Happy birthday to me – four years of freelance

Four years ago it was just about to snow. After two or three winters with heavy snowfall it wasn’t a huge surprise. But in this slightly too warm November it makes winter 2010 seem even further removed, even more un-tangible.

It snowed, there was ice and a biting wind and I had a vicious cold. It was the first winter I was working freelance. I had a BBC documentary to work on and was travelling around the north west with my burgeoning fever and running nose interviewing people about Terence Davies. In four months time I’d celebrate the first month where I made my survival budget by the middle of the month. In seven months time I’d win my first regular contract that covered my survival budget. In a year I’d be on a plane to Dubai to work with my first overseas client. In two years I’d be moving into Baltic Creative, in four I’d sign my second lease on my own co-working office space.

But in that first December being able to stand on my own two feet felt a long way away and this isn’t just an icy pavement metaphor. I had left a PR job I was miserable in to work on my own. It was the height of a recession. My husband had been made redundant three days after I handed in my notice. It was scary. Yet I know it would – had to – work.

This is what I’ve learnt;

1. Know what you’re good at. There is no shortage of ex journalists who’ve gone on to work as copywriters and PRs. There aren’t many, perhaps who’ve worked in the same campaigns I’ve worked on and have done the same digital mix but there will be a few. But I know what it is that makes me stand apart. If I was on a high street and all the other ex-journos were other shops along the pavement I know what I’d use as my pitch to make me stand out. When you know that it becomes much easier to sell yourself, rather than sell you skills. It means you don’t have to pretend to be anyone else. Which ultimately is what being happy is all about.

2. Divide your business into three. One night when I was tweeting during Question Time about being an entrepreneur a rather sniffy Ukipper tweeted me to say I didn’t run a business. Really, mate? You can tell all that from my Twitter profile and website? People know me and want to work with me, not just my skillset. That’s what my business is based on, even if it looks like a one man band I bring in support and staff when I need it, organically. But my business isn’t just one thing. Diversity is key. At my first meeting with my accountant he drew a circle on a napkin and wrote the three strands of my business onto it; Digital PR and Marketing, Copywriting and Journalism. Some of those things make more money than others. Some quarters are filled with one element and less of another. But that was my first business plan and it helped me to picture how my time, energy, income and offer would be divided. The days when you can do just one thing are gone.

3. Don’t ask, don’t get. It can be really easy to sit in your home office and daydream about what your business will look like. That daydream, unfortunately, isn’t going to pay your mortgage, heating, holidays, Christmas and what not. Is it hard to ask people for money? Yes. Is it hard to put a fiscal value against your offer and work? Yes, but it gets easier. Do you get massively annoyed when people undercut you? Yes, but they usually get found out. Asking for work, pointing out how you can help and why, doing your homework and research and being authentic are the best way to convince someone that they should hire you. They won’t always say yes, but at least you know you tried. And when  they do say yes it’s AWESOME!

4. Your business will always change. There is no point when you sit back and think “I’ve cracked this”. I have two contracts that come to an end in spring next year. I had two contracts that came to an end in January and June this year. At both stages I was near hysterical with the thought that no one would ever hire me again. They did. I’ve always tried to ensure I have a core range of clients I work with on a regular monthly basis that keep me going. I have capacity to take on other projects. Clients come and go but as an early mentor said to me it’s like spinning plates. You’ve always got to have an eye on what’s coming next and be preparing for it. Never be nostalgic for what’s been and always prepare for the future.

5. Invest in herbal sleeping tablets. Nothing good comes from being awake at 5am worrying about your business. You’re more likely to tackle any issues with a good night’s sleep behind you.

6. Know when to take a break. I haven’t had two days off together since August. That’s my own fault. I’m tired but I’m taking a few days off and I’ll have Christmas. You have no HR manager telling you that you need a break (do HR managers do that? I haven’t had one since 2008) and no one but your mother will remind you to eat some breakfast and make sure you have a hot tea and take your multivitamins. Health is vital. Even though you love working independently it isn’t everything. Your health is. And without it you can’t work like the frenzied loon you do normally. Take a break when you can, give yourself the afternoon off, take cod liver oil and drink plenty of water. Be healthy.

7. Set up an online saver account. Squirrel money away when you can. For one thing it’s quite nice watching it increase. Secondly it’s good to have a cushion. You’ll need to sort your own pension so get in the habit of saving money and burying it under a tree when you can. It’ll give you confidence as you begin to see that it’s working.

8. Don’t bitch about other freelancers. Part of that is about the whole “there but for the grace of God” thing. But do you really want to be that insecure in the work that you’re doing that you openly slag off your competitors. If you have an offer that’s different from everyone else then so do they. You might not agree with how they run their business, or the kind of clients they go for but you know what, big deal! Everyone has to carve a niche and pay their own way. Don’t be the person that spreads the negative and goes into rooms talking about why you shouldn’t work with this person and that person. You’re basing your whole strategy on something kind of nasty. From a branding perspective that doesn’t work. Having said that do have someone you can talk openly and honestly with about business. Turns out you can spend too much time in your own head.

9. Look up. Perspective is key. You’re asking businesses for money. It’s respectful therefore to figure out what their interests are, what might be worrying them and what motivates their business. It is beyond arrogant to swing in and assume you’re right and they’re wrong, or that your way of seeing things is the only way. Nope, nope, nope. See how other people work, what drives their business and at the very heart of it you’ll have a greater sense of what drives you and what’s important to your business.

10. Ignore what other freelancers say. OK, I was hardly going to put this at number 1. But it’s true. No one has had the same experience to get you to where you are. Yes we might have overlap. But everyone is coming from a slightly different place. You might not like working flexibly the way I do. You might like to fill your Mondays with meetings. You might like to take Friday afternoons off. The whole thing about making the shift away from full-time staff member to freelancer and then the psychological shift to see your self as a business is this; know your own mind. If you work independently you spend more time in your own head than anyone else’s. You have to be comfortable there and recognise what your strengths, weaknesses and all of that are. You might not have chosen to be working on your own, you might think it’s the best thing ever. Whatever the cause it matters little when you carving a living out. Every year when I do my accounts I like to reflect on the businesses I’ve worked with, to reflect on projects and my goals for the year gone and the one ahead. No one else’s business looks exactly like mine and do you know what? I like it like that.

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