I was recently invited to speak to BA students at BCU about enterprise – and specifically, how I managed to forge a freelance career for myself.
Having retrained (I used to be a commercial radio journalist) I think there are 5 key areas I focused on to make it
People have to be the main focus of your freelancer career – you work alone so you have to generate all your work yourself.
Social media is a brilliant tool for finding new contacts and maintaining those relationships. I keep an active Twitter account (3 actually, but that’s for another time). I make sure I regularly share interesting links AND reply to people, so my account isn’t just broadcasting. I certainly don’t talk about my own work all the time, although I will tweet when I have a success (i.e. a piece of work doing well in an awards) or about things I am working on. I have regular conversations online and try to be engaging.
However, it’s very easy to rely on social media and never leave the house. As a freelancer you need to be getting out to see people. Talk to people in your field, and look for meetups and groups you can go along to. It’s great to have someone else to talk to, especially as you’re probably on your own all day.
However, don’t fall into the trap of *only* hanging out with people in your field – remember, they’re not likely to employ you (unless you can secure sub-contract work from them). Who are your potential clients? Where do they hang out? If you offer a valid service to different business sectors, offer to talk about your services to them – but don’t just promote yourself, promote the general benefits to them. You’ll be amazed how much work will come your way.
I am eternally grateful to Andy Mabbett (aka @pigsonthewing) for inviting me along to speak at Brewcamp over a year ago. Brewcamp is a local Government comms meetup, where very forward thinking people look for new ways to help councils. I was initially sceptical of the benefits, but that 20 minute talk has led to a host of work and a real reputation in this sector! Thanks Andy!
There is a very active campaign right now to protect interns and young people from exploitation in the work place. However, I’ve always believed that there is too much focus on money. I always recommend students get job to pay the bills (bar work, waitressing etc) and spend their free time working for little/no pay in the area in which they want to work in the future.
So, forget, “don’t work for free” – it’s all about “don’t work for nothing”.
Working for a business can increase your employability no-end by
- giving your actual experience
- teaching you new skills
- meeting new people
- boosting your reputation
A year ago I decided I needed to learn a little more about how design agencies work – I was doing more and more design work but with no formal arts training I was lacking those practical skills. I spotted an intern opportunity at a local branding agency, Orb, who were looking for a copywriter one day a week. I spoke to them, explained my situation and they agreed to let me work as a copywriter whilst sitting with the designers to see how they did things!
I did this for 2 months before my own work took off and I had to move on, but I learnt a huge amount about how agencies work.
You have to be flexible. This is a useful skill to have, wherever you work – especially as offices are now merging jobs and roles as they cut back on staff. if you’re working for yourself you have to do everything.
When I first left BCU I used my social media and blogging work to pay the bills whilst I worked to build up my other line of work – this was not only financial necessity, but kept me sane! You’ll get more work if you’re already working. I was also DJing regularly at the Actress and Bishop in Birmingham.
It was being invited by Paul Bradshaw to help teach at his Online Journalism module at BCU that opened up a new area. It’s not only nice to get out of the house but learning now to present and teach has give me a new set of skills, and give me another reason to keep up to date with the industry. This led to more teaching work from Dave Harte (on his MA Social Media course).
If you’d asked me 3 years ago if I wanted to teach, I would have said no, but embracing this has give me more opportunity – corporate training is now a big part of what I do and wouldn’t have been possible without my experience teaching at BCU.
If opportunities present themselves, think “how will this help?”. Always be open to doing new things but do watch out for the Jack-Of-All-Trades pitfall – when you have too many areas of interest, no-one really knows what you do and you’re not considered an expert in anything.
I’m at the stage now where I know I’m going to need to add some new skills to my repertoire, because the industry is changing and clients want new things. For example, I’ve had a spate of clients recently asking for infographics that they can modify themselves, with others asking for animation. In order to keep my clients and stay on top of my game I will have to learn new skills. Luckily there are lots of resources online for training (Youtube is a goldmine) but I am also looking into formal training. The hardest part is finding the time to do it.
Make sure you’re up to date with changes in your industry – there is no excuse with social media and blogs – follow the right people, read the right articles and stay one step ahead. I use an RSS reader to keep an eye on all the major blogs and websites in my field and I always keep an eye on Twitter and Linkedin.
You will underestimate how hard you’re going to have to work – trust me. Be prepared to say goodbye to your evenings and weekends at times. When you’re starting out you’d be foolish to turn any work down – say yes and then work out how to get it all done. If that means working round the clock, or calling on friends to help, then so be it!
Do remember to pace yourself. There will be days when you find yourself with nothing to do. You have 2 choices here, depending on your situation.
If you have a lot of work on, but are waiting on a client, for example, so can’t do anything – enjoy the day off. You never know when your next one is going to be so enjoy it. I’ve been known to have a Saturday on a Wednesday, do my big shop, go to the cinema, meet friends for lunch. Enjoy it!
If you’re not that busy, a free day is a great opportunity to boost your exposure – write a blog post, get involved in some discussions online, go and sit in a coffee shop and make sure tell your contacts where you are through social media. It’s amazing how many people will swing by and see you – and who knows, it might lead to some work!
Make sure you use your time smartly – I am not ashamed to say I have a cleaner. I also have someone to chase my invoices for me, because I was spending a lot of time emailing and calling clients, and I was really, really bad at it. Now I employ the virtual assistant company Lulaberry to do this for me! I also employ a proofreader, the brilliant Editorialgirl as this means my work is spotless, and again frees up time for me to focus on the more creative side of things.