Along with delivering client work and running our own businesses, we’re often told that we should be scheduling in time to sharpen the axe, whether that’s reading books, listening to podcasts, following relevant YouTubers, etc. This can also include having a network of freelancers to learn from (aka Freelance Heroes. Just saying!) or working with a business coach, which is where this week’s Featured Freelancer comes in.
We head to Brecknockshire to read the lessons learnt from 10 years of freelancing. Enjoy…
What is your name, where are you based, and what do you do?
I’m Helen Campbell, I coach freelancers, entrepreneurs and small business owners. I’m based between Hay-on-Wye and Brecon. A beautiful location overlooking the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains, in a house that is more than 360 years old.
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
I started working for myself as a freelancer (in PR), around ten years ago. I was made redundant in the financial crash, like so many people, and I saw this as an opportunity to go out on my own. My favourite type of consultancy work, as a PR expert, was when I got to liaise closely with entrepreneurs at the top of creative and innovative businesses. Highlights have included interviewing Kevin McCloud in the back of a black cab (and trying not to puke on him, as I got travel sick) and turning up to a very trendy tech company dressed from head-to-toe as Wonder Woman only to realise everyone else had just brought paper masks as their attempt at superhero fancy dress.
Now I use that experience (of almost 20 years in PR and comms) to support people who have ambitious goals for their freelance career or small business. I help creative and innovative clients set and achieve their goals. I really enjoy it and it makes a welcome change to listen and reflect, after 20 years of pro-active pitching.
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
I’m so lucky with the support I’ve had since I went freelance. I firstly visited a national newspaper editor to ask him if he thought I would be able to cut it as a freelance PR, as he was a contact of mine and I knew he’d be honest with me. We ended up getting married, so that was pretty supportive! My family have been amazing too. I have three siblings and two of them work for themselves. They are all creative and bright and really thoughtful, working across art, charity and technology.
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
Yes, I have a super helpful accountant, James Slatter, and I’ve also leaned on a number of amazing comms people over the years for support. These include Alex Butler who ran a superb co-working group in London, before it was commonplace to co-work, Jude Habib and Damien Clarkson, who I met through various charity jobs and who are just a great source of inspiration and really kind people too. I also love to have business chats with Luke Grahame who is an amazing fitness coach, as he pushes me out of my comfort zone in a really positive way.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
My coaching clients are generally creative people, with tonnes of potential, who are looking for a sounding board. They have different goals of course but what unites all my clients is how resourceful and resilient they are – in general they have the answers themselves, I simply help to bring those answers, options, and possibilities to mind.
Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?
I think my clients really value the fact that I’ve ‘been there and done that’. I’ve worked with so many different sorts of businesses and charities over the years – as well as in the public sector – and people find it reassuring that I know a bit about what it can be like to work for yourself in a comms and/or creative role. They also buy into me as a person – I’m very open and down-to-earth and tend to attract like-minded individuals.
Is being a freelancer what you expected? e.g. Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
When I first started freelancing I would work six days a week but these days I feel a lot calmer. Part of coaching is about respecting boundaries – both your own and other people’s – so I live that and it helps me gain perspective.
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?
I got introduced to WhatsApp years ago, when I visited a pal in New York and she said it was a great way to text without being hit with roaming charges. Now I use it every day to speak to clients and I just find it great. I spoke to another coach over in Sri Lanka yesterday and I didn’t worry about the cost of calling her as we used WhatsApp, so we could talk for as long as we wanted to.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
I think that people who are going freelance often worry way too much at the start about branding and so on. At the end of the day, your client is buying you – Bob or Jo, or whoever you are – they don’t really care at all if you’re called something-or-other-coaching. Branding is a nice differentiator as you grow and establish yourself, but on day one it’s a luxury you probably can’t afford. It might be better just to go out there and get a client, do some good work and get some superb feedback. Then you can start to build your brand around what you’re really great at, based on doing a good job.
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
My biggest lesson has been to enjoy the ride and not try to ‘fast forward’ everything all the time. I used to want everything to be completed and didn’t enjoy the ‘messy’ bit of doing the actual work! I often work with my clients on the idea that the uncomfortable stuff might be the actual ‘work’ and we think about how to embrace that. At the same time I’ve learned a lot about boundaries too and that has really helped me to change my behaviour and not run around panicking.
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
As a freelancer I get to invest in my own learning and development to benefit me and reach my goals and ambitions. When I worked for other people, my personal development was often about learning things which I wasn’t really very interested in – I was sort of forced into them. I don’t regret it, but I remember doing financial exams and so on when really my passion has always been for creative and interpersonal work. To be able to choose my own direction and live in a beautiful area is such a great combination for me.
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that sometimes I just want someone to fix something for me, but of course I have to work it out for myself instead. In the long run it benefits me, but at the time I long for the ‘helpdesks’ which I expect we all took for granted if we worked in big offices for large companies at any time in our careers.
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
Ok, now I’m telling you a secret. I live VERY close to the town of books and so it’s probably no surprise that I’d love to write a book myself.
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
I think if I’d known that I was going to be freelance one day I would have worked very differently when I was employed. My priorities would have changed and I think I would have focused on learning more transferable skills, and developing my own work style, instead of concentrating on how to do a good job in the style of my employer.
To connect with Helen, visit: