9 survival tips for freelancers (or how to go solo without going loco)

In the 20 years since I set up my business, I’ve learnt a thing or two about how to make it as a successful freelancer.

It’s about time I shared some of my secrets to help you rock the socks off freelance life.

Success. Funny word.

Highly subjective.

Success to me means I’m financially secure. I have the time and money to do the things I want to do.

Being a single parent for 12 years has made financial independence even more important to me – but success isn’t just about the money.

I can pick and choose who I work with. I can make life easier for people who are in the same position I was in way back when.

Most of all, success to me means I get to do a job I love – day in, day out.

It’s bloody great. And not a day goes by that I don’t remind myself how lucky I am.

A word of warning…

All this stuff. It’s easy for me to say – I get that.

It takes time to build a reputation for being great at what you do – and the recommendations that back that up.

If you’re just starting out, having someone tell you you should choose who you work with, charge what you’re worth and invest in your business… it might seem unrealistic. Hell, it might even piss you off.

But if even a bit of my advice helps to make your freelance life – or even your day – a little better, I’ll be happy.

So let’s crack on and dispel some of the myths about solo working.

1. “I like my own company. I don’t need anyone else.”

I say you’re wrong.

Being a sole trader doesn’t mean going it alone.

I’m pretty extrovert. Based on what I’ve learned from the copywriting conferences I’ve been to over the years, that’s unusual. But that’s not the point.

However independent, self-contained and introverted you are, everyone – even you – needs to know they’re not alone.

Freelance life can be damn hard.

And lonely.

And isolating.

And it’s even harder if you’ve no one who understands just how damn hard (and lonely and isolating) it is.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Common ground is a great starting point for lasting friendship and support – and it’s out there. You just need to know where to look.

Whether you join a networking group or professional body, find a thriving coworking space, mix it up by attending various different events or simply go all-out on social media, finding your people – your tribe – is a great way of feeling less alone in your freelance life.

I’ve made great real-life friends from people I originally met on Twitter and Instagram.

For example, there’s an active #copywritersunite community on Twitter that spills out into real-life socials and conferences, where we all get to meet in person.

To quote Amy Boylan after this year’s ProCopywriters conference: “You all take the lonely out of working alone for me, and it’s genuine because it works fab in person too.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

2. “I have to do it all: sales, marketing, admin, accounts, IT…”

Err… no.

Trying to do everything yourself is the fast train to burnout.

To become successful doing the thing you love, you need to surround yourself with good people.

Hire an accountant to file your tax returns and handle your VAT. Find a virtual assistant to do those annoying admin tasks you hate. Use an IT support company who’ll be on hand every time your computer begs you to throw it out the window.

You’ll save SO much time, headspace and frustration.

Straight up? It took me 15 years to get to the point where I was willing to pay other people to do the jobs A) I loathe and B) I suck at. I’d spend longer procrastinating about doing my tax return than it’d take my accountant to do a year’s worth of accounts. It’s a no brainer.

Here’s a simple equation:

as much time as possible doing the things that make you money

+

as little time as possible doing the things that don’t

=

freelance success 

It’s a game-changer. Don’t take as long as I did to see this.

3. “I’ve got an eight-year-old laptop – that’s good enough, right?”

It really isn’t.

To become successful in business, you need to invest in technology.

If you’re a professional photographer, I trust you aren’t snapping away on an iPhone 6 (no offence to iPhone 6 owners).

If you’re a graphic designer, you probably don’t make do with a copy of QuarkXPress on a vintage Apple Mac.

You need up-to-date, reliable software and hardware to do your job properly.

If you’re using an ancient version of Microsoft Word that crashes every five minutes, or a printer that jams so often you’re tempted to chuck it through the nearest window, you can’t do your best work.

And if you’re not doing your best work, you’re not providing your clients with a professional service.

Fact.

Keeping your technology up-to-date can give you the edge over your competitors.

Failing to invest can mean getting left behind.

4. “They want me to do the work, they just don’t have the budget right now.”

Listen up: this is a big one.

We all know who I’m talking about. Those tricksy so-and-sos who promise you exposure in exchange for services.

They’re going to be big. Huge, in fact. Working for them will be SO good for your career! They just can’t afford your prices right now…

Seriously, step away from the tight-arsed client. You’ll end up cursing the day you met them.

They’ll micromanage every last detail. They’ll chase you endlessly (despite the fact you’ve never missed a deadline). And they’ll never be satisfied.

I don’t know why the clients who question costs end up being the biggest headache – they just do.

Charge a fair price that reflects your skills and experience and have the confidence to stick to it.

(Do your research if you’re not sure what to charge. Most industries publish rate surveys to give you a benchmark.)

Just remember – freelance ain’t free.

5. “I’ve been doing this job for 20 years now. I know everything there is to know about marketing/dentistry/accounts.”

Hell NO!

The minute you stop being curious about the world you work in – the second you nod your head with satisfaction and think “I’ve got this. Now I can relax” – will be the moment in which you fail.

Never, ever stop learning.

Invest in yourself and your business by attending conferences and events, and squeeze the living daylights out of them.

Take notes, type them up so they sink in, read and reread them.

Speaking of reading…

Read voraciously. Read about your trade, about business, about psychology. Anything that feeds your imagination, inspires you, and helps you to be a better freelancer – and a better person.

(If you’re not into reading, join Audible or Blinkist, subscribe to podcasts, or watch TED Talks or industry experts on YouTube. Whatever it takes to keep expanding your mind.)

6. “Everyone’s an expert. I don’t know why I bother!”

“Why should I pay for a copywriter? I got a B in my English GCSE.”

If you’re a freelance copywriter, you’ll recognise this attitude.

Because everyone’s a writer – right?

I decided some years ago that I didn’t want to work with anyone who doesn’t already appreciate the value of professional copywriting.

I’m not interested in trying to convince anyone that they need me. I don’t have the patience. And there are enough business owners and marketing managers out there who DO get it.

It doesn’t matter what business you’re in – this applies whether you’re a photographer, graphic designer, accountant, decorator…

Good people are crying out for what you do.

So, unless you want to spend your days convincing potential clients of all the reasons their lives would be easier if only they’d step away from Microsoft Word/Adobe Photoshop/the Dulux trade emulsion* and let a professional take over, don’t waste time on the ambivalent.

*delete as applicable

7. “Something just doesn’t feel right… perhaps I’m being oversensitive.”

Success in business is all about finding the clients (and colleagues, and suppliers) who are a good fit.

These people make your working life SO much better.

You look forward to their calls, leave meetings feeling energised, and you’re excited about the prospect of working with them.

Conversely, you know on some subconscious level when someone isn’t the right fit for you.

It starts with a hunch.

Perhaps their business goals are out of sync with your values. Maybe their attitude doesn’t sit well with you. Or perhaps you just don’t feel comfortable with what they’re asking you to do.

Your heart sinks momentarily when their name pops up on your phone, and you end the call with a sense that something isn’t quite right.

If you had to articulate what you feel, you probably couldn’t. But there’s usually a good reason it exists.

The trick is to get really good at listening to the niggling feeling you can’t define.

Tune in to your instinct, and don’t be afraid to say no. 

Pro tip: find another professional to partner with so you can pass their details on should you need to. You’re turning down the work, but presenting the client with a solution, not a problem.

8. “I owe HOW much in tax?! But I’ve spent it all!”

I grew up in a family where money was tight. Like, really tight.

My mum gave up her job when she met my dad (don’t get me started – it was a different era). My dad lost his job when the US took over the airbase where he worked and was unemployed for so long that my parents ended up becoming collectable toy dealers – but that’s a whole other story.

The good thing about being raised in an environment where every penny counts is that you make damn sure you have enough to get by.

Sure, I can spend when I need to (I love to travel, and I’m always first in line for the latest iPhone) but I’m a saver at heart.

Always have been. Always will be.

I got my first part-time job (behind the record bar in Woolworths) when I was studying my A Levels, and from my very first paycheque I saved 25% of everything I earned.

If more people did this there’d be a lot less debt. They should teach it in schools. In fact, it’s such good advice that Nationwide have started a campaign – Pay Day = Save Day.

You may not be a natural saver like me, but if you can get into the habit of paying yourself first, you’ll find those brown envelopes from HMRC a lot less sinister.

9. “I’m doing a job I love. Every day should be a good day, right?”

If only it were that simple.

Even if you were to follow all the tips in this article – and let’s be honest, it’s taken me the best part of 20 years to adopt them all – working on your own can still present challenges to both your wellbeing and your mental health.

I’ve suffered from anxiety and mild depression at various times in my life so I know how important it is to look after yourself and recognise the signs of burnout before it’s too late.

When it comes to keeping your head above water, everyone has different coping mechanisms, and it takes time to learn what works for you. Below are a few examples.

(The same strategies also work brilliantly to reboot your brain and clear writer’s block. Win–win.)

  • meditate
  • go for a walk/swim/run/bike ride
  • listen to music – loud (singing at the top of your voice, optional, but it works for me)
  • dance around your kitchen
  • do a jigsaw
  • bake a cake
  • get out in nature
  • above all, get plenty of good-quality sleep

Don’t be afraid to be human and admit that you’re struggling.

Reach out to colleagues and peers for support and empathy – you’ll get it in spades.

We’ve all been there – even the most seemingly together, sorted and grown-up among us.

Pro tip: believe it or not, admitting your weaknesses makes you more likeable. It’s called the pratfall effect.

(I experienced this for myself when I left my suitcase on a train earlier this year. I arrived at Manchester for the Creative North conference, and my suitcase arrived at Nottingham!)

I hope this advice helps to make your freelance life a little bit easier.

Which tip is your favourite? Email me to let me know, or to share your own advice for surviving as a freelancer.

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