Setting up as a freelancer, what’s it really like?

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I moved house earlier this year and halved my commute to work in the process. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Less time in traffic jams or on trains, more quality time at home with my family – all the obvious positives immediately spring to mind. And when I’ve mentioned this fact to people who don’t know me well, they are initially pleased for me and comment on what a result it must have been for my work/life balance and my overall quality of life.

But their faces quickly change to a mix of jealousy and sometimes disbelief when I go on to explain that, in reality, I moved about two minutes’ drive from my old house – and shortened my commute from around eight steps to about four – thanks to the fact that the room which I’d decided to use as my home office was that much closer to my bedroom!

Even after more than 10 years of being a freelancer, the ability to go from my bed to desk in all of about 15 seconds still never ceases to make me smile. As does the ability to work all day in my pyjamas if I really want to. A terrible cliché I know, but trust me, it really does happen and I’m not the only one! I know it wouldn’t suit everyone – as some people prefer more ‘separation’ between home and work – but for me, as someone who always hated the early mornings and late evenings of the corporate world, it’s the perfect arrangement.

Looking back on it now, I just can’t imagine going back to that life, but I’d be lying if I said I planned it this way. In the early ‘noughties’, there was far less talk about working for yourself or home working, and it wasn’t something I’d thought about, even vaguely. My Dad ran his own business for as long as I can remember, and he always said that being your own boss was the best way to work, but it wasn’t until I got made redundant that I even considered it. By the time it happened, I guess I was probably ready for it – and at a point in my career where it was actually a feasible option.

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Find out how to maximise your take-home pay and become a successful contractor in our free guide. Also covered in our guide is:

  • Getting started – discover which business structure is best for you and how to get started.
  • Your tax and financial obligations – all you need to know about your paying tax, filing accounts and what costs you offset.
  • Making your business a success – learn how to grow your business, how to market yourself and to forecast for the future.

I’d worked in a large US corporate in a senior marketing role for a number of years, and prior to that in agency roles as an account manager. But my enthusiasm for the corporate rat race was starting to wane – and having a three hour round trip commute, plus various nights away on business – was definitely starting to take its toll. Especially as a single parent with a six-year-old son at home, who was being looked after by a chain of childminders.

I knew the time had come to make changes, but the prospect of freelancing hadn’t really occurred to me. Instead, I hopped the fence back into an agency role as an account director for a small marketing agency, thinking that maybe this would give me the added flexibility I needed. And it did, to a certain extent, but even though I’d agreed a two day a week ‘working from home’ arrangement, I still found myself spending far more hours in the car than I’d planned, and not really having the quality of life I’d imagined.


I like to think that I would have taken the plunge into freelancing without any prompting, but if I’m honest I can’t say that I’d have been brave enough. But matters were taken out of my hands when, after a year with the agency, my boss, the owner, decided to close the business for family reasons. She offered to sell it to me, but I knew by then that running an agency was not what I wanted to do – even if I could have afforded it, which I couldn’t!

What I had learned though, was that there was a gap in the market for someone who provided the services of a marketing manager on a contract basis, for companies that were either too small to need someone permanent, or just needed an additional resource from time to time. And so, on 1st October 2002, Contract Marketing was born.

I started with practically nothing. Just me, my laptop, a desk, and a mobile phone. And I quickly found that this was pretty much all I needed! I had vague ideas of applying for a business loan, renting office space and so on – but I quickly discovered that, for my type of ‘service-based’ business at least, it just wasn’t necessary. I didn’t even have a logo to start with until I got the design agency I use to rustle one up for me FOC – but what I did spend a few pounds on was a very simple website, as I quickly realised this was a necessity if anyone was going to take me seriously.

This all sounds rather simple, and to a certain extent, that’s exactly what it was. What is not so simple though, is that sudden realisation that there is no pay cheque at the end of the month! If I’m honest, I didn’t do much reading up on the whole business of working for yourself – but the one piece of advice I do remember was to make sure that you had enough of a financial ‘buffer’ in the bank to cover your outgoings.

This I more or less managed, but it did involve a slightly dubious bit of borrowing against my house, so I could pay off the lease on my shiny ‘corporate life’ BMW! Something which I then had to sell six months later when things were getting a bit tight – replacing it for a short while with a rusty old diesel Vectra the likes of which I never thought I’d have to drive again. And though it might all sound a bit scary, there was never a day that went past where I wasn’t 100% certain that the positives outweighed the negatives by a substantial margin. Having the flexibility to be there when my son came home from school, and the ability go to assemblies and so on was worth its weight in gold.

Going back to those early days though, when it came to finding my first client, I guess I was quite fortunate. I’d been in the process of pitching for a new client when the agency closed, and the owner agreed to let me approach them with a view to working directly, and happily, they agreed. It was a three-month project initially, working one day a week to run some simple marketing projects – and led to my very first invoice (and subsequent ‘pay cheque’) at the end of that month, copies of which I still have to this day as a reminder of where it all began!

One client wasn’t enough of course, so I spent much of those first few months getting in contact with just about everyone I’d ever known – whether in a business or personal context – and telling them what I was doing, in the hope that they might need my services or would know someone who did – and this proved very effective, much to my surprise! To the extent that, within six months of setting up as a freelancer, I found myself on a business class flight to Russia for a three day all expenses paid trip to carry out some marketing training at a client’s Moscow office.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though, and even with things going so well initially, it still took quite some time before I really believed I could do it. When I first found out about the agency closing down, I’d signed up with a recruitment agency and started to look for a new full-time job back in the corporate world. A couple of opportunities had come my way and I’d made all the right noises ‘just in case’ – eventually getting to the final interview stage with a large and very well known mobile network operator.

Much to my surprise, I was offered a fairly senior role on a rather appealing salary and found myself saying yes – working on the theory that I could carry on freelancing in the evenings and at weekends. Something that would never have worked of course in the real world. I told some of my clients what I was doing, but not all of them – which was just as well, as after four weeks back in the corporate rat race I realised I’d made a huge mistake and left again! That was well over 10 years ago and I’ve never been an ’employee’ since.

I think what this goes to illustrate is that, no matter how good you are at what you do, or how much you want to work for yourself, it’s still a hugely scary prospect. And even if all appears to be going well on the face of it – it takes time to really build up your confidence and to believe in yourself and your abilities. It was quite some time before I stopped gazing in wonder at every cheque I received, amazed that someone out there was actually willing to pay good money in return for my skills!

Which is another point worth mentioning, one of the many things that fascinate me about running my own business is the ability to reinvent myself and to change or expand my skill set? Having started out as a freelance marketing manager, after a few years I found myself being asked if I could write copy for the literature or website projects I was managing. Initially, I wasn’t sure, but having tested out my skills with a few longstanding clients, I quickly discovered it was something I could not only do well but also really enjoyed. To the extent that my business is now split almost 50/50 marketing and copywriting.

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Another thing I learned from my brief sojourn back into the land of employment, was how much I missed the thrill of working for myself. As a freelancer, you never know what interesting (and hopefully lucrative!) opportunity the next phone call or email might bring – and in those few short weeks of being employed again, I quickly discovered that this ‘buzz’ is totally missing when your working life revolves around helping to make a success of someone else’s business rather than your own. Although I’m sure there are many faithful employees out there who would totally disagree with this statement . . .

So where does that leave me now? A huge advocate of being self-employed, whether as a freelancer or a contractor – and a total convert to the freedom and flexibility of working for yourself. I guess the best way to illustrate that is to mention that I’m writing this from my sunbed on the top deck of a cruise ship, as we sail across the Mediterranean at sunrise with dolphins leaping out of the water next to us. If that isn’t a good advert for freelancing, I’m not sure what is!

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