listening in a different way. Those were probably the most applicable things. Of course, none of the writing I did in school is really relevant. When you’re talking about theology, the specific words you use are very important because you don’t want to give people the wrong impression. Some of that was helpful, too, but I would say that the listening factor was the biggest one.

It’s good to know how flexible majors can be, especially ones that don’t tie into a specific career like history and theology. Do copywriters need college degrees?

Honestly, I could have gotten here without going to school. I loved my college experience and I wouldn’t trade it, even though I’m not using my degree directly. But for somebody to be a copywriter who makes a living that’s meaningful, the most impactful resources are not in a college classroom. You could spend a whole semester taking courses on communication and writing, but I think when it comes down to it, this is one of those things where the $3,000 course is worth three times as much as the $80,000 degree. There’s a lot more to going to college, but if you’re looking at a return on investment in terms of skills generated for the cost, a skills-to-cost ratio, I don’t think that I would suggest going to college for people who know they want to do copywriting.

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