“Don’t do everything I did…” Some advice for new freelancers.

Six years ago this week I became self-employed full-time for the first time. Going freelance was something I’d vaguely expected to be doing circa my 45th birthday or some mythical point in the future when I had some sort of handle on life. I was 26.5 years old, and trying to convince myself that I was making a positive, go-getting choice, even though it felt like a choice in the way one execution method over another would. The thing is, I’m good at writing, not very good at anything else (as I was emphatically told when I tried to do anything else), and, you might have noticed, there aren’t a lot of staff jobs around for writers. What else could I do?

My preparation for this adventure amounted to a couple of how-to books, a couple of lessons on pitching during my journalism training (four years earlier), and one two-hour workshop in Grays Inn Road run by a couple of experienced freelancers. Despite the ad-hoc muddling through, things were all tickedy-boo for a while. Work built up nicely. Within six months, I was edging towards my former staff salary and being able to support myself. I was beginning to feel a bit pleased with myself – dare I say smug. Then it all changed. By “changed”, I mean “pretty much effing fell apart.”  One of my best friends died suddenly and horribly, and part of me felt guilty for having flaunted my new-found contentment at him. It’s difficult to explain exactly why and how, and this isn’t the place. Suffice to say, there wasn’t a “Dealing With Complicated Freelancer Grief  Not Long After Redundancy” module at my journalism school. Nor was there a “Dealing With Repeat Grief When Another Friend Dies The Same Horrible Way Three Years Later” module. Some things, you just gotta wing…

In recent years I’ve started to get emails from strangers asking for my advice or “top tips” for going freelance. My biggest advice is to be very suspicious of anyone keen to offer you advice. It’s highly unlikely to be anything you haven’t already heard, or that will guarantee you success. Then I realised, the advice you need most is not how to guarantee success but how not to really mess up. And I’ve got plenty of that. So here we are:

  • Be sensible. The first few months of self-employment can feel a bit like being a giddy student again with your own money (acutely so in my case, as one of my writing subjects was higher education, and I wrote for my undergraduate university’s alumni magazine, among other places, from national newspapers to teen pop fan annuals…). But just because you can drink wine at three in the afternoon and call it a work meeting, doesn’t mean treating your job like a paid Freshers Week is a good idea.
  • Make a crisis plan Stable work can take the edge off the worst personal tragedy. Work instability can add to one enormously. Remember the D’s (Debt, Divorce, Death) and be prepared for situations that might mean a big drop in productivity or earnings. Obviously don’t start dividing up your wedding crockery or writing obits for all the family, but do some quiet mulling over. It’s not just events that can affect you in themselves, but getting back into work after time off. Taking time away from a business in the first year is like starting from scratch, and a safety net of savings can store up trouble for later. Beside the obvious lack of sick pay, holiday pay or compassionate leave, something else incredibly important, and not widely known is that it can be much harder for self-employed people to get financial help from the state if work dries up. To be entitled to Job Seekers Allowance (a.k.a “the dole”), you have to be able to show that you’ve stopped working, and that this is for reasons beyond your control (i.e, due to market conditions, not that you’ve just packed it in one day because you’re bored). If you’re self-employed this can be much harder to prove, and given the dystopian lottery of the system in any case, don’t count on it.
  • Make a spreadsheet If numbers aren’t your friend (*cough*), get someone numerate to set it up for you. It doesn’t have to be fancy; it does have to make sense to you. Keep a separate sheet within the same document for a budget.  Work out a minimum disposable income by subtracting your essentials from your most reliable source of income. If you’re single, until you’re on more than about 40-50K, you probably don’t need an accountant. If you’re married and want to stay married, you probably do.
  • Manage your expectations about what “contacts” can do for you  If you’ve ever spent time with jobbing actors, you may’ve noticed they seem to hang around with all sorts of fancy-pants people but it rarely seems to help their career much. If you’re self-employed, especially in a competitive field, you’ll constantly hear “It’s who you know.” and about how “So-and-so got a job from a tweet”. Reality’s a bit more complicated than that. It could take months or years, if at all, for a new contact to win you work. Yes, a “gissa job” tweet or blog post could turn into one of those “How-I-Got-My-Dream-Job” magazine features. But it’s much more likely to win you a small project worth a few hundred pounds that takes months from first contact to payment. Even if you meet someone really “successful” or famous, unless they’re in a direct hiring position it’s unlikely they’ll be able to help you quickly. They’re also difficult people to build lasting relationships with as they’re so busy and so inundated with communications. It’s best to think of big-hitters in your address book as a boost to your confidence rather than your bank account.
  • Get used to a new relationship with time It’s extremely difficult to work to a specific time when there’s no-one there to care. It just is. You’ll probably never manage to be at your desk at 9:30 sharp. Rather than get locked into a miserable battle with yourself, accept it and be flexible and realistic. Instead of setting a specific time to start or finish work, set a window, e.g “Between 9:15 and 9:30”. and you’re more likely to stick to it. (N.B: This advice only applies to working on your own, not to things involving others. Respect other people’s time and deadlines if you want a) work b) to be liked in general). 
  • Don’t meet people at stilted “networking events”. Just meet people I’ve never been attracted to anyone on anything called a date, or met anyone useful to my work at anything called a networking evening (At one I went to, I met an unemployed male graduate posing as a Woman’s Hour producer. I sensed something was up when he hadn’t heard of the Wonder Stuff, which a BBC radio producer really should have…). Go to a couple of those things at the beginning, so you can tell everyone who suggests it that you’ve done it. Then just go to what moves you and meet people while you’re there. Conferences, talks, panels, workshops, museums, theatres all have interesting people in them. Books about networking I keep meaning to read and haven’t but that perhaps you should: Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed, and the Underconnected by Devora Zack and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
  • Do your due diligence Sadly, people you meet in business situations aren’t necessarily any more trustworthy than random people you meet anywhere else. When you’re self-employed, you need to think like a journalist, even if you aren’t one. It’s not creepy, it’s sensible. Being taken in by someone can cost you time, dignity and work. Public records are public – use them. Look people up and be prepared for awkward discoveries. Do basic fact checks and background checks before you share things online. Before you follow or meet new people online, do a basic sweep of their recent activity and who else they follow on social media (Despite thinking I’d learned these sorts of lessons embarrassingly a long time ago, I nearly got into some bother again just the other week…)
  • Know your “Night Twitter” if you’re working late… #JustSaying  Everything you were warned about late nights at the office applies to Twitter. As does everything you’ve ever been told about talking to strangers in pubs and on public transport. Social media after 10pm is like London after 10pm: it contains a lot of people whose relationships and emotional health are precarious. Very precarious, if they’re retweeting from those inspirational quote accounts run by spammers in Honalulu. (Incidentally, a good general life tip: if someone quotes: “Don’t promise when you’re happy or decide when you’re sad,” expect them to do both…)
  • Yes, talking to yourself when you’re alone is normal, don’t worry An old colleague of mine who’s recently left her job posted a Facebook status asking this question and the responses are the largest thread of solidarity and reassurance I’ve ever seen…
  • Yes, you will get past “That Stage” soon, don’t worry… Ahh yes, Mitchell and Webb’s “working from home” sketch* – referenced with a wink by many a tipsy freelancer. (*Polite warning: Not suitable for kids, workplaces, or people who aren’t on rude-jokes terms with me. Hi mum, go away…)
  • When you’re asking for free advice, know where acceptable ends and taking the mick begins Be brief and specific; ask politely; don’t ask people who can only tell you what you know already. And only ask people whose advice you’re actually interested in – if you’re just sticking a pin in Google, it shows.
  • If you pay for a mentor or coach, make sure they’re actually going to be any use  You can take general advice from anyone at all (hi…!) but you should only pay for advice about making money from someone who has it. I once used money from my savings to pay for someone so expensive and so useless I felt I’d been pickpocketed. Before you hand over a bean, you should know these things…:
  1. Have they actually worked in your field or something close enough? (In this decade…)
  2. Do they earn enough from it to support themselves on their own full-time? (if that’s your aim). If not, what portion of their income do they make from it, and where does the rest of their money come from? Have they made more money from giving advice than actually doing the job? What help from family, a partner, savings, investors, loans or bursaries have they had? You don’t need a half-hour accounts presentation, but you do need some basic honesty about this.
  3. Are they just going to tell you things you can read for free on the internet?
  4. Are they just going to tell you what you already know from university/training?
  5. If they’re passing on contacts, how sure are they that these people can actually help you, or are they really just doing it to fill time/cheer you up?
  6. If you have a disability or health condition, do they understand anything about it and what it means for your work?
  • Remember, remember, remember, that “success” is never the whole story  Self-employment is often a giant smoke and mirrors game and the people who you think are “successful” are probably hiding a lot. Nobody heavily in debt, living off loans or living off somebody else is ever going tell you that.
  • Be prepared to become a lot more cynical. And a lot more excitable. Sometimes at the same time “You see the best and worst of human nature” is a true cliche of many jobs. I was never a rose-tinted specs woman. I am now so cynical Halfords could bottle me and sell me as battery acid. But, I am also capable of finding joy in tiny things like pepper mills and parmesan cheese dispensers. (Which, for a writer, is a pretty useful skill. You’re lucky if you get paid to write about something a lot of people find exciting…)

Phew, that was a long post. But come on. It’s January. We’re both waiting on inboxes to ping here; you probably needed the distraction didn’t you…

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5 thoughts on ““Don’t do everything I did…” Some advice for new freelancers.

  1. It’s all true, but I particularly related to the bit about contacts. I’ve actually found that the best thing about meeting people in the same or adjacent fields isn’t getting work, it’s knowing people socially who are navigating similar stuff: either they’re not in a 9 – 5 job, or they’re doing one or working part-time to support their arts or freelance gig (and perhaps realising that ‘while it gets off the ground’ may more realistically be ‘indefinitely’), and that comes with some very particular experiences and ways of looking at things. It’s nice to have that perspective in your life, especially if almost everyone else you know seems to be in the double-or-at-least-1.5x-professional-income, two-holidays-a-year, doesn’t-look-at-drink-prices-before-ordering bracket!

  2. Also important: realise that half, if not most, of your time will go into the boring stuff. It’s not the writing/illustrating for which you get paid, but the charing up of work, the admin, and then the chasing up of the moneeeey! Another one: be very clear about what you agree to. Pay on publication can be a liability – I had hundreds worth of accepted articles not getting paid because a) the magazine went on ‘hiatus’ (folded) and b) on the editor’s shelf for a rainy day, and there forgotten and turned to dust. You’ll have to look at what risk you’ll take and are willing to take with pay on publication.

    • Very good points! Re pay-on-publication: “Pay whenever someone gets round to processing it because we’re not used to outsourcing/don’t have a dedicated accounts department” is another woe…

  3. Wow Maxine! – I’ve learned so much more about the depths and layers of you… Your cynicism matches mine, and I have made a sort of living (at least I have my own roof over my head, if that is making a living!) for all of twenty years of self employment. There are a lot of people out there (most of them at networking events), offering advice, who are either pretending to make a living, or are actually doing so successfully by preying on the gullible. There is nothing new out there,it’s just sometimes rehashed in a different way. That being said, there are good people that you will meet… the trick being to recognise them before you shut them out!
    The one bit of advice that i would offer is to beware of PROCRASTINATION. A subject that I could have got a first class honours degree in, if it had been on offer.
    Of a list of tasks do first that which you want to do the least.

    • Thanks Mike! I thought you knew most of this stuff; I’d assumed I would have mentioned it before. Probably not in detail I suppose. Procrastination is indeed the enemy but managing to stick fastidiously to a training schedule for the Marathon has given me some hope it can be beaten. That’s a good tip – as long as working out which task you want to do least when the answer is “all of them” doesn’t become procrastination in and of itself!

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