Early this year, there was some “streamlining” at a company I was working for, and I got laid off.
I didn’t much fancy getting back into the world of Full Time Employment, so decided to begin a freelance career.
Over the last year, I’ve had to learn a lot: from getting introductions to people, to handling client relationships, to getting the pricing right.
It’s worked out pretty well. I’ve managed to stay happy and healthy (which were my two major concerns), I’ve taken vacations to Thailand, Cambodia and Gran Canaria (and achieved a lifetime ambition of seeing Angkor Wat), and am in a better position financially than when I was full time.
Starting a freelance business in London definitely has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, you have a massive pool of potential people that you can work with, within a stone’s throw of your apartment.
On the negative side, that apartment usually comes at a cost. Flatshares in central London are upwards of $1,200 a month, and even that’s for something fairly basic.
Ultimately it came down to practicality though: after years of navigating corporate politics, I was burnt out. I needed a change.
In my industry (technology marketing) the premium that agencies charge is very high, and a lot of the time, the agencies don’t really understand the business they’re working with very well. That gives an opportunity to undercut them whilst still making good money.
That means that a lot of the time, you have the scope to charge what the market will bear. What’s more, if you learn how to deliver a new service (I got good at doing customer persona creation this year), you can increase your rate significantly.
Pick and Choose Your Work
I’ve experienced working as a small cog in Big Software Co. and I can say that it’s not really for me. It’s very easy to get pigeon-holed into being thought of as “good at one thing” — and end up doing that all the time.
I decided last year that my ideal scenario would be to have 2 or 3 anchor clients where the work would not differ too much from month to month, and supplement those with a couple of clients who I would work with on more short term projects.
This has kept the work that I do pretty varied. I do a lot of copywriting, and sometimes websites in HubSpot as well, but also do persona development. Software businesses are often at very different stages of development, and will have different strengths and weaknesses. Some won’t really know who their customer is, and others will have a good understanding of that but need help producing content.
Pick and Choose Your Clients
After a couple of years of working with the corporate equivalent of UFC cage fighters, I knew I wanted to choose the people who I worked with carefully. I decided that I would only work with people who I really liked and saw as a fit for the kind of work I wanted to be doing.
At the same time, instead of having one boss, I now had five! I had to negotiate the contracts with them, structure proposals, and manage my workload so I was able to deliver everything. I’ve never had to leave a project halfway through — but the pressure to deliver great work (your reputation is on the line after all), keeps you very sharp.
Being a freelancer definitely comes with its own set of disadvantages too. Some of these things can be managed — but others are simply part of what it is to be a freelancer.
Balancing additional requests is hard
Knowing when to charge is a real art. Sometimes you will want to price an additional request for work at a lower rate, knowing that that client will be worth more later on. You then have to balance that with the rest of your workload, to ensure that your other accounts stay healthy and profitable.
This can sometimes put a lot of strain on you, and be quite disruptive to your personal life.
Lots of additional business responsibilities
The business side definitely takes some getting used to. Negotiating the right amount for your goods and services at the start of a contract is difficult — especially when you have to predict how long a piece of work will take.
Get it wrong at that stage, and you are setting yourself up for misery down the line as your account becomes unprofitable.
I’ve found it a lot easier to get clients than I expected it to be as introductions have really worked well for me, but there are still occasional issues getting clients to pay on time.
When you’re a Full Time Employee, a lot of this stuff is handled for you, so you have the freedom to just get on with your work.
You always have to be on the look out for your next opportunity — and a lot of the time that means pressing the flesh and meeting people.
Inbound marketing is a myth for freelancers. I don’t have a whole marketing department who can produce sales content and ebooks for me, and am too focused on my existing clients to be blogging daily.
Inbound marketing also means that you have to embrace lots of tactics like email ‘newsletters’ that just feel kind of scummy for what I’m trying to create.
You’re always at work
I learned this when I went away to Thailand and Cambodia. I booked the holiday during a relatively quiet period for work — but by the time the holiday had come around, I’d picked up a couple of new clients.
I didn’t want to turn down the work, but it did mean that there were a few days in Bangkok and Chiang Mai when I simply didn’t leave the hotel room.
Luckily, my clients have been pretty reasonable in their requests. I haven’t had many of the 10PM emails — although it may just be that I am used to them by now.
Freelancing also makes it very hard to switch off from work. This is something that I’ve generally found difficult anyway, but with freelancing you definitely feel guilty or pressured if you haven’t moved a project forward in a couple of days. You start to wonder if you’re going to get an email about it from the client. Work becomes a more or less constant part of your life.
When you’re a freelancer, you can be fired at a month’s notice (or less), and be worrying about how you’re going to cover rent that month.
While you can mitigate that as I have by building up a cash buffer, getting fired is a real risk in the early days.
As a freelancer you don’t get sick pay, in-work benefits, or paid vacation time. And often you feel guilty about pricing them in.
Hard to grow your business
As a freelance consultant, growing your business is incredibly hard.
The best way I’ve found of doing it is to start doing higher margin work — clients are unlikely to pay great margins on blogging and social media work, but will pay more for customer journey work.
The downside of customer journey work is that you have to make the case to the client that it is a worthwhile use of their budget. It almost always is, but the client does not see an immediate return on their investment as they would with a blog post or a new website.
In the last year, I’ve had more fun than I have in the last five before that. I feel like the passion I have for web development and marketing is back.
For the two years before that, I’d been wondering if my heart was really in it, and “scanning the exits” for other things to do.
Since I got my freelance business off the ground, all that has changed. I feel like I’m working on my own thing.
I do feel a million times more in control than I was. If I want to travel the world (I’m going to be working out of Berlin for at least some of next year, holla), if I want to charge very little to develop a relationship, I can.
Freelancing is one of the best things that has happened to me, and I’m surprised at how well it is going.
Time will tell if this is for me in the long run. In a year’s time, I could be looking at new career options again. But I hope not.