21 years on… and still going strong

Tips for freelancers after 21 yearsWould you believe it, but it’s been 21 years since I decided back in October 1996 to set up my stall as a freelancer?

After initially offering four services – copywriting, editing, proofreading and translation – I soon dropped the latter to focus on the first three.

And I’m still earning my crust doing just that.

The nature of the beast has of course changed significantly over the years, which I covered a while back in Freelance copywriting: then and now and Freelance copywriting: then and now (part 2).

So what have I learnt during these past 21 years of freelancing?

What do I wish someone had told my newbie self as I started out? What tips for freelancers would I give to anyone taking their first tentative steps in this brave new world today?

In no particular order, here are 21 things I’ve discovered along the way – busting a few myths about freelancing in the process.

My top tips for freelancers

  1. Choose your business name carefully. My first trading name was Clifden Communications, after the street we lived on at the time. Unfortunately it didn’t work so well when we moved house three years later.
  2. Decide on your core offering by identifying what you enjoy doing and what you’re best at. Then focus on those areas. You can always broaden or narrow them at a later point.
  3. Get the word out to everyone you know, both on a professional and personal basis, about your new venture. My longest-serving client came about from a casual conversation in the school playground.
  4. Remember that freelance doesn’t mean free! While it’s OK to offer “mate’s rates”, especially in the early days when you’re getting established, be wary of doing work for free or for ‘exposure’. It won’t do you any favours in the long run.
  5. Don’t feel obliged to say Yes to every ‘opportunity’ that comes your way – sometimes it’s OK to say No.
  6. Always follow your gut; it rarely lets you down. When I look back at troublesome clients or tricky jobs, the warning signs were always there. I just foolishly chose to ignore them!
  7. Keep a paper trail of conversations. This means you’ll have a written record should there be any disputes over project creep or the brief itself later on. It’s one of the main reasons I prefer communicating with prospects and clients by email rather than by phone.
  8. Don’t accept a lower rate against the promise of “lots more work to come”. In my experience it hardly ever materialises, even if the intention was genuine at the time.
  9. Build up a good support network, both locally and online. Working from home can be lonely, so it’s helpful to know others in the same situation who you can bounce ideas off or get a pick me up from when your morale dips. And ALL freelancers have those days!
  10. Don’t view others in the same line of work as you as your competitors; they are in fact potential collaborators or sources of work. And if they’ve been in business longer than you, they can also provide lots of useful advice and handy tips for freelancers.
  11. Look after your clients. I always make a point of thanking my best clients each year with some sort of edible Christmas gift, such as a chocolate pizza or jar of retro sweets. But even a simple handwritten Thank You card will earn you brownie points.
  12. Find out what qualifies as an allowable business expense and claim for as much as you can, especially anything linked to the development and marketing of your business.
  13. Keep up with your professional development; there are lots of benefits and different types of CPD for the self-employed.
  14. Networking doesn’t have to be scary! It can even be fun. As a former sceptic, I’ve been converted in the last 18 months. The trick is to find a local group and a format that suits both your personality and your business. But it’s a slow burn, so don’t expect instant sales from it.
  15. You don’t always have to hand over hard-earned cash either. Keep an eye out for free training courses or networking opportunities, such as the new Coventry & Warwickshire Business Festival or the quarterly Coventry Hour Live event.
  16. Make the most of the quiet spells to catch up on admin or simply recharge your batteries; in a few days’ time you might be rushed off your feet and then you’ll probably be complaining about how busy you are.
  17. Go with the flow. As one door closes, another invariably opens. I’ve experienced this time and time again. And often the new ‘door’ is more interesting or profitable than the one that closed.
  18. Enquiries are like buses. Chances are you’ll have none for a couple of weeks, then three will arrive all at once!
  19. Always respond to enquiries or approaches – even if you’re not interested in the work or available to do it – as you never know where it might lead.
  20. But don’t make yourself too available in terms of answering emails by return or during out-of-office hours. If you do, people might expect you to always be that responsive and then be disappointed when you’re not.
  21. Finally, remember that “done is better than perfect” (borrowing Facebook’s motto). This isn’t always easy if you’re a perfectionist like me…

I hope you’ve found these tips for freelancers useful. Any that you would add? Or any that you disagree with? Do let me know in the comments below.

(image courtesy of Stuart Miles via Freedigitalphotos.net)

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6 comments on “21 years on… and still going strong
  1. kim says:

    Congrats for writing for longer than I have been literate.Glad I stumbled upon this post as I’m just starting out.

    • Gosh, that does make me feel old! I’m glad that you found the post helpful though, as freelancing can be a bit of a minefield when first starting out. I’d love to know how you stumbled across it (it’s good to track these things)?

  2. Cheryl says:

    Some excellent tips!! And congratulations on 21 years of freelancing. I also struggle with the quiet times too and start to panic when it’s quiet. I find most of my business is with existing clients and so it can be tough to get new clients.

    • Thanks Cheryl – I glad you found them useful! I think it’s only natural to panic when work eases off, but thankfully it’s usually only short lived. Are you also a copywriter or in a different line of work?

  3. Sarah says:

    Congratulations on your 21st freelancing anniversary!

    I’ve been freelancing for almost four years now, and I recognize many of these things. Number 16 is particularly hard to adjust to – even if you know it to be true. The natural tendency seems to be to panic that you’ll never have any work ever again! Something always comes along – and generally before you’ve finished recharging your batteries too!

    • Thanks Sarah – it’ll be your turn before you know it! Yup, that’s still something I struggle with occasionally, but then I remind myself to look back at my track record for reassurance that it’s just part of the natural cycle of freelancing 🙂

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