This week marks my self-employed-iversary. How exciting! I registered when I first started making an income from blogging, though if I’m honest even then I didn’t have any real expectation that it would become my career. Over the last year I’ve learnt a lot about myself, about running a business and about being a freelancer in the creative industries. There are a lot of highs, some lows, and some general practices that I think are likely to impact all freelancers that are in desperate need of reform.
Here’s what I’ve learnt –
PEOPLE WILL EXPECT YOU TO WORK FOR FREE
I’m not sure if this is an issue reserved solely for creatives, but sometimes the things people want you to do for free are a bit mind-blowing. As a blogger, it can be tough to strike the right balance between organic content (unsponsored blog and Instagram posts created and shared for free) and paid work. I try and sit somewhere around eighty percent in favour of the former and as such I do reference a lot of places and brands out of nothing but a love of them. But I need to pay my bills too. That’s where sponsored content comes in. I feel very strongly about only ever promoting (paid or not) products and brands that I a) love and b) would happily spend my own money on.
I get asked all the time to work for free or in exchange for products and whilst I am by no means above being paid in kind if the reciprocal benefit is great enough (a trip, a high-value service etc), it’s really frustrating to be treated as though a pair of shoes is an acceptable currency. It’s not.
Worse still are phrases like “trial run” or “test”. It really is the equivalent of asking a hairdresser to give you their best cut and colour sans payment just so you can see if you’re happy with it first.
KNOW YOUR WORTH
Pricing yourself as a freelancer is tough. Some industries have clear guidelines, others don’t. My job falls into the latter camp and so there’s been a hell of a lot of trial and error. I’ve reached a point where I think I can fairly judge my own worth and adjust it depending on the specifics of a job, but there are definitely plenty of things I’ve agreed to only to feel like a bit of a mug. It’s a learning curve and it’s okay to make mistakes but if you’re knowingly undercharging – whether you’re a blogger, a photographer, a consultant or whatever – then you’re essentially undermining your entire industry and making things tougher for those who succeed you.
SAVE FOR TAX FROM DAY ONE
One of the toughest adjustments to freelance life is the lack of defined monthly pay check. Income tends to comes in drips and drabs and as such some months you feel like a Kardashian, and others you’re wondering whether toasting the last of the bread will kill the mouldy bits. It can be easy to fall into the trap of living from invoice to invoice; personally I avoid this by averaging out my income over a period to create an approximate monthly salary that I can then pay myself out of.
Just don’t forget the tax. For the love of god, do. not. forget. the. tax. We’re often so in the habit of having it deducted at source that we forget we actually have to be able to pay this – in one ugly lump sum – every year. My advice is to put 20-30% of every single invoice to one side so that when it comes to doing your return you’ll have plenty to cover your income tax and national insurance, and you’ll likely have a bit left over once your personal allowance and expenses are taken into account too.
THE EXPENSES TIN OF DOOM
Somewhere in the distance I can hear a hypocrite alarm crying loudly. *Whispers*: all my receipts are in a tin. Bollocks. If you’re about to become self-employed then do yourself a favour and create a spreadsheet and an expense filing system now and save yourself the future ball-ache.
REALLY ANNOYING PAYMENT TERMS
Like 60 days from month end? Uhhhh. What’s that about?
THERE ARE LAWS TO PROTECT YOU AGAINST LATE PAYMENT
Know your rights. The Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 is your best friend when you’re owed money. I’m particularly good at chasing late payments in a friendly but firm (and legally enforceable!) manner – would this be a useful blog post in itself? – and it’s really important that you get to know the laws that are there to protect you. Don’t make up your own late fees because unless you are incredibly explicit about these before contracts are signed, they’re not enforceable. There are set amounts per invoice as well as base-rate interest that you are legally entitled to for each and every late payment, so make sure you check what terms you’ve agreed to (30 days is standard, but see above *eye roll*) and keep an eye on the date on invoices that are due to be paid.
YOU GET TO MANAGE YOUR OWN TIME
Which is both a blessing and a curse. You’ve got to get really good at finding the routine that works best for you; it’s a privilege to choose what that may be rather than having to succumb to someone else’s office hours, but it’s amazing how easy it is to flounder without someone telling you what to do or when to get up. If you’re not a morning person (like me – see here) then you can totally choose lie in, but you have to be prepared to work later too.
Personally I’d really struggle to work for someone else again based just on this reason alone: I like being able to work until 10pm if I’m on a roll, or say yes to a social invitation on a Monday afternoon if I fancy it. It’s about striking the right balance between discipline and your own personal habits.
TAKE WEEKENDS AND HOLIDAYS
The downside to managing your own time is that it can be really hard to give yourself a break. When you’re solely responsible of the success of your business it’s tough to know when to step away but I think it is really important to allow yourself down time. If anything, it just makes you better at whatever it is you do!
THE POWER HOUR
I read this one in ‘Little Black Book‘ by Otegha Uwagba. The first hour of your day should be dedicated to ticking off a task from your to do list, avoiding emails and social media. I definitely need to put this one into practice more; it’s way too easy to get sucked into your inbox first thing in the morning only to glance up and realise its nearly 4pm and you haven’t actually done anything.
FIGURE OUT WHERE YOU WORK BEST
Working from home sounds really dreamy: no commute, constant fridge access, embarrassingly fluffy slippers. That is, until you factor in all of the distractions and the fact that sometimes doing the laundry is actually preferable to whatever your to-do list is offering. I flit between working productively from home and being swallowed by cabin fever. Instead I now dedicate two days a week for meetings, events and any other out-and-about tasks that require putting make up on and interacting with other people. The other three I work from home; sometimes my kitchen table, others my local sports club that I joined largely for the work-friendly facilities. Just do not work from your bedroom if you can help it; it’s too easy to be lazy and it should be a haven at the end of a long day, not somewhere you were sat doing your invoices a few hours earlier.
I reckon I can directly correlate my productivity with what I’m wearing. It doesn’t have to be some high-fashion outfit, but even just sticking on a pair of jeans, a bra and a t-shirt improves my focus much more than when I’m in my dressing gown/sweatpants.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT JUSTIFYING YOURSELF
People have really mixed opinions on self-employment and often they’re communicated in the form of bizarrely nosy questions. “So, you actually make money from that?“, “Oh yeah, and how much does that make you then?“, “Well, it’s easy for you because you don’t have to be in the office for 08.30!” Why? I don’t know. It may just be because people often struggle with things they don’t understand or even due to a teeny bit of jealousy. Particularly when your business is a creative one it can be tough to make it clear it’s still bloody hard work. Just don’t bother even trying.
CELEBRATE THE HIGHS
When you work all by yourself there often isn’t anyone about to share the small victories with. It’s really important to be able to celebrate good news, a job very well done, excellent feedback or an amazing new opportunity with others in your life – even if that’s just cracking open a bottle of £6 prosecco at an exciting contract signed.
BUT DON’T DWELL ON THE NO’S AND THE LOWS
You’ve got to learn to deal with rejection: sometimes it is personal but that doesn’t mean it has to be too disheartening and it doesn’t mean it won’t be a yes in the future. And sometimes, people are flaky. They often forget there’s another person on the other end of whatever decision they’ve made, whether that’s pulling budget, changing their mind about an order, retracting an invitation (yeah that actually happens and I’ll never get my head around it being a-okay) or going back on something you got really excited about. Whether its down to you or to them, you’ll hear a lot of “no”s and it’s important to learn from them where possible but also to move on quickly and focus on the next project.
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