I’m typing this a few feet from my kitchen, wearing baggy pants and trainers, listening to my iPlayer. My commute from the bedroom took seconds; I’ve no one telling me what to do. Jealous yet? Or are you “between jobs”, aware you’re just one brilliant idea away from becoming an internet billionaire? Maybe you should go freelance.
I’ve been freelancing for 28 years, and apparently have a natural aptitude for it – or total inability to cope with offices, depending how you look at it. I still remember that day in August ’83 when, having failed my journalist training exams, my boss said, without a trace of irony: “I’ll see that you never work in newspapers again.” And his surprise when I replied: “Thanks.”
Although here I am 28 years later, proving him wrong. Having spent most of my working life as a standup comedy writer, I never imagined I’d be writing articles for the Guardian. Being freelance really can take you anywhere.
“It’s not for everyone,” says Jon Norris, who runs Freelanceadvisor.co.uk, “but more and more it’s becoming an option you should consider.” John Brazier, who runs PCG, the nearest thing freelances have to a trade union, agrees. “Employers are looking more to outsource their work, there are more opportunities, and great tax benefits when working from home.”
After nearly 20 years in the banking sector, John Davis left his post as product and marketing director for Barclays Business and went freelance in January. “I knew I wasn’t interested in climbing further up the corporate ladder,” he says, “and saw an opportunity to build a business. The work I do isn’t much different, just less big-business politics and fewer pointless meetings.”
All evidence points to a huge increase in freelance work throughout the economy, and the world. “The business is flying,” says Matt Barrie, CEO of freelancer.com, who describes the internet as delivering “a tectonic shift to society by disrupting the global labour market”. Freelancer.com is like eBay for freelances: employer offers work, freelances bid for the job, and they have become one of biggest websites in the world. Some 930,000 projects have been outsourced to date, for $80m (£50m) of earnings. “One freelancer in India makes close to $1m a year building $65 websites. He now has 80 people working in three design facilities, thanks to building his reputation as one of our top freelancers.”
Some criticise freelancer.com for dragging pay rates down. Norris says: “They reward low-quality, quick-turnaround work and completely forego the freelancer/client relationship.” But freelance musician/photographer/lecturer/designer Danny Fontaine is a fan. “Since joining freelancer.com my workload has rapidly increased. My rates are competitive but the majority of successful bids don’t go to the cheapest bidder. Employers want a good job done so they do look at the quality of your work.”
Are you ready to freelance? Here are my top 10 tips:
If you’re currently working, are you happy to give up the weekly wage packet, pension, company of workmates and paid holiday leave? “Are you suited to freelancing?” asks Brazier, “is your skillset marketable?” Even if you’re desperate to try it, you might find becoming part-time a gentler way of easing into freelance.
“I love it,” says Davis, “though I’m more emotionally involved now. And it’s harder to let go at the end of the day.”
2 Is there a market for what you do?
“Are you one of many doing what you do, or one of a few?” asks John Brazier. According to Norris, high-end freelance web designers are in big demand. “Competition is so fierce for the best people at Google, Apple and Facebook, that there’s no incentive for the top few to go freelance.”
On the other hand, social media is massively over-subscribed. “It’s a boom market and there is a low barrier to entry,” says Norris. “We have to actively seek out technical people when we need website development, but are approached by social media ‘gurus’ on an almost daily basis.”
“Everyone should be thinking about creating a business,” says Barrie. “Create a job, rather than take a job. There’s never been a better time, you can literally now do it off the back of a credit card.”
3 Join your union/PCG
Call me an old-fashioned out-of-the-loop lefty, but even in the cut-throat world of freelance you could use the kind of security offered by a trade union. They’ll help with advice and contracts, plus it’s lonely working on your own, and you can meet fellow strugglers. If there’s no obvious union for you then join PCG. “We exist solely to look out for freelancers,” says Brazier, “to protect and assist you, to guide you through the rules and regulations.” Also: get a pension. (I’m sounding like a dinosaur now.)
4 Beware the computer
You can run your entire business on a laptop now. Unfortunately it’s the same place where you can read funny articles from The Onion, tell your Facebook mates what you ate for lunch, and become an expert at Texas Hold ‘Em. Don’t kid yourself that googling your name and looking up your competitors on Wikipedia is research.
5 You are the company
Barrie says you can outsource everything you’re no good at, but whatever you do you need to understand basic accounts, marketing, publicity and all the other tedious admin that you now have to deal with. With customers, sort out how much you’re being paid at the start. Make sure they remember they owe you money. You are your own invoice department as well.
6 Learn to be American
Now you’re no longer working for Giant Conglomerate International, you are almost certainly competing with Giant Conglomerate International, and many others, for work. So you have to do whatever it takes to get your name and business out there. Facebook, Twitter and a website are your starting points. This is no time to come over all Hugh Grant.
Moose Allain was an architect before becoming a full-time artist and illustrator in 2007. He produces a wide range of work which he sells via his website, art fairs, and an increasingly high profile on Twitter.
“I don’t want to slip into marketing speak,” says Allain, “but in a sense we’re all ‘marketing’ ourselves all the time.” To find out more about never missing an opportunity for self-publicity, start following me on Twitter @cohendave.
7 Don’t get ill
You’re no longer working for The Man, you are now He (or She). The Man never liked you taking the day off for that hangover from hell, and now you’re Him, a day off is a day’s lost pay. Seriously, if absenteeism is an important part of your work life, don’t go freelance.
8 Bad day at the office?
Now that you’re in charge, every bad day feels much worse. Learn to accept that we all have times like this, and tomorrow is another day, which brings me to…
9 Cliche Corner
Cliches are cliches because they’re usually true. Every job is your calling card, every day is a new beginning, you’re only as good as your last job.
10 Plan, plan, plan
Never mind work-life balance, first you must get the work-work balance right. You need to make money now, ideally you’re spending two to three days a week doing that. But you also need to know where the work is coming from in six months, and a year’s time. So you need to be aiming towards getting more work then. If the next few months are full of gaps where paid work should be, plan what to do with that time. Plan today, tomorrow, next week, month and year…
11 … But be flexible
See what happened there? I was going to make this a 10-point plan but realised halfway through that there are more than 10 key points. So I changed my mind. Which as a freelance I am able to do. This is one of the great advantages you have over people who work in offices. You can change your mind on the spot, and not have to report back through a chain of command.
12 Have a life
Manage your time well; know when you’re going to finish work today, and stop. As a freelance it’s easy to be “on” all day and night, and it’s especially annoying when you wake up at 3am composing that fairly dull email reply you meant to send the previous day. Switch off and do something completely unrelated to work. You’ll arrive a lot fresher the next day.
Moose Allain’s tweet advice
I started tweeting as an experiment, I tried to be original and entertaining and occasionally posted pictures. My following increased when one or two people with good followings began recommending me. Before long people were asking if they could buy the work I was putting online.
It’s important not to be constantly selling. I give a lot of original material to my “audience” and they don’t mind me plugging my work occasionally. If they do, they don’t tell me, or they just unfollow! Your audience is self-regulating in that sense, which is one of the things which makes twitter a powerful marketing tool.
It’s an incredibly useful vehicle for trialling ideas and products. We recently launched a range of mugs. I posted some early designs and got some great feedback, and started to build anticipation from people who wanted to buy them. When we went into production we sold out our first batch just through twitter. So for me it has become a creative medium as well as a social networking tool.
Where to get advice
freelanceadvisor.co.uk All the latest news for freelancers and loads of great advice.
pcg.org.uk Very helpful whatever your level of experience. £120 pa to benefit in full. They also run nationalfreelancersday.org.uk which is on 23 November 2011.
freelancer.com “Free to sign up or bid, we only charge commissions once you start making money. This starts at 10% for freelancers.”
WorldofMoose.com Funny stories, lovely mugs.