Surprises of Being a Freelancer

The rapid growth of freelancers in the UK economy seems to have no limit in a post-Brexit economy – there are now more than 2 million whose main job is in the gig economy or who work freelance in addition to their main job. With freelancers expected to become the majority of workers in the next decade in areas ranging from freelance communications consultants to financial professionals, how will you prepare for this shift in working patterns and management? Alex Bigham investigates…
Like a lot of people, going freelance was part planned, part accident. Sure I had long coveted the life of sitting in your pyjamas, doing a couple of hours work, messing around on twitter and getting paid handsomely. But the fear of making the initial jump and being unconvinced anyone would actually pay me for my time held it back for some time.
Eventually the soul destroying experience of filling in endless job application forms got too much. This could take up another post but HR managers need to consider how requesting hundreds of words about being a teamwork-loving vector for innovation will put off applicants. So I set up a website and posted something on Facebook and waited. Amazingly I got my first client in a few days which gave me the confidence and crucially the time to start building my business and pitching for other work.
Of course I had done some research and thought about how to market my work and where I could be based (for a list of free or cheap co-working spaces in London, but a few things still surprised me:

  1. What happens when you need to pee? Getting a free co-working space is invaluable but they tend to get busy. Although many have security, leaving your laptop (my business’s biggest asset) unattended was worrying and if you take your stuff to the facilities you can lose your prime spot. Unless you have the bladder of an ox, you’ll need to invest in a Kensington lock or make friends with your neighbour (it they look trustworthy).
  2. Your back will hurt. Sure Google’s trendy Campus London looks great and is a perfect hangout to meet millennials on the verge of launching an app, but the seats are not ergonomically designed to support your lower back. Sitting cross legged on a sofa crouched over a MacBook isn’t as appealing as it might seem, though they do offer free yoga classes once a week.
  3. You might not need an accountant. This goes against the advice that almost everyone gave me. I signed up for a relatively cheap one here but it still costs the best part of £80 a month, the biggest expense for the business. However if your business is fairly simple and you have time, you can get a cloud based accountancy package (you should anyway). I use FreeAgent which came free with NatWest’s business account and is fairly simple to use. It can set up payroll, manage expenses and will remind you about submitting returns to HMRC.
  4. Build your network. I don’t just mean to find new clients. But consider what skills you are missing and how you can build strategic partnerships to offer in pitches. Increasingly, freelancers and virtual agencies like the PR Network are challenging the traditional agency model to provide value to their clients and increased flexibility.
  5. Get insurance. I hadn’t factored this in when doing my planning but you need some protection. Public liability and professional indemnity are a basic necessity in case something goes wrong and your client sues you. Having a limited company will also protect you unlike being a sole trader where your home and personal assets might be at risk. At the same time you might want to consider salary protection in case of accident or injury.
  6. Fill your boots with freebies. Networking events can be a great way to save money on breakfast and lunch while many companies offer introductory rates for startups. NatWest’s business account is free for 18 months for small startups, LinkedIn offer £50 of free advertising for your company while Freecycle can be a great place to pick up office equipment like printers.
  7. It can get lonely. Sure, there are all different types of offices around and office politics can be tiresome but the life of a freelancer has the danger of being isolated when you’re working in a space where everyone is eyes down with their AirPods in. Try to talk to your neighbour – after all they might have something useful to trade or some advice. Campus London makes a big deal of this – encouraging networking with regular events and the occasional free meal.

Uncertainty and flexibility are clearly the hallmarks of the new economy, but with effective preparation and building a network of like-minded freelancers to share ideas and build teams, you can flourish.

Alex Bigham is a freelance communications consultant –