Thinking of Freelancing? What to Expect in Your First Year

If you're thinking of freelancing, the first year can be hard

It’s been a year and one month since I officially became a freelancer. With two children under 4, a husband, 3 chickens and two guinea pigs it’s been turbulent to say the least.

Over the last few months I’ve read more and more negative portrayals of freelancing; none of which are terribly helpful if it’s your only option. I therefore wanted to approach this a little differently. By reflecting on my own experiences and providing a few pointers, I aim to show you what freelancing (with other commitments) is really like.

At the point of becoming a freelancer last year I did zero research, sought little help or advice (mainly because I knew very few people who had taken the plunge), and never imaged that it would be anything like it has been. So, if you’re thinking about freelancing and breaking away from the ‘norm’, here’s are few things I’ve learnt – the hard way. This blog will either make you run to the safety of employment or it will help to prepare you for the challenge ahead.

Why I made the move into freelancing

Like so many others, I hated my job. Although I loved what I did for a living the place I worked was relentlessly bad. To this day, I still find bits of paper in old note books where I had recorded yet another incident of intimidation, isolation and ridicule that took place in another pointless meeting. It wasn’t good.

Having had my second child at the start of 2016 I desperately wanted to enjoy motherhood and continue working. However, finding a new part-time marketing position close to home was pretty much impossible.

It was through contacts that various opportunities arose. Whilst on Maternity Leave I found myself on a Skype call with a CEO (while rocking the baby under the table), which resulted in my first gig that October. With the promise of more work I had found my niche and established the services that I could offer. The rest – as they say – is history.

I set up Yabber Marketing with the aim of offering digital marketing consultancy to small businesses: Helping them to be more competitive and gain more exposure online. Having worked with or for small businesses throughout my career, I knew that there was a demand for flexible and affordable marketing solutions – but enough of the self promotion. 

The ‘gig’ economy

With 4.85 million self-employed workers in the UK (that’s roughly 15% of all employed people), it’s easy to see why we hear so much about the ‘gig economy’. Businesses are seeing the value of short-term contracts. With no NI to pay, holidays, pensions, maternity, company cars or sick pay, freelancers have become a viable and attractive solution in these times of economic uncertainty. And the benefits for freelancers are plentiful too.

Thanks to freelancers, industries are thriving and the gig economy is booming. If you’re worried that freelancing isn’t sustainable – think again. I don’t think there has ever been a better time.

What you can expect in your first year

1. You’ve got to really want to be a freelancer

When I mention I’m a freelancer people normally respond with

‘oh I bet that’s nice, working when you want.’

‘Yes’, I say.

‘All the time’, I add.

In some capacity or another, for reasons that will be explained, as a freelancer I‘m always busy. There’s rarely a time, especially in the evenings, when I have nothing to do. Let me be clear about this – there is never a time when I have nothing to do. Whilst I’m sure this won’t necessarily be the case in years to come, I can cofidently say your first year will be the busiest.

What’s more annoying is that you might not even be earning a living everyday. Instead, most of your time will be spent promoting yourself, chasing up leads and recovering from rejections.

My advice? Think carefully about why you want to become a freelancer. If you have aspirations of spending more time with the kids, the hubby or the dog; more time to take up hobbies, or train for that marathon, don’t expect this to happen in your first year.

I became a freelancer because I have always wanted to work for myself and one day, have my own business. But although freelancing does give me the chance to spend days with the kids, I don’t do less work. I just do less work in ‘normal’ working hours and more work in the evenings.

Basically, you’ve got to have the desire to be a freelancer rather than desire the benefits.

2. The first year is rough

In year one there is plenty to do and tonnes to learn. No matter how knowledgeable you are in your field, unless you’ve ran a business or been a freelancer before there is nothing that can prepare you for the amount of stress that comes from a ridiculous work load. Even if you have a massive amount of clients queuing up for your services (which is always a good thing to establish before you hand in your notice), you still need to think about promotion to ensure future sustainability. This means hard graft on the promotional front.

As a marketing consultant this should be pretty straight forward, right?

Wrong!

Self-promotion is always the last thing on my gigantic list of jobs. Just take a look at how obisimley naked my blog page is. This has to be fitted in around pitching for work, completing deadlines for existing clients, nurturing relationships and navigating round the UK’s ridiculously complicated HMRC government website. On top of that you’ve got to find accountants, understand tax returns, record on-going income and expenditure, set up processes, design, build and run a website, manage a multitude of social media accounts and remember to feed yourself and occasionally take naps. Phew!

This was my first year in a nutshell.

An added pressure for me is that, as a marketing prof offering digital marketing services I needed to have a good online presence. Since clients often assess my digital marketing abilities based on my own online presence, it’s no surprise that this is a major stress point. My website still isn’t perfect and I rarely have time to write a blog post.  

I strongly recommend getting some of these things in place before you give up the 9-5. This will massively relieve some of the pressures along the way and free you up to clinch those crucial contracts.

3. No two clients are the same

As a specialist in your field you know what you’re doing and you sometimes just want to get on with the job. But taking the time to get to know your clients will pay off in the long run. Ask them what their expectations are, find out what programmes they use, what format they want things and always agree on objectives and deadlines. It doesn’t sound like a big issue having to re-save something in a different format and reissue it but if you’re doing this constantly it will soon consume your valuable time.

It’s also really inconvenient if you’re like me and feel the need to respond to clients immediately, even if it’s Saturday night. Limit the number of times you have to go back and forth by ascertaining all of the nitty gritty information before you start a project.

4. You’ll see more of 2:00am than you did during your 20s

Even with children who don’t always sleep through the night, the number one reason for staying awake at night is the workload. I’ve been awake more times after midnight than I did during my prime – and I was pretty wild.

At the risk of repeating myself, there is a lot to do in your first year. And sometimes you’ll spend more time on your own ‘to do’ list than actually working for clients.

I’d imagine that this can be made better if you take care of the business side of things before you start freelancing. But remember that freelancing is like running a business, which had to happen on top of having to meet client deadlines to bring in the money. At the end of the month I like to produce marketing reports for clients that I can submit with an invoice to show any objectives met and progress made, so at the end of each month I’m always awake well after I should be.

5. Working solo can get so low

Fortunately, I haven’t struggled with isolation too much. However, working on your own can be difficult, especially if you enjoy the office environment. I have to admit, I do miss the office banter, working in a team and being able to bounce ideas around. But in all honesty, I feel more focused and less distracted at home.

One of the things I do struggle with is separating work and home life. At the moment the two are very much intertwined. I work from a desk in a tiny and uncomfortable office but I’ve recently started venturing to coffee shops which is a nice reprieve.

If you’re working for local clients ask to join them in the office to break up the monotony. I’ve used my local library a couple of times and there are places in most cities that will allow you to rent a space for day. This is particularly handy if you need to meet with clients.  

6. It’s tempting to say yes to everything – but don’t!

It’s taken me a year to learn how to say ‘no’ or have the confidence to tell clients that there is a two month wait for my service. In the beginning I took everything that was thrown at me and charged relatively little. But as time went on I realised that I didn’t need to accept convoluted briefs that were going to take 12 hours to unravel. I also learned how to stop promising that work could be completed at the drop of a hat. Learning this has definitely helped me and I no longer have to try to complete three projects in one day. Ouch!

If you’re good at what you do and clients want to use you, they will wait until you’re available and you will therefore, get to bed on time.

7. Some organisations don’t treat their suppliers well

Thankfully, my clients have all been great – lovely in fact! They’ve been encouraging, approachable and paid me on-time. However, I have been surprised by the attitudes of larger organisations and how they treat their freelancers and suppliers. I’d like to stress that I haven’t experienced this first hand, but I do know freelancers that have.

Be warned. Some businesses treat freelancers as disposable commodities, asking you to complete something with a day’s notice and then take weeks to respond to a pitch you forward. As freelancers we don’t mind being disposable. That’s partly why we exist. However, as freelancers we need to be able to book in work and rely on work that clients have promised.

If you feel that you’re in a situation where you’re over a barrel, ease off. Make yourself less available and be honest about your workload. There’s nothing more stressful than trying to manage a relationship with businesses that have a poor mentality.

It’s impossible to appease a client who doesn’t show mutual respect and understanding. After a year of freelancing I’m now in a position where I can say no to work. While I’ll often put a bad interaction with the client down to them having a bad day, if it happens repeatedly I kindly refuse the work.

But wait! Don’t give up on your dream just yet. For all the potential negatives of being a freelancer there is one big fat positive in all of this. As a freelancer you work for you, the boss of it all. What I have learned?

8. I can be completely myself

And I like me. At the risk of getting hippy about it, freelancing is taking me on a journey of self discovery. So far I’ve learned that I am a lot stronger than I thought I was, I’m a workaholic, I stop at nothing to make my clients happy, which makes me happy. I’m passionate about what I do, I love what I do and I’m resilient. I respond to emails how I want, and I’m building a brand around myself.

And I DONT MISS:

  • 8.00am rush hour and a 1 hour commute to travel 7 miles across town
  • The boss – need I say more
  • Appraisals
  • Pointless meetings
  • Huge tea/coffee rounds
  • Annoying colleagues (you know the ones)
  • Having to pay for birthdays and leaving presents for people you don’t know
  • Forcing yourself to have a morning conversation with Barry, when you just want drown yourself in coffee and listen to Bon Iver.

Instead, I have a great relationship with my clients and have been able to keep all of the ones I’ve wanted to retain. Freelancing is ultimately about working on your terms. The different projects bring new challenges. New clients always provide fresh perspective and I’m still constantly learning new skills. I love freelancing! The rewards are mine alone, it’s highly flexible, and I can listen to Rage Against the Machine as loud as you want, whenever you want.

9. I do occasionally get to go on holiday

Sarah Miles,Yabber Marketing on holiday

So what are you waiting for? I hope you’ve found this insight into freelancing helpful and you can make the decision about freelancing feeling better informed. Please get in touch if you have any specific questions or just post to let me know how you’re surviving.

About the author

Freelance marketing consultant and owner of Yabber Marketing. I help small businesses get noticed online by offering a range of effective digital marketing services.

Get new blogs delivered straight to your inbox