There are many reasons for starting a freelance business, and I hope few of them share the same reason as this week’s Featured Freelancer…
What is your name, where are you based, and what do you do?
Natasha, London (Highbury if you want to be specific) but I am originally from Stoke-on-Trent, and I am a writer/accidental digital entrepreneur.
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
I’ve been freelancing for nearly two years. I worked as a journalist before, and it was super stressful, but I just thought that was kind of the way it had to be in that industry. I specialise in fashion, so got to travel the world and go to all these glamorous events, and when I was in my early 20s I thrived on the hectic lifestyle that went with it. But as I got older, I wanted some semblance of work/life balance. I did nothing about it though, because handing your notice in on a job is terrifying with nothing lined up – especially when you have no savings and no way of getting any (all perks in the fashion journalism industry come in the form of freebies, which funnily enough do not pay your rent or allow you to have anything left over at the end of the month).
Then in September 2016, I was wearing some very fashiony high heels, and I fell over and bumped my head. Long story short, I’d cracked my skull and contracted a very dangerous strain of bacterial meningitis. I was in isolation in intensive care for days, they gave me a 6% chance of survival… luckily, I did survive! I went back to Stoke for a while as I was written off work for 4 months to recover. While I was there, I realised that my life had become this perpetual hamster wheel of strife, and that what I actually valued was my family, and my relationship, and enjoying what I was doing. I’d also had a dream of being my own boss by the time I was 30, but figured it wouldn’t happen (I was 25 at the time and it seemed impossible).
But while I was lying there, I just thought – what’s the worst that could happen? I had just nearly died, and my overwhelming feeling was that I was grateful for the break from work?! It really struck me. So I decided I would see if I could get some freelance work. I had absolutely no idea how to do this. I sent my CV to some freelance agencies, and changed all my LinkedIn details, and set up my own website writing about the things I’d always wanted to write about but wasn’t allowed to at other publications for whatever reason. And it went from there!
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
I’m quite lucky in that a lot of my family are self-employed – although in the building trade and in Stoke, so not really the same thing! But we had the same motivations even if the industry was different. So my uncle, who runs a building firm, helped me with the paperwork in setting up a limited company and all that jazz – getting help with this was really important as I’ve seen friends thinking they can just dive in to freelancing and end up in a bit of a mess.
But I think it’s important to point out that I had absolutely zero money at this point as a lot of people seem to miraculously survive this switch from employment to freelancing without too much strife. Not so for me, I was absolutely brassic as I hadn’t worked for a while and still had to pay rent on my flat in London. So, I rented out my room in London, and I moved back to Stoke for a bit where I housesat for my stepsister while I was trying to bring in work and concentrate on building a decent portfolio. A few people thought I was insane as I’d gone from glam London life with my sleek flat and my freebies, as my previous job was, on the outside, so glamorous. I interviewed Hollywood A-listers and reviewed 5 star hotels – but really, it was deeply miserable and stressful. I just didn’t share that part on Instagram.
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
I have a great accountancy firm that I worked with, they’re called Mitten Clarke, and they let me have the first few months free while they helped me with financial planning and never once got annoyed when they had to speak to me like a solid idiot about VAT and tax and invoicing – I was so new to this, I just had no idea.
Also the delay on invoicing was tricky at first too. One of my first jobs had 12 week invoicing terms! So I was 3 months without being paid, so special shout out to my bank manager for extending my overdraft during this time! I left it too long to sort this out as I didn’t think it was an option, but I use Natwest Business Banking, and went in to say SOS HELP ME, and they offered to cover a percentage of the invoice before it came in which really saved my bacon as for this job I needed to be in London, but couldn’t afford to move back until I got paid! I’d recommend having these chats as early on as possible.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
Now, my main source of income is my website – it’s an editorial fashion website. I get advertising and affiliate revenue from it. The readers of the website though are women aged 26-56, based outside of London. I also do brand consultancy for fashion companies, whether it’s for their collections and how to translate them to a UK market, or social media help for startup brands, or writing website copy that’ll get them noticed. I’ve worked with everyone from Topshop and ASOS to Fenwick and Net-A-Porter.
Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?
In terms of the website, because I talk to them like human beings! In terms of consultancy, it’s probably for the same reason. The fashion industry has a reputation for being hoity toity, and I help a lot of these people translate their vision into something that doesn’t make you want to roll your eyes. These days, I get most of my work from word of mouth recommendations, too.
Is being a freelancer what you expected? e.g. Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
I consciously work less hours than I did before. I know I could earn more if I did more, but I have to remind myself sometimes that I did this so that I could have a better quality of life. I actually do earn more now than I did before, quite significantly, but this wasn’t the case at the beginning – and yet back then, I was working so many hours and spreading myself incredibly thinly, trying to get as many clients as possible under my belt!
Nowadays, I try and do quality over quantity. Nobody ever believes this, but I structure my days via daytime TV. Jeremy Kyle – emails. This Morning – writing. Loose Women – uploading. The News – lunchtime. Afternoons are for consultancy and projects that I’m working on. It sounds stupid but structuring my day like this means I always do the same thing every day and keep it consistent! Some people have fancy apps – I have ITV daytime TV.
But, if it’s a sunny day and I have worked really hard that week, I’ll take myself to the park or go and meet my friends, or do something fun. It’s definitely the cliched freelancer lifestyle, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?
As I generally work alone, I don’t really use Trello or the likes (and I am very much an old school notepad and pen person), but the Squarespace website and app is brilliantly simple and means I can try new things without too much fuss. I also get a lot of work via my Instagram channel, so I’ll say that too! I also love Cleo, because I hate checking my bank balance but when it pops up in your Facebook chat, you can’t really hide from it.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
Be resilient. The fashion industry has darlings who they’ll always choose over someone who actually knows what they’re doing (I lost out on a consultancy job I really wanted to… the daughter of a famous rockstar). But that never works out and they will always end up coming back, so be pleasant to everyone, and be safe in the knowledge that if you do a good job and keep your head down and graft, you’ll be valued.
Also – be open about money. Since I started freelancing, I know exactly how much I earn each day (I never knew this when I was salaried), and I know what I can afford and what I can’t. I have to forward plan based on what invoices are coming in when, and I have to be on top of it all the time. This, for someone who used to live via the dangerous motto of ‘just use your card until it declines and think about it then’, is terrifying.
I think women especially find talking about money crass, but we need to break the taboo – we’re all earning, we all deserve to be paid fairly, and we will all be skint sometimes. Managing it will only get easier if we’re able to speak about it, and being on top of my numbers rather than literally hiding from the banking app has meant that when I have a bit of breathing room in my account, I’ll take a risk on doing something because it’s okay – I have a cushion if it goes wrong.
Also, don’t stress too much about having 3 months salary in your account or whatever before you make the leap. If you keep waiting for it, it’ll never come.
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
I’ve learned that I’m not actually driven by money! I always thought I was, but it turns out I just wanted to be comfortable. I’ve also done a startup MBA course as part of an accelerator scheme I joined called Ignite. This has been really valuable – turns out getting an A in GCSE maths doesn’t qualify you to run a business. I’m very much of the head-in-the-sand school of admin, and it’s bitten me on the arse a few times, so I learned the hard way that this doesn’t work.
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
The freedom! And shouting at people who pay invoices late. I love doing this. Nothing infuriates me more, so I try and save them all for when I have really bad PMS and then it suddenly aint so bad.
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
The constant worry that you’re about to get dropped by a client which sends you into a spiral that you will starve to death and lose your flat because you can’t pay your rent even though you’ve got next month’s sorted and… then I remember that when one door closes, another opens, and rationalise myself. But in the dead of night, this thought gets me in the gut every time. I think there needs to be a 3am thread of OMG HELP ME on the Freelance Heroes page! It’s nothing compared to the constant worry that your boss has emailed you though.
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
I’d really like to get to a point where I was established enough to be able to leave London – so much of the fashion industry is based here that I don’t really have enough clout yet to be able to dictate which hours I go in to meet them. I’d also like to bring a team on board, as there’s so many jobs I have to turn down as I just don’t have the capacity.
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
That paperwork can actually be fun (hear me out – seeing the numbers go down on a tax return when you fill in your receipts? HEAVEN). And also that it’s okay to go outside of your comfort zone. My experience as a journalist has been really valuable when working in consultancy, but for so long my identity was tied up in ‘being a journalist’ that I was reticent to put myself forward for certain things for a while.
And in the Freelance Heroes Facebook Group, of course.