Its nearly a year since I made the decision to quit my full-time secure job as a senior designer at an agency to pursue a freelance career as a filmmaker, photographer & content creator and whilst I’m incredibly proud of how my first year has gone, it’s definitely had its ups and downs.
Here’s # things Ive discovered along the way that would have been helpful when I started. The caveat to the points I’ll share is that I really hope you find them helpful but these tips are all based only on my personal experience and I am still fairly new to this, so if you are thinking of making the leap into freelance this year make sure you are checking out other professional freelancers views and not just taking my advice as absolute fact.
So without further ado, lets get into the tips
Before you leap – Build a financial safety net (or have work lined up)
This tip probably isn’t new to you as I came across it over and over again whilst thinking about going freelance. Im not sure who originally came up with the concept but the theory goes “before you quit your job either have three months wages saved up as a runway or have three months of work already lined up for when you take the leap, OR in a perfect world, have both in place.
Whilst this was a helpful concept to consider when thinking about going freelance, I also think that it possibly fuelled my fear of taking the leap. How can I line up 3 months of work when Im already busy with a full time job? How can I save if I already have financial commitments?
My personal circumstances meant I was fortunate to have some savings but I still only had about 2 months of “runway” when I took the leap.
I definitely didn’t have 3 months of work lined up. At the time I took the view that I would be able to generate work once I was freelance and actually had the time to market myself, build networks, and go out looking for opportunities, and living on my savings in the short term to make this possible. Doing this leg work on top of a full time job would have been really difficult.
Looking back at that initial period now, I was fortunate to hit the ground running with several projects that meant I never had to dip into my runway fund. On one hand you could decide that that fund was unnecessary and I could have taken the leap into freelance without it, but personally I feel like that is a view only afforded by hind site and everyones circumstances will be different.
What I do know is that this initial period after quitting my job was really mentally challenging, self-doubt, negative self talk and anxiety was high for me. Having that run way fund was a huge safety net. Whilst I’m over the moon not to have needed to dip into it, just knowing it was there if I needed it removed a huge financial pressure which allowed me to focus on the task of growing my workload without stressing about keeping a roof over my families head.
Get organised with your finances
Now whilst this was the first year I was fully freelance, I have actually been registered self employed in addition to my full time job for over 7 years, which means I already had some experience in managing my finances and tax liability. Because of messing up in the past and learning the hard way, I immediately wanted to structure my banking in such a way that means when I get paid for work a proportion of that money is moved and saved to cover the tax. The piece of mind that this gives me is huge, I speak to so many freelancers who don’t prioritise their accounts and every Year there’s a mad stressful rush to file their tax return and then the stress of actually finding the tax they owe.
Getting organised early on has been a huge stress saver for me and top tip; if you are able to be generous in the amount you put aside from each invoice, then when your tax bill arrives its likely you’ll actually have accrued a nice excess which you can then treat yourself with, add to your runway, or reinvest into your business. It’s a great feeling to have what feels like free money at a time when so many other freelancers are scrapping around trying to find enough to pay their bill.
Build a solid routine
Going from a structured full time job to suddenly going it alone can feel really daunting, especially if your current job has a lot of systems and processes in place to help you manage your time. My role at the agency was really well structured to ensure an efficient and productive team environment so when I went freelance suddenly my routine was gone and it was really easy for time to just vanish without doing anything of value.
Im definitely still very much working on this even now, but taking the time to work out how you want to spend your time and scheduling it has really helped me maintain focus.
Last year I read “The One Thing” by Gary Keller and one of the concepts he discussed in the book was time blocking. The idea is that you work out your main priorities and you block out none negotiable time in your calendar to achieve these items. You can be as broad or granular as you like with this approach and of course things will always come up to derail you but the benefit of going through this process for me has given me a clear idea of where Id like to be spending my time in a perfect scenario.
I also just completed the tasks set out by Ali Abdaal in his recent video “How to Make 2024 The Best Year of Your Life” and he takes the concept of time blocking even further by using a calendar to map out what your perfect week looks like hour by hour. I’ve found this process incredibly helpful in ensuring my weeks are planned in accordance with the goals I’ve set myself, and whilst i’ve done this at the beginning of the year, I really wish Id have had a better understanding of these concepts when I first went freelance as I think there was a fair amount of floundering to begin with as I hadn’t defined a solid routine, structure, or processes to move me toward my goals.
Get used to anxiety
Once I’d handed my notice in at my job and was faced with the reality of going it alone I found myself incredibly anxious about the future and immediately second guessing my decision to take the leap. When a good friend asked how I was feeling at the time and I told him I was feeling really anxious his response was “Well of course, you’re going to feel anxious!” Whilst this wasn’t exactly the response I was hoping for, it was absolutely true, and being told this by not only a friend but someone with a huge amount of experience in creative freelancing was actually quite freeing. Instead of focusing on why I felt the way I did I was able to channel my energy into doing the work I knew I needed to do to get where I was going.
I actually enlisted the help of a therapist through Betterhelp and found this to be really effective in changing my mindset and providing me with valuable tools to help me manage my anxiety. I think I’m naturally a worrier and one of the concepts that has really stuck with me since those sessions is that my anxiety is the manifestation of the amount I care about what I’m doing. So instead of seeing it as a debilitating factor towards my productivity, I can re-frame it into my super power. I feel the way i feel because I really really care about what im doing and therefore channeling that anxiety is ultimately what will aid me in creating great work and progressing my career.
The last year has had its highs and lows and even during the highs it’s been easy to find something to be anxious about when the success of my work and finances rests only on my shoulders. Will I get enough work this month, have I got more work than I can complete this month, will that invoice get paid on time, am I creating valuable work, the list goes on.
For me, getting comfortable with a certain amount of anxiety and making sure I channel that anxiety in a productive way has helped me lean into the challenges and be accepting of where I currently am on my freelance journey.
Build a network
I thought I understood the importance of this when I took the leap, but honestly having a trusted network has been one of the biggest factors in getting me through my first year going solo.
When I started I knew that some of my work would come from people I’ve worked with previously but I also had this somewhat transactional process in my mind. I thought that I’d update my website, push some posts out on social media and my phone would started ringing with new business opportunities. This was incorrect and totally misguided.
In reality, I can count on one hand the number of new business enquiries I’ve received this last year, and nearly all the work I’ve done has come from people I’ve worked with previously, or referrals from my network recommending me.
If I hadn’t have had a network of other creative business people and the opportunities that they presented then I honestly don’t think I would have made it through my first year.
I cannot overstate the importance of building a solid support network, not just for generating work opportunities but also for the guidance and emotional support Ive received when I’ve got stuck with something. Freelancing can be quite lonely so having a group of individuals that understand the challenges and to bounce ideas off has been invaluable for me.
Define your offering
Whilst I’ve just talked about most of my work coming from my network last year as a positive thing, I would defiantly like it if I was getting more new business enquiries from new contacts.
This is definitely an area which Ive been slow to act on, so my advice to you if you’re going solo is to take the time early on to define what you want to offer customers or clients and do your best to package it up in a way that allows you to clearly market yourself. Towards the end of 2023 I got more serious about this, but ive definitely got a lot more work to do here if I want to grow my workload and earning for 2024.
I think this can take many forms depending on the services you offer, and to add further complication, when you’re just starting out there is a tendency to say yes to everything. I think this is totally fine and a natural part of building a freelance business, but the clearer to can define and communicate your offering, hopefully the quicker you will start getting good enquiries, and more importantly, those enquiries will hopefully better align with what you want to be offering.
Healthy body healthy mind
I don’t think this is necessarily specific to being freelance but Ive personally found that in order to shoulder the financial and creative responsibilities of running a freelance business, having a solid foundation of health and fitness has been essential to keep me feeling positive and productive.
I’ve been on my own fitness journey over the the last three or so years, from being young and carefree, never exercising or focusing on nutrition and just relying on my youth to keep my going, as I approached 40 I found myself overweight, unhappy with my appearance, sluggish and tired and with poor mental health and mental resilience.
Focusing on my health and fitness and yielded so many benefits, not just in my appearance but even more importantly in my mental health. I now know that if I want to be performing at my best professional it is essential that I first prioritise my health and nutrition as a foundation to everything. Ensuring I structure my weeks to include physical activity initially seemed counter intuitive, surely if I spend that time at my desk working instead of out walking or exercising then I’ll be more productive? The reality for me is that the concentration and focus I can give after exercise is far superior and leads to better work in a shorter time than just slogging it out for hours at my desk.
My freelance journey is still only just beginning, and as I said at the beginning, I by no means have it all figured out, but hopefully my perspective after a year might benefit you if you’re also thinking of taking the leap into freelance life. Ive found the last year to be overall a really rewarding experience. The flexibility it has bought to my life has been amazing, especially as I just started a family, and whilst its been full of challenges I have personally found it to be a rewarding and excited thing to have done.