Before Christmas I gave a remote talk about going from PAYE to freelance to fifty clients of an outplacement company. Considering the number of calls I’ve had in the last six months from friends in the wine business thinking about going freelance, or being forced to, it may be useful to share what I have learned in four years of working for myself.
I am not a trained career advisor, so please read what follows with caution. I may be wrong. I am often wrong. Also my ambitions were and remain modest: to work on projects that interest me with people I like and to make enough money to live on, while having time and the mental space to write and exercise. I was constantly exhausted in my last two jobs. Stop reading if you’re intent on world domination, I have no idea how to achieve it. Finally, I went freelance late in my career, when I had achieved some degree of financial security i.e. almost finished paying my mortgage. I have however a worryingly small pension and still need to earn a living for at least ten years. That focuses the mind.
I am the most unlikely character to work freelance: I am anxious about money and I like security. I only took the plunge after thirty-two years because I had run out of companies I would have wanted to work for and which would have wanted to employ me. But I now like my current status so much that I’ve only applied for one job in the last four years and was as relieved as I was disappointed when I didn’t get past the first interview.
So here’s what I have learned for what it’s worth.
Your ego, even if you don’t have a massive one, takes a few knocks when you start working for yourself. There’s no hiding behind a company or a fancy title and some people will make your lack of status very obvious. ‘You can’t expect to be treated the same as when you were Sopexa’s MD,’ I was told only last year by a splendid cretin. You should anyway be aware of said loss of status early on, the first time you have to clean your desk, hoover your office, fix your laptop, without being able to call IT, and put a PowerPoint together all on your own without being able to call a colleague for help.
Another thing is that people sometimes don’t get back to you after an initial call to discuss a project. I used to find it rude verging on disrespectful. I try to look at it now as if they’re keeping me on file and not saying anything because they may still need my services at some point in the distant future.
If, as is often the case, your first gigs come from your previous employer and you used to be fairly senior, you’ll have to adjust to your new position, which is that you don’t have one. ‘Sorry, could you stop for a minute,’ said one of my first clients and a lovely former colleague when I launched into a tirade about the best way to approach a new project. ‘This is not the way I want to do it. And, with all due respect, you’re not my boss anymore.’ This was said kindly but it was a useful reminder: I wasn’t managing the project anymore and making decisions, I was lending a hand for a fee.
This lack of external professional status means you have to constantly remind yourself, especially on black dog days that you’re not completely useless and there are things you can do and do well. But what? A lot of us are surprisingly clueless about what we’re good at. In my case, as a former MD, I hadn’t ‘done’ much for many years: I’d managed, organised, supervised, coached, controlled and delegated. And all of a sudden there was no one to delegate to and all my managerial skills felt utterly redundant.
When you first go freelance, and at regular intervals, it’s worth doing the equivalent of what meditation practitioners call a full body scan, treating your skills like you would your muscles. What works? What hurts? What’s rusty? Beware of skills you haven’t used for a while – you may think you’ve still got it and you could be completely wrong. I was, in one awkward case.
In the same way as a personal trainer will insist you do not neglect your biceps when all you want to do is work on your core, in the absence of company sponsored training, force yourself to learn new things regularly and set time aside for that purpose. It keeps your brain agile and your skill set balanced. Profuse swearing and the occasional tears of frustration are fine: you’re on your own.
And in the same way that you wouldn’t always exercise the same muscle, try to vary your gigs: it will stave off boredom, protect your income when something random like Covid happens and futureproof your career. Because clients will want you initially for missions related to the last job you’ve done. This, however, won’t last more than three years, as any former buyer will tell you. It is therefore imperative to start reinventing yourself and diversify from day one. Also, client churn is the essence of freelance work and it is essential to try and plan where your next client will come from, something that it isn’t easy to make time for when you’re fully invested in your current projects.
Embracing change is contrary to human nature. While at Sopexa, I attended an illuminating seminar on that topic. The company desperately needed evolving yet had a number of old-timers who were resisting change as hard as they could. And trust me, French people are very good at resisting anything and everything. It’s a national sport. Being freelance, however, means not just embracing change but actively courting it, a modus operandi that can be exhausting at times. Especially if you’re French. I am.
How do you reinvent yourself? Some people are brilliant at it. I’m not. I throw stuff around till something sticks. What I find helpful though is to work for free. Now I know this is controversial. Tout travail mérite salaire, etc… So let’s be clear, I do not advocate working for free as a rule. In my experience though, it can be a good way to either try something new – even if you mess up, your client can hardly complain if they haven’t paid or paid little for your services – or to participate in a dopamine boosting project if the rest of your work at this particular moment is a bit unrewarding. ‘That’s the great thing about your own success – it makes you more confident as a person.’ This comment, which Amber Rudd made in a recent interview in The Times struck me as very apt.
Working for free can also be part and parcel of your business model. Look at influencers: a lot of the content they offer is free but it is the quality and the visibility of that content that will prompt brands to employ them for paid projects. This can be a tough one to wrap your mind around if you’ve gotten used to receive a salary at the end of every month. I found it tricky to start with.
While we’re on the delightful subject of money, it’s worth pointing out that working freelance is financially completely different from being on PAYE, the main reason being that whatever payment terms you put at the bottom of your invoices, there is a fair chance it will be splendidly ignored. Some wonderful clients will pay you on time and even early, yet some will need to be chased up time and time and time again. It is beyond tedious and a huge waste of time. It means you can’t empty your bank account to the last penny, expecting it to be refilled magically on a given day like you sometimes do when you are employed. Sometimes you feel rich and sometimes it’s scary. When you feel rich is a good time to put money aside to pay future taxes. Because self-employed tax bills arrive long after you’ve been paid and can therefore be difficult to honour if your income varies from one year to the next.
In order to get new projects, you have to be visible to potential clients. Last year, I would have suggested attending generic tastings and trade fairs. It’s a drag and can be uncomfortable if you haven’t got a specific agenda but people nowadays, me included, have got the attention span of the average gnat. If they haven’t seen you for six months, you may as well be dead. The other marvellous way to remain visible is, of course, social media. I won’t develop as there would be too much to say but the two golden rules are to be yourself, within the parameters of your chosen platform – no point in trying to dissemble, you’ll be found out sooner or later –, and not to use social media as a crude loudspeaker. Exclusively trumpeting your achievements whether bibulous, social or professional will soon make you unpopular. It’s the equivalent of going to a party, standing on your own in the middle of the room and shouting those same achievements out loud. Engage with others on social media in the same way you would IRL. Remember to be kind and not to ignore people younger or less experienced than you are: aspirational engaging is painful to watch and doesn’t fool anyone.
It sounds obvious but it’s worth mentioning: hone your LinkedIn profile and update it regularly. I have received several business opportunities out of the blue via LinkedIn. Pay for a decent picture that makes you look like a competent and dynamic operator. I look nothing like my LinkedIn picture on a normal day but my clients don’t need to know about the very comfortable and formidably unflattering pale pink dressing gown I’d stored at the back of a wardrobe and have adopted as my ‘office attire’ this winter.
Your best gigs will feel like they come out of nowhere, except they don’t. Three years ago I got a phone call while on the beach from someone I’d met once. She became my biggest client. It makes for a good story but she’d done a lot of checking behind the scenes before contacting me.
I used to worry about losing my job. I now worry about losing my clients. The difference is that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ‘To lose one client may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose all looks like carelessness.’
I still miss two things about my former jobs: the regularity with which I was paid and the fact I never had to chase up – salaries are wondrous things -, and the kind, funny, clever, quirky and amazing people I’ve worked with through the years. Office life and work friendships can be brilliant and going freelance means foregoing both. I once called a client two months after a project had been completed. ‘I expect you haven’t been paid,’ was the first thing she said when she picked up the phone. ‘I am so sorry.’ I felt a bit embarrassed to say that, no, I had been paid but I kind of missed our daily exchanges and was just calling to have a chat. I put the phone down and went for a walk in the sunshine in the middle of the afternoon. You can’t have it all.