Five things I’ve learnt in my first five years a freelancer

Five things I’ve learnt in my first five years a freelancer

I wouldn’t have thought it possible five years ago, but that’s how long I’ve been freelancing for. It’s the longest job I’ve ever had, and I put that down to how great my boss is – she understands me completely and doesn’t give me any mither. I’ve learned a lot in this time and developed a broad range of business skills, such as sales, finance and strong-arming payments out of clients – probably more so than technical skills as a bid writer.

So, to celebrate this milestone in my freelance life, here at the top five things I’ve learned in the past five years.

Structure your freelancing business as if it’s a corporate organisation

I wish I had thought about this more seriously in the beginning. Proper administrative structures enable you to manage the back-office efficiently and deliver your work better. This means accounting, IT, insurance, a marketing plan (however that looks for you), and most importantly, contracts. Issue contracts for each commission, making sure everyone is crystal clear about expectations and deliverables, invoice on time, and deliver what you say you’re going to.

Outsource the stuff you either don’t enjoy or are crap at. For me that’s the finance, legal and IT (clueless), some social media (it’s great to get fresh ideas), admin and graphics. I’ve developed a strong network of professionals who help me with all this and it’s not as expensive as you might think, particularly when you consider what it’s costing in non-billable time.

Learn where you can

Skills development has to be a priority as freelancer – you haven’t got the support of an employer anymore and the world of skills is constantly moving on. Suddenly you’re the training budget holder and you’ve also got to carve out the time amongst project delivery.

Every day’s a school day and I’ve made the most of learning opportunities on live projects – particularly when you’re working in a demanding, deadline-driven environment like me, it’s just not feasible to block out time each week for training and development.

I’ve worked with some top-flight writers as a freelancer, particularly on big infrastructure bids and these experiences have pushed me to reflect on my own abilities and look for ways to improve. Working with other people is invaluable in sharing ideas and discussing challenges and I really value my bid network. They are a mix of freelance and in-house and I keep in touch by meeting when I’m in town, social media and referring them for work.

Be confident talking about money

This isn’t the easiest of subjects and I’ve found that many freelancers have an in-built anxiety around money, particularly getting paid what we’re worth and getting paid at all. It’s been a journey for me, certainly asking for the financial value I bring clients and demonstrating the value of a professional bid writer. I’ve tolerated situations and circumstances in the past that I just wouldn’t now – you live and learn.

I deliver a service that is generally measured in time rather than by project and I ask about budget early in a qualifying conversation to understand expectations. Over time, I have developed packages to provide clients with a range of options for scope and price. I will also discuss and agree payment terms – generally 30 days, with invoices being issued at the end of the project or at the end of the month, whichever is soonest. I’m always happy to negotiate, but if I get too much push back, I know it’s not the right client for me.

The challenge of late and non-payment is real for freelancers and I’ve had my fair share of difficult experiences, which I will blog about another time. Have a plan in place for when and if non-payment happens to you – research your options and don’t back down – you will be glad you overcame the difficult emotions and made the hard decisions.

The importance of relationships and sales

I have found sales to be a slow burn process. No one needs a bid writer until they have a bid to write. I keep in touch with people to make sure I’m the first person they think of when they have a looming deadline, and relationships established years ago have really come to fruition as a freelancer. By staying in one industry I have created a niche and clients refer me on – I am grateful for this and consider myself very lucky. 

I’m also generally too busy to attend networking events – I am always working to a deadline. To counteract this, I am very active on social media – I find it easier to slot in to my day – to keep myself front of mind. 

The client becomes the boss

It’s not true that just because I work for myself now that I don’t have anyone to answer to. While the client/consultant relationship is different (usually more equal), I still need to answer phone calls, respond to emails and deliver, generally during office hours. When I have deadlines to meet, my diary is not my own and I have to be very flexible with my time. In many ways, it’s not that different from being employed, although I prefer this dynamic and can often work from home.

Happy to help!

As an experienced bid writer and a relatively experienced freelancer I’ve made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to. If you’re new to freelancing or considering making the leap, particularly as a bid professional, I’m all ears and happy to have a chat to help you with any quandaries you might have. After all, what’s the point of five years’ experience if you don’t share it with someone else who could benefit? You can catch up with me on InstagramTwitter and LinkedIn.