Ten lessons I learnt from my first year as a creative freelancer
Last year was my first full year as a freelance photographer, after I followed my heart and quit my job at the end of 2016 while on maternity leave. It was an emotional year of ups and downs, facing some fears head on and confronting a lot of limiting thoughts I had about who I am, what I have to offer and what I am capable of. I learnt so much about myself and what it takes to pursue a successful freelance career that supports the life you want to build for yourself and your family. It's exciting and incredibly freeing to be forging your own path, but it can be scary, isolating and a road paved with obstacles that you have to navigate largely by yourself. While there's nothing quite like learning from your own mistakes, I hope that by sharing some of the lessons I've learnt so far you might be able to fortify yourself a little against making some unnecessary mistakes. It's a good one to bookmark and check back on regularly to keep yourself on track, there's a pinnable at the bottom to help you do just that.
Ten things I learnt from my first year as a creative freelancer…
1. Taking care of your health is the best thing you can do for your business.
Exercise, eating well, taking breaks and making time for things other than work is not a luxury. It's essential, and if you don't prioritise it sooner or later that will catch up with you. It's much better to create a schedule you can consistently manage, that gives you space for self care and something other than work, than to be forced to take time off during busy periods because you're too exhausted or sick to keep going. Trust me on this one. The healthier and happier you are, the better your work will be.
2. Invest in your systems
Having a good foundation to run your business and keep yourself organised is the best money you will spend, and it pays back ten times over with the amount of time and headaches it saves you. Budget for accounting software (I use Freshbooks), cloud storage, client management programs, back-ups, insurance and anything else you need. Stick to the essentials when you're starting out, you don't need to go over board and commit yourself to too many monthly subscription fees. Focus on what will save you time, help you with the main admin tasks of your business and create a better experience for your clients.
3. Invest in yourself
Set aside a budget for self-development. You might not be able to justify expensive workshops, conferences and equipment when you're starting out, but even a small budget can buy you monthly access to websites like Skillshare, gallery exhibitions, books, magazines and creative day trips. It's up to you to decide what development you would benefit from, and to bite the bullet and invest in yourself and the future of your business. You're your own boss and no one else is going to do it for you, it’s 100% up to you to develop your skills and make opportunities for yourself.
4. Create boundaries and stick to them
It's easy to find yourself working all the time, or at least thinking about work all the time. It's not good for your health or your relationships to allow work (no matter how much you love it) to seep into every part of your day. Make some rules for yourself about using your phone, checking your emails, taking days off and being present during social occasions and quality time with your family and friends. It's important for you and it's important for them .Listen to your body, and pay attention to the activities, working hours and so on that energise you and that de-motivate you. A big one for me is not using my phone and social media in the evenings as it makes it impossible for me to unwind and get a good night’s sleep. It means I miss out on participating in some twitter chats and live videos on Instagram, but I’ve learnt from experience it’s just not worth it. It takes more away from me than it gives, so I just don’t do it.
5. Commit to your craft
Don't get so caught up in the day-to-day running of your business and serving your clients that you forget why you started this in the first place. Set aside time to produce personal work, to experiment creatively and to learn something new to improve your skills. This will keep you going through everything else you need to do in your business. If you can remain dedicated to pursuing your passion and to being the best at it you possibly can, then you will always have that no matter what is happening with your client work, finances or anything else on the business side. Online class websites like Skillshare, Creative Live and Masterclass can be really good for ongoing projects to keep you learning alongside running your business.
6. Celebrate your wins
There is a lot about being freelance that is hard, and no matter how exciting your job might sound, there is a lot going on behind the scenes that is quite normal and boring. Sometimes it feels more like slogging it out than living the dream, so you need to get good at recognising your success and celebrating it. Those moments when you feel it in your bones that you did a good job, connected with a new client that was exactly the person you quit your job to work for, or that piece of work you produced that a year ago you never thought you would ever have been capable of...write it down, take yourself for lunch, pat yourself on the back and soak up that feeling.
7. Find a support system
Freelancing can be lonely, as I'm sure you know, and it's hard to do it without people who encourage and understand you. My partner Gav is so supportive, listening to me talk about work for hours, taking photos for me, encouraging me and challenging me to do everything better. He works in a corporate retail job, so he doesn't understand the freelance aspect, but he is a great sounding board for the business side of what I do. There's also my soul-sister Lucy. We've co-worked together, parented together, laughed together, shared our wins and our worries and plenty of tears as well. She runs her own business whilst being a full-time mama too, and it's been invaluable to have her with me every step of the way. If you haven't found that in real life yet, search on Instagram, join Facebook groups and then reach out to people that way. Make genuine, authentic connections, put yourself out there and go find your people.
8. Know your worth and price yourself accordingly
Pricing your work is one of the hardest parts of starting your own business. You need to earn a fair wage for what you do, but it is scary to ask for money for your services, especially if what you need to charge sounds like a lot. If you don't value your work, you can't expect potential clients to either. It's OK to experiment, to adjust your prices and offerings as you go along (I have for sure) but make your starting point something you can build on. Don't sell yourself short, because it will affect the quality of your clients, the quality of your work and ultimately your self esteem. Remember that if you're undercharging, you're not just hurting yourself but other people within the same industry. Respect yourself, respect them, and hold tight on a living wage for yourself.
9. Think longer-term than before
There's a bit of un-learning that has to happen when you go freelance. Changing your thought process from reliance on that monthly wage, a boss to set your work load, give you appraisals and a company to offer you benefits and promotions. You have to start thinking about the bigger picture, and what you are working for over a longer period of time. It's not what you've earned in a month that counts, it's what you earn in a taxable year that matters more. It's also helpful if you can envisage a 5 year plan for yourself, and roughly map out the stages of growth you are aiming for with both your creative output and your business. This protects you somewhat from feeling overwhelmed with trying to achieve it all at the same time.
10. Compare yourself only to yourself
We all know that quote about comparison being the thief of joy. But why is it so hard to actually put into practice? We live in a world where at the touch of our phones we can see what so many other people are doing in their lives and work. It's all too easy not only to compare ourselves with them, but to let our inside voice tell us we are less than because of what we see others doing and achieving. We feel like we have to keep up, or deviate from our path because someone we view as our competition is offering a service we wonder if we should be too. But look inward...review your last year, what have you achieved? How is your work better now than it was then? How is your business more organised, streamlined and productive? It's great to look at others and feel inspired, pick up tips and ideas to bring to your work, but don't use them as a stick to beat yourself with. Your work is different, you are different. Focus your energies on yourself, not so much on what everyone else is doing.
It's important that you understand I write all these learning points as a person who struggles with each of them every single day. But after spending the best part of two years as a creative freelancer, I can promise you the struggle gets a little easier. Not because I don't experience the same difficulties, but because I am now able to recognise them, accept them and develop systems and strategies to protect myself against them. If you're pursuing a creative freelance career, you are never not going to doubt yourself, feel worried about money or where your next client is coming from. Nor are you ever going to avoid the rollercoaster of emotions that goes along with the creative process. But, what you will learn to do is to embrace it as part of the journey and to keep going in spite of anything that gets in your way. And the biggest lesson I have learnt so far? To go boldly in the direction of your dreams, because no matter how hard it might be, it's a whole lot easier than not giving it a shot.