What I’ve learned in 2 years freelancing

Two years ago today I officially finished my job and flopped into the life of a freelance animator and designer, without much of an idea of what I was doing. Here’s a few things I’ve learned in that time.

Freelancing is hard

When I left my job, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was lucky to have a large redundancy payout to leave on, otherwise I’m really not sure I would have made it at all. I was also lucky to have access to a great support system from the local council who ran free introductory courses for anyone wanting to start a business. These gave me a good outline of what I’d need to do to get set up, all the legal and financial aspects, as well as some advice on getting customers and building the business. Admittedly I did little in the way of creating a business plan and that was definitely a mistake. I really learned what I was doing as I went, which was fine, but I made a lot of mistakes along the way that could have been avoided with some proper planning.

It’s about managing yourself as much as managing a business

One of the main points that I think turns a lot of people away from going freelance is that you might go from being a worker, to being a worker, manager, HR administrator, lawyer, marketer, bookkeeper, and just about everything else. And while yes, managing all of these things together is a challenge, I honestly found managing myself much harder. With no commute, no office hours and nobody watching over my shoulder, I was very slow to start. For the first year I didn’t even have an alarm clock, which was incredibly liberating, but gradually my natural early mornings slipped later and later. I told myself that I would live by my own normal hours, but that quickly turned into procrastinating, working from my bed, and generally forgetting what it’s like to have any sort of work pressures.

Of course, that was until my redundancy pay started to dry up. A little (read “just short of a year long”) break from full time work was nice, but it was time to learn how to put the hours in again. Learning to be self disciplined and getting my focus back has probably been the hardest part of becoming freelance.

Yes, the flexibility is nice, and I still insist on having as much flexibility as possible in terms of my working hours and days, but without some kind of structure that line between work and home life blurs. You start to feel guilty whenever you do anything other than that work that you’ve put off until tomorrow, and the stress that comes with that is worse than the stress of just pushing through and doing the work straight away.

I find it helps to plan my day the night before and set myself times for different tasks. I won’t always stick to it, but some structure, and the ability to tick tasks off as I do them can go a long way.

Freelancing can be a lonely life…

When you don’t need to leave for work every day, you quickly realise how easy it is to go days without speaking to another person. At the start I could go days without even leaving the house! That got even worse after I moved to a new city where I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t even socialising, and became so used to being at home that I became agoraphobic, to the point where I was almost housebound. The impact that self employment had on my mental health is undeniable.

Once my work started picking up (and after a bout of therapy) I started finding new places to work; co-working spaces, libraries, anywhere that I could plug a laptop in. Just being out of the house has been beneficial to my health, and to my work.

…but being good with people is hugely important.

While it’s possible to create a business from the comfort of your sofa and run it entirely without ever speaking to another person directly, a lot of freelancing really depends on your ability to engage with others and build a network. I would definitely say that most of the work I get now comes from connections I’ve made in person, through networking events or meet ups. And it’s not just about being able to present yourself professionally. This matters of course, but it’s also important that you’re the friendly, sociable person that people want to work with. When you make actual connections with people beyond doing the work required, they remember you. To put it another way, it’s not so much about who you know, as who knows you.

It’s not just about getting work either, but being able to work with your client as the project runs. If you’ve worked in a team environment before, it might be that you haven’t had to explain your process in the same way as you do to a client who has no idea about your industry or method. It can be difficult finding that delicate balance between being clear, and being patronising.

And then there’s having the confidence to deal with a client when things go wrong. There have been times when I’ve had to chase invoices, or let a client know when I’ve run into a problem that’s meant a project overruns. That’s never a nice experience, but I’ve had to learn how to face up to it, admit when I’m wrong, and relieve the situation without losing the client.

Freelancing is unpredictable

Freelance jobs are like busses; you wait for ever and then two come at once. I’ve had entire months with no work, only to be having to push projects back or turn clients down because I have too much on the next month. No matter how much effort you put into searching for work, nothing is guaranteed, especially at the start. Of course, as time has passed I’ve made more connections, which has meant more streams for work to come in through, but there’s still times when I’m not sure if I’ll pay my rent next month. I’m pretty terrible at managing my finances (blame it on living in one of the most expensive cities in the country) and that is definitely not a good base to start freelancing on.

The best advice I’ve had is to make sure you’re looking for work when you have it, rather than waiting for it to dry up. Also, the more you can do to encourage clients to come back, the better.

I wouldn’t change it for anything

The last two years have been the most challenging, terrifying, unpredictable years of my life. There have been times when I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to carry on much longer, my mental health has suffered severely, and the stress that has come with freelancing has at times been unbearable. But against it all, the freedom, flexibility and variety that my life now has outweighs the security and simplicity that comes with full time employment. No doubt, the temptation to go back has been there (and the offer has even been on the table), but I’m far too deep into this lifestyle now to turn it around.

So here’s to the last two years, and to the many more ahead.

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1 Comment

  • Nick Stebb says:

    That’s cool that you’ve come through the growing pains and are living the benefits. It’s something I am working towards by retraining in software developments. Helpful tips, thanks Steve!

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