Sean Hargrave is one of the most experienced members of the Freelance Heroes group, having freelanced for over 18 years. In this latest Featured Freelancer edition, Sean gives a very honest account of the highs and lows that he has experienced as a freelancer, and also introduces us to “frenemies” and why you need to be cautious of them. This is Sean’s story…
What is your name and what do you do?
I’m Sean Hargrave and I’m a freelance journalist with a bit of script writing and copywriting thrown in.
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
I’ve been freelance for 18 years now. I was made redundant from The Sunday Times in 1999 which is the best thing they could’ve done for me. It gave me a kick up the behind to back to freelancing which I much preferred to working in their office – I’d freelance for two years previously before being offered a job at the paper.
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
I was single and so had no family to support at the time, so the decision was really down to me, plus I had no real choice about going freelance. People were generally pretty supportive. Some people will always tell you to play it safe but there are plenty of people who will always encourage someone to give it a go. The ones you have to watch, I find, are ‘frenemies’ whom you know through work and pretend they will give you plenty of commissions but don’t because, ultimately, they’re jealous of your decision. It’s normally one they’ve not been brave enough to make themselves.
Also, watch out for people who thought it was great to have a friend or partner in a cool position, like working at The Sunday Times, but drop you like a lead balloon when you’re the guy who used to have an impressive job title and are now trying to build up a business on your own.
Put it this way, going freelance coincided with the ending of the long term relationship I was in at the time. Again, another huge favour looking back.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
I have about half a dozen regular customers and they vary because the thing you have to remember is a client is normally not the brand name on the cheques but the person you deal with each week, and that person can often change. I’m very lucky, though, my clients are all good people dedicated to getting the best out of everyone and so they’re good to work with and, most crucially of all, pay on time (most of the time). I’ve had a couple of awful clients and the best thing I ever did was fire a German nightmare of a customer, in German! It was very unprofessional but it felt flipping good.
Top tip, if someone’s a nightmare, sack them mentally and then give yourself a couple of months to find a new client before going back to them to tell them ‘you’re fired’. Trust me, it’s very rare you’ll need to do this but when you do, it’s very satisfying.
Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?
As a freelancer you’ve got to become a good sales person so you’ve got to know what you’re talking about and have the knowledge and skills to back it up. So I like to think I know what I’m talking about and give good feature suggestions and put a lot of work in to getting a good, insightful and balanced result. One tip I’ve always followed is that when I was commissioning people, I liked freelancers that came to me with solutions and ideas, not problems. So, if there’s a problem, I try to contact the client with the solution we now have to pursue. Crucially, I always organise pictures. It’s just one of those little things. If you take a chore away from the people commissioning you, they’ll come back.
Is being a freelancer what you expected? Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
Being a freelancer is pretty much what I expected although nothing can ever prepare you for the highs and the lows. One day you’ve picked up some really interesting new work, the next a long term client has moved on or decided to take a new route, and that doesn’t include you. It can be real feast and famine stuff. The sooner you just accept this is how it is, the sooner you can appreciate the good times and know when things are not going so well that it could all change with one successful pitch. But, we’re all human, we still all worry about it being quiet and then have moan when it’s far too busy.
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?
Other than the obvious social media apps I’d say, perhaps surprisingly, the app that helps me professionally is a meditation service called Headspace. It may sound odd but if you can be calm when dealing with people you can normally weather any storm. Plus, one of the big lessons it teaches is not to fret because the thing you’re worried about might not actually happen and, if it does, you’ll have needlessly suffered it twice. I can’t recommend it highly enough for both your personal and professional lives.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
It may sound trite but being good at what you do is a good start. Having some clients lined up before you take the jump is also very sensible and remember you’re not going to see any money for the first few months, so have some cash in the bank to tide you over.
The other point is to remember that the second you become freelance, you’re also a sales person which doesn’t always sit easily with people in any creative field. So, you’ve got to get good at small, simple pitches and building a relationship with people who’ll come back for more. Talking of which, a cheeky tip. Someone you interview will always give you a bit extra, some news you weren’t expecting or a new avenue to look down. That’s not your footnote to the article you’re writing, that’s the next article. Remember, you’re selling as much as you’re writing.
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
Journalism itself is unrecognisable now since the advent of digital where everybody’s got a blog, news sites are everywhere and the mainstream media is suffering both in terms of circulation in print and pesky ad-blockers online. So, I’ve learned that you have to be flexible and professional. When I started out there was a clear line between brands and writers but now, with the rise of advertorial (or native advertising as it’s becoming called) you have to be a lot more flexible yet retain a professional approach. In other words, if someone hires a ‘yes’ man, one of you is redundant. So, I’ve learned to never be afraid of pushing back with my professional opinion but not forgetting who’s ultimately paying for an article. It’s not always the publisher any more. So polite insistence you know what you’re talking about is a must, that’s something I’ve learned after year of being the journalist which means whatever you said, went. However, if the client wants something else, despite your advice, I now just shrug and get on with it. If you’re really unhappy with something, ask for your name not to go on it but still remain on the cheque.
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
The best bit of freelancing is the obvious benefit that attracts people in the first place. No wasted time commuting every day, no having to pretend to like your boss (unless you actually do) and generally being in charge of your day. Ultimately the best bit is if you really don’t like working for someone, you can just walk away. If someone’s obnoxious or condescending, that’s fine, just don’t work with them again.
Plus, I get to walk the dog, take the kids to school and don’t have to queue up for the tube.
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
The worst bit of freelancing is the fear that everyone has when they make the leap. It’s a lot less secure than working for a company and there will be times when you wonder if the risk is worth the reward. There can be lean times, those are always the worst. Funnily enough, though, those times come and go.
If there’s one thing I dislike it’s not having an office full of pals for banter and Friday night drinks. The social side of an office is probably the thing most freelancers miss, I’d imagine?
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
Ultimately, I guess I need another kick up the backside to turn what I do in to a content business, helping brands get their messages out there in front of people and improving their search rankings at the same time. It’s hard, though, when you’re working on your own and you’re too busy to find time for a new venture. So, we’ll see. The one thing I would say is freelancing has delivered on my main reason for not looking to re-enter the work place. I get out of commuting and being stuck working the same people all the time, it’s a great way of broadening your horizons. In that sense, I have got plenty out of freelancing.
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
It’s a boring one but the thing I wished I’d known was ‘on account’ tax payments. I got wiped out once by paying my tax and then being told by a very unhelpful accountant that I had to pay more to cover the upcoming period. So there’s a tip there. Get a very good accountant and be honest. Tell them you know nothing and so want to be prepared for any nasty surprises. The best bit of advice they’ll give you, which I’ll pass on, is to put some money away each month for your tax bill and be prepared, if you’ve just gone freelance, for the time when you start paying ‘on account’ for the next period up front. The first payment is a right shocker!
It’s for this reason I’ve changed accountants twice, many years ago and then just very recently. A good accountant is really worth every penny you pay them.
You can get in touch with Sean, directly, on
…and in the Freelance Heroes Facebook Group.