In April of 2016 I took the plunge and decided to go freelance. There were several reasons for this:
- I’d been working on a novel for years but kept being distracted by the pressures of an intense day job, so the whole process was starting to feel like a frustrating game of snakes and ladders, where someone had tampered with the ladders. I wanted to redesign my work life to give me more space to write in big focused chunks of time.
- I was tired. Actually that is an understatement, I was exhausted. There was too much that I wanted to do. I packed my days with work, theatre, writing, I didn’t really understand the concept of a day off. I didn’t spend enough time on the self-care aspects of my life, like exercise, sleeping or eating well. Something needed to give and I picked the day job.
- I’ve worked in media (mainly at agencies but did some time client side) and covered various different countries for over 18 years. I’m good at it. It’s uncomfortable to say that as it feels like bragging, but it’s true. I need new projects and stimulus to keep me motivated. I learn quickly and love getting under the skin of new audiences and their relationship with different categories. This keeps me buzzing and interested. So between the experience and the hunger for variety, freelancing seemed like a no-brainer
I wanted to share what I’ve learned after my first 9 months as an independent worker. You never know, someone may find it useful if they are contemplating taking the plunge:
- Make sure you have a financial buffer. Shit happens. In my case a couple of months after leaving my job the Brexit referendum happened. Anyone who says it hasn’t impacted people negatively yet needs a slap (to wake them up, not just because I’d find it satisfying). Budgets have gone into the deep freeze and projects have been put on hold because of the uncertainty infesting this brave new world of ours. It has made things challenging for me, but resilience is key. I’m adapting and embracing work that takes me outside of my comfort zone.
- Make sure you have a financial buffer. Yes I know I’ve already said that but even if you aren’t being tossed around by the vagaries of national/global politics, companies pay late. And you will find you have minimal power to make them pay on time. All you can do is be polite and persistent when following up with them. Don’t get angry and when you do finally get paid remember to thank the person who chased up the finance department for you (what is it with finance departments hiding behind other people who have to deal with the repercussions of late payment?)
- Reach out to friends and family for advice. Even if they work in different fields to you, if you know people who are freelancing or who run their own business, ask them to share their knowledge with you. I’ve been so lucky with my family and friends and the time they’ve taken to talk me through the things they learned when they started out. Learn from their mistakes and their victories. It all helps.
- Don’t be afraid to turn something down if it is wrong for you. There can be a temptation to say yes to every project when you are starting out. But if you are clear on your work parameters and a project would require too much compromise, say no. Be polite and explain why. They may have something better suited to you in the future, so don’t burn your bridges. Honesty and clarity are powerful tools.
- Don’t undersell yourself. In uncertain times it can be easy to panic and take on a project at a significantly lower rate than you would normally charge. You’ll end up resenting the project, and if further work comes through that same company, it will be hard to justify an increase in your day rate. Be clear to yourself on what your lowest day rate is and hold firm (unless you’ve burned through your financial buffer and are desperate, but even then, is there an alternative solution to help with cash flow issues that you could explore?).
- Look after yourself. With more flexibility in terms of how you plan your days and weeks, what are you doing to make sure that you are healthy and fit for work? Since I quit my job I’ve lost over 2 stone (14kgs+ and counting) because I’m making sure I eat healthily and exercise regularly. My to-do-list for today includes a conference call, writing this post, yoga, novel editing, research, admin and building a book case (from flat pack, I’m not wandering out into the wilds of Morden Hall Park to fell a tree). This is a pretty standard day (except for the furniture building, that isn’t a new side-line).
- Don’t under estimate yourself. That is the best way to miss an opportunity. An interesting side-effect of being freelance is that I’ve had more time to spend on passion projects, and that doesn’t just mean the novel. I’ve recognised that there are things in our world that are broken and I want to help fix them. Doing pro-bono work with organisations that are trying to fix those problems is beyond satisfying. It’s inspiring, educational and shows you just how limited your field of knowledge is. But if you are willing to think laterally, be confident and (most importantly) try hard, you can find things buried in the depths of your vertical knowledge that can help others. Insights that can be expanded out and applied to other things. I believe in opportunities for all. I want to see diversity embraced in advertising and the arts. This is something that I’m willing to focus my time and energy on. Sounds all very altruistic but the reality is that I’ve definitely got more out of this than I’ve put in. Not for want of trying, but I’m still learning how to be useful.
Poster, given to me by a dear & supportive friend. It lives on my office wall.
- Never stop learning. This is crucial. You may have had a clear idea of where you wanted to be and what you wanted to do when you started your freelance journey. But the journey never stops, complete with detours that might surprise and inspire you. One of the things I get most excited about is not knowing what my life will look like a year from now. Anything is possible.
- Be clear on your priorities. I gave myself a lot of time to write in the last 9 months, I now have a completed draft of my novel. I’m planning to rewrite most of it, but as I practiced what I preach and have spent time learning my craft (so many interesting writing courses out there), I’m reassuringly informed this is normal. No wonder people think writers are crazy. Now as I go into editing mode, my priority has shifted to focus on freelancing projects and investing more time on those. Something I’m excited to do.
- Take advantage of the kindness of strangers. I’ve had my most lucrative project leads come via friends of friends who have given my name to somebody. People who wanted to support and encourage my freelancing life. You never know who might be able to help you. If someone gives you a business card at a party and says email them as they’d love to help. Do it! I did, despite feeling a bit awkward about it, and it led to new to contacts and opportunities.
- Embrace outsourcing where possible. My treat to myself in my first year as a freelancer was an accountant. I don’t need to be awake at night worrying that I’ve messed up a form or have accidentally underpaid HMRC. The cost of an accountant is worth the peace of mind for me. Know your weaknesses and identify ways to plug them.
- Cats are rubbish at banter. Embrace twitter or your social platform of choice. Having gone from working in an office to predominantly working from home, I’ve found social media has helped me feel connected to other people on the days the only other living creature I see is my cat Louis
So those are my learnings so far, and I still have a steep learning curve ahead of me, which isn’t something I’m daunted by (most days anyway).
I haven’t put anything in here about dealing with the negative people in your life. That is because I am incredibly lucky not to have encountered any. Everyone has been so supportive, even people I thought would be critical have encouraged me. I’m lucky. I know that. If you’re less lucky, I’d advise spending time with those that support your dream, you don’t need the pessimists zapping your confidence. This could also be an opportunity to expand your circle of friends to include people who inspire you, thereby enriching yet more aspects of your life.