I first became a freelancer when I was 30. After graduating with a languages degree in 1999, I had spent the rest of my twenties working for various companies and charities in Liverpool. It was a considered career move, something I wanted to do and I took my time to be ready to take the leap.
At the time, it felt really scary, almost reckless. With hindsight, I can see that it was the best time to go for it. My husband had just been employed by a big, global company, which gave us at least one secure income. We didn’t have any children, so I could pour my all into the work and my availability to clients was 24/7. Having worked in Liverpool for almost a decade, I had contacts to approach for possible work.
It was a great experience for me. To begin with, I had lots of little pieces of work. A fundraising job from an old employer, book keeping for a friend’s business, a monthly event to manage through another friend and I even baked chocolate slices for a mate’s cafe. I’d lived in the city for 10 years, so the pool felt small to me and I could get my name out relatively easy.
Whilst I always had work, it wasn’t easy and there were times when panic set in because work would often come in at the 11th hour.
Something I found difficult at the beginning was knowing how to charge myself out. When you’re building a reputation, your daily rate needs to be really competitive. If your clients are friends, essentially supporting you to work for yourself, you want to return the favour with a good rate. Whether it was lack of confidence or part of a growth strategy, I pitched myself low. Ultimately it paid off, because I was recommended, I built my reputation and a few years down the line, I was putting my rate up and the work was still coming in.
I’m sure the challenges I faced are common to most people who go freelance:
- Unless you have one major client who has you on a retainer, the work isn’t guaranteed so it can feel pretty daunting when you are close to finishing one job and there isn’t another secured.
- To avoid work drying up, you are always on the look out for work and if you can’t afford to be out of work then you can’t be picky. This leads to work that isn’t exactly what you want to do or who you want to be working with.
- When you are a one-man/woman-show juggling a few clients at a time, it can get pretty hectic. Your client isn’t going to want to hear you can’t make a meeting because you are with another client. It’s not possible to put every customer first all the time, but you can give them the impression you are!
- Similar to the previous point, clients don’t want to know that you are on holiday either. They have engaged a freelancer so they don’t have to worry about sick pay or holidays. We would book holidays around my work. I remember sitting in the only cafe that had WiFi in Kassiopi, Corfu, in my bikini and emailing a client so they didn’t realise I was out of the country. I always took work with me on holidays, as little as possible, but I never completely stopped.
- The bigger the client, often the slower the payment. I worked on 14 day payments, and it was often the little charities and fellow freelancers that would pay me within a week of receiving the invoice. Whereas an organisation like a university could take over a month. It’s not to do with available funds, it’s to do with how many people you have to go through to get to the person who actually pays you.
In 2007 and 2008, I worked on a really big project for an events company who were commissioned to organise one of the highlight events for Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year. For me, it was the best freelance work I had had to date. I loved the people who were leading the team, I learnt so much in that time and grew in confidence. Plus, I had a key role so I was working a lot of hours, giving me a steady income. We all worked our butts off and it worked out to be a huge success, so it was an incredibly positive project for all involved. I then went onto work with the same company again on a couple of other events in Liverpool and Manchester. However, it was in 2009 that the first big challenge to my freelance work came along…I got pregnant. We had been trying for years and had done IVF, so it was the most wonderful thing, and yet it did mean an end to the work I was doing at that time.
The fantastic thing about being freelance is that I could then pick work that would suit my new priorities. Quite soon after my first baby was born, I picked up some book keeping work for a friends’ business, working one day a week. I loved being in a team again and doing something that took me out of the all consuming, full-time work of a new mum. I got pregnant again and before that baby’s first birthday, we had moved to New Zealand. Second major challenge to freelance work.
New Zealand is a great place to be freelance because they’re very positive and open to people who have ideas and are willing to work hard. I was involved in mostly post-earthquake events and projects in Christchurch. It was incredibly hard at times with two pre-school children, especially when some weeks I was working 70 hours. And yet, I see how much my confidence grew and I’m so proud of what I achieved.
This brings me to the present. I now face my third big challenge to freelance work. The challenge has many elements to it:
- I’ve returned to a part of the UK where I have no work contacts
- I live in a village
- The type of work I would like to pursue has only been in my job title for one year (although I have been doing it as part of all my other roles for 20 years)
- I don’t want to work full time
- Due to being a mum of two young children, flexible hours is a requirement
Two months in, and I realise how much easier it was to start freelancing 11 years ago. Thankfully, I’ve been doing this long enough now to know that success comes from perseverance. All it takes is for one piece to come in and you’re on your way. Still I look back at my 30 year old self and I have to say, I’m a little jealous.