The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

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“To be honest, I’m not getting much engagement. I’ve no problem working alone, but I’m struggling to get work. There are crickets chirping around here. So, apart from going to business events, are there any business directories I can work through / Development agencies I can contact etc. (there’s lots up in York, but not so much in Selby). I need to know where to go next after the website / social media stuff has been addressed (and it’s still quiet). Your comments / insight would be most appreciated.”

This concerned message arrived in my inbox last night, prompting me to write on a subject I’ve deliberately avoided, yet carried opinions on for a while.

It’s how to find work.

This, and how much you should charge, are two questions explored in various degrees of quality here on the web. Some are useful, most miss the point.

The reason I’ve avoided contributing to that ongoing shit-storm is because the Human Freelancer movement is about so much more than just work and money. Also, I’m a bit stubborn and pretentious, and I didn’t want to give readers the impression that I devote any more time than is absolutely necessary to either, because I don’t.

That said, when a legitimate plea for advice comes in like this, you should do the decent thing and reply. So here it is, rescued from the labyrinthine swamp that is my sent items, and tarted up a bit for publication.

The reply

Thank you for seeking out my insight on finding work, though it’s important to add I’m no expert. I can only describe what works for me, because every freelancer is different.

Before I hurl advice your way, I just want to explore why you chose to ask me for advice. I’m concerned that because my website looks shiny, I’ve written a book about freelancing and blast out the occasional self-aggrandising tweet, people incorrectly deduce that I’m ‘getting it right’ or that I’m successful in conventional terms (i.e £££).

Why? I recall that these are the kinds of things I saw other freelancers doing when I was struggling for work, that lead to comparing myself with them – and the mistaken deduction above.

It would be wrong if I led you to believe that I fit into that category of freelancer. In fact, I made a deliberate choice to work and earn just enough to get by, then spend the rest of my time having fun. Living frugally like this cuts a lot of stress out of your life, like deadlines and pressure to earn.

I suggest you define what success means to you, then strive for that – not what other people say is success (like being busy all the time, earning shit-loads then spending it on shiny crap to make up for your loss of leisure time: a.k.a ‘modern life’).

Also, if it makes you feel better, most portfolios are only a slim snapshot of everything we do – marketing smoke and mirrors, if you will. Not everything I do gets promoted (especially not the average stuff: sometimes it’s OK to do an OK job, you know), only the very best. And sometimes work is also quiet for me (it’s always famines or feasts when you freelance) – I just ride the roller-coaster and worry less about money or finding work these days.

Back to that insight you asked for.

I notice you used the word ‘engagement’. I wouldn’t usually pick people up on this kind of thing but you’re a copywriter, and words are what we do, right? Language like that originates in corporate businesspeople who perhaps over-complicate what is actually a very simple, natural human process. Finding work is just like making friends i.e. building trusting relationships between people.

Sadly, I can’t teach you how to do that.

But, if you’re a decent human being (I’m assuming you are) then things like asking questions, being interested, relating to people, doing favours, not being a cock, exploring mutual interests and having hobbies and interests outside of work come naturally to you.

Be yourself, be honest and genuine is my best advice.

You mention blogging, social media, SEO etc. These are all very worthwhile, powerful things to do (I’ve finally started to get work this way), but its a long-term, steady plod. They take years to pay off organically, and you have to stay on top of them too.

Managing your online presence can also be very dehumanising and unsociable (sat alone in front of a screen tweeting “yay!” all day about how awesome one’s life is). People also end up curating online ‘brand personas’ which aren’t an accurate reflection of what they’re like in real-life.

I’d say that most work and opportunities still happen in the real world so try and keep a healthy balance.

You could try joining a coworking space (like hot-desking but way cooler and cheaper). Working alone might feel fine but you’re a human who needs to be around other people, especially other self-employed people who feel your pain. That’s how conservations happen, and chats that lead to, well, who knows where. There are coworks in Leeds, York, Manchester – even Keighley and Calderdale.

(Are you seeing a pattern here? Get out there – make mistakes, learn and get better!)

What are your interests and hobbies? Do you volunteer? What do you believe in? Find organisations who share these things and approach them. Never go out with the greedy mindset of expecting work. That ends up coming across in how you behave. Just go out for friendly discussions (like social media/blogging done well) in arenas you’re interested in, and work will follow.

Formal networking and business events, in my experience, tend to be rooms full of people missing the point (i.e. trying to sell to each other and find work). As one friend said: “it’s aging white guys in suits in dying industries”. Go if you’re into traditional business, but that sort of thing goes against my grain.

There are alternatives out there of course, events which operate like guilds, or groups of people who meet to help support one another and grow as better people. I started something similar in Leeds myself, so people can share experiences and let each other know they’re not alone.

The tipping point for me was about a year or so into when I first went freelance (7-ish years ago). I landed a huge job via a friend of a friend of a friend (someone I met on stag do knew someone who knew someone else who had me on LinkedIn).

However you look at it, it was a fluke (hence why there’s no silver bullet for finding work).

That first proper job wasn’t just a huge confidence boost, it ‘broke the seal’ so to speak: because work breeds more work. It only takes one or two meaty jobs like this to lead to more work, sometimes from the same client (who recommends you) and others who then see what you’ve produced and want to work with you. In a way, the people who see your work make the same kinds of assumptions I alluded to above; “what lovely work! This freelancer must know what they’re doing” and remain blissfully unaware (or remain ignorant of) the fact that you’re just winging it, like everybody else.

As you can see, this convoluted process of ‘work breeding work’ is largely beyond our control; once you’ve done a good job. So try not to stress about it, it’ll happen and you can’t force it. Keep plugging away and something will pay off – that’s why it’s a good idea to have your finger in many pies.

Opportunities are everywhere – you just have to have a good sense of your place in the world and what you want out of it – that’s how you tune into them. Soon you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about, anyway. These days I try not to court work. I just do a good job, share what I’ve learned and people seem to find me (made a whole lot easier by our ubiquitous digital footprints).

Personally, here’s where I’m up to on fattening my work pipe.

It’s taken a while but clients are finally doing business with me not simply because I’m a copywriter, but because of what I stand for and how that manifests in the work I produce. My next move is to push for more ethically-led clients, in renewable energy, green tech and perhaps social projects. They really press my buttons.

Have I done anything about it yet? Not really. I’m still navel-gazing about it, and meanwhile life goes on. I know I’ll get around to it, eventually. But then we’re like that, aren’t we? us humans (even supposedly experienced copywriters). We often find ourselves caught up in over-thinking things and never actually getting round to doing something about it.

What presses your buttons? What have you done about getting more of it in your life? That’s for you to work out. Maybe watch this TED talk for some inspiration. I also keep a blog over at which is crammed full of flimsy advice like this for aspiring freelancers.

Was that helpful? I’ve made one or two assumptions about where you’re coming from, which I trust you can forgive. Hopefully there’s something of use in here for you.

Thanks to the sender; who described my response as “sobering, but funny” – which, coincidentally, would probably make the best three word review of The Human Freelancer book.

The Human Freelancer book

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Self-help business books perpetuate the myth that success is relentless growth and more of everything means progress. They preach about bookkeeping and market research: things you might need to do of course. But let’s face it they’re fucking boring.

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