5 things I’ve learnt about freelancing in my first 5 years as a freelancer

I’ve recently spent some time reflecting back on my first five years of freelancing. It’s been quite a ride and I’ve learnt A LOT. About business. About the cultural sector. About myself.

Here are 5 lessons I’ve learnt and tips I would give to newbie freelancers:

  1. Be assertive and proactive

Don’t spend hours desperately scrolling on social media hoping that opportunities will come to you. Hunt down tenders and briefs out there, make speculative approaches, get out and about, get involved in online and ‘real’ communities (e.g. #museumfreelance and #museumhour on Twitter), comment and have opinions, write a blog.

Make sure people know who you are, what you can do and how you can help them. Don’t be afraid to hustle and don’t be afraid to ask for testimonials and shout about your achievements – if you don’t, no one will and people aren’t mindreaders!

Learn how to say ‘no’, question things that don’t sound right or you think could be improved and don’t take rejection too personally. These are still a work in progress for me but I’ve found they get easier over time with experience. Learning to say ‘no’ was a theme from one of our 2017 Museum Freelance event speakers, business coach Anna Lundberg, and she has a guide on this that is worth checking out.

  1. Plan, evaluate and reflect

Treat your business as a client or project like any other. Schedule some time to look at your finances, do some marketing, identify your training needs, review how things are going and so on.

Try to have a bit of a plan or at least a few goals or aspirations to aim for – it might be doing a particular type of work, working with a particular client, learning a new skill, earning a particular amount of income or having enough time for other things in your life. Whatever it is, have something to aim for and work backwards from there to identify steps you can take towards achieving this goal.

Make sure you do a bit of reflection and evaluation, whether informally or informally, sporadically or regularly. For example, can you work out:

  • Where your work comes from (e.g. Google searches, word of mouth, repeat clients, tenders)?
  • How long you spend on your average new business proposal?
  • What your success rate is for new business proposals? Are there differences between types of work and where they come from?
  • How much (if at all) you over-service? And which clients and why?
  • Your most profitable projects?

And do you know what type of work you want more of (whatever the reason – profitability, interest, relevance) and do you proactively try to get this type of work?

Make the most of the tools out there (many of which are free) to do this. For example, at the start of the year I moved from using Excel and started using Toggl to track and evaluate how I spend my time and it really has been transformative. It focuses the mind, is accurate and great for evaluation.

  1. Stretch that comfort zone

One of the reasons I left previous jobs was that I felt my comfort zones were shrinking. After a while, some of the work became cyclical and comfortable and I wanted more of a challenge. Working as a consultant I still want to keep pushing myself. In some ways this is easier, as there are new clients and projects all the time to get your head around. But at the same time when working for yourself you have a bit more control of what you do and take on, so it could be easy to fall into a pattern of taking on ‘safe’ work very much within your comfort zone.

The things that stretch me in terms of challenging issues, new approaches and tight timescales, are often the most satisfying and exhilarating when I pull them off. I recommend that all freelancers challenge themselves to step outside that comfort zone or take a risk now and again, whether it’s speaking at a conference, learning a new skill, using a new app, taking the plunge to invest in marketing or training, making proactive approaches at networking events or taking on some work that is slightly outside your comfort zone (but you are still capable of delivering on).

Having founded the Museum Freelance Network with Laura Crossley in 2016, I decided to take the plunge in 2017 and organise a one-day conference for museum freelancers. I did my research, but it was nonetheless a gamble as I had no idea how many people would actually buy tickets and I took on the financial risk. But it was a huge success and I recently followed up with the second Museum Freelance conference with brilliant support and input from freelancer Marge Ainsley and Laura. 75 freelancers and people thinking about freelancing attended and there was such a buzz from everyone exchanging ideas, stories and issues – one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on since going independent.

  1. Invest in training

Training can help you and your skills stay relevant, diversify or improve your work, give you some headspace to think away from your to do list and to chat (in person or virtually) to others.

It doesn’t have to be expensive, and you don’t have to leave your office (readings articles and blogs can be very useful or try a MOOC – Massive Open Online Course e.g. www.mooc.org, www.futurelearn.com) but do something every year.

The best training I’ve been on as a consultant was the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) Group Facilitation Methods training in 2015. It was practical and relevant and I learnt new skills and gained confidence in an area of work that I was taking on more and more. They have a discount for independent practitioners which I really valued, but with travel, a night’s accommodation in London (it was a two-day course) and other expenses it still came to around £470, plus childcare issues to sort. However this investment has more than paid for itself and I regularly use the methods learnt in the training. Getting out of the office and meeting with a variety of other delegates from different sectors and walks of life was also good for the soul.

  1. REALLY embrace the lifestyle

I read somewhere that we should talk about living as a freelancer, rather than working as a freelancer. I agree, as it’s hard to compartmentalise and freelancing impacts everything – your workplace, income and benefits, working hours, colleagues, development and career path, time off and much more.

It’s easy to get bogged down in work and the dreams so many new freelancers have of an improved work/life balance just fizzle out and become a misty work/life blur, with a lack of clear boundaries and a sense you can never switch off.

Mike Ellis from Thirty8 Digital gave a rousing call to action at this year’s Museum Freelance conference on ‘How to stop freelancing from killing you’ and his slides are worth checking out and his advice worth following, as really freelancing should be liberating, not a death sentence.

Make sure you make the most of the positives that come with being freelance. For example, I aim to go for one daytime run and one daytime walk every week for the fresh air, exercise and to clear my head. And whilst I miss having familiar colleagues to sit with regularly, it was great that no-one batted an eyelid when I recently spent 45 minutes trying to get tickets to Hamilton when they were released at midday on a Monday!

4 thoughts on “5 things I’ve learnt about freelancing in my first 5 years as a freelancer

  1. Patrick Peal says:

    I’m sure I am not the only former colleague who is impressed and proud of what you havw achieved.
    By launching the conference you have really made a difference to other people’s lives. There’s no better feeling.


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