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Building a community with Omar Mouallem

Omar shares how Canadian freelancers can build communities as a way to support their peers and create a sustainable business.

March 30, 2021

Omar Mouallem is an Alberta-based writer, filmmaker, and educator. His forthcoming book Praying to the West: How Islam Shaped the Americas will be published in fall 2021.

Omar is also the founder of Pandemic University — a pop-up writing school that provides affordable online classes for quarantined writers.

In this episode, Omar and Mohammed talk about how Canadian freelancers can build communities as a way to support their peers and create a sustainable business.

Short on time? Skip to the parts you're most interested in.

[01:38] Getting started as a freelancer

[04:10] How Pandemic University started

[07:46] When your community evolves beyond your initial idea

[11:48] How to bring together a community

[15:44] Benefits of building a community

[21:17] How freelancers can build a community

[26:17] What Omar would do differently this time around

[29:32] Omar's advice for Canadian freelancers

If you enjoyed the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe to Freelance Canada on Apple Podcasts or listen to it wherever you get your podcast. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

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Mohammed: Why don’t we get started by understanding what is it that you do?

Omar: I guess I’m a freelance nonfiction storyteller, we can say that, but — because I do journalism and books and memoirs and documentaries but I’m also getting into education now as well and own a small business and more and more public speaking so, I don’t know, more and more, I just feel like I’m a freelancer, period.

Mohammed: And how did you get started with all of these different occupations, if you will?

Omar: Well, I’ve been a freelance journalist since 2016 so going on — this is my 15th year, actually, in the business, and the way that I got into that was totally through a backdoor. I started as a film critic and a music critic. I was going to film school at the time, or I just finished film school, I had filmmaking aspirations, [and] wasn't really working out. I was struggling [with] paid work. I did get a job on one of the Air Buddies films, I think it was AirAir Bud films, it was called Air Buddies which I think is Air Bud 5 as a camera trainee.

I was so incompetent, did not know what I was doing that I was fired after three production days. So, anyway, look, I mean, I just wanted to write screenplays. I was sort of that aspiring screenwriter, and I made a friend in film school who was writing for magazines. He was writing music reviews and concert reviews and he was a metal guy and he said, “You know what, I think my magazine is looking for a hip-hop guy. They don’t get enough of that coverage,” and so he suggested me and I started doing exactly what he was doing but for hip-hop.

Then I started doing some film stuff because of my educational background and I just liked it. I just really enjoyed the pace of it. I enjoyed the style of arts criticism and sort of culture writing and it sort of lends itself well to more stylistic journalism, narrative features, not that sort of typical news style of journalism but something that’s a little bit more stylistic. And so, yeah, I just kind of went with it. I mean, I didn’t have any long-term plans. I was still dabbling in filmmaking and music at the time.

But I guess I was good enough at it that I kept getting gigs and, soon enough two years later, I was hired as a magazine editor here in Edmonton, where I now live. So, yeah, I mean, I guess if you’re good at something and you enjoy it, just stick with it. That’s always how I felt. And, gradually, new challenges come up, you know? I got the opportunity to write, to ghostwrite some memoirs. I got the opportunity to make a documentary, got the opportunity to teach what I know, and when they come up, if they don’t cause immediate terror or repulsion, they’re worth trying at least once.

We were all suddenly living these exclusively virtual lives in lockdown and I figured that I could quickly dust off some of my workshops and sell tickets to them on Eventbrite.

Mohammed: And you mentioned teaching. Could you tell me a little bit more about that, please?

Omar: Sure. So I am an educator and fake dean at my illustrious own fake university called Pandemic University School of Writing and the way that that started was, well going back almost eight years now, I’ve been giving webinars, seminars, on my craft, on journalism, pitching, on different aspects of writing, and so, over time, I’ve developed a few workshops that I would sort of dust off here and there and then when the pandemic hit and freelance gigs immediately dried up, just like overnight, I had to find work.

So, we were all suddenly living these exclusively virtual lives in lockdown and I figured that I could quickly dust off some of my workshops and sell tickets to them on Eventbrite. And then I thought, well, you know what, I know a lot of other writers who are in the same situation, they also have workshops, they also could use a quick $200, $300, $400, $500, whatever you can make off of a webinar. You know, why don’t I reach out to them, package them together, sell them as sort of like a festival series almost, and that way, we sort of help each other out.

We sort of serve each other that way and the promotion becomes almost like cross-promotional and then the name Pandemic University popped into my head and I was like, “Yes, that’s what we’re calling it, Pandemic University School of Writing.” Once you have a business name, it just takes — your ideas take on another life. And so, from there, it was like, well, now, I need a designer, now, I need to register a website. I don’t know where this is going to go but it’s such a good name, I should probably register the business name, or at least put a hold on it.

So I was doing all of these things literally within hours of this idea-generating in my head. It’s funny, the night before, I was so at a loss of what I was going to do with my future that I was actually contemplating with my wife about going back to school. I never finished college, never got my degree. You know, I’d applied for a couple of jobs early in the pandemic, looking for some stability. These were jobs that like, in my opinion, I was overqualified for and I didn’t even get a callback or any response. I think I didn’t even get past the gatekeepers because I have no educational accreditation.

And then less than a day later, I’m telling my wife that I would like to start a school instead and call it Pandemic University and I would like your blessing to spend $2,000 to $3,000 from our already kind of shaky bank account on this. And she did. I mean, she’s incredibly supportive of my ideas. I mean, I guess none of them have failed badly enough for her to resist so strongly. Though, of course, like that $2,000 to $3,000 budget ballooned and I think the first “semester” of Pandemic University, I mean, the end budget was, oh, God, I don’t even want to say but I think it was over $20,000 in the end. 

Mohammed: Whoa.

Omar: Yeah.

Mohammed: Geez. What? Okay.

Omar: Yeah.

Mohammed: Okay. I have so many questions. Mostly about the budget. So, walk me through this. You’re like, “I’m not being hired because I haven’t graduated from a school,” and the next day, you’re like, “I’m going to start a school and I’m going to kick start this with a few thousand dollars,” and suddenly you’re $20,000 in.

Omar: So, it wasn’t sudden.

Mohammed: Okay, okay.

Omar: You know, I think $2,000 was definitely a lowball. I could have done it for probably $3,500 at first and then when it launched and the thing took off, suddenly, people were enrolling at an insane — like I did not think that more than a couple hundred people in total over all 14 webinars would attend. And I also didn’t think that that many people would enroll, “enroll,” in like the whole series so that they’re paying not $20 for a webinar but $140 for all 14. I did not think that more than a handful of people were that eager.

In fact, I only offered it because, well, it was suggested that I do that and because it just made sense too, you know? It’s only one more Eventbrite link to create that. But very, very quickly, I had over a hundred people enrolled in the full program, and then it was 250 along with another 600 people doing individual webinars, right? And then I was getting national coverage and once you reach that kind of national audience, in some cases, even an international audience, there’s an expectation for the quality of this program, of this thing, right?

And also, I had to like up my Zoom limit, you know? So very practically, I was spending about $100 more on Zoom. Initially, when I was like doing correspondence, sort of sending out like the codes for the Zoom classes, I was like sending emails in like Spark or an alternative to Outlook or whatever, to dozens and dozens and sometimes a hundred people bcc’d and sometimes I would forget to send the attachment and I would send it again to like a hundred —

Mohammed: Oh, God.

Omar: Right? So it’s like, “Okay, well, now I got to get MailChimp.”

The whole thing was so successful that I just felt so blessed and in the spirit of it all, I gave full proceeds to those charities.

Mohammed: Yeah.

Omar: Right? There [were] just other things that I had to suddenly invest in because it was just taking too long for me to organize without. I also had to hire someone to sort of assist me with this and do some marketing. I also gave all the instructors raises so there was that. And I also — this was also something that was suggested to me but it was suggested to run some of the classes as fundraisers and to give half of the proceeds to these charities, in particular, the emergency fund for writers that the Writers’ Trust of Canada created in the wake of COVID.

You know, it was just — the whole thing was so successful that I just felt so blessed and in the spirit of it all, I gave full proceeds to those charities. So, not only was I giving — not only did we raise more money than I ever imagined instead of giving half of that money, I gave the full [proceeds to charity]. So, that’s how you get to $20,000.

Mohammed: Oh.

Omar: It’s a long answer. I mean there was more stuff too, right? Like I had to invest in the infrastructure of the website because it was clear to me that this is going to be a long-term thing. This is not going to be the six-week project that I envisioned it as. This could be a future for me. So, that’s how. That’s how you get there.

Mohammed: I think what I’m interested [in] here is how did you, I guess, acquire your customers, if you will, right? Like how did people learn about you? How did you even get to that national, if not international, news media visibility? What did you do to, (a), bring people together, but then also, of course, like make them aware that you exist?

Omar: That Pandemic University existed?

Mohammed: Yeah, yeah.

Omar: Nothing. All I did was I sent one tweet to announce it. Look, I mean, I’ve been in the Canadian media and, in particular, the Canadian freelance media community for 15 years and I’ve always sort of unofficially advocated for better opportunities and treatment for freelancers and just kind of one on one had been creating these informal communities between freelancers. You know, early in the pandemic, I was Zooming with a bunch of freelancers just to sort of vent and make sense of what was going on in our industry.

So, I think that that goodwill and that reputation definitely benefited me. But more than anything, it was a good website, a good logo, a funny name, a good idea, and great writers who were attached to it. And so this launched on April the 13th, people were still kind of leery about what was going on in the world and still making sense of what it meant to live during a pandemic. You know, I think a lot of people were really struggling and this just made them feel good and that’s what happened. They saw something that made them feel good and they just got on board.

And that one tweet to announce the thing just kind of went viral. I had this media list of — I have many media contacts, as you would guess and I had this whole list and this form email that I was prepared to send out as soon as I launched the thing on Twitter. So, I sent out the tweet and then I was about to start sending out those email queries but I never got around to it because, suddenly, I was just awash in orders and I had no system for how to facilitate these orders. I didn’t think that far ahead, about how to like how to get the Zoom information over to them.

Eventbrite is rather confusing, or was rather confusing, early in the pandemic with how to organize and facilitate online events. It’s gotten much better at that but I don’t use it anymore. But, anyway, so yeah, I mean, it just — it took on a life of its own and it continued to take on a life of its own. People kept asking for things that never occurred to me, like buying replays or having merch or having a graduation, which we did and somehow wrangled Peter Mansbridge to give a sort of informal commencement speech.

Mohammed: Oh, what?

Omar: Yeah.

Mohammed: That is awesome. Yeah. Wow.

Omar: So, that’s when I started calling myself the fake dean is when people started treating it like a university and asking for kind of university things. People would email me before a class and “class” is a very loose term for what they are, they’re webinars, but people would email me and be like, “Oh, hey, I’m not gonna be able to make it. I’ll have to watch the recording later but could you pass on my apologies to the instructor?” It’s like they don’t know who you are. You are one of over a hundred people. They don’t know you. I’m not doing that, but thank you for being so sincere. It’s adorable.

The one that I don’t think I realized until it really took off. Until I started to see the number of people registering for it and who was registering for it too.

Mohammed: So now that you’ve been running this for, I would say, what? Nine months approximately? Right? 

Omar: Uh-huh.

Mohammed: What have been some of the benefits of building and bringing this community of journalists together?

Omar: Okay, so like the big one, for me, the one that I don’t think I realized until it really took off. Until I started to see the number of people registering for it and who was registering for it too. The majority of people who enrolled or took classes were mid and late-career professionals. I think half had somewhere between 3 and 10 years’ experience and a quarter had over 10 years’ experience and it was only like a sliver who were “emerging writers.”

So, that was the first big surprise to me. I expected it to target mostly emerging writers but actually, I was seeing a lot of my peers and teaching a lot of my peers. So, what that taught me was that this wasn’t just a place to learn how to write but this was a place to learn how to expand your range, how to sharpen your skills or retool and the reason for that was because the publishing industry had gradually, since 2008, become so injured and whittled down.

The pandemic probably woke up a lot of writers and showed them that like, okay, this is — you can’t just be a writer of one skill anymore, or you can’t get complacent. I need to learn how to do feature writing if I want to sustain this career. So, I might be a really good reporter but I need to learn how to do narrative feature writing and so I might take Omar’s class or I might take Jana Pruden’s class on this. I do a fair bit of crime reporting but I got to get better at it so maybe I’ll take Katherine Laidlaw’s class on true crime.

Or it’s probably time that I turned my expertise into a book so I’ll take that book proposal class. And so that’s what I think was going on is people just sort of realizing that, okay, it’s not enough to have a specialty. Another thing too, I think, was that most of the webinars were things that had been presented before. In fact, I encourage people to bring webinars that they’ve already created. One, it’s I don’t think I can afford to pay people to create stuff from scratch, but, two, presenting seminars in the online format is a little bit tricky.

It works better if it’s something that you’ve done before, you’re just more comfortable with it, kind of breaks through the natural awkwardness of the virtual platform. These things were usually presented at conferences in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, major cities, and they’re kind of inaccessible to most writers and inaccessible to most writers and journalists outside of mainly the Toronto area and that had always frustrated me and it’s so unnecessary, even though like, yes, every presentation is better in person, for many reasons.

One of them, of course, being that you can shake the hand of the instructor and the people around you and network with them and that is just not something that virtual education can ever replace. But you reach so many more people when you put it in the online format. Suddenly, you can teach this to hundreds of people at a time. And not only that, but you could also bring down the price of the registration for that because when it’s done at a conference, think about all the overhead that goes into it.

Like just imagine yourself in a conference seminar. First of all, it’s part of a conference so you got all the people who had to organize it, market the whole shebang. You got the lanyards you’re wearing. What is the cost of those? The swag bag. Think about what’s in the back of the room, the coffee set, the tea, the muffins. All of that stuff costs money and it costs money for the people who are serving them and preparing them. Someone to clean up the room. The list just goes on, right?

So, suddenly, the cost of something that could be $10, $20 is $40 and the cost of a conference, and I don’t even need to get into the cost of flying for the conference, the cost of the conference, registering for it is several hundreds of dollars. It doesn’t need to be that way. Pandemic University offered 14 workshops, which is probably double what you might get at a conference, for 140 bucks, which is probably half of what a conference costs or less.

Mohammed: Very less.

Omar: Very less. So, you see what I’m saying here? Like that also was a bit of a revelation. You know, we don’t need to do this once a year and it doesn’t need to cost so much. Like I don’t want those conferences to go away. You know, they are vital to our industries and networking in our industries and connecting us and nothing can ever replace that kind of value, but since conferences can’t really be a thing right now anyway, shouldn’t there be something like this? And can’t there be something like this year-round?

For a very long time, I’ve always made connections with other freelancers. We send each other our pitches before we send them out sometimes. We bounce ideas off of each other.

Mohammed: So, reflecting on all of this, right? And I’m listening to this, I’m a Canadian freelancer myself, how can I go about building a community around something that I want to see exist in the world or perhaps a gap in the market that I want to solve or even maybe just a problem that I’m having that I feel maybe others are as well too?

Omar: Well, look, I don’t know if you can intentionally build a community like the one that Pandemic University is growing into, because I never sought out to build into a community. I mean, I guess I sought out to build [a] sort of like a very temporary community but in a very, very light way, just like some faces you might see once a week or twice a week in your Zoom software, right? Some familiar faces, some familiar names.

So, I think a community like what this has become just — it either happens or it doesn’t and it’s out of your control and it’s what the audience wants to make it into and the audience wanted to make it into a community. They wanted to have an alumni group, for example. But I think, in other ways, I’ve been trying to build, foster, participate in a freelance community for years now. I mean, I’ve always sort of understood that even though you’re working in a very extremely individualized sort of environment, you’re better served by working with others. 

Not seeing fellow freelancers as your competitors but by seeing them as your allies and collaborators. And so, for a very long time, I’ve always made connections with other freelancers. We send each other our pitches before we send them out sometimes. We bounce ideas off of each other. You know, sometimes, if I am struggling with a piece and I don’t feel like it’s ready for my editor to see it yet or even my editor has seen it but I feel like their edits are not stringent enough, I will call in a favour from a fellow freelancer and ask them to give it a read, to give me some feedback, and we talk shop all the time.

I’m always asking whenever I am sort of in uncharted territory with a financial issue or business issue, I try to reach out to someone or someone who knows someone who’s been in that situation before to get some advice. And a lot of people do that with me too. In fact, I get so many questions about how to navigate freelance writing situations, just naturally, maybe one or two a week, sometimes from people I know, sometimes from strangers.

It happens so often that I started a freelance writing advice column on Substack because I just felt like, okay, you know what, it’s — I’m doing this already. Often, I’m giving the same advice. Let’s just make it public. I’ll give you a pseudonym, won’t reveal any details about your dilemma that aren’t kind of universal to people who’ve been in your situation before. If you give me that permission, I’ll give you a very, very thorough answer. And so I started that and the Substack is called At Large, so atlarge.substack.com. Can I tell a funny story about that name?

Mohammed: Yeah.

Omar: You got a moment?

Mohammed: Please.

Omar: It was my first ever newsroom gig, I guess. I got hired to do some work relief in 24-hour news, which was like the freebie of Edmonton Sun here. They were trying out different writers before they hired someone so I was really inexperienced but a friend kind of got me the gig. They sent me on like my first reported assignments and I was so green, I’d never actually — like I’d done some arts criticism and some interviews but I’ve never actually like gone to a scene, interviewed people and took some notes and then like quickly turned it into an article within half an hour, an hour or two hours.

I’ve never done that before. I was so green. And I overheard my editor talking about me to her senior editor in Toronto and he was asking like, “Who is this guy?” And she was like, “I don’t know, he’s just a writer at large,” and I did not know, for years, that “at large” was sort of the other term for freelancer. I thought she was being really funny. I thought that she was making a joke, like “Oh, watch out, he’s at large,” and it just kind of — like it stuck with me as so funny.

I thought she was hilarious and then when I found out what it actually meant, it became even more hilarious because it stuck with me about how green I must have been to be in that newsroom that I didn’t even know the term for what I was. So, that’s why I ended up calling it At Large.

Mohammed: Love it. Love it. So, just to kind of go back to Pandemic U, I’m thinking about how other freelancers can learn from your experience. I mean, you’ve been doing this for nine months and you know a lot more now than you did before. What would you do differently now if you were starting Pandemic U versus when you started it?

Omar: Yeah, I mean, I probably would have signed up for MailChimp a little earlier. Look, I mean, there [are] lots of little things, you know? Really, really little things. I would have learned to turn off the share screening thing during [the] question period so that the recording has the full face of the person who is speaking and not just the tiny little box, like so — like really — like, that’s such a like small sort of thing that you only like learn after doing it a bunch of times and realizing that there’s another way to do it.

You know, there’s like it — that’s — sort of like the MailChimp thing too. So, I don’t know, there [are] all these small technical things that I would have done differently but it’s also just sort of, like anything else, you just learn how to perfect your craft with time. And that’s what I did with writing. That’s what I am doing now with virtual education. And I also teach a course at the U of A called Building Your Freelance Career.

Every time I do it, it gets better because you just learn from your mistakes. So, I don’t know. I mean, there’s nothing significant. There’s really nothing significant. And, I guess, I wouldn’t change anything because I think I needed to learn from not just the mistakes but I just had to learn how to improve the quality as I went along, as with all things in life.

I sincerely mean that it has been one of the most satisfying, sincere pleasures of my life. It has, I think, made me less of a cynical person. I think it’s made me honest.

Mohammed: Right, right. Just the experience of it is the reward of it, I suppose.

Omar: Well, and the experience has been one of the best of my life. I mean, honestly, it’s hard to — I sincerely mean that it has been one of the most satisfying, sincere pleasures of my life. It has, I think, made me less of a cynical person. I think it’s made me honest. I think it’s made me a more earnest and nicer person, just because I saw what it meant to people, people who reached out and said like, “You have no idea how much this meant to me during the pandemic,” like, “I was depressed, I had nothing to do, I had nothing to look forward to, and this gave me a community,” or, “This got me writing again,” or, “This just gave me something positive to focus on.” 

Yeah, I mean, I just — there’s no need to be ironic or cynical about people’s personal experiences like that. It definitely makes me take Pandemic University in all its ironic name and this whole like funny messaging about being a fake university, it makes me take it a lot more seriously as well because I — the stakes just feel so much higher when people tell you how important it is to them.

Mohammed: I’d love to know what advice you have for Canadian freelancers.

Omar: Where to start? I mean, look, I have lots of — lots and lots of advice to give, but I guess the one that I’ll give to freelance writers is to pitch often. Pitch often, pitch all the time. It is the number one reason why freelance writers struggle in this industry is that they are waiting for opportunities instead of creating opportunities. Tune your brain to find story ideas, spend — block out time in your day or week, if you need to, to think about nothing else other than stories you can write in the future.

Write your pitches, find a formula for your pitches, create an organizing system for your pitches, and also broaden your topics too. Like if you have a beat, that’s probably not a great thing as a freelancer. You need to have more range. Especially if you’re starting, you can’t just be like, “Oh, I just want to write features.” Look, we all just want to start writing features and if you can do it, you can do it, but if you’re having a problem or a struggle with that, then maybe you need to broaden your horizons. You need to do more service pieces. Maybe you need to pitch more like non-linear kinds of story articles or nonlinear articles.

I just don’t know how you can start your career without constantly looking for work. And I just — like I see it so often, I think too many freelancers think that you just sort of brand yourself a freelancer and people come to you. But this isn’t SkipTheDishes. You’re not an article courier on an app and people just order an article from you and you bring it to them. It doesn’t work that way. You need to not just advertise yourself as a freelancer, you need to like cook the food and deliver it to the publication. Because if you don’t do that, you’re going to struggle.

But if you do that frequently, you’ll be busier than you can handle. You’ll be so busy, you’ll be miserable. You’ll be so busy, you’re gonna lose your friends and your relationships are gonna fall apart.

Mohammed: Oh, no.

Omar: So, anyway, but you see my point?

Mohammed: I do. I do. Omar, I’ve really appreciated learning from you.

Omar: Well, thanks. Thanks for doing this. This was a lot of fun. I appreciate it. And thank you, by the way, of course, I just want to say to people who are listening, that Mohammed is also part of the prestigious faculty at Pandemic University and has a webinar on managing your finances for freelancers that’s available for free on pandemicuniversity.com.

Mohammed: Amazing, amazing. So, where can people find out more about you and your work online?

Omar: You know what, go to pandemicuniversity.com or just go to my Twitter which is @omarmouallem. God, why did I — why did I change my username? And the rest of my links are there, including my advice column.

Mohammed: Perfect. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for this opportunity to learn from you. I really appreciate it.

Omar: Much appreciated. This was fun. Take care.

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