Seven tips I wish I'd known when starting out as a freelancer!
Three years ago I started The Wheel Exists, and I've learned so much about freelance life since then.
I want to share my seven top tips that I wish I'd known when I first became self-employed.
1. Let's talk about imposter syndrome
When I first started out, I was terrified that my clients would discover I wasn't a "real" web designer. I came from a background of charities and small businesses, and what little coding I did know was self-taught. People kept liking my work and recommending me, which I thought was weird but was happy to go with it.
It took me about a year to realise that one of the reasons clients were choosing me was BECAUSE of my background, not despite it. They liked that I understood the reality of their organisations, and that I talked in a jargon-free way. They didn't want loads of custom code on their websites as it made it more difficult for them to update and change themselves.
As soon as I had this epiphany, I was able to convert what I previously considered my weakness into a unique selling point.
Whatever you do as a freelancer, chances are at some point you will have experienced imposter syndrome. I want you to know that this is totally normal, and basically everyone is winging it. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH.
2. Your branding is a reflection of who you are
Whilst I was suffering from imposter syndrome, I was trying to hide behind what I thought someone who made websites should do. The first version of my website used quite corporate language and referred to the business as "we". It was all black and white with a really horrible old-fashioned serif font (I have no idea why I chose it). There was a reason behind the colour scheme as it was meant to represent everything being more straightforward.
The problem was, when people met me, it was a totally experience. I was bright, colourful, cheerful and not at all corporate. And also I was clearly just one person. It was the wonderful Nicola Warwick from the Business Growth Hub that pointed out the discrepancy between my in person and online presence and as soon as she said it, I realised I needed to make a change! It was actually a relief to feel completely myself rather than having my slightly split personality.
Having a very clear brand that differentiates you can also be a great marketing technique and helps to filter out people who are not in your target audience.
Fairly early on in my freelance career, I maxed out my credit card (borrow responsibly, folks) to book a stand at the Business Startups Show at ExCel in London, which came with a speaking opportunity. Despite having a background in the event industry, my brain totally failed me and I forgot to budget for stand furniture. I looked at the hire options and they were all kind of depressing and expensive, so I started researching alternatives.
I discovered a company that makes cardboard flat-pack furniture for exhibitions and decided that this would be cool. Normally, they brand it for you and send it directly to the venue (in hindsight I understand why...) but because I was on a budget I asked them to post me the plain, unbranded versions. I made myself a stencil and spent the day before the show spray painting the table, chairs and stand backdrop with my logo, business name, and the words "websites woo yeah". Seriously.
So there I was, causing great consternation to the staff on Virgin Trains down to London with my massive cardboard stand items (which were both taller and wider than me) and travelling across London with a bemused taxi driver, before finally arriving at the venue and starting to assemble my stand items. It was quite an IKEA-esque experience so I was already slightly on edge, so when I looked around and noticed all the other stands looking shiny and professional and quite frankly, not shambolic, I did panic a little.
Thankfully, a lovely lady from a HR company came by at exactly the right time. She told me that she loved my stand, and it was so refreshing to see something different. We got chatting and she promised to send people my way if they needed websites, which she duly did once the show got started. Throughout the next two days, I realised that my unique furniture was a great way of drawing people in. I know from attending these types of shows that you can sometimes feel a bit ambushed by the people on the stands, and this allowed people to approach me with a reason to strike up a conversation. It also filtered out the people that I didn't want to do business with (although a few middle-aged men in suits did come up and give me helpful "advice").
So now, I embrace my brand and aim to be a slightly-less-sweary-but-otherwise-authentic version of myself online and in the real world.
3. Make hay while the sun shines
Baaaargh. Content is my nemesis! There are always seemingly bigger priorities when you have clients. I wish someone had told me to write tons of content when I was first starting out and actually had time available. It's so weird because I love writing and yet it always falls to the bottom of the pile. The super awesome Helen Dibble uses one of my favourite strategies, the Pomodoro Technique, to write content in 25 minute blocks. This is a great way to just make even a tiny bit of progress when you have a spare half hour.
I've also been very lucky (no wait, I am not an imposter... I have been SKILLED) in that nowadays all my clients come from referrals, so I basically don't need to do any marketing to get work. The problem is, I now want to offer more training and reach a wider audience, so I need to cast a wider net. But my mailing list has like, 30 people on it. So another piece of advice I would give is start building your mailing list early, as you never know when you might need it! If you aren't sure how, there are plenty of courses and resources available online with advice about ways to do this. I've signed up for Paul Jarvis' Grow Your Audience class starting January 2017.
4. Genuinely wanting to help goes a long way
Oh, did someone mention Paul Jarvis? Not only is he extremely hot (please don't read this, please don't read this) but he is also the only person whose newsletter I read EVERY SINGLE TIME. That's one of the reasons I trust him and have parted with my hard-earned cash to register for his course. It's also because he has helped me for free through his articles and podcasts where he talks about life as a freelancer, so I want to give back. And if you're looking for an example of someone who is authentically their brand, you should definitely check him out.
The same applies to other services which have helped me to solve a problem for free. Unsplash realised that there was a gap in the market for free, high quality images that could be used on websites. I use them on so many client websites that when they set up a Kickstarter to create a book, I immediately backed them, even though I didn't especially want the book. It was more to say thank you to them. Likewise, Font Awesome (who provide free icons to use on websites) have just been the highest funded software Kickstarter ever. They aimed for $30,000 to develop their service and at the time of writing are at over $1,000,000. People are naturally inclined to give back when they can tell that you genuinely want to help, without an agenda.
In fact, one of my clients came to me through Squarespace Answers, which is a forum where people can ask and answer questions about Squarespace. I love going on there and trying to solve problems, especially as my brain is very good at figuring out workarounds. I do it because I like helping and I find it fun, but this client saw that I'd answered quite a few questions and clicked through to my profile, and subsequently my website.
5. Find people that energise you
I've mentioned this in previous blog posts, and if you've ever met me you will laugh when I tell you this, but I used to say "I hate people". I know, right? I'm super outgoing and confident and chatty so it seems a very odd statement. However, when I worked for my previous company before going freelance, I used to have to attend these very corporate networking events and represent the organisation in a way that aligned to their brand, rather than my own personality. So when I first went freelance I couldn't wait to hide behind my computer and sit at home, not talking to people. Needless to say, within a few months I went a bit mad and so started working from coffee shops to try and get a bit more interaction. It still wasn't quite cutting it, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and create Freelance Folk. It's a coworking session that takes place every Friday afternoon in Manchester, and anyone who is self employed or normally works from home can come along to get a change of scenery and work alongside others in a friendly and supportive environment. As a result I now have some lovely "work friends" who help to keep me sane, inspire me and challenge me!
I'm not suggesting you need to set up your own group, but if you're experiencing any of that isolation that I felt, or you find yourself a bit unmotivated or uninspired, then it can really help to be in the company of people who can support and energise you. I find that the Meetup website is a great way to discover existing communities around a broad range of interests, and there are also lots of networks out there with meetings which are normally free (or low cost) to try out and see if they are a good fit. If you're in Cheshire or the Peak District, there are two new Women in Rural Enterprise groups coming your way in the new year, one run by my good friend Lucy from Ravenspoint Marketing near Chester and the other by yours truly in the High Peak. Help me grow my mailing list by signing up and I will be sending out more details about these groups in the near future.
6. You don't ask, you don't get
Before I was totally old and wise like I am now, I did loads of courses about how to get started with a new business. Some were good, some were bad, but one very useful exercise was a challenge to ask Richard Branson a question on Twitter as apparently he does all of his own tweets, so if you got a reply, it would be from his own fair hand.
Even though it scared the living crap out of me, I am a good girl who does my homework so I diligently tweeted a super-lame question to him. AND HE REPLIED!
I believe the lesson was to go outside of your comfort zone and learn that if you don't ask, you don't get. One area that this has helped quite a lot is around cashflow. Obviously this depends on what you do and the type of clients that you have, but if I'm feeling a bit tight in terms of income then I do sometimes ask clients if it's possible to invoice them a bit earlier. I do it in a way where it's easy for them to say no - after all they are also small businesses with potential cashflow issues - and even if they haven't been able to pay me early, I've never had a negative response to asking the question.
I can still be terribly British about asking for help or approaching people who have quasi-celebrity status in the business world but nowadays I catch myself more frequently and tell myself to woman up and go for it. What could you try to ask for in the next few weeks that you normally wouldn't? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @thewheelexists if you have any success!
7. Remember your "why"
I couldn't quite decide whether to put this first or last, but I've decided it's a fitting finale! Some of the other tips are quite practical but this one goes right back to your motivation. I may also have accidentally stolen this concept and phrase from Michelle at Dive Deeper Development who is an excellent coach if you're struggling with anything holding you back or you're feeling a bit stagnant.
Your "why" is simply the reasons for doing what you do. Did you go freelance to spend more time with your children or to have more flexible working hours? Was it to help a specific group of people or solve a problem? Was it to follow a passion that you would happily do for free, but now you're getting paid for it?
Whatever your reason, if you're feeling stuck or a bit disillusioned, it can be very helpful to revisit your motivations for doing what you do. This can also help with a lot of the tips I have already mentioned. For example, if you want to ask a scary question, think back to your "why". If someone said you could spend an extra four hours a week with your family by asking this question, would it make it easier? I suspect so!
One of the good courses that I attended when I first started freelancing was a social media workshop where we got to go all primary school and create a collage-moodboard-type-masterpiece. Here's mine!
This piece of paper has now become a bit sacred to me. I have it as my desktop background on my computer and regularly refer back to it as it reminds me of the feelings I want to create, and my motivations for setting up The Wheel Exists.
Whether you're just starting out or you're a seasoned freelancer, do any of these experiences resonate with you? Do you have any tips that you'd like to share? Let me know in the comments.