Last night I was watching the American Office - one of my all-time favourite comedies. In this particular episode, Dundler Mifflin Paper Company’s long-time branch manager Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) becomes very upset with the overbearing new senior manager, Charles Miner (played by Idris Elba). In a flurry of rage, he drives to Dundler Mifflin HQ in New York and tells his superior, David Wallace that he quits. He returns to the office elated and full of pride, ready to tell his story of glory to the rest of the team. He’s given two fingers to the establishment and he feels bloody great.
But later that day Michael is caught trying to steal client contacts in order to set up a rival paper company. He’s escorted out of the building by security, after 15 years of devoted service. It’s a total fall from grace that leaves him unemployed quicker than he anticipated. The next day Michael is at home looking dishevelled, dressed in a robe, making piles of French toast and unravelling at the seams. He admits to Pam, his long-suffering friend and assistant, that he may have been impulsive and made a mistake. He doesn’t have a plan for his new business venture.
I’ve watched this episode quite a few times over the years and it always reminds me of how I felt before going freelance. On the really bad days when my manager or someone in my team was causing me stress, I’d fantasise about quitting on the spot. My team would clap and cheer, nodding their heads in approval, only wishing they could be so brave.
But I also really wanted a baby and knew I really had to think it through. On the other hand, there was zero flexibility in my full-time job, way too much stress and quite frankly, not enough money. If I was going to do it, there was no better time like the present.
So, like Michael, I quit. My exit wasn’t as dramatic as his but I feared the failure just as strongly. It had taken me a good six months to pluck up the courage but this gave me the opportunity to put some vital preparations in place - steps that I believe were integral to me hitting the ground running.
In the current pandemic, however, you may be turning to freelance through no choice of your own. You might be on furlough or have been made redundant while on maternity or paternity leave, or perhaps the school closures have left you no choice but to drop out of the full-time workforce. You need to think of an alternative way of working - and fast.
The truth is, no matter your circumstances it always feels terrifying going freelance. But, with some considered planning (even if it’s last minute) you can take control and make it work without you falling into panic mode, like our friend Michael.
PREPARING TO GO FREELANCE
1.Do your research and find out what you should be charging
I hired a lot of freelancers in my previous job as a managing editor, so I knew what I could charge for a day rate as a senior copywriter and editor. This helped a lot as I knew how best to pitch myself and what I could expect to earn. If you aren’t sure of the going rate for your services, there are lots of great resources on the web such as this article on Medium.
You can also find industry related rates with a little digging. If you’re a writer and journalist, this one from Journo Resources shows you how much most publications pay which is often a good indicator of what it’s like across the board. You should also try to speak to other freelancers and contractors in your field and ask them if they can give you an idea of average rates. You’ll then need to work out how many jobs or bookings you’re going to need to survive and the day rate or fee that will be both profitable and competitive. This will really help when it comes to negotiating fees too.
2.Let people in your network know of your plans
While freelancing is ideal for introverts and those who value their own space, it also helps if you’re quite sociable and good at making lasting relationships. One of the main lessons I learned when I first when freelance was that I couldn’t have done it on my own. I started meeting ex-colleagues, recruiters and friends of friends for coffees and drinks to let them know of my plans. And while it sounds hard work, I was pleasantly surprised at just how encouraging many people were and it did translate into work. The current pandemic may not allow for those face-to-face meetings, but you can still get the ball rolling with Zoom meetings, emails and messages. Let as many people know about your new venture and talk about it on social media too. LinkedIn and Twitter are great places to blow your own trumpet and pick up work.
3.Contact agencies for bread-and-butter work
Not every job you get as a freelancer will be your dream gig but a bit of steady work will take away a lot of stress. A month before I handed in my notice, I contacted a creative agency that had lots of freelance writers and editors on their books (as well as other creatives such as graphic designers, UX designers and coders). And, after some persistence from me, I managed to get a short-term contract for three days a week as a copywriter at a leading beauty brand. This short-term contract actually turned into a long one and, four years later, I still work for them on an ad-hoc basis.
These kinds of roles are important as they’ll hopefully provide regular work, and the agencies that manage them often pay weekly. To get started, you’ll need to set up a good portfolio and brush up your CV. If you’re just starting out, even a few examples of work will do, but you’ll need something that the recruiter can send off to clients. (I’ll go into more detail on portfolios in a later post). The pandemic has obviously led to many companies cutting their budgets for regular contracting gigs, but they are still out there. If you’re a writer, brilliant newsletters such as Sian Meades’ Freelance Writing Jobs let you know who is hiring and commissioning each week. If writing isn’t your gig, start adding people in your field on Twitter and LinkedIn and follow relevant groups and hashtags. Many opportunities are often found this way.
4.Start a rainy day fund
The best possible way to start your freelance career is with some money in the bank. I planned for worse-case scenario and made sure I had two months of wages saved before I handed in my notice. I managed to do this through the freelance commissions I was working on while still in a full-time job, and this proved to be the catalyst that gave me the confidence to actually go for it. Having savings of some sort will also stop you from panicking if work is slow at first, and making rookie mistakes like cutting your day rate unnecessarily or taking work you’re overqualified for. But also try to think positively. I never needed my rainy day fund and it remained in my account as a buffer until i went on maternity leave two years later.
As a freelancer, you are your own marketing and PR team and your social accounts are a great way of reflecting the brand image you want to convey. As a parent, it can be tempting to fill your feeds full of cute baby pics, but you also want your followers to see you as a professional too. You might want to consider creating separate accounts for personal and professional work depending on your industry or just keep it balanced. My Instagram account is a blend of my work and family life as it works for the kind of lifestyle writing that I do. You can also start to follow new clients on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Not only is it a nice way to forge relationships with them but it will also keep you in the forefront of their mind next time they’re looking for a freelancer.
6.Diversify, diversify, diversify
Ok, so you may have gone freelance to focus on your one-true passion BUT you also need to keep reminding yourself that you are a business. Of course you should make your main passion and skill the centre of your freelance business, but do you have any other skills that you could also monetise on the side? My income comes solely from writing but I tap into different forms of it to widen my net. This includes copywriting, journalism, commercial writing, and website content for smaller independent businesses.
Opening myself up in this way, means that I have several regular revenue streams - some of which pay really well, but I may not shout about on Instagram. Lots of freelancers work in this way and there’s no shame in taking the money jobs alongside the passion projects or monetising a secondary skill that you can do well such as SEO, social strategy or illustration. Emma Gannon talks about it brilliantly in her book and podcast The Multi-Hyphen Method if you want further inspiration.
If things are very tough for you at the moment and you need more urgent legal advice, Pregnant Then Screwed has a helpline that you can call from Monday to Friday between 9am and 6pm. Additionally Mother Pukka has tons of advice on her website about everything from your legal rights, to how to ask for flexibility from an employer. In need of good news? This article from Forbes predicts a coming boom for freelancers and a prosperous future.
According to the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, 54,000 women are pushed out of their jobs each year due to pregnancy and maternity leave, and 44% of mums say they earn less after having children. This has led, naturally, to more and more women going freelance in order to take back control of their careers.
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