It’s been around 6 months since I went solo, fully on my own, a freelancer for a living.
I left my full-time job a few months earlier (November 2017), and was lucky enough to have some guaranteed work to tide me over whilst building up my own business on the side. By February 2018 however, the stabilisers/armbands were off.
I’m still here, we still own our house, and most importantly, the children are clothed, fed and (usually) happy.
So now I’m my own boss, I thought it would be a good idea to take some time and reflect – a kind of 6-month review if you like. In the hope it might prove useful to others, rather than just a cathartic exercise, I’ve decided to turn it into a blog post!
Then I’ll be reviewing what I’ve done so far, what’s worked and what hasn’t, and where I think I can improve.
After that I’m going to talk about a plan for the next 6 months, and finally, I’ll be putting together a list of tips that could be useful if you’re thinking of jacking in your job and going it alone.
Get comfortable, this could be a long one!
The Pros of Being a Freelancer
Most of the things I hoped would be great about freelancing are just that, so if you consider any of the following really important, then maybe it’s right for you too!
Freedom and Flexibility
The clue is in the occupation, but yes, I do feel much more free:
- Free from sitting in traffic for an hour or two during a daily commute.
- Free to choose projects that I want to work on (you can’t always be too picky, but some offers are better to turn down).
- Free to choose my own working hours (which sometimes means less, and other times more).
- I have the flexibility to fit my work life around my wife’s (she runs her own photography business – check it out) and our family, instead of the other way round.
- Free to work where I want (although most often this is our spare bedroom converted into an office, not a trendy coffee shop or a beach). This freedom also extends to where we want to live in the future, with location being unrestricted.
B.Y.O.B. (no, nothing to do with bottles, beer or booze) – Be Your Own Boss
This ultimately means more control and responsibility, which could go either way. Personally, I think these are huge positives:
- You decide on your earning potential and a fair rate of pay for the work you do. You also get to keep the fruits of your labour.
- If you do great work as a freelancer, you quite rightly get the credit, recognition and satisfaction that comes with it.
- No more meetings about meetings. Or any other unnecessary jobs that you don’t really want to do.
- You need to make important decisions on a daily basis. You get to have input on every single aspect of the business.
- Control over who you work with, what you do and when. If you don’t like working with someone, then you don’t have to work with them.
- You can actually be more productive – working alone frees you from the distractions that being in an office might bring. I find I can achieve more in less time when I’m managing my own work.
Focus on What is Important
This is the big one for me, as I now know I can do all of the following:
- Walk my children to and from nursery or school, without having to work late to make up for it.
- Take a day off to spend time with my family, at little or no notice. Go to watch the egg and spoon race.
- Spend more time outside when the weather is nice. Take a break to go for a walk.
- Stop “living for the weekend”. Every day is just another day – sometimes I work, sometimes I don’t.
- My own happiness. I know I am more happy when I have variety, and new challenges. I also like to feel that I am constantly learning and improving – freelancing certainly fulfils these needs.
I guess you could say that most of these things fall under the work/life balance category, and I certainly feel that the scales are more balanced as a freelancer.
So far, so good, you might be thinking.
Time for the reality check!
The Cons of Being a Freelancer
Some common misconceptions are that you must work less, that you can do work on the cheap, or even worse, for free.
Unfortunately there are a few serious and less glamourous considerations when freelancing.
Apart from the obvious one, which is the uncertainty of not having a monthly payslip, there are other monetary matters to bear in mind:
- It’s trickier to borrow money. A lot of mortgage providers won’t look at you twice without 3 years of accounts – important if you plan to buy a house anytime soon.
- You won’t have a pension unless you take care of it yourself. Putting money aside for a rainy day is hard enough, but planning that far ahead can seem tricky when freelancing is such a day-to-day occupation.
- You won’t be able to take advantage of other benefits that a lot of full-time employees have (e.g. health, sick pay, paid holiday and so on).
- Cash flow. Be prepared for quiet periods, and late payment. It’s always a good idea to have a bit of a buffer if you can. Regular work for repeat clients on a retainer/contract is one way to gain a bit more security.
Loneliness, Distractions and Discipline
There are some unique aspects of office life you might miss:
- Camaraderie/banter – whatever you want to call it. You might spend some days talking to no-one other than delivery people (or yourself).
- It isn’t always easy to get a second opinion or different perspective when you work alone.
- You will swap distractions such as the phone, colleagues, tea & coffee for TV, social media, computer games and even more tea & coffee.
- Personally I’ve found I snack less now I’m working mainly at home, although I know a lot of other freelancers beg to differ. Whether it is biscuits or Facebook, self-discipline is definitely more important when you are your own boss!
You Have to Wear a Lot of Hats
In the early days it is unlikely that you will outsource much. This means you need to be Sales, Marketing, HR, IT, Purchasing, Accounts, Admin and Reception rolled into one.
This is a bigger challenge than you might think:
- When your PC breaks, another ready made replacement is not going to arrive in a matter of minutes. You either have to pay someone or fix it yourself.
- Staying positive is important. As is staying focused. No-one else is going to pick up the slack if you are having a bad day.
- Structure and organisation are your own responsibility. You need to find ways to make sure invoices get out on time; you manage your working hours effectively; and you are always prepared for the next sales enquiry.
- You have to plan ahead. What is the long-term strategy to win the kind of work you want to do? Once this job finishes, where is the next one coming from?
Being prepared for the downsides of freelancing is important. Overall, I feel that the pros far outweigh the cons, and later on I’ll go through a few tips that might help in riding through the tough periods.
Before that however, it’s time to pass judgement on the first 6 months…
TOG – 6 Month Digital Marketing Review
Ok, so this isn’t a matter of life or death (and I’m not a Gladiator), but it’s important to take a step back and look at some key areas of my business – measure progress and assess my efforts so far.
When you are focused on doing work for clients it’s easy to forget about dedicating time to your own marketing strategy.
I mean I’ve got to practice what I preach haven’t I?
I’ll be giving a mark out of 10 in each category, noting what I’d like to improve and how I might do it.
Website Design & Content
One of the first things any new freelancer will be considering is a website. Along with networking and referral, your website could be one of your main sources for new clients.
As a freelancer, this website is naturally all about you, and it can be quite a personal process.
You could either pay someone else to do it, or have a go yourself. With reasonable experience in website projects and content management, I decided on the latter.
I always knew I would write the copy and content, but Divi has completely changed my views on how easy it is to create a fully functioning, and good looking website.
WordPress just made sense because of all the plugins available, optimisation, ease of use, and of course because I knew I wanted to make my blog a central part of the website.
It’s been a steady process of adding and tweaking content, as well as images, but I’d certainly like to keep improving it over the next few months.
Of course, none of this means anything if people aren’t actually visiting my site, but I’ll address that part next!
I’d like to revisit the branding and overall look/feel of my site at some point in the near future. I used a home made logo and everything else followed.
It would also be great to get some more images of me doing my work, and with clients – these would replace some stock images and make it a bit more personal.
I’m largely happy with the content but would like to strengthen the CTAs and also keep adding new case studies and references as I go along.
I definitely want to add some video content, and although this is not something I have a problem doing for clients, I’m perhaps less confident about doing my own!
Finally, although I’ve kept up a pretty reasonable rate of blogging, I think I could do better and aim for one new post per week.
SEO, Website Traffic & Lead Generation
When I started out, I knew that the long-term strategy was to generate inbound sales enquiries via my website.
Initially the traffic peaked due to interest from my existing contacts and professional network, so the inevitable dip that followed was slightly disheartening.
Using a combination of SEO techniques, social media and content, I’ve since managed to drive a steady increase in website traffic.
My ranking for keywords and terms I identified during initial research has steadily improved. The key to this has been getting the SEO basics right, and building upon it with a steady flow of new content.
Just as a website is no good without traffic, traffic is no good without enquiries and conversions. The great news is, I’ve started to see completely organic enquiries coming through, and have the chance to turn these into clients.
My initial focus has been on local SEO. I’d like to make some inroads with more competitive keywords on a non location specific level, but I know that there is work out there for me, and for small businesses especially, working with someone local still counts.
I’m also a strong believer in inbound marketing techniques, and although the results have taken some time to come, early signs are good.
However, I know that a lot of visitors to my website are not taking any action. I want a more clearly defined sales process, with content for all stages, from visitor – prospect – customer. I would also like to increase the number of visitors that are subscribing to my mailing list.
I need to spend more time analysing the available data to spot trends and get insights on visitor behaviour. I can then use these insights to improve conversion rates.
If I’m being completely honest, I don’t love social media. I should also clarify that this is from a personal point of view, rather than a professional one!
I think it’s because I’m naturally much more sociable and confident in person, or on the phone, than with strangers on the internet.
Of all the social media platforms I use (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter & Instagram), Twitter is the one that has surprised me the most. Although littered with trolls, bots and annoying automated messages, there are also some genuinely nice people that want to engage and share experiences.
Facebook has been quite hit and miss, and I suspect will continue to be so, until I start spending more time and money advertising or boosting posts.
LinkedIn is better than Facebook in terms of engagement, suits the nature of my business, and target audience. It provides a good way to keep in touch with people and opportunities within my existing professional network, as well as expanding on it.
I’m conscious that using social media as a freelancer is different to managing a full-on company account, as I’ve done in the past. I predominantly see it as a means of distributing content, and driving website traffic. From this point of view, it’s doing the job.
Although I’ve had engagement, likes, shares and followers on all these networks, I think to start getting more out of social media I need to do two things:
1. Engage more – within groups, on other people’s posts etc.
2. Come up with a more structured plan for using it.
Having said that, I’m also aware that social media can be a huge distraction, so business use definitely needs to be separate from personal use (as much as is possible when you are your business)!
Another approach might be to focus on one or two social media platforms, rather than trying to spread myself too thinly across four of them.
Conclusion – the next 6 Months
I’ve only looked at digital marketing here, because that was always going to be my focus during the initial 6-12 months. I know that with not a penny invested – just my time and effort, it’s possible to start generating leads and growing my client base.
Whilst work through my existing network provided a foundation, by continuing what I’ve started with my online presence, I can maintain an increase in web traffic month by month. I can then focus on turning these visitors into clients.
Although my intention was never to get too busy too quickly (it’s also about lifestyle and balance don’t forget), it may be that the time comes when I think about reinvesting some of the money I earn and turning TOG Marketing into something more…
Top 10 Tips for Freelancers
Finally, in case you are someone that has just started freelancing, or are seriously considering it, here are 10 tips based on my experiences so far:
1. Sort out your equipment and working space
Sometimes you might want to work on the sofa or in bed, but don’t make that a habit. Whether it’s a study, a converted shed/garage or a kitchen table, you need a clean and tidy workspace free of as many distractions as possible.
Make sure you get a proper chair – back pain isn’t cool.
I made do with an old laptop for the first few months. With hindsight this was a mistake, as I’ve now got a really good one and it saves me a lot of time and hassle.
Spending money at the start might seem risky but these things are important.
2. Know what you are worth and what you want to charge
There will undoubtedly be people out there offering to do what you do for a fraction of the cost. Don’t undersell yourself. If you aren’t going to earn at least as much as you were in employment, it probably won’t last too long.
Obviously don’t price yourself out of the market, but remember what I said above about holiday/sick pay; pensions and so on. You’ll probably be tempted to undercharge to begin with, but remember, once you set your price, it’s much harder to put it up!
Also figure out your pricing structure. I prefer by project, but some people will ask per hour/day or even word for copywriting.
3. Get out of the office, or at least speak to people
Sometimes it’s tempting to work on a project for hours on end, day after day. If you don’t get out in the fresh air or speak to other people for a while, it can be lonely, or even worse, make you go a little bit crazy.
Even a quick stroll to the shops helps. Perhaps arrange a catch up with a friend or a client? Make time for breaks, speak to other humans; because these things help with ideas, feedback and sanity.
4. Work when you are productive, don’t when you aren’t
One of the huge advantages of working for yourself is that you can usually start or stop working at any time. If you are staring at a screen, stuck for ideas, or generally not in the mood – that’s fine. Go and do something else. No need to procrastinate, distract someone else, or pretend you are working until 5pm comes around.
If you are a morning person, get up early and maybe even finish early. If you aren’t, try doing a bit of work in the evening instead.
5. Be prepared for quiet periods
The nature of freelancing means that sometimes you will be very busy, and others you might be…well, twiddling your thumbs.
Don’t get disheartened if the work dries up, but be prepared for it. Keep a bit of money aside so you can ride it out, or use the time to work on your own business instead of for clients.
I had what I thought was a slack few weeks this summer (watching a lot of the World Cup and thinking it was coming home), and then suddenly had an influx of leads and new work. I’ve worked really hard other months and nothing came of it.
6. Time management and structure
This works alongside the one about productivity. You have to be organised when you are your own boss, otherwise you can end up splitting yourself off in too many directions.
The worst problem is avoiding the more difficult tasks to complete the other 99 mundane ones on your list. If you do the difficult one first, the other 99 will be a lot more satisfying.
I guess it depends what kind of person you are, but now more than ever, time is money.
7. Get a website sorted and make time for your business
Deciding how much time to spend marketing yourself versus doing work for clients is a tricky one. Which came first, the marketing or the client?
If you can get all of your work from referrals and networking, that’s amazing, but for most of us, a professional looking website is a must for generating new work.
There’s also no point saying you can do blogging for other people if you don’t regularly blog yourself. Make time for you.
8. Get the boring stuff right
If you don’t create yourself little systems for CRM, invoicing, purchasing and so on (these can just be spreadsheets to begin with), life will get a lot more difficult later on.
You need to know who owes you money and when it’s due, who you owe money to and when it’s due, and what expenses you are going to claim when it comes to tax return time.
Being organised with this stuff from the start saves you a headache. Think about backups too – cloud and physical. Losing work is tough…
9. Make the most of free stuff
A while back I wrote a blog post about free tools for digital marketers. There are loads out there but these are some that I’ve found really useful.
10. Keep learning
Make time to read every day.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
You could insert watch or listen, instead of read, depending on preference, but for me it’s reading. Follow experts and people of interest in any field that is useful to your business.
You will keep up to date with what is new, find inspiration and improve what you do.
Do you have any thoughts about freelancing – what you love and what you hate? Any other tips I’ve missed? What would you do to improve your freelancing business?
Let me know below!