By Ed Sykes
I went along to Stempra’s most recent event out of complete curiosity; to me the idea of becoming a freelancer and working on my own is terrifying – no guaranteed income, no sick days, having to set up an independent company and, most importantly, there’s no-one to rant with, no one to share ideas with and no-one to give you support when you need an extra pair of hands. But it turns out that whilst these fears are right, in some people’s eyes I’m completely missing the point.
There was a staggering amount of experience on the panel which consisted of Becky Allen (freelance journalist), Emma Palmer Foster (freelance PR consultant) and Bella Wiliams (sometime freelancer and regular employer of freelancers) and it was all expertly chaired by Sallie Robins (freelance science publicist).
Despite all my pre-conceived fears, the overriding sense that I got from the freelancers was that they had never been happier – for them the variety of work, flexibility in working hours and, ultimately, fact of being their own boss meant that it outweighed everything else. In fact, instead of it being this big, scary way of life Bella described freelance as being her source of stability, that even if she lost her job she would always have her freelance work to fall back on and that no-one could take that away from her.
Perhaps surprisingly there were no complaints about the lean years, no descriptions of sitting round waiting for the next job offer to arrive in the inbox. Aside from the initial months when the panellists were making a name for themselves (and interestingly no-one on the panel had become freelance by choice) it seems to have been a constant flood of work and that it was very much a case of too much rather than too little.
The number one downside, which was raised by everyone on the panel, was the issue of loneliness, not having a team around you and having to rely upon one’s own strengths. They discussed ways round this, such as working in a shared office space, filling up the diary with working lunches, joining other freelancers and, after long periods of solitude, taking on longer-term projects as part of a team. For the panellists, solitude is definitely not an insurmountable problem.
So if all of this has whetted your appetite, then here are ten top tips from people who have taken the plunge:
1. Don’t say no – at the beginning take on everything that is offered to build up your client base. You may need to kiss a few frogs!
2. Don’t say no! – people come to freelancers in times of need and they will soon stop asking if you don’t get involved.
3. But be wary of taking on too much – if you do have to say no then recommend someone else.
4. Don’t undercharge – it is much harder to explain why you need to up your rates later. readyreckoner (NUJ) is a list of what the going rates are for different jobs so you don’t sell yourself short.
5. Never work for free – work out the costs in advance: are you charging per day (how long is your working day?), are you charging per project (how many iterations are allowed as they keep changing their minds?), are you on retainer (will you invoice for working above and beyond set hours?).
6. Join a trade union – NUJ offer cheap training and look over contracts.
7. Be clear that being self-employed IS your job – not that you are hanging around waiting for a job.
8. Your reputation needs to be rebuilt – before you were John Smith of X, now you are just John Smith.
9. Your network is your intellectual property – it needs to be nurtured and you need to be seen to be current.
10. Copyright – don’t lose it, make sure that your work keeps working for you.