Five years of freelancing and what I have learned

On set for a feature film in 2016

On set for a feature film in 2016

As of last month I have officially been freelancing in video production for 5 years. It's quite incredible to be honest and I can't believe how quickly the years have gone. So much has happened in this time and it has been a rollercoaster of a journey.

For those of you who might be considering going freelance or have already taken the plunge - regardless of which industry you work in - you have probably stumbled upon this post because you're looking for tips and advice on how to survive or maybe even thrive (!) as a self employed person. So, from a filmmaker's perspective this is what I have learned from five years of freelancing. There's some good, some bad, but all in all it has been interesting journey so far.

 

Freelancing is tough. Much tougher than I could have imagined..

Building a portfolio and clientbase is extremely time consuming. Getting the word out there about what you do and letting people know how good you are (as well as getting good!) takes time. It's easy - and from my experience commonplace - to find yourself stuck in a rut because you're not sure what to do next, and you have bills to pay. From a videographer's point of view, being caught in a catch 22 situation with equipment was one of the most difficult things I experienced in the early years - needing the money to buy the kit to get the work but not having the work coming in to pay for the kit. The low paid part time job takes over and soon becomes full time, but now the lack of availability stops you from taking freelance work..you get the point.

You will get empty promises, ignored, rejected, cancelled last minute, non payers and everything else..the plus side is these experiences help you to develop a thick skin

The truth is, whether you're at the start of your career or have been in the game for a while at some point you will get empty promises, ignored, rejected, cancelled last minute, non payers and everything else. This is the truth, however every cloud has a silver lining. Frustrating as this all may be, the plus side is these experiences help you to develop a thick skin. As a result, you learn to read people better - spotting the genuine people with whom you can develop long term business relationships from those wanting something for nothing.

What's more, feeling like you're stuck in a job in an unrelated industry at the start of your career is actually a good thing! It drives you to work harder to achieve your ambitions and the soft skills you develop during these periods of frustration will actually help you in the long run. My time in hospitality actually helped me to develop managerial skills and working on those checkouts all those years ago gave me invaluable customer service skills which are essential to my work today.

..but it gets easier with time once you learn to embrace it.

It's not all doom and gloom though! Freelancing, if fully embraced, can bring a wealth of rewards. The key to it being a successful journey is accepting that this is the position you are in and making the effort to look for opportunities that wouldn't otherwise present themselves if you were in a full time role.

To begin with, yes there may be a few sacrifices. Personally I didn't go on holiday for a couple of years and I worked antisocial hours in jobs I disliked so I could save up for the equipment. I also volunteered my time occasionally to build up my portfolio of work in order to secure bigger and more lucrative jobs. Once the enquiries started coming in and gradually these turned into leads, I realised that a lot of the hard work that had been done to turn freelancing into a full time venture was starting to show and it had been worth it. Landing jobs feels good! No matter how big or small, they always feel like an achievement and one can't help but get excited, especially when there's so much variety involved. If you aren't finding yourself excited at the prospect of working with a new client, then perhaps this lifestyle isn't for you. 

The power of marketing should never, ever be underestimated. It is too ridiculously important.

You should never take your clients for granted because even if they are regular business now you never know when their circumstances might change

I'll probably get an 'I told you so' from a certain member of the family for this point. But, they were right and it took me far longer than it should have to realise it. So, if you're reading this take note: market yourself..now! Don't know how? Well nor did I, but all it took was a 2 hour meeting with a marketing consultant a few years ago and it was like having an epiphany. Some of the suggestions were so simple; but why hadn't I adopted them before? Laziness? An over-reliance on word of mouth to get me work? The point is, I adopted some of the strategies and they started to turn into leads. Some of these leads have become regular clients whom I work with closely today, from start ups to agencies. My audience size jumped from a pathetic handful of hits each month to several hundred - not huge in business terms but for someone who works for themselves and only needs a few new clients each year to make a living - this was pretty good.

I'm not a marketing expert but my advice to anyone starting out freelancing is to take their SEO and their content marketing very seriously indeed from the get go. It takes time and persistence but if applied correctly it does work. It's not always easy but the trick is to avoid neglecting your marketing duties during the busy months. You should never take your clients for granted because even if they are regular business now you never know when their circumstances might change and they might stop requiring your services. Relocation, budget cuts or even going bust are some reasons why you shouldn't become overly reliant on one or two clients and why you should never, ever neglect your marketing.

Having said that however..

..Whilst marketing yourself should be integral, the primary focus must always be doing good work whilst providing great service.

We all love a bit of kit but do you know how to get the most from it?

We all love a bit of kit but do you know how to get the most from it?

This is mostly about social media. I'm sure many of us could debate for hours on how to approach social media for work but from my perspective, social media should be treated with caution. Although it's amazing that at our fingertips we can promote ourselves to the world, the reality is that there are many out there who in my opinion don't really have a good social media strategy, if they even have one at all. Whilst we need to remind the world that we're there and that we do amazing work, it is far too easy, especially in the video & film world with all the exciting equipment, to let this self promotion take over and distract from what it is we should really be doing: good work. What's more G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome) is an actual thing and can be dangerous too!

I'm not saying we shouldn't promote ourselves and what we're doing, but as the years have gone on I've come to realise that many of those who are the best at what they do are usually so busy working that they don't have time to self promote, or more importantly, only do it when they actually have something to say. How have they got to this point? By honing their craft, learning new skills and offering the best service they can to their clients, no matter who they are.

Your network is priceless.

You have to treat everybody around you as potential clients, even if they aren’t the ones directly hiring you. This means talking to and getting along with as many people as you can

Of course, part of growing a network for many people is to use social media, one of the many uses for these channels, but I'm talking deeper than this. Having a good network is more than having 1000 friends on Facebook or 10,000 followers on Twitter of which 9,050 of them you have never met. A strong network can be much smaller than this but still be invaluable to your work because of the strength of the relationships you have built within it.

Take this example; when I was first starting out with only a few shoots under my belt I received a phone call from a number I didn't recognise:

"Hi Matt, it's Charlie!"

"Sorry, who?"

"You made a video for my old company. I need a video made urgently for Monday! Are you free?"

I hadn't seen him or spoken to him for over a year! In fact, we hadn't even really worked together as someone else had managed the project, but, the point is he remembered me. Not just for the work and the fact I was trustworthy but also because we'd got along well at the time. I apologised profusely for not immediately recognising his voice and took the work with which they were very happy with the end result. Linnworks became one of my first major clients and this was not only a huge step forward for the portfolio but a massive confidence booster during those scary early days too.

The lesson here is that as a self employed person you never know when work is going to come your way or from who. You have to treat everybody around you as potential clients, even if they aren't the ones directly hiring you. This means talking to and getting along with as many people as you can! So, be nice and when you have time enjoy a coffee or beer with your colleagues, or at least pick up the phone for a chat. It's worth it's weight in gold.

Sometimes you have to say 'No'..

Most people will be grateful that you were upfront about declining to save you from messing them around

No matter how much we like the project, the people working on it, the potential for it to jumpstart the career or even the pay cheque, sometimes the professional and right thing to do is to say no. This is one of the most difficult things in business that doesn't really seem to get any easier as time goes on, but knowing when to decline a job is an incredibly important part of professional development.

When might you have to say no? Here are a few examples:

  • You simply don't have the time to take on new work and meet the deadline
  • You can squeeze in some new work but the quality of a previous project you had committed to would suffer as a result
  • The brief is unclear, underdeveloped or unrealistic
  • You are not being compensated fairly for your time and your services
  • The entity you are dealing with has a track record for not paying on time, communicating poorly or engaging in another negative business practice
  • You're not comfortable that you have the relevant skills to undertake the work to an acceptable standard

Of course, there are probably many other reasons to decline jobs. You should think very carefully before accepting or declining work, but the most important thing to remember is that honesty is usually the best policy. Most people will be grateful that you were upfront about declining to save you from messing them around. In fact, this can be turned into a positive; for example, if you don't feel like you are the right person to do a job you could refer someone within your network who is a better fit. This way you leave a positive image with the client (who might come back to you one day) and you may get one of your contacts some work too which they'll be eternally grateful for.

..and other times you need to switch off: it's only human.

Whatever you enjoy doing in your free time, don't neglect it.

Whatever you enjoy doing in your free time, don't neglect it.

It's so easy, especially in the early days, to fall into the trap of never completely switching off from work. Anyone can understand why this is the case; as a freelancer you're constantly having to sell yourself, continuously thinking ahead about where the next job is coming from or how you're going to manage your time to get the current job(s) finished in time. What's more, you have to find time to market yourself around your busy schedule and learn new skills to keep up with industry trends and the competition. But sometimes, this can all get too much and if you don't take time out it can do more damage than good.

I for one in the past have been guilty of losing evening after evening tinkering with edits, reading up on equipment or working on my website, when sometimes I just needed to chill out. I love playing guitar, but this would often get neglected and when I did come to pick it up again I was so out of practice I got frustrated and suddenly it wasn't as much fun.

Don't get me wrong, sometimes to manage our workload we have to put in those hours and work at unusual times to get things done, but sometimes we don't and we shouldn't always feel guilty when we're not being productive in our spare time. Spending quality time doing the things you enjoy and being with your friends and loved ones is something that both employed and self employed workers need to do. If you spend every waking hour of every day working so that you can never do these things then, what's the point?

Lastly, it's OK to go on holiday every so often! Going away and switching off from emails, social media and even the internet entirely can be a wonderful feeling and this time should be cherished.

Then there's the boring financial stuff. Try to keep on top of it.

I'll try not to bore you here but it's true, we need to keep on top of everything admin related. Here are some considerations:

Record keeping & accounts: Keeping regular track of your accounts will save you a massive headache in January when that tax return deadline is looming. Tackling your tax return over several sessions throughout the year is much less stressful than doing it all in one go. I dare you to prove me wrong!

Quoting: Beware that undercharging for your services can be just as damaging as overcharging. Not only can this cause you damage financially but you may also be deterring certain clients if you appear too cheap. Remember, you get what you pay for.

Take deposits: And be strict about it. You've got a living to make and you need some security. Many companies take 30 days to process an invoice but sometimes this can take much longer.

Pay into a pension:  Many young people will probably think that this is the least of their worries when buying a property seems to be years away, but seriously, as soon as those profits start to look healthy it's time to start putting away. It's better late than never, as they say.

To summarise:

At the end of the day freelancing is not for everyone, but we can't ignore the fact that the self employed workforce are growing. Whether you have been forced into freelancing or you have chosen to pursue this path, you will only find success by embracing the lifestyle and being positive. Sure, you will have your ups and downs as with any full time employment, but with some persistence, a strong support network around you and by adopting a work ethic of continuous improvement in order to stay competitive and employable, you may come to wonder why you didn't go freelance sooner. 

I for one have never looked back. 

From specialist clothing..

From specialist clothing..

..to aerospace manufacturing..

..to aerospace manufacturing..

..and from current affairs..

..and from current affairs..

..to getting creative: this is why I freelance.

..to getting creative: this is why I freelance.