[Top Agency Series] How To Build a Technical Writing Agency With Caity Cronkhite

John Corcoran 11:06

and then it is interesting, like you, you must be a little bit right brain, a little bit left brain right to have the technical side of you and the more liberal arts side of you.

Caity Cronkhite 11:18

Ah, yeah, it would seem so; I’ve been both equally. I mean, I’ve been a writer for my entire life. I’ve been, you know, from the time I could read, I was writing, I was writing stories, essays, I was writing in my journals, you know. And then by the time I got to school and was applying it to, to, you know, jobs, I was doing it in marketing and journalism, and no technical writing, right? But I’ve always loved the other side as well, which is why I wanted it to be prominent in whatever career I chose like. I love learning how things work. I loved living in San Francisco and Silicon Valley and hearing all of the crazy stories about what this startup unicorn was building over here and how they were making flying robots down the street and things like that. And I was always just fascinated to learn about what people were building and how it worked. And I really wanted to be a part of that as well. So I, you know, reading user manuals is not exactly what most people think of as a sexy career. But it has been awesome for me, and it has been so much fun.

John Corcoran 12:29

Do you think that a part of you are, might be reading into this but better able to explain these complicated ideas, because it to explain them in a way that is accessible to the reader is part of where you came from? Like, in other words, the fact that you came from a place where people don’t speak in big highfalutin language using complicated, you know, terminology, maybe that prepared you in a way?

Caity Cronkhite 12:58

Absolutely, I absolutely think it prepared me because I know what I know how it felt to show up at Carnegie Mellon and sit down for my first programming class; I had no idea what was going on, and I had no idea what programming was; it was a required class I had to take. And I remember going up to my professor at the end of the class and just being like, what did I just What did you just talk about? Like, I don’t even know what that was. Right. And so, I have these very vivid memories and experiences of not speaking the language that others around me are speaking and wanting to help kind of bridge that gap for other people. It definitely shaped things.

John Corcoran 13:43

It’s amazing how vivid that experience can be, some kind of experience like that where you feel, so you know, foreign and confused. And, you know, you can. It still drives the work that you do. Let’s talk a bit about how you became an accidental entrepreneur because you were working for a startup at the time, things were not going well; you could kind of tell the startup was not going to be around for much longer. And you needed to find a new career path, which then led to freelancing, which led to starting a technical writing company. So tell us, take us through it.

Caity Cronkhite 14:16

Yeah, absolutely. So if you had asked me the year before I left the startup if I would ever want to own my own business, or if I ever thought that I would, I would have said, and I did say to people, No, absolutely not. I have no desire to do that. That sounds like a lot of work, and other people can have it. But as you said, you know, I was working at a startup, and it was going the way of the Silicon Valley startup, and it was not looking good. And I knew I needed to find something new. And so I had every intention of just getting a regular job. You know, I went looking around for other jobs that were being posted at the time, and I was sort of disenchanted by everything that I was seeing Yeah, you know, everything that was available to me at that time was something I had already done. I had it was either being a single member of a huge team or being the sole writer at a small startup, which is the environment that I was trying to leave. And so, you know, for a long time, I had done the thing a lot of writers do, who, and I said, you know, well, maybe I’ll try freelancing someday, maybe I’ll like, try a project here or there, maybe I’ll give that a shot, you know, when I have more money, or in five years, or when I’m more stable, or whatever. And, basically, you know, I like to say that I founded my company with a real YOLO ethos because I just didn’t have any better ideas. And I was like,

John Corcoran 15:47

What is that? What does that mean? What does YOLO mean?

Caity Cronkhite 15:53

You Only Live Once. And so I basically didn’t have any better ideas. So I was like, well, I might as well give it a shot. If I hate it, I can always go back, and I can apply for these jobs that I’m seeing and go back and do something that I’ve already done. Or if I love it, and it’s going great, I can just keep on at it. And it turned out that I loved it. And it went really well. It went surprisingly well for me. And then from there, you know, just over time, I built my business out of my own freelance career. So

John Corcoran 16:29

how did you make those early hires? You know, a lot of times people struggle with that, you know, you get a project in, and you know, it’s for X number of dollars. And a lot of times, people think, well, I can’t like to hire someone else to do this because they don’t make a lot less money on this project. So they just end up keeping on doing it themselves. So, how did you make that transition?

Caity Cronkhite 16:51

Yeah, so basically, I had too much work to do; at some point, I was that person who didn’t give away any of the work for a really long time. And after a year or so of working 60 hours a week on three different freelance projects for my clients, you know, one of my clients plopped the fourth project on my desk. They were like, We want you to help with this, we want you to do, and basically, that was a really important fork in the road for me and building my business because I had the choice to either leave that money and that project on the table, it was a really interesting project, I was really excited to work on it, I did not want to leave it on the table. Or to again YOLO and try hiring someone for the first time to see if, you know, I could retain that project. And at least, you know, I knew I wouldn’t be making as much money as if I just did it myself, right, but at least make something it was the difference between making something and making nothing by so, 

John Corcoran 17:56

Of course, the challenge then is, you know, and this is classic, right? Like whenever you’re busiest is when you need to hire. So like, you have three projects on your lap, a fourth one comes in, and then you have to hire someone. Was that a struggle finding people to hire or because you’ve been in the world for a while Did you know other technical writers that you could bring in?

Caity Cronkhite 18:17

It actually, my first hire was not a struggle because of the relationships that I had made. So, while I was at the startup, I left to create my own business. There was a guy who was a super young guy; he was a student and engineering intern from MIT, and he was there to do a hardware internship. And while we were both working at the startup, he came up to my desk one day, and he was like, Hey, you’re Caity, right? Like you do all the writing. And I was like, yeah, yeah, that’s me. And he said, you know, well, I’m really interested in, like, learning what you do. I think maybe I want to do that. Because like, I don’t, I don’t really love my hardware internship. I’m curious about this. And so, you know, this kid comes up to my desk, volunteers himself to help with a project or two. And he ended up being completely brilliant at it and was really, really great. Um, so I trained him while I was at the startup, and then I hired him straightaway to help me with that project. And he is still with my company today, which I’m very honored. 

John Corcoran 19:25

Amazing. And that’s so cool. Now, how did you adapt to all the different hats you had to wear now that you’re writing a business, you have to hire you have to fire, you have to, you know, Coach, team members, you have to get clients to sales, all those different things? I’m really curious about it. Because, you know, I was a writer for many years professionally. And, you know, you can easily keep your head down and just, you know, work for 810 hours a day and not do any of those things when you’re a professional writer, especially in a larger organization. So how did you adapt to all those other hats you have to wear?

Caity Cronkhite 20:01

Yeah, well, what I loved about being a technical writer also applies to what I love about being a business owner and an entrepreneur. I love learning. And I love learning how systems work. I love learning arcane, crazy details that no one else knows about things, right? So I remember when I was starting my business, it was just like, I would try Googling, like, Okay, how do I start an LLC? How do I set up payroll? How do I do blah, blah, blah. And, you know, I’m sure the other entrepreneurs in your audience can, can identify with this, like, there was an absolute dearth of good information about how to actually do these things. So I just had to do it and figure it out myself, which was, I was lucky because that’s exactly what I loved about technical writing like I love being able to dig into a really complicated problem, I love being able to, you know, dive in and test and use, you know, products or software that maybe like three people on the planet knew how to use, right, and so I just kind of got in there the same way I had done in in the rest of my career, and, and it really kind of, it’s still scratches an itch for me. So I really enjoyed the process of learning along the way and running my business.

John Corcoran 21:20

And yeah, I’m curious, I’m curious for you, you know, you said you do process documentation, and the knock against, you know, user manuals and things like that used to be, maybe it still is that a lot of times companies don’t want to put effort into creating, creating something like that, because they don’t want something that’s going to sit on a shelf. And maybe it used to be, you know, like people create companies would create a PDF, which would be something that no one ever cracked open. There’s been this evolution of tools. And there are some really cool tools now for companies to really capture and document different stuff. How has that affected your the process of what you do? Because it’s almost like in addition to this is the case, it’s not, in addition to being a writer, you need to know other ways of capturing these ideas and, and document documenting these processes.

Caity Cronkhite 22:12

Oh, yeah. Well, well, thank God, we have mostly moved on from the or as a PDF, though, you know, there, there are still applications.

John Corcoran 22:19

It still drives me nuts. When I get a PDF, though. They still exist. They’re like; they’re like the living dead, aren’t they?

Caity Cronkhite 22:25

You know, what’s, you know, what’s funny, though, is that a majority of users prefer a PDF, according to multiple studies.

John Corcoran 22:32

So interesting.

Caity Cronkhite 22:34

You. Yeah. So so most of the, most of the writing we do appears online. Right. But I think, you know, when people think about technical writing, they think about a stuffy, dry user manual, right. But they don’t think about all of the other ways that technical documentation and writing appear in their experience of using anything, right. So yes, I wrote online help. Yes, I wrote PDFs. But I also wrote API documentation. I wrote every single error message that appeared in the products that I worked on; I wrote why text, you know, I worked with designers to help them kind of figure out like, how are users actually using these products? What are they running into? What issues are they having, as they’re, as they’re trying to get on boarded and use this stuff, I wrote training materials for new for new customers to get on boarded with new products, right? So, you know, I think that tech writing gets kind of this bad rap because it sounds really boring, which, you know, fair,

John Corcoran 23:40

But it infuses all these different pieces that really is kind of integral to the way that a user accesses a website, or a software or a product of some sort.

Caity Cronkhite 23:52

Absolutely. And like, you know, not to not to wax, too poetic about writing user manuals, or anything but like, but one of the things I like to say is that tech writing democratizes information, you know, like I said, I’ve worked on products where maybe two or three people on the entire planet, or I worked on products and technologies and new tech ideas that like maybe only a few people on the planet have ever even heard of, or know how they work or how they understand. My task was to take what they knew this super technical is super arcane, that super difficult, kind of conceptual information or technical information and turn it into something that anybody could read and access. And, I always thought that that was, you know, kind of an honor in a way right. Like, I think that’s just a really interesting problem to solve.

John Corcoran 24:51

Yeah, that’s cool. Take me back to 2020. So many companies had such a roller coaster experience That year, but take me back for you. Are you in Seattle at this point? Are you in the Bay Area when this happens?

Caity Cronkhite 25:06

I was in Seattle,

John Corcoran 25:09

which was, of course, was ground zero for the pandemic because that’s where it started at least the United States. So what was that experience? Like for you? It was February 2020. Where it really started affects Seattle.

Caity Cronkhite 25:20

Yeah, it I remember, cases started cropping up and showing up in February. And then by March, we all we all know what happened, right? Um, it was, it was crazy. Like it was for everybody. I remember, you know, having a Zoom call with a couple of other entrepreneur friends of mine, where we were just like, what is happening? And what are we supposed to do? And I remember one of them saying, you know, I hear that walk down my might take eight weeks, we might be inside for two months. I like can’t believe that, like, no way. And I remember, like, I yeah, I think, you know, it was just a crazy, and then obviously, it was prolonged for years, right. So it was I, it was an insane time for everybody. I was by no means unique in that. But when it came to running my business, it was really interesting for a couple of reasons. Because the first was when we didn’t have any answers at all, you know, as a leader, you’re really fit, I was faced with having to sit in front of my team, and sit with their fear and discomfort. And, you know, I remember my employees asking me, like, looking at me and asking me, you know, are we going to have jobs next week, and I had to tell them, I didn’t know, I didn’t know, if I was gonna have a job. I didn’t know if the company was going to survive. So that was really, really challenging. And then in 2020, the pandemic had a really interesting effect on the technology industry that was different from the rest of the world in many ways, right? So you know, hospitality and restaurants and hotels, and, you know, physical businesses were shuttered, and overnight and in in, in contrast, you know, we all took our laptops home, and then it exploded. So 2020 was a really crazy year for us, and when we grew almost 100% it was, it was insane. We could not keep up with the demand.

John Corcoran 27:32

So, yeah, but didn’t seem like that, at least in the first month or so, that that was gonna be the case, I imagine. No, no, absolutely

Caity Cronkhite 27:41

not. Um, we were in exactly the same position as everybody else, just wondering, like, Where can we get toilet paper? And where are we going to have jobs?

John Corcoran 27:51

Yeah, now, we’re recording this in the near the end of 2023. And for many companies, including your own, this has been kinda like the pandemic year; it’s almost like a delayed challenging year, economically. Talk a little bit about how that’s affected you this year?

Caity Cronkhite 28:10

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I put it in exactly the same terms. What I always tell people is that 2023 is Good Words pandemic year. And I think it’s, I think it’s the entire tech industry is pandemic year, right. You know, we were, you know, very fortunate in the last few years, that tech was booming, it was insane. You know, like hiring rates were at all time highs, salaries were crazy high, you know, people had a lot of mobility within the tech industry. And now, you know, I think I think that has that has caught up with us. So I read a report earlier this year, that said that the technology industry, particularly software is down 40% from where it was last year. And you know, when on our last p&l review, we were down exactly 40%. Were last year. So you know, we we, we are going through it the same as everybody else. In our industry. You know, I’ve talked to lots of other entrepreneurs who work in, in tech in in the same spaces with the same clients. And the one thing that I find comforting is we’re all in it together. We’re all doing the same things and going through the same challenges at the same time. So I mean, I guess we have the benefit of having seen all of these other industries do it first. Right. So yeah, yeah. But to do it in 2020. They got through it.

John Corcoran 29:38

Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting. I’ve known other founders of other companies, where 21 Two was their trough year, and some were 2020 or 2021. You know, it’s been this kind of strange ripple effect where certain downturns in different industries then affect any particular company in different ways. Yeah, Well, this has been great. Caity, I want to wrap things up with the question I love asking, which is, I’m a big fan of gratitude. I love it to hear people, you know, share how they express gratitude, especially to, you know, peers, contemporaries, mentors, who’ve helped them along the way. So who would you want to shout out and thank for helping you and your journey?

Caity Cronkhite 30:20

Oh, and I want to shout out I think the person who always comes to mind when I think about this is the first manager I ever had at my first job in San Francisco. So I showed up, you know, as I, you were talking about, like, what are the lessons I learned on the farm, that sort of brought me into the rest of my life, and the one thing I learned, and when I started, my first job was to work and work and work and work and never stop. And that got me pretty far. But that also got me pretty burnout. And I was a very serious, very overworked, 21 year old when I showed up at my first job. And I remember my manager, who had hired me for that role. One day, he sat me down in a conference room, and he said, Caity, you know, you’re 21. And if I see you work a minute, over 40 hours in this office, I’m going to put you on a performance improvement plan. And I remember being furious at him, because all I knew, and all I wanted was to just be a workaholic and work really hard and climb the ladder and do well. But it really forced me to kind of look at my life and my career in a very different way, at that point, and so, at first, I was absolutely furious at him. And then after a few months of trying to figure out what I who I was outside of work, I am still so grateful for that lesson. And it has really shaped who I try to be as a leader for my team, and how I tried to, you know, how I try to help them fit work, and their lives together in a way that that helps everybody. So I’m gonna give them I give my shout out to Phil Troy.

John Corcoran 32:16

Yeah, you know, I so I have a friend, my friend, Alicia, who worked for a big Hollywood agent for a number of years early in her career, and had this this big knot, agent, producer, big, big Hollywood producer, who actually would would work until five and then leave at five in an industry where everyone else was working till 789 At night, you know, and he just, like, respected that boundary. And I remember thinking, like, when when I heard about that, that just seems so, so amazing to have someone who just said, like, I’m going to get my work done so effectively, that I’m going to leave at five and I’m going to be effective during, you know, eight hour day or whatever, you know, and it kind of changed my attitude towards that. So it’s really cool to hear those types of stories. Okay, this has been great. Where can people go to learn more about you? And Good Words?

Caity Cronkhite 33:06

Sure. So you can check us out at goodwords.io. Or always connect with us on LinkedIn, Good Words page on LinkedIn. Or you can connect with me at Caity Cronkhite on LinkedIn as well.

John Corcoran 33:19

So you also have, you’re contributing to a book about technical writing that’s coming out soon.

Caity Cronkhite 33:25

I am writing a chapter about AI and technical writing. Everybody’s favorite hot topic. So that book is called Technical Writing Process. It’s the second edition, and that’s coming out later this year. 

John Corcoran 33:40

Very cool. Cool. All right. Thanks so much, Caity.

Caity Cronkhite 33:41

Awesome. Thanks, John.

Outro 33:45

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