STARTING a career as a creative freelance is always a challenge, but restarting can be just as tough.
It’s not unusual for freelances to have a period of absence; maybe you’ve taken parental leave; or maybe you’re semi-retired and have decided to explore ways of earning extra income; or maybe, like me, you’ve had a permanent job for a few years and are now shifting back to freelancing. Whatever the reason, re-launching yourself as a stand-alone creative professional can be both an exciting and a daunting prospect.
I’m currently in the early stages of my third re-entry into self-employment and I am eager to turn my specialisms - journalism; copywriting; and professional training – into a viable portfolio career. My first re-launch was back in 1998. I had been out of the loop for a mere 12 months but it took me another 12 months to re-establish myself and earn a reasonable income. This was a very difficult year and I quickly learned that planning and forethought are essential.
I had foolishly assumed that the market would be the same as when I left. I expected the same key people would be in the same positions and they would commission work at the same rates. I also thought that my reputation – built over the previous six years – would be strong enough to carry me through the transition. Alas, none of these assumptions were correct.
Thankfully, I learned from my mistakes and am now taking a more structured approach. So far, the following five steps have allowed me to look forward with confidence.
Overlap and plan
Officially, I became freelance again on October 1st 2015 but I’ve been preparing since January. At first my plan was a little more than a hazy dream, but over these nine months, I did plenty of market research, loads of calculations and slowly added detail to my ambitions. I gave myself the goal of becoming a self-sustaining freelance within twelve months and worked out how much money and approximately how many commissions I would need to be relatively secure.
This period of overlap with my previous job also allowed me to build up a contingency fund for the inevitable ‘rainy days’. Cash flow is always an issue for the self-employed and it is very risky to assume that you will immediately secure commissions and then receive prompt payment. It is clearly a good idea to restart a freelance career with your bank account firmly in the black.
Have a second string to your bow
My own contingency fund has been boosted by a hobby that I turned into a small business. Two years ago, I began trading in vintage maps and I now sell my products at weekly antique markets. Summer and pre-Christmas are the busiest periods but February to May is typically dismal. These seasonal undulations are not necessarily a bad thing, however, because journalism and copywriting tends to have the opposite pattern.
My two income streams are sufficiently diverse to give me a fighting chance of achieving a degree of income stability. The same could be true if I took a part-time job to help counter the unpredictable cash flow of freelancing. Many creative professionals take this route, and there is a lot to be said for devoting a few days a week to earning a guaranteed income even if it involves doing something totally divorced from your creative passions.
Create a digital presence
At the time of my second re-launch in 2008, social networking was still in its infancy and few people recognised the marketing potential of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. Back then, I relied on my website to provide a ‘shop window’ for my services but, in retrospect, it was rather bland, and merely featured a few examples of my articles and statements of my capabilities.
This time, I have revamped my website and it now includes podcasts, videos and links to some of my published work on client websites. I have also set up a Twitter account and follow various news organisations, research bodies and other journalists in my area, and engage in discussions and debates. This allows me to see what issues are on the agenda and, by also following editors, I know who might be receptive to a pitch. The marketing potential of Twitter also works in the other direction and some editors use it to invite bids for freelance work. Spending 20 minutes on Twitter every day is a surprisingly effective way of keeping tabs on your area of specialism.
Even life-long technophobes have the skills to set up Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. These platforms are very easy to use and totally free. You should, however, expect to pay a modest amount for your website, but the rudiments of web design are pretty straightforward, so think hard before commissioning a professional designer.
Write a list
Social media is very widely used by creative freelances for self-promotion these days but it has not replaced the tried-and-tested methods. Indeed, phone calls and face-to-face meetings are much more interactive and human than tweeting and sending impersonal emails. They can also be much more productive, if you do some research and carefully target your clients.
I have written numerous lists over recent months but the most important is my top twenty list of potential clients. These include organisations I have worked for in the past, and some that I aspire to work for. For the last few months, I have been catching up with old contacts and following prospective new ones on Twitter to familiarise myself with their publication’s editorial focus and the styles of writing. The next step is to contact these people individually with finely-tuned article proposals, point them at the examples of my work on my website and make myself available for future commissions.
Investigate your entitlements
Freelances are famously proud of their independence and few would expect to get financial help from the state. If, however, you are on a low income, even for a limited period, you have the same entitlement as people in employment. This help could be in the form of housing benefit, tax credits or council tax benefit, and although it might not amount to much on paper, it could be a useful supplement to your earned income.
To find out if you qualify for financial help, have a look at http://www.entitledto.co.uk/. You will need to fill in a few forms but it’s worth the effort and you might be surprised at the outcome.
As with all plans, there is no guarantee that mine will be effective. But it is certainly an improvement on my previous, somewhat disorganised re-launches. My next mission is to start phoning my top twenty potential clients with ideas for work and, with a bit of luck, my bank account will see the benefit of my industry some time in the New Year.