11 things to consider before you go freelance

11 things to consider before you go freelance

A call went out on Twitter recently, asking experienced freelancers for the pieces of advice they would give to someone considering making the leap. This got me thinking – what do I wish I’d known before going freelance, and what would have been the most useful pieces of advice to me? So, here’s 11 things to consider before you go freelance.

Finances

It’s a long story, but my route into freelancing was unexpected and I had minimum funds. While this forced a sink or swim mentality, I wouldn’t recommend it to other people. Give yourself the best chance of freelance success by putting away at least three months of living expenses and business expenses. There will be many highs, lows and new experiences during those early months, and you don’t want to add lack of money to that heady mix.

Start-up costs

The freelancing dream is that you can set up with minimal capital, and although this was the case for me, have some available funds for business costs for the first few months. Critical things include insurance, a robust contract, purchasing a web domain (if you’re having a website), and equipment like a laptop and mobile phone. Of course, once you start turning money over, you’ll be able to pay for business expenses out of your revenue.

Business structure

Decide on your business structure – do you want to be a sole trader or limited company? There are many articles on this subject. Do some research about the differences, pros and cons, by reading articles, speaking to other freelancers and having a chat with an accountant. Some articles worth reading on this subject include this one by Creative Boom, and this one by Word Service. It’s worth understanding the issues in advance. 

I’m a limited company because my clients won’t contract with a sole trader, but it’s different for everyone. Alice Hollis wrote a blog about her personal journey to setting up her limited company. 

Business processes

My processes have evolved with the business, but I wish I had given them more consideration from the off. Things to think about are: 

The basics

I got started with just a basic laptop, Dropbox account and a mobile phone. You may need more or less than this, depending on what your plans are. Make sure your equipment and your business is insured. This article by IPSE explains the types of insurance you’ll need – see above for my comments on business expenses. 

Business admin

I’ve written about this before, but consider your freelancing business like any other corporate. You will never have done so much admin – finance, invoicing, social media, writing blog posts etc. Organising the administration of the business allows you to focus on delivering what it is you do.

Client experience

Work out how clients will flow through your business, from initial conversations and sales, to work delivery, completion and invoicing. How you manage this will depend on the work you do, but it will probably follow this general trajectory. How can you make this experience fantastic for clients? My own tip is to develop some sort of briefing process that allows you to capture and agree the work to be done with your clients, that you can both sign-off and keep a copy of.

Contracts – don’t start work without one

Get a contract organised and don’t start any piece of work without one. Koffee Klatch provides guidance and draft contracts for freelancers offering a range of services. The site is run by Annabel Kaye, who is an expert in the gig economy and legislation affecting freelancers. 

IT

As a new freelancer, the role I struggled with the most was being the company IT manager. I now outsource all of my IT and for a small monthly fee I obtain Office 365 support, security and a helpline for ad-hoc support from experts (because you never know when things can go wrong) – it’s easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, business-wise. Manchester IT is very local to me but they work across the UK. 

You may also want to invest in other programmes to help you complete your work or run your business. There are so many web-based systems available now and I couldn’t survive without Adobe Pro, Harvest, Xero, Canva and Hootsuite.

Develop a niche

What is your niche? I am a bid writer in the construction industry and in many ways, life doesn’t get more niched than this, but being specialised has allowed me to stand out from generalist bid writers by focusing on one industry. I take my hat off to generalist bid writers by the way – I couldn’t learn a whole new industry for every bid I worked on. 

So – what is it you do, how do you help clients, and why is this different to everyone else? This niche will be the cornerstone of your marketing for your freelancing career – give it some real thought in the early days and it will pay dividends for you because you will be able to articulate who you are and what you do.

What will your marketing plan be?  

Marketing can sound scary but really it’s just your plan for securing paying clients (ie the ones you have already identified when you thought about your niche). Will you bombard social media with push messages (not recommended), or will you take the slow-burn approach by meeting a lot of people at networking events (definitely worth considering). Get a plan together, including a six month outline of what your social media is going to look like. 

Working out who your clients are

Once you have worked out your niche, you will be able to work out who your clients will be and where to find them. What kinds of problems will you help them solve? How will you secure work from them? I recommend starting with your own existing network – all of my freelancing work in the first six months or so was from people that I knew, had worked with previously or had some sort of connection to. Even six years on, these relationships still bring work to me. 

Developing a brand

Brand doesn’t have to be complicated. Just think about a logo, colour palette and a clear message about who you are and what you do will suffice. You can then apply this branding to your business collateral, such as business cards, letter heads, contracts, social media and website. Have a chat with brand supremos like Nik Jones at Hello I’m Nik or Jon Horne at JH Creative

Consider putting a website together

A basic website will give you the platform to tell everyone about your services, with regular blogs demonstrating your expertise. I spent too much time and money figuring out how to do this in the early days, so if you’re unsure, outsource it to another freelancer who can provide you with something simple and cost-appropriate. You can always develop it as your business evolves.

Show up on social media

Social media has really come of age in the time I have been a freelancer, making connecting with potential clients, other freelancers and everyone else very natural and a whole lot easier. Think about where your ideal clients will be and get good at this platform. If you need help with your strategy, consider working with another freelancer who is a specialist in social media. This external knowledge and expertise will be worth its weight in gold – I’ve worked with Kat from Stripe Social for 12 months and I’ve learnt so much that I regret not engaging someone a lot earlier.

There are many freelance groups on Facebook that you should get involved with – although freelancers are a diverse bunch in terms of skills and, we all have the same challenges and it’s good to get advice from other people who have had similar experiences. Groups I recommend are Freelance Heroes and Being Freelance. There’s also a fantastic twitter chat every Wednesday evening between 8pm and 9pm. Follow the conversation on #FreelanceHeroes.

Research freelance resources

There are so many freelance resources out there to read and listen to – check out IPSE and Worknotes. Also make listening to the Being Freelance podcast a weekly thing – so many freelancers all doing different things, but so many common experiences and solutions.

Connect and build relationships with other freelancers

One of the best things about being a freelancer is the freelance attitude of collaborate, but never compete. We genuinely don’t compete with each other – we complement each other’s skills to build agile virtual teams. So connect with other freelancers in this spirit – especially those doing similar things to you, or those offering complementary services. For example, bid writers can connect with other bid writers and people who do other roles in bidding, such as management or graphic design.

While this may sound counter-intuitive, this network will provide camaraderie when the chips are down, as well as work opportunities.

Setting your rates

Everyone has different thoughts on this – for bid writing there is a general market rate, with variances within this based on a range of factors. Research the rates within your own skill area and set yours in accordance with this. Don’t feel you need to undercut the market when you start out – value your skills and ask for the rates you are comfortable with. If clients don’t want to pay that, they won’t. It might be worth reading the Work Notes pricing guide for more background information. 

Have a think about the pricing model you’ll offer, i.e. day rate or project rate, and how you will articulate the benefits of each of these to clients. How will you invoice work? Also get comfortable with the fact you won’t necessarily get paid when you want to – payment is an ongoing issue in the freelance world, so protect yourself by invoicing on time and having a buffer of cash.

Round-up

As I’ve been writing this blog post, I’ve been chuckling to myself because I realise how much I didn’t know and how much I didn’t even consider. I got through some things relatively unscathed, but there’s been times when I’ve really paid the price for ignorance. Freelancing will be one the best adventures of your life, made even more exciting by being prepared. 

 

 

Freelancing: client red flags

Freelancing: client red flags

I had a tricky experience recently and declined to work with a client on a bid. This was the first time I had done this, but not the first time I’d had alarm bells ringing during the contract negotiation stage.

This got me thinking about the red flags other freelancers experience when establishing relationships with clients and I asked the question on Twitter via #freelancechat and got a whole raft of interesting responses, many of which also resonated with me. I’ve based this blog post on this information and added other examples of my own.

What are red flags?

For me, red flags are warning signs or alarm bells that you become aware of when you are dealing with clients and they can happen during any stage of the relationship. I have ignored too many of these too often throughout my freelancing career and created some messy situations to deal with.

Top ten red flags

These are in no particular order – they are all worrying!

Not listening or talking over you

This is a pet peeve of mine – why engage an expert if you aren’t going to listen to what they are telling you? It’s fair enough if they don’t want to follow the advice, but they have to listen in the first place. I have often found myself repeating myself until the message lands or sending a follow-up email outlining the key points of the conversation.

Working in construction for 20-odd years, I’ve also experienced the tedium of being talked over (by men) until I shut up. I decline opportunities with clients who talk over me or don’t listen to what I am saying. It’s a basic lack of courtesy and doesn’t bode well for the future of the relationship.

Disregarding the contracting options provided and developing their own

I provide price and scope options based on budget expectations and I am open to negotiating terms with clients, as long as it works commercially for me.

However, I recently experienced a pick and mix approach with a client who wanted a gold-star service for bargain basement prices. Unfortunately this only works one way and gets a relationship off to a really bad start, so I’m not afraid of walking away from a scenario like this – not all clients are right for all freelancers.

Not engaging early enough

I talk about this in an earlier blog post, but in my line of work, time can be of the essence. A big red flag for me is when a client has not dealt with a bid opportunity for a couple of weeks, then calls me in a panic, needing me to get my magic wand out. *Newsflash* – I don’t actually have one and being able to meet shorter deadlines is dependent on my disrupting my own life to help them out. This never results in optimum work, so it’s best all round to just plan ahead a bit. 

In this situation, I’m clear about what is achievable and provide a scope and price to match this. I’d also be clear about the input the client needs to make to make sure the bid or project is successfully completed to meet the deadline. It’s also the reason I prefer to work long-term with clients, so I can anticipate their needs and we can start preparing for bids months before they land. 

Vague brief or not knowing what it is clients need us to do  

Sometimes clients aren’t really clear about what they need us to do and this can present an opportunity for us to demonstrate our expertise and the range of services we can provide and guide them to the optimum solution for their issue. It can also create a situation where the brief is a moving feast or stakeholders are unclear about what is going to be achieved. 

Tie deliverables down in writing – I generally do this as part of the contracting/pricing exercise, and getting feedback and client sign-off. This way everyone is clear about what will be delivered (and how much this will cost). 

Undervaluing our skills or input

Something that grates on me like nails down a blackboard is asking me to just pretty this copy up, work my magic or some other patronising nonsense. Actually, I work really hard to make sure bid copy answers the questions in a really readable way – this is a million miles away from prettying something up.

As freelancers, it’s our job to educate clients on what it is we do and what they are paying for and I do this by taking them through the process of responding to a bid and how the answers are developed. More often than not, they are very surprised about the depth and detail required to complete them and come away from the process feeling they have learnt something useful.

Lack of feedback

Linked to the point above, once a proposal or a piece of work has been submitted, we really need some feedback, to either improve or amend it! I regularly ask clients and stakeholders throughout the process how they are enjoying working together, obtaining direct feedback that will either confirm things are working or that I might need to amend something for this client.

Going AWOL

Clients going AWOL always worries me, especially in a bid scenario. I do allow leeway for people being busy (I can be guilty of this myself), but unless you can complete the work on your own, clients being incommunicado can be hard to overcome.  

Expecting too much free work

Adding value to client businesses is the freelancers’ raison d’être and it’s how we develop the long-term relationships that make us successful. However, don’t be afraid to issue an invoice or bail out completely when those quick requests become manifold. Time is money, after all, and people don’t value what they receive for free, eroding the value of your skills in your client’s mind.

Micromanaging

We aren’t employed members of staff – we are experts, and we don’t need to be managed or be on site to complete our piece of work. Most of us have professional office set-ups, whether at home or in a co-working space, and this is how we prefer to work. We organise meetings when we need to catch-up and this could be via Skype or Zoom because it’s more time-efficient.

I’ve generally found the request to be in a client’s office borne of a controlling nature and it’s something I avoid, unless I am part of a big bid team where collaboration is key and many members of the team are based there.

Late payments

This is surely the biggest bugbear of any freelancer – actually getting payments in from clients. Some freelancers have a model that enables phased payments or deposits. I have introduced this more, particularly with new clients, but it often doesn’t mean immediate payment. I had a really difficult situation earlier this year when I had to begin legal proceedings with a client I’d been working with over a significant period of time and it was very stressful.

I’ve got two things to say on this subject: clients – please pay your freelancers on time, and freelancers – please set up processes that will either prevent this from happening in the first place or will give you leverage if it does.

How to get out of a client relationship

There are many ways to escape once a couple of these issues crops up in your client relationship. I have done all of these over the past five years.

  • Declining the opportunity
  • Telling them you don’t have the availability
  • Starting legal action (pretty drastic but it worked and they don’t speak to me anymore). 

What are your red flags?

Tricky scenarios with clients can be difficult to deal with as a freelancer. As one individual you can often feel outflanked by larger and more powerful organisations. However, you definitely don’t have to experience this alone and there are plenty of organisations and groups out there that can support and advise you, including IPSE, Freelance Heroes and Being Freelance. I’m also a member of the FSB and my local Chamber of Commerce and these have both been invaluable in times of crisis!  

I’d love to hear from other freelancers about your red flags with clients and how you deal with them. The best places to connect with me are on Twitter and LinkedIn

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.