A few years ago I gave a talk at Generic Greeting’s birthday party in Manchester about ‘things I wish I had known before going freelance’, and at the time I promised myself I would put that advice online too, so here we finally are!
This advice is completely inspired by a piece of writing I found by journalist Kate Hutchinson right before going freelance - you can read it here. In it, she managed to debunk a few myths I was worried about and make it all feel a lot more real. The advice she shared meant I was finally able to make the jump myself - and I remember thinking, I’m gonna do this and write my own advice at the end of one year.
Well… that was five years ago! But I’m really interested in demystifying what it’s like to work for yourself, or showing people that it can be so much more rewarding than a regular job, and not to be scared of that. Now I have started working on my own website, I’d like my blog here to be a place to share some more stories from freelance life, as well as advice on staying inspired when you still have to pay the bills, and pushing your own creative practice forward… so stay tuned for those.
But first, let’s begin at the beginning: back to the speech! Looking back now, some of these points might feel obvious to you, but I learnt all of these things on the job, so it figures other people might not know them either... let’s get into it.
20 Things I Learnt After Being Freelance For One Year
At 25 I was creative director of a startup but was not allowed to attend board meetings. I was earning around £32k a year, with severe anxiety and moderate depression. I was unhappy, and had been for a long time. I had applied to countless jobs and never landed so much as an interview.
I was away in Berlin when a few friends suggested I could make something - a business, a brand - anything, for myself, from scratch. Then I would call the shots. My flight back to London was delayed by 12 hours, and to be honest it was the best thing that could have happened at that moment in time. I used all those hours to plan my next move.
Arriving back home, I knew I wanted to leave my job, but I also needed time to establish myself. I needed time to plan, and there was no way I would get that headspace from working in an office five days a week.
Knowing my bosses wouldn’t be happy about me just wanting time off to develop another career, I told them a very loose truth that I wanted to spend some time each week working on my writing. They let me push my full time job into three days, working 6am-5pm from home every day. This meant I was able to start with one freelance client, and over time, build that into four clients. Twelve months after going full-time as a freelancer I earnt less than half of what I was earning when I was in full time work, but I was already so much more fulfilled in my work than I thought I ever could be.
In just those twelve months that was abundantly clear, but there were also some INTENSE life lessons learnt in that time - and ones I believe it’s important to learn for yourself. Nevertheless, I feel like if I share these, maybe it’ll make it easier for you to spot when that trusty old life montage is happening before your eyes too.
So here are 20 things I learnt after being freelance for one year. Tell me what you learnt too. Let’s get wiser, together!
1. There is no financial security, so work out what your security fund looks like
If you graduated in the UK after 2008, you’ll know the last decade hasn’t been characterised with financial security for anyone. Being freelance is no longer considered the risky choice it used to be - it is far more normal. But that doesn’t mean you can get complacent. If you are in full time employment and considering going freelance, set the stage for your finances. You may not be able to save six months of your salary (who can?!), but a month’s worth of rent and bills doesn’t hurt. I’d also recommend having the means to repurchase all of your vital equipment - whether it’s savings, insurance or a credit card - if you need a laptop, camera, or anything else to do your job, make sure you can buy it again in an emergency.
2. You don’t have one boss any more. You might have five. And five inboxes, and five sets of team meetings to attend
This was a major appeal for me to go freelance: I was so tired of trying to guess the every whim of my old managers and ignoring my instincts. But when you do make the switch to being freelance, you’ll start to see that instead of one person to answer to, you’ve acquired a lot more. They may take up a lot more headspace than one - so get used to juggling. The same goes for inboxes and team meetings - the expectations don’t get lower, you just have less time to devote to each one.
If you want long term clients, try to invest extra time to behave like another team member if you can. It’s unlikely you’ll get reinbursed for this financially, but if you’re looking for stability, it’s worthwhile - or be clear in managing your client’s expectations of what you can do/attend.
3. You don’t have to say yes to every job
This was probably the key lesson I took away from my first year of freelance. I said yes to every opportunity that came my way. After a while, it’s time to get strategic. Every freelancer you know can tell you about the job that did them in, when they realised they’d totally overstretched themselves. Mine involves frantically baking key lime pies for a vegan restaurant I worked for in order to pay by rabbit’s vets bill, and inevitably dropping a load of them due to being so stressed out. Before saying yes to each new proposition, do your own due diligence: how many hours will this job take? How much will you earn for each of those hours? What travel and other expenses will you need? If the monetary gains are low, are you at least gaining valuable experience?
4. It’s not all oat milk flat whites and avocado toast, but make time to treat yourself if you think you deserve it
Another one for the first year freelancers - if only because the novelty does wear off, so grab it while you can: If you’re making rent and covering your bills, you deserve a coffee break. Take yourself out to that place you can never get into at the weekend. Go bask in it BABYYY.
5. Keep developing your network
It can be really hard to network in a big city but don’t let that stop you. No one has a clue who you are - which can be totally scary but also very liberating. Book into talks, lectures, or start volunteering. Don’t get stuck with industry friends on your Instagram and Twitter DMs and none in real life - if you feel like it, set up a meet-up, or research groups that may already exist in your industry. If you live in a smaller community, use that to its benefit too. Set up regional meetups and use your personal network wisely - everyone knows someone looking for you.
These people become your sounding board - having a great community around you is the best thing you can do to set yourself up for working alone.
6. Don’t let being skint stop you from what you want to do
You can always find people to give you money. This will change a lot with what you aim to achieve, but there are so many investors and crowdfunding options out there. If you have an idea or a skill, you have your half of the bargain.
7. Speaking of which: GET SUPER TRANSPARENT ABOUT MONEY
I spent months being coy about it, and I cringe at remembering the meetings I went to without discussing money.
Always talk about fees in the first meeting. Do not start working for someone without an idea of what you’re each getting out of it. That sounds CRAZY for me to say now but I did this for ages, and I know other people do too. If you learn nothing else in the first three months of being freelance, learn this.
8. Stop working for people that miss more than two pre-arranged pay days. Stop right there and don’t look back. It’s not you, it’s them
When I originally wrote this speech, a client owed me over £1000 and I’d had to just stop working for them so that number didn’t increase. After a lot of help from my freelancer network, I managed to negotiate that they paid me back £25 a week. Because I didn’t receive that money within a year of earning it, I had to cancel holidays I’d bought flights for and find another job on the spot. Don’t carry on working for someone if they can’t pay. No buts.
9. If you are not good at maths, pay someone to be for you
This is the one piece of advice I actually did know before going freelance, thanks to the article I mentioned above. I hired an accountant the same month I went freelance. I pay £40 a month for year-round peace of mind, and an invoicing programme. I am terrible at maths, so working a little extra every month to know it’s someone else’s problem is money well spent.
10. Keep track of your hours - BE A STICKLER for this. Add as much detail as you want to your invoices - keep a diary of what you did
I found the ‘ledger’ I used to keep for noting down my hours the other day and laughed out loud. Recording your hours in a haphazard way is only going to lose you money. Make a timesheet for every client you have. Use them as your to do lists, and then you also have an accurate record of what you’ve done every day. Do not shut your laptop for the day without updating your timesheet. If you worked extra hours and are choosing not to charge, add that into the invoice anyway, (advice picked up by another great pal from my freelance network, Sarah!) - let people see how hard you are working.
11. Look after yourself. Look after your mental health and your wellbeing. Make this your number one priority. You will not do yourself justice if you are not looking after yourself properly
If you are considering going freelance, just as you might start savings for that, I cannot stress enough how important it is to start sorting out any outstanding mental health issues you have. See it as another thing to set the stage for. It’s a lonely freelance world out there, with no holiday pay and no sick days. However thick your skin is, it’s going to get thicker, and you need to look after yourself before all else.
12. Oh, and on the reality of holidays...
I didn’t have a whole day off in the first three years of being freelance. I had to work weekends to make ends meet. In the first few years, I wrote newsletters on Boxing Day, I worked on email updates at 4am in Iceland, and I had to abandon my Mum in Poland in the middle of July while I sat in our Airbnb doing 8 hours of club night promotion.
However, I’ve also been able to say yes to trips away I could never have done when working for someone else.
No one but me decides how many days of the year I am in a different place. That’s the payoff.
And you can go home for 10 days over Christmas without selling your soul to the HR department so YEAH.
13. Other great things you do really get to do
You can choose never to work another Monday again and spend every single one hungover in bed eating pizza… if you really want.
You can look after family - if you have those savings set aside and a few understanding clients, it’s much easier to be there for someone at a moment’s notice - that’s something that’s really helped me.
You can also:
- Take an afternoon off to see a film the day it comes out
- See that blockbuster exhibition no one can get weekend tickets to
- Go to record store releases
- Call your other freelance friends all the time
- Go to the park the first day it is 20 degrees
- Go to the beach the first day it is 25 degrees
- Stay out until 3am on a weeknight sometimes
I wouldn’t recommend doing this all the time but I would recommend doing this as much as YOU GODDAMN LIKE in the first year.
12. Try to earn some kind of money every day
A real thing I struggled with when first switching from fulltime to freelance was that it would get to 5pm and I would still feel a sense of completion that the day was over, but I actually hadn’t worked for anyone that day.
Keep your projects ticking over, look for new work and get the word out there that you’re looking for a certain type of experience. in the first months, when money feels tight, try to make sure you pitch for work at least once a week, do paid work at least once a week and invoice for something at least once a week. That’ll start the ball rolling.
13. If you have spent the entire day at home, it is nearly ALWAYS, no, it REALLY IS ALWAYS a good idea to get outside
Meet a friend for a pint, go to see a cheap film on a Monday, go for a run, walk to your mate’s for just a cup of tea, whatever. If you can afford a gym membership, you will be using it a lot.
14. No one cares about you - it is no longer anyone’s job to look after your welfare
You might be the one-dayer on the team, or you’re working without a contract (don’t do that if you can help it), you have no rights, you are forgettable and probably quite replaceable.
So make it personal. Go to the after work drinks if you can. Become part of the woodwork. Be harder to let go of. Don’t be the weakest link.
15. The best, more rewarding work I’ve done is for my community. It’s never been the jobs that pay the best. It’s always been the ones with people that share your values
Bear that in mind if there’s ever a toss-up between someone you have little respect for who has a lot of money, and someone who will really feel the benefit of you working for them.
16. Everyone knows someone that can help you
There’s definitely a balance between wanting to make sure people know the kind of work you’re doing, and bragging non-stop about it, but do make sure people know what you can do, and if you’re looking for work, drop a few txts to your friends and contacts.
I have never had a single job from a jobs site or anonymously. It’s always been through a contact or a friend - your network is your most valuable asset.
17. Treat yourself like a business and split yourself up from your brand
Decide which messages ‘freelance you’ is putting out in the world - whether that’s on social media or just in meetings with clients - just because you’re working from home or you’re not on a contract like everyone else, doesn’t mean you stop being professional. You wouldn’t tweet about being hungover through the work Twitter account, so check in with yourself and if you should be doing it on your social media that your freelance network sees. You’re representing Brand You now. I know this sounds ridiculously douchey but as a former social-media-when-drunk fan, I stand by it!
18. JANUARY ALWAYS SUCKS
In my first week at uni we had a brilliant lecturer who told us there would be a day in November when we’d want to pack it all in - when being there would be so miserable and feel pointless that we’d want to drop out - and to see that through to spring (start on a high! I love it!). That day came around and I saw it coming - and that’s how all of January feels as a freelancer. Did I mention tax returns? Oh yeah - that. Get that fucker sorted in JUNE OR JULY of the previous year. And ALWAYS be saving for it. January is bad enough, don’t add taxes to it.
19. You do you
Don’t let people talk you in to needing and office space or a desk - if you’re not sure, give it a few months and work out if you need it for yourself. You don’t have to have a studio just because your best mate does. Don’t waste money working in a way you think you should be. I’m happiest at 6am on a Monday morning at my kitchen table with the whole week ahead. You may not be, but you may only need to use your local library every now and then, or a roster of a few cafes. You call the shots.
20. Embrace an off-kilter life
This was something I had little idea about when I first went freelance but it’s now my favourite part: if you’ve ever read about antifragility you’ll know humans get stronger by withstanding a bit of disorder and chaos. What doesn’t kill you, right? Well, going freelance is about embracing off-kilter living every day, working when you want, doing away with the 9-5. Embrace everything that means, and every way it will change you. It amounts to a lot more than waking up hungover on a Wednesday and not having to go into work. The first year I was freelance, I went away five times in the space of three months, because suddenly I could say yes to things I’d never been able to say yes to before. I worked on a supper club in Berlin, I wrote a recipe zine, I started catering vegan food for weddings.
You will never know if it’s going to be your last year working freelance, or just the first, so embrace every day of it that you can. Life gets a lot fuller when you decide how to fill it.
And that’s all for now - stay tuned for 20 Things I Learnt After Being Freelance For 5 Years… (oooeee there’s some hard-won experience in that one too!)