Career Woman

What I’ve learned from 5 years of freelancing

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This year is my 5-year anniversary of leaving a great full-time job to become my own boss and set up my own consultancy: Refresh Marketing.

I never imagined that I would run my own company, but family life dictated that something needed to change. The flexibility that self-employment offered was perfect. At the same time, I was looking forward to working on projects that interested me, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

So now, 5 years on I can reflect on what I would tell myself (or anyone else) just starting out on their self-employed journey.

Why freelance or consultancy work?

Flexibility was key for me, but others are pushed into freelance work by a change of circumstance. Whatever the reason, the quantity of people working for themselves is on the increase. IPSE reports that since 2009 the freelance economy in the UK has grown by 25% to nearly 5 million freelancers generating an estimated £119 billion a year.

The growth of freelance work reflects the portfolio careers that many UK professionals have these days. Some freelance alongside paid employment to boost their earning power, whilst for others it is their main income source.

The first project is the hardest to find

For lots of freelancers the first project is the hardest one to find, and it can take a while before prospective clients are converted into customers. If you are able to have your first gig lined up before you leave employment then you are off to a great start.

I was extremely lucky in that my employer at the time also became my first client. This allowed me to start delivering my first project straight away with people that I knew in an industry sector that I was familiar with. I don’t think that I realised how fortunate I was at the time.

Your network is everything

Trust is a huge issue in the freelance and contracting world – you are asking a client to take a leap of faith in working with you as an unknown entity. People who know you and your strengths already have that box ticked.

For me, chasing cold leads was a waste of time. Very few converted into paid work. Having worked at a variety of different companies over the years I had a large network of past colleagues, and I didn’t initially realise just how important that network was. Almost exclusively my projects have come via that network – either direct from people I used to work with, or via recommendation from one of them.

I now make sure that I am continually growing my network by meeting new people, connecting with them and keeping in touch. LinkedIn is my go-to tool.

You don’t have to say yes to every job

In the early days I was keen not to turn work down – why would I when there were bills to be paid? I picked up projects from all sorts of companies and on occasion I started to regret what I’d taken on. I had non-paying clients, projects that took up more time than the budget allowed for, and some that became a task to complete rather than a joy to work on. I see lots of other early-career freelancers struggling with less-than-ideal clients due to their hunger for work.

The benefit of a few years of experience means that it becomes easier to spot the speculative enquiries that either don’t have budget, whose expectations are unrealistic or who aren’t a good match for my business.

A clear scope for the project, caution over payment terms for new clients, and good vetting of the client will definitely pay dividends. If you don’t want your freelance work to become more hassle than it’s worth make sure you consider these factors before you accept a job.

Your experience is valid and valuable

Imposter Syndrome is a reality in the freelance market, the feeling of not being good enough or not as good as others. It’s something that many contractors struggle with.

In my field of marketing is easy to feel overwhelmed by the wealth of people out there that seem to know a lot more about everything than you do. Every day I get served adverts by people promising million-dollar incomes from consulting, and read blog posts by people claiming to have cracked the code to instant business growth.

I now take all their bravado with a pinch of salt. I still read a lot of articles and blogs to keep my knowledge up to date but I am not intimidated by the sense that they know more than me anymore. I value my own skills and experience and know that my clients do too. You should too.

People do business with people

This one’s not so much of a revelation, as it was always something I knew to be true, but it is one of the important insights I would want to share with my younger self. We’ve all experienced the professional who is excellent at the technical aspects of their job but lacks people skills, or the team member who is anything but a team player. In the freelance world, they wouldn’t be invited back for a second project.

I have found that personal skills and developing good relationships with clients is incredibly important. Sure, they want my professional input to their project, but they also want to work with someone they get on with, someone who feels like they are part of the team. Being accommodating, going the extra mile and providing service with a smile are all essential in establishing good relationships with clients and getting repeat business.

So, 5 years down the line of self-employment I wouldn’t say I have found a winning formula that will work for every freelancer but I have found an approach to business that works well for me. What advice would you share with your younger self?

About Roisin Kirby

Roisin Kirby is owner and senior consultant at Refresh Marketing a consultancy specialising in education and public sector marketing. Mum, dog owner and cake eater. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter .

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