Last time I talked about making the jump to freelance and perhaps the word jump is an understatement, at least for what it felt like at the time. In this post I’ll talk about the day to day of setting up on your own and the great bits as well as the many challenges. Hopefully I can give a realistic view of growing your own creative business. As I’ve said before, these posts are coming from my own experiences and friends in similar positions that I’ve chatted to. Just because I’ve made the jump and come out the other end unscathed doesn’t make me an expert. Having said that I don’t really know what you need to qualify as an expert on any given subject. I definitely wouldn’t say a degree or even a masters or PHD could make you an expert in any field without years of experience living out the day to day of whatever it was you studied.
Starting out on my full time freelance journey, I felt liberated and that kind of nervous excitement you get that’s mainly powered by adrenaline. I finished work on a Tuesday weirdly enough and lots of people asked if I was going to take the rest of the week off before diving in, to which my answer was ‘no, I’m just going to get on with it’. As I said previously, I’d decided on what my days would generally be looking like with a bare bones structure but it was surreal hearing my alarm go off the next morning and knowing that I was officially the boss (eek). I set off on my walk around the park on my fake commute (I’m weird I know) and realised I could just take my time if I wanted. I started noticing parts of our neighbourhood I’d never had the time to notice before and actually finding inspiration all around me. It helped that it was a super sunny Spring morning, of course.
Laying foundations for free
Launching straight into work meant working through the list I’d written up before leaving my job, which could be called throwing a lot of stuff at the proverbial wall and seeing what stuck. I applied to an illustration agency thinking this might be a good side income and I might have a decent understanding having spent a lot of time on the client end at my last job. I set to work beefing out my portfolio which I found surprisingly hard with all the freedom and options in the world rather than tight briefs. One of my main jobs was developing a range of prints and wedding stationery in order to first open an Etsy shop. My thinking was to trial what I’d come up with via this route first to get some indication of what people want to buy. This had been a little bubbling dream for a while and so many people had asked me if I had an Etsy shop but I just hadn’t found the time with a full time job plus freelance side commissions. It sure was satisfying to finally have the freedom to make some headway here. I also intended to send various bits and pieces to publications and apply to contribute DIY projects to some platforms I loved but I have to say I only managed to send anything to one before I had contribution offers coming my way rather than needing to chase them up. Mostly unpaid of course but I was just happy to get my name out there. I also have to be upfront and tell you I was applying for design jobs as and when they came up. That probably dampens the dreamy tale of an epic journey. I really didn’t want things to go down that route but I also didn’t want to be stubborn about where things led. I know most of the blog articles and business talks you’ll find will say you make your own destiny happen or some subtle variation of that and whilst I believe in good old fashioned hard work I also believe that God ultimately opens and closes doors and where I end up is decided by him in his goodness. So I applied for jobs to see if it was a yes or a no and then I’d at least tested the water rather than deciding I would do full time freelance no matter what the cost.
In need of support
The first month was surreal but good. I was just getting on with things and not expecting too much too soon as I knew it was still early days but as soon as the day came that marked the end of my previous job’s pay covering my new venture, I kind of freaked out. Of course I had realised that day would come 6 weeks in and we’d prepared by working out how to use our savings to make it all work but I still pretty much fell apart. I was a total emotional wreck being on a high one minute and then sobbing in a corner the next. My husband was actually working full time at home back then and lots of people asked me if I found that a bit intense but truthfully I don’t know what I would have done without him through that period. All the uncertainty definitely taught me what it means to pray for my daily bread every single day (even though we clearly weren’t on the streets) but it also made me realise how much I needed someone around to remind me of truth, to encourage me when I wondered what on earth I was doing and to put things into much needed perspective. If you don’t have someone around during the day or if you can’t afford studio space when you’re starting out then find someone to share these things with, even better if they’ve made the same transition themselves. I had no idea how much of my identity and self worth was caught up in being the main earner until that 6 week mark. I earned £0.00 in my first 2 months of freelance, glamorous huh? It was humbling I assure you but being reminded I am weak and God is strong is never a bad thing even though it’s painful at the time! I felt like I wasn’t contributing anything financially but instead was just a constant drain on our savings but it turns out, that was the refining position I need to be in.
Juggling job roles
One of the biggest adjustments was having 8 job roles in one. I wrote this melt down post (a crazy girl’s cry for help) expressing how I felt overwhelmed by juggling being the art director, designer, PR girl, accountant, receptionist, visionary, admin assistant and order packer. This had been one of the reasons I’d previously found freelance unappealing and although you do just muck in and will probably be surprised how much you learn on the job, it still doesn’t make it any easier or less draining to juggle. I’m a self confessed terrible multi-tasker on top of that so there were points when I felt like my head was going to explode. The answer came in the form of extensive list making. I am the crazy list lady and I know for sure that many of you out there can empathise. I have a rolling list of all the things I need to do with dates of when they’re needed by alongside (or a little before to be on the safe side) and then I fill in a morning slot, an after lunch slot and a late afternoon to 6.30pm slot with all of these tasks. This helps me spread my workload and give me focus and urgency. The downside is I’m actually a pretty brutal boss and it’s been a steep learning curve along with a lot of prayer to become a bit kinder to myself and less controlling. I’ve constantly had to lower my unrealistic expectations for how much I can achieve in a day. It’s an ongoing process where I’m realising that much as I’d like to be, I am in fact not superhuman or to put it more bluntly, I am not God. It’s easy to look like superwomen on social media but behind all of those accounts there’s normal people having little or large melt downs from time to time. You may think being your own boss will lighten your load and leave you feeling less stressed, maybe sipping a cocktail whilst binging on Netflix but you may well find that you’ve never had a boss that cracks the whip quite like you do.
The August after going freelance in the March was a major turning point for me. That was partly because it was the first time I was busy with paid work rather than unpaid work and I also had a lightbulb moment of clarity. I had been for an interview for a job that would have mainly been working from home 3-4 days a week doing surface pattern design which was what I was trained in with the opportunity to continue freelance on the side. Seemingly a great shout, right? Not for me. With intense clarity I realised half way through the interview that I really didn’t want the job. It had nothing to do with them but I just knew it wasn’t enough. I could see myself going back to the same frustrations of longing to pour my energy into my business but being constantly overstretched. The financial stability didn’t outweigh my burning desire to carry on trying to make my own thing work. I’d never been so glad to get a rejection when I was told that the job role was between me and another girl and I lost out at the last stage. I was so happy that door closed and made my decision to press on forward so much easier. At this point I also decided I needed to focus on what my main area of design should be. As I said before wedding stationery was the first freelance projects I ever had and I still loved it. Thinking somewhat strategically I knew there was more money to be made in this area and less risk with decent size print runs from clients and more of a market for bespoke projects. I got a wedding section set up on my website and started doing wedding fairs as well as a couple of stints of advertising in publications. But I also started showing my wedding commissions on social media to let people know ‘hey, I do this sort of thing!’ Pouring time and effort in this area meant the amount of clients I was getting doubled in a relatively short space of time! Whilst you may need to see what works in the beginning there does come a point where you need to ask yourself, ‘what do I want to be known for and is that finically viable?’ Then you know where the majority of your time and energy need to go and you don’t feel so guilty about saying no to other things.
Show me the money
October was the first month I earned the wage we’d set for our budget, without dipping into our savings at all. When I talk about wages I mean the total once all materials and outgoings are accounted for and deducted (what I actually walk away with). It was a little triumph that in many ways affirmed what I was doing and yet left me worried it was just a one off. That’s the sting when it comes to freelance isn’t it? You may get what looks like a pay rise one month and then hurtle down into pennies the next. You never quite know, but I feel hugely thankful that from that point my earnings have been steadily going up which has been a massive encouragement month on month and made me feel a little less like a nutter for choosing this route. I’ve seen my orders and commissions steadily increase to the point where I had to put all my prices up quite drastically. How did I set them to start with I hear you ask? Nosing around is the answer. I did some market research and looked at others in the same field but this wasn’t the most sensible way or at least shouldn’t have been the only factor. I remember hearing a podcast from Elise Gets Crafty on pricing and getting a sense of the breakdown of factors involved so you know your materials, overheads, time are all covered in your wholesale pricing, before you even get to your retail price. Suddenly it made sense why I was killing myself with orders at all hours of the day and making enough but still an underwhelming figure for all the blood, sweat and tears I was putting in. It was liberating to realise I could charge nearly double and even if my sales halved I’d still be making just as much along with keeping my sanity in the process. The close of March was a massive milestone! A year after starting this whole crazy adventure I started earning more than the pay cheque from my previous job. I won’t beat around the bush, I cried. Big, happy, humble tears…whilst praising God for his generosity. Nick made sure we went out to celebrate which I once again needed his prompting to do. It’s so easy to have your head down beavering away and jumping on to the next challenge without stopping to mark that achievement and ‘zooming out’ to see how far you’ve come.
Even though I said you need to pick a focus for your business I think you also need to be prepared to use different avenues to get income. For me my bread and butter is wedding and event stationery but then I also get a variety of branding, graphic design and private illustration commissions. Along with all of these income streams…
- Illustration agency – I’m commissioned as well as sell existing work
- Etsy shop
- Not On The Highstreet shop
- Private sponsored blog work
- Sponsored blog work through Nuffnang agency
- Blogging affiliate schemes
- Brush lettering workshops with Quill London
- Private styling jobs
- Photography (occasionally)
Keeping track of this lot isn’t the most fun at the end of each month!
Variety is the spice of life…ahem when it comes to work
It has been amazing to see so many opportunities to come my way and I love the variety from working on so many different projects with lots of different clients. I think monotomy in work is one of the biggest things that makes our toes curl on Monday morning or even on a Sunday night in anticipation. Whilst that never fully goes away and neither would you want routine & familiarity to go away completely, I do think freelance gives so much scope for trying new creative ways of working. You get to flex skills you didn’t realise you had. I particularly love working directly with couples for wedding stationery as it’s such a privilege to in a small way share in their big day. Seeing things through from start to finish is also a great cause for smiles. At the start of your own business you aren’t a cog in a chain, you make up the entirety of the chain and you get to join all the dots yourself. This may be something you have to let go of if / when you become super successful but there’s something hugely satisfying about this at the start and grows your understanding of your field. I also made a conscious decision to sell templates and product but keep a substantial amount of time available for one of commissions as I knew that otherwise I’d get bored and stagnant and even resent orders coming in.
People are constantly baffled how I work from home and I have to say I can see it’s not for everyone. Not only that but I don’t have the of a room to set aside as my studio. That’s kind of out of the question for now so ever since day one I’ve been working at our dining room table. It’s certainly not ideal but it’s the way it is and that’s fine. I think now I work from home I do feel a lot better parting with such a bucket full of cash on West London rent each month. Some how I feel like I’m actually getting our money’s worth. However obviously working in the dining room make it tricky to separate work and normal life, particularly as our dining room isn’t even a separate room. It’s actually open plan and leads into the living room which leads into the kitchen (I’m laughing at how ridiculous that is). I’m not good at separating life and work if I’m honest but I don’t think I can blame that on not having a separate room to work in. I still wouldn’t be able to lock the door on all my work related thoughts come the end of the day. Really it’s my mind that’s the issue but if you have another room to work in or can afford studio space then massive high fives!
Creatives are so sensitive to their environment and I whole heartedly think working in my dining room is made manageable because all the walls are white, there’s great light and high ceilings. This makes me feel inspired rather than trapped and makes it less likely for me to go totally stir crazy like a puppy left on it’s own all day. This has happened in other environments. We have a little desk in the cupboard but I just can’t use it because it’s lacking light and I feel totally confined and claustrophobic. I now find that taking my work to a local coffee shop a few times through the week really helps me to be more productive and breaks the day up nicely.
You can also book conferences or workshops to take you out of your everyday setting and get recharged. You’ll learn new skills and meet other creatives that could become your support network in the future or even spark collaborations. It seemed like a luxury in the to book myself onto these events in the first year but I got so much back and I’m genuinely still in contact with so many of the other creatives I met and get advise frequently. I can totally see how a change of scenery benefitted me too. Sometimes getting out of your normality helps you get a fresh burst of energy and new ideas.
Shouting about your work
A strange adjustment was building marketing into my day, even in small ways. I naturally find it challenging to shout about what I’m creating. I was the kid who would lock myself away and not let any one see until I’d finished my project and was ready to parade it to the world and by that I mean, leave it in my bedroom. There’s nothing I hated more at school / college / uni / work than presenting my ideas. Perhaps I didn’t like the vulnerability but I think a lot of it was I didn’t want to seem arrogant or boastful singing ‘yeah, look at me!’ So posting in progress shots of things I’m working on or little additions to the business or just letting people into my process did not come naturally to me. I had to be deliberate and to be honest I mainly focused on instagram to begin with and I’m happy to say I’ve received many clients from instagram as well as general brand awareness of what I do / make. I need to be even more deliberate about balancing lifestyle shots with ‘hey, you can hire me’ ones but even little steps help and as I said in the blogging post, it really helps to build trust with potential customers or potential recommenders. On that note thank you so much if you’re one of those ace people that recommended me to someone! You could waste your whole working day marketing yourself but you need to find a balance which is why I suggest start by using a platform your really enjoy using. Perhaps one you’d be using and loving even if you didn’t have a business. Then it won’t feel like such a chore.
- Accept that in the beginning you will being doing at least a little, if not a lot of ground work that isn’t paid for there and then but think of it as an investment for the future. There will come a day when it starts paying off.
- Find a support buddy or group, whether that’s informally or in a more organised way, preferably someone who is doing or has done something similar. Share your struggles and bounce ideas off each other and get validation or critique on what you’re producing.
- Create a big fat list of what you have to do imminent and ongoing, including any goals you’re working towards and then create daily lists from that list, perhaps on separate bits of paper as once is down there an planned you don’t need to bamboozle your mind with the bigger picture. I plan my next day at the end of each day so then I know what I’m doing tomorrow and I can walk away from my laptop without it still swimming in my head!
- Be realistic. Take note of how long things take and start to form better ideas of timings and how much you can plan into a day. As a general rule I would think what I’m going to get done and then cut that list down by at least one or two jobs as I’m always too unrealistic or we could call it optimistic just to sound good.
- Find a focus for your business. You may want to dabble in a few different things but work out where you intend to get your main source of income. From past experience does this point to ‘go for it’? and do you actually enjoy this? You don’t want to spend most of your time doing something that makes complete financial sense but you feel passionless about. Go back to your job and the neat paycheque!
- Track your money month on month to see what works and what doesn’t as well as popular seasons to take into consideration for the following year. It’s also just helpful to know where your money goes and if you’re spending way more than you’re making even if it’s just on materials.
- Work out your prices so that you cover everything you put into the design / product rather than only looking around at every one else. Perhaps there’s room to rethink if your calculation comes out double the price of every other business your researched but ultimately you need to cover costs and make money. Otherwise it’s not going to go anywhere. This is genuinely a great podcast to help.
- Work out what environment you work best in and make changes accordingly. If that involves additional money then weigh up whether it would be a fruitful investment. Don’t underestimate how much your environment affects your work!
- Step back and celebrate the small and large victories along the way. Take note, do a little happy dance or go out and have a few cocktails! If you always have your head down, onto the next thing and the next thing there’s no room to enjoy the process and see progress.
- Build time into your day for marketing even if it’s one small step a day. Choose the stream you want to use most and focus on that to start with. Over time it will come much more naturally, promise! And be yourself. You’re probably afraid of coming off like an annoying salesman but if you use your own voice and invite people into your world people learn to trust you and want to support you.
And just to give you some ‘go get em’ spirit, I’ve not yet spoken to a creative that regrets going freelance. They would all say it’s much harder but that they’re so glad they did it! No going back eh?!