The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

Select Page

Today, as part of my ongoing self-appointed mission to liberate creative people from the shackles of salaried employment, I’ll be spouting off to students at Leeds trinity University on the subject of getting started in freelancing. It’s a short presentation so there’s only enough time to cover the bare essentials, but my presentation will still be packed with tips and honest realities of going it alone.

Here are my presentation notes.

You’re all here because you’ve heard what a breeze it is to be a freelancer; how you can make a living doing what you love, right? Well it’s all true, really it is, but it’s not all plain sailing and I’m here today to tell you about the realities of freelancing, how to get along and how to avoid some of the pitfalls that caught me out when I first began. Hopefully without scaring the crap out of you.

So here’s my plan. First I’ll quickly tell you who I am and why you should listen. I’ll keep it really short because I’m not here to talk about me: freelancing is bigger than some raving lunatic who wrote a book no one’s ever going to read. Secondly I’ll talk about first steps you can take (which is actually really simple). Thirdly we’ll introduce networking, which I personally hate because it has to be the most misunderstood part of running a business. And finally, if there’s time, I’ll explore the nebulous subject of how to find work. Sounds good?

It’s true, I really did write a book about freelancing, because it’s been my life for the last 7 years or so. Most of my friends still don’t really know what I do though, they just seem to think I lie around scratching my balls every day. That’s not true of course, that’s only on Mondays.

I’m actually a freelance copywriter and photographer, so I get random calls out of the blue from
businesses in Yorkshire who ask me to create the words and pictures that sell their stuff. It’s unpredictable, short-term work but it’s very exciting and challenging and comes with endless opportunities to learn new things and meet new people.

I came to freelancing when I turned 30, after a succession of spectacularly crap middle management jobs. My favourite pompous job title was at the NHS where I was an ‘Early Adopter and National Strategic Resource Lead’. I worked there for 4 years and still have no idea what it means.

My employers and I had this sort of unspoken agreement: they’d pay me money to sit in the same place five days a week and tell me what to do, and I’d moan about sitting in the same place being told what to do five days a week, then spend their money on shiny crap I didn’t really need in a vain attempt to buy happiness. Those short-lived bursts of consumerism were just enough to drag me through the week to the forced joviality of dress-down Fridays. Then I had Saturday to undo the previous week’s corporate indoctrination before spending Sunday preparing for it to start all over again. So, modern life basically.

Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful to have a well-paid job with career progression, but when the highlight of your working day is taking a poo you’ve got to act swiftly or you go insane.

But you guys are lucky though. You can do what I wish I’d done – took a job and did my own thing at the same time, so it’s bubbling away until freelancing becomes self-sustaining. That’s totally normal, and takes a lot of the risk and anxiety out of starting out as a freelancer. ‘Jobs’ and a ‘career’ aren’t the same thing – you can do stuff that brings in cash even though you’d rather be doing something else that doesn’t yet. Your career is a bigger, lifelong thing, and should change as you grow as a character. So what I’m trying to say is, if you find yourself flogging PPI in a call centre when you’d rather be illustrating or filming or whatever it is you do, then don’t beat yourself up about it.

First steps

There’s nothing administrative you really need to do to start freelancing. You don’t have to register with anyone or buy a licence. In the eyes of the law you’re a sole trader (assuming you want to keep things simple). You pay your tax online by self-assessment which is so simple even I can do it, and I struggle to calculate the change from a tenner when I get on the bus. There are two things that you should definitely do though.

First, you must have a very very rough idea of what it is that you do, or rather what it is that you offer people. Maybe you’re lucky: you have a specific skill like Photoshop or After Effects, in which case what are you doing here listening to me blathering on: get out there. But for the rest of us, there’s a period of navel-gazing while you find your place in the universe.

Think back to when you last had a job. What is it that you’d rather be doing? Constructive stuff (not scratching your junk in front of the telly). I mean engaging things – hobbies, activities. What did you imagine yourself tinkering with while you were pretending to do that job you hated?

If that doesn’t help, what did you enjoy doing as a kid? Maybe ask your folks. What couldn’t you put down, which places did you moan and moan about until they took you back again? I’m not suggesting you should go into professional finger painting, just step back a moment and look at what skills and inclinations those enjoyable activities awakened in you.

Now think about them from a client’s point of view. How can those skills help people run their businesses? What sectors have a dearth of those skills? How can you translate them into a context that people will understand and benefit from? Usually a commercial one, like selling more shit.

If none of that helps then think about what you stand for? What do you believe in? How would you like to leave a grubby stain on the crotch of humanity?

I can see some of you going cross-eyed, so don’t worry too much about all this right now because I personally guarantee that whatever you think it is you do now, that will change in a couple of years from now. Just have a rough idea and be open to new experiences which change all that.

The second essential thing to do when you get started is to tell people that you’re a freelancer. Confidently. I wrote a chapter about this in my book. It basically says you have the right to call yourself whatever you like. I’m not talking about pretending to be a doctor or judge or anything because that’ll get you in lots of trouble.

What I mean is when someone asks what you do, you have as much right as anyone else to say you’re a freelance copywriter, graphic designer, biscuit detective – whatever. It doesn’t make you a fraud to call yourself that from day one. It took me a while to feel confident enough to call myself a copywriter, I’d skirt around the issue by mumbling about writing, but eventually I realised most people are quite trusting – they accept what you tell them at face value, in fact often they don’t really care. What really matters is talking with conviction and passion about what you do, that means more than whatever label you attach to yourself.

I brought this up because one common mistake everyone makes is to go hunting for courses to make yourself feel better about ‘not being qualified’ (notwithstanding that some professions do require certification, like doctor or judge).

I say just go for it. Learn as you go along if you’re not entirely sure. Paying money for a course won’t fix your lack of confidence. Getting on and mastering something with real-world experience will.

Networking and marketing yourself

This brings me neatly onto networking – arguably the biggest misconception in the business world. Networking isn’t an event, it isn’t a corporate thing, nor is it something you can buy off the shelf. I’d even argue it’s not really a skill you need to learn, but you can get better at it.

Networking just means being a decent, sociable human being. Let me ask a question: do you know how to be courteous and considerate? Do you know how to ask questions? Have you ever done a favour for someone? If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to any of these then you’ll be fine.

Just be genuine, be yourself and be open to wherever a conversation might lead. These conversations happen everywhere: when you’re on the bus to work, sat with strangers on a table at a wedding, drunk in pub toilets. Have you noticed how, after the weather, conversations with new people always seems to end up on the subject of ‘what do you do for a living’. That makes networking even easier! It happens anyway, it’s just up to you to make the most of those friendly chats.

The power of networking, and again people at ‘so-called networking events’ forget this, is that it isn’t about selling yourself to the person you’re speaking to, it’s about being memorable and nice to them, so that they go out into the world and recommend you to the people they know. That makes them look good because they ‘know people’ – it’s a nice feeling to be well-connected.

Before you panic and look for YouTube videos on power handshakes, remember that building a business network is a lifelong thing, and after a point, say two or three years, it takes care of itself. If you do a good, honest job – that’s enough for most people to recommend you to others. Good work breeds more good work. Yes, it takes a while for that to become self-sustaining, and yes it’s a bit of extra work at the beginning but eventually it does take care of itself.

You can make the whole thing a lot easier for yourself by reducing the pressure to earn as much, with a day job at the same time as freelancing, and actually making a conscious decision to earn less and therefore work less. That’s the philosophy behind the Human Freelancer movement, this whacky book I wrote. The way I see it, if you reduce your outgoings you also instantly reduce the need to work as much, as well as the pressure to earn.

There is no secret to it. It’s just simple prudence and a few simple changes like eating less meat, using public transport, cancelling subscriptions which save you so much money. It might sound obvious but so many people get this wrong.

How to find work

Wow. This is a BIG one. Let’s see if we can cram how to become a millionaire and an overnight global success into five short minutes.

There’s loads of dispiriting advice about finding work so I won’t cover old ground. What works for me is doing a good job for clients so word gets around, keeping a lively web presence (blogging, tweets etc.) There’s really no secret to this, despite what people tell you: it’s all word of mouth so be nice to people, be genuine, ask questions and explore what you’re interested in anyway – you’ll pick up work as you go along. Volunteering for charitable causes is how I started, maybe look into that?

Let me reassure you: after a couple of years freelancing, something ALWAYS turns up. It’s really weird but you work finds you through the weirdest, chance encounters you can possibly imagine.

A freelancer friend of mine, one of his biggest clients is an old neighbour of mine from Harrogate. What he doesn’t know is the only reason we got chatting was I left the toilet window open while I was having a sit-down interlude. I’d turned round to locate the toilet paper and my face met my neighbour below, and we got into a nice, long chat about how he was a publisher who needed a web designer. So I basically won some work for my mate stood with my pants around my ankles.

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 always have a lot of different projects on the go.

It only takes one or two meaty jobs at the start of freelancing to breed more work. Often it’s from the same client (who recommends you), other times it’s people who’ve seen 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.

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).

So the rule is you never know where a conversation will end up. And it really really helps not to be an arsehole.

More tips here in this fat, juicy post on how to find work.

The Human Freelancer book

LOOK! There's a book full of this shit and more!

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.

The Human Freelancer book is your antidote: stuffed full of emotional support and insightful advice for vulnerable newbies to self-employment like you.

Buy it now