Twelve weeks ago, I left my job of seven years. Well, seven years at the same company, anyway. I’d effectively been doing the same thing – writing and editing – for twelve years. I’d just switched from doing it for magazines, to doing it for brands.
I digress. I left my job to go freelance twelve weeks ago, and I did it for various reasons. I’d gone back part-time after two stints on maternity leave, and lost my (small) team and my (small) level of responsibility as a result. I wanted to give my in-laws, who had my kids three long days a week, a break. And I wanted to be the one to take my son, who’d just turned four, to school.
So that’s why, twelve weeks ago, I waved goodbye to a great bunch of people and a job and company I loved, and set up on my own, at home, as a freelancer. I now spend three full days and two half-days a week working from the desk in my bedroom, often wearing a dressing gown, and always surrounded by piles of washing. I feed the kids their breakfast and their tea – something I wasn’t around for before – and do the drop-offs. I’m as frazzled as I was before, if not more so, but at least I’m frazzled on my own terms.
So what have I learned in almost three months or freelance life? Lots. Lots and lots. More than I thought I would. And mostly through trial and error. So, if you’re toying with the idea of doing something similar, here’s how not to go freelance…
Shhhh, Mummy’s working. (Or how not to go freelance.)
1. Say yes to everything, including things that pay really badly, because you might not have any work next week.
OK, so everyone will tell you the first rule of freelancing is this: say yes to everything. And it’s good advice, in the sense that you don’t know what’s around the corner, so you’re going to be really busy sometimes, and then super quiet. So yes, you should take the work while it’s there.
What you shouldn’t do is take this too literally. I have been amazed – flabbergasted – at how much work is out there once you start looking (and by looking I mean endless hours of pitching and applying and emailing and working your *rse off). But I really did say yes to everything. And I got myself in a state, ended up working all the evenings and weekends I could find, and missing out on time with my family. My husband arriving home in the evening became my cue to go and get some more hours in.
I also said yes to some things that I knew, in my gut, paid far too low. I’ve been on the commissioning end – the one farming out work to the freelancers – so I know the going rate for what I do. And as soon as I started doing the work in question, I realised I begrudged doing it, and later that I had no time to do it because I had to cut back somewhere, so I had to let the client know I wouldn’t be continuing. I did it as nicely as I could, but I said my piece. Quality work costs money. And so does my mortgage.
2. Expect to magically have more time, and get really angry at everyone when you don’t.
I sort of thought that by cutting out the commute and the office chats and the meetings, I’d have more hours to work. I don’t. In fact, I have no idea where the hours go – I don’t stop for lunch and my ‘break’ is a run down the stairs to put another load in the washing machine. But I still find it’s time to finish before I’m actually finished every single day.
The reality is, once you’re freelance it’s not only the work you’ve got on your plate. You’re also a one-woman HR team, recruitment agency and accounts department. Even if you get an accountant (I did), you still need to keep your books in order and set money aside for tax. This means spreadsheets. And receipts. And probably a separate bank account. And while we’re on the subject, take a look at professional indemnity insurance, and register as self-employed with HMRC.
3. Exist on a diet of Pom Bears, tea, and the occasional Bounty.
Yes, you will lose half a stone through a combination of this and good old-fashioned stress, but your skin will look disgusting and you’ll feel rough. Really rough.
4. Assume you can work hunched over a tiny MacBook all day, every day.
I was very, very lucky that a friend gave me his desktop PC to use on a long-term basis, because I don’t know what I’d have done with out it. Working on a small screen just doesn’t work for any length of time, and my neck may never recover. On the subject of computers, bear in mind you no longer have IT support at the end of the phone. I have been known to cry when the internet goes down without warning. And I’m not a cry-er.
5. Miss your old work friends and spend your first few weeks incessantly texting them for updates.
Time to move on?
6. Eschew all the traditional trappings of a desk, because you’re so freelance and cool.
It’s not cool when you’ve got nowhere to put your stuff and you can’t find your kid’s preschool bill in amongst all the paperwork. You are going to need the boring things – the in-tray and the magazine holder and all that jazz – but they don’t have to look like the standard-issue ones from your old office. Take a look on Pinterest and get some serious home office envy. Then put overpriced wooden letter trays on your Christmas list because you’re a massive loser.
7. Exist in a bubble and don’t leave your house because you’re Just Too Busy.
Freelancing is ALL about connections. I can’t emphasise this enough (even the shouty caps don’t quite do it). All the jobs I’ve worked on these past three months have been through connections – both friends and colleagues – that I built in one of my previous jobs. Go through all your emails. If you’re a writer, go through all your PR contacts and sign up to get press releases. Try, if you can, to get out to networking meetings and conferences (and don’t forget to keep your receipts and expense everything). I’ve survived on previous contacts and existing knowledge for the past three months, but that can only last so long. It’s really easy to get out of the loop when you leave a big company – with fresh talent to keep you on your toes, and in-house training to keep you ahead of the game – to go it alone. My new year’s resolution is to get out more. And I don’t just mean to the pub.
…and the stuff I did right. Ish.
Of course, I have managed to do some things right in the last few months. I think. The actual work itself has been crazy busy and brilliantly varied, and I’ve loved it. I’ve got an ongoing SEO contract I work on every week, and a regular company magazine I edit every six weeks. I’ve written travel guides for Pearlshare. Festive landing pages for Megabus. I’ve even done a few little extras, like a magazine feature for Discover Britain, which took me back to my magazine days and way out of my comfort zone in terms of tone of voice.
In-between jobs, I updated my professional website and built my online portfolio, and I’ve finally got my accounts semi-organised and on a spreadsheet. I haven’t stopped. And I’m so unbelievably grateful, because finding work was the one thing I was most worried about.
And next month, after what’s been the biggest learning curve of my life, I’m taking a bit of a breather. We’re off to Center Parcs with some friends, and I’ve never needed a week off so much. There will be wine, there will be a blog post, but there will definitely not be any work*.
*I might reply to work-related emails from my phone when nobody’s looking. Shhh.