We mostly focus on full-time freelancers in these weekly Featured Freelancer stories, but many freelancers do start out part-time to ensure enough money is coming in to pay the bills, or to see whether freelancing is for them. This week’s Featured Freelancer is one of those who did just that with the goal of going into freelancing full time, one day. That garden office will happen. Enjoy…
What is your name, where are you based, and what do you do?
Fi Shailes, Berkshire, part-time digital freelancer at Digital Drum (and full-time head of digital at an agency!). I offer content and social media-related help to my clients.
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
It’s coming up to three years since I first began freelancing part-time. I was doing pretty well at my (then) full-time job, but I was also feeling a little unfulfilled – like I’d hit a ‘ceiling’.
Despite the fact I was leading my ex-employer’s digital marketing team, unfortunately it just wasn’t the kind of organisation that valued digital marketing, the power of content, or the methodology behind ‘inbound marketing.’
I found myself wondering if more freedom and opportunity to professionally develop lay in setting up my own freelancing side-line. I wondered right!
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
I think my friends were all genuine supporters when I revealed my plan, though they would probably admit that they didn’t know what exactly I was about to take on, as they all worked full-time for an employer. I guess it was only my folks who had some reservations at the start – not because they didn’t think I could do the work well, and so on – more than I would be taking on too much, and that I would end up burned out (and therefore unwell) with working part-time on top of what was already quite a busy full-time role.
Nevertheless, once I settled into freelancing, they were reassured that it was a good move. And there’s also a classic bit of ‘they don’t really get what I do’ as a job to it, so I think they’re happy if they see that I’m happy with it all!
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
I’d like to say I did, but I didn’t really. I absolutely ‘felt my way’ on it all, as it probably didn’t occur to me to seek advice at the time.
To be fair, three years ago there probably wasn’t the number (and calibre) of freelancing support networks / communities (both online and offline) that there are now.
Do you know what though? I managed. I think I probably do have a bit of an entrepreneurial streak in me, so I was pretty determined to make it work once I pressed ‘publish website’ for Digital Drum.
Funnily enough, two years into freelancing, I started writing for a freelancing audience via a couple of my clients who needed content for that exact audience.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
I’m lucky, as I can genuinely say that all of my current clients are lovely and enjoyable to work for.
What I count as a good client is someone who a) listens to your ideas / advice and takes them seriously b) communicates with you well throughout and c) pays on time.
All in all, I’ve not had a bad run of clients at all (though I’ve said goodbye to a couple who were just not working out, because of a lack of the ‘a’ and ‘b’). When you’re freelancing, it’s always a bit like roulette when you get enquiries – you don’t know who’s going to land in your inbox next, and what they might be like to work with if they end up hiring you.
Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?
Generally speaking, hiring a freelancer is always going to be cheaper than someone from an agency. Some well-established, fairly successful companies just don’t have an in-house marketing department of their own, so they’re forced to outsource pretty much everything. Or, they’ve had a bad experience with an agency in the past, so they want to try using a freelancer. On top of that, I think I charge a fair rate, and I don’t ever try and over-inflate any aspect of my fees.
I’d say at least half of my work has come from word-of-mouth referrals, and that has been brilliant. The majority of my clients are long-term, so, on average, I’ll deliver one to two years of work for them at least before the arrangement stops – most commonly due to client-side circumstances (budget, holiday etc) and not me, I’m happy to say!
I’d like to think that the length of service to most of my clients speaks volumes.
Is being a freelancer what you expected? e.g. Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
It’s actually been better than expected. Whilst I first imagined freelancing to be a bit of an ‘isolating affair’, it’s been the opposite when I reflect on it all. The literal delivery of client work aside, it’s allowed me to learn more quickly about different sectors and subject matters at a faster rate than usual. I’ve formed great working relationships with clients and industry contacts, and I feel I am part of a large peer network too. When it comes to content-writing, there are so many brilliant freelancers out there, and the great thing is that I’ve been able to form friendships with a lot of them – albeit at a distance! This network is a down-to-earth and supportive one, so all in all it’s not like being a lone freelancer at all really (as I had first imagined it would be!).
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?
I use quite a few combinations for both Digital Drum and my clients, but tools like Google Analytics just can’t really be substituted, so it would have to be that! Otherwise, there are generally so many substitutes on the market now for tools such as social media schedulers, that I’d probably manage (and I use three different social media schedulers at the moment, as they all suit my / client needs in different ways)…
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
I’d say that you need to love what you do, and you need to be flexible, patient, and receptive to the different needs of your client. You’ll also need to adopt a reactive, proactive, and reliable mindset to keep your clients happy. It doesn’t revolve around you, it’s about doing the best job you can for them.
Whilst freelancing can come with many perks, there are also some things to consider, so you should think about any risks and how you’re going to invest yourself in making it work. Financial concerns are usually at the top of the consideration list. For example, is getting paid absolutely on time each and every month crucial to you and your family? You should also be realistic in terms of how flexible you’re able to be (for example, can you handle a call from at 10pm UK time, because your client is based abroad?).
Ultimately, you need to decide whether it’s a style of working that will suit you, and the best way to know this is to try it out – preferably with as little risk as possible. Many freelancers (such as myself) dip their toe in the water by ‘trialling it’ first, on a part-time basis.
I can tell you that striking out as a freelancer can be a very validating and professionally fulfilling experience. I’m so glad I gave it a try, back in 2016.
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
What springs to mind instantly is what I’ve learned when it comes to the ‘dealing with people’ aspect of freelancing.
I say this, as I’m naturally quite shy with new people (face-to-face) and within large groups. I’m also quite a ‘reflective’ type of thinker, so not the kind of person who will pipe up constantly in meetings – not unless I’ve got something considered to say.
Freelancing has forced me (in a positive way) to push myself out of my comfort zone, as the ability to build relationships with clients and retain them in the long term is an essential knack to have.
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
There are a few things, but I think the main aspect I enjoy is when I’ve delivered a piece of work and hear back that my client is really happy with it.
I’ve had some really nice feedback from many of my clients. One recently said my latest blog for them was ‘beautifully written’, and things like that means so much for me, and allows me almost ‘permission’ to take full pride in my work.
It means that what I’m doing with Digital Drum is adding value to someone else’s business.
Getting paid at the end of it all is just another bonus.
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
It’s probably just the challenges I sometimes face with ‘time’. Having always worked a full-time job in an office somewhere, fitting in freelancing part-time can often monopolise a large chunk of the weekend. However, this is something I’ve always accepted, and if I wasn’t able to cope with the time aspect, I probably wouldn’t be speaking to you now about freelancing! Luckily, I’m able to adapt to changing needs and requirements week to week, and it’s not always so heavy-going at the weekends. Peaks and troughs, as they say.
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
When I started out, I think one of the main motivating factors was to earn some extra dosh as I was trying to build up savings for a deposit on a house. But it did become more than that, and less about the financial side in the end. Since I began my venture, I’ve had the pleasure of being asked for my professional input by different industry organisations, received emails and messages from peers starting out – asking my advice, been part of the judging panel for Social Day, become part of a few inspiring freelance communities… the list goes on.
I think it’s actually good for me to freelance from a personal development / growth point of view, and to that end my goal these days is to keep building on what I’ve already done,and hopefully ‘one day in the future’ I’ll be able to make the transition to being a full-time freelancer.
I already have started to visualise my ‘garden office’!
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
Like many others I expect, doing your tax return is a pain, and I wish I’d been better prepared for this aspect of freelancing.
The first time I filed my tax return, it was a total nightmare because I’d unwittingly left it until the last few weeks before the deadline, and then it was really panic stations.
It was, to a large extent, my own fault – but in the meantime, I didn’t see much communication or marketing out there aimed at freelancers (from the powers that be) which might have given me the education and mental push I needed on that. We’re all busy. Am I really going to read up loads on my tax return and the rules around it throughout the year? No.
In the last month or so, I’ve probably received five emails from HMRC reminding me to do my tax return for 2017-18 but have heard nothing but radio silence from them for the preceding 9-10 months.
I think they could do more to help, basically. If you choose to complete your self-assessment paperwork online, the portal is fine to use (if you use patience and common sense), but there are a number of rules and ways of approaching, for example – ‘expenses’, which can be confusing to people like me. We can’t all afford the yearly use of an accountant either -not without it eating into our freelance earnings!
To connect with Fi, visit:
Digital Drum Website – www.digital-freelancer.org
Twitter handle – @Fi_digitaldrum
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/company/digital-drum-digital-marketing-
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/digitaldrum1
Instagram handle – digital_drum