Wednesday, March 7, 2018

what I've learned about freelancing after doing it for 13 (and a bit) years

As some people who know me may know, I never meant to be self-employed - 13 and a bit years ago, I relocated my family from Cambridge to the North to take up the offer of a dream job with a leading enterprise in the social sector, only for it to quickly disappear before we'd even started unpacking the moving boxes.

Although my new home was only a few streets away from the local Job Centre Plus, I was aware that I had a young family who were relying on me to support them, so did what I've done since I was 14 and needed a job - went out and started knocking on doors. And the first offers of work were on a contracted, rather than employed, basis, and so I began my accidental journey into the work of a freelance consultant...

And over 13 years on, I somehow find myself still here!

So what have I learnt from these 158 months? In no particular order - 

1) people are more supportive that you might think

As a 'professional', there's a sense that we have to present ourselves as perfect and flawless, yet we're all human underneath; admitting we're struggling or don't know, can go a long way to strengthen relationships with others (provided that we're able to do it constructively and appropriately...)

2) manners really do make a real difference

Remember what our parents taught us when we were kids. It works.

3) the only support you'll get is what you make and find for yourself

Despite fine rhetoric from government, self-employed and freelancers are actually pretty screwed over by government when it comes to our being able to access support if we're ill, or family circumstances change. But there's a wealth of peer encouragement and in-kind trades to be done to help get through those darker chapters of our journeys, if we're only brave enough to ask for the help.

4) you can create more change and impact that you think you can

I've been involved in changing company legislation, influencing national policy, and helping a community of local businesses recover their livelihoods after flooding: all without having an official mandate, or being asked to do so. As a freelancer we have a lot more flexibility and political freedom to speak out on things and get involved in activities that we might realise, we just have to realise that everyone else is also saying someone should do something, but no-one else seems able to do it...

5) despite acclaim, you'll always self-doubt, and there are more dark days than people let on

I've kept a business going for over 13 years which has not only been able to generate an income for me that meant I could support my family, but also support another business for its first years of trading, winning various awards, and generating lots of positive feedback on my linkedin profile obviously suggests I'm doing something right. Yet despite all of the above, I still doubt myself. And there remain days when the 'black dog' comes snuffling at your door (and stays for far longer that they're welcome).

6) you're only as good as what you know

As a freelancer, no-one else is interested in your CPD or in offering you appraisals. Over the years I've built my own CPD framework around myself that seemed logical and sensible, but national standard-setting bodies tell me it goes way beyond what most companies offer their employees. But if I'm trading on my knowledge and insight, it's surely only common sense I do all I can to try and make sure its current and relevant?

7) It's all on you - no-one owes you anything (and the world isn't fair)

Despite the existence of networks, membership bodies, facebook groups, and such like, it still falls to you to make sure things are done: coping with power cuts, internet outages, managing cash-flow when clients fall behind on payments they owe you, making sure you take time out for your mum's birthday... But hopefully you can take some small comfort in the knowledge that you're not the only one with this type of life.

8) You don't have to work by someone else's rules

If you're not careful, you fall into the trap of being 'more of the same as everyone else' - and if you do, then why did you bother becoming freelance in the first place? It's amazing the trouble that you don't get into by dancing on tables, wearing a fez, and even swearing, when working with clients or speaking at national conferences. And as for networking? Why limit yourself to someone else's event - my best networking was when I hit London for 48 hours with a travel pass (although I don't cycle to events with my shiny red helmet as much as I used to...)

9) Word of mouth takes longer to generate than you think it will (and won't always be what you want)

As freelancers and sole traders, we trade on our personal reputation, but that takes time to build up, get known about, and even longer to be trusted. Thinking back, I think it was about 6 years of hard hustle and 'schmmozing' before people started to pass my name around their networks unprompted. But despite ongoing efforts (including addressing a national conference with a duck under my arm), many sector bodies still erroneously refer to me as a leading social entrepreneur.

I'm sure that there's plenty more that good for rummaging out of my head, but hopefully these 9 points are a start?