Going freelance: what it’s like to take the plunge

There’s not denying that going freelance, or becoming an independent contractor, is incredibly exciting. However, like most things that get the pulse racing, the excitement can come with a massive side-order of nervousness. As freelance writers ourselves, here at The Life Hub we know that taking the plunge is never an easy decision. That’s why we thought we’d start up this monthly column, chatting to people who have been there, done that and lived to tell the tale.

This week, we caught up with Michelle Abrahall, a graphic designer, illustrator and copywriter with quite a story to tell. ‘I came to freelancing relatively late in life, when I was in my 30s,’ she tells us. ‘After studying Illustration at Uni I left feeling worn out and completely unprepared for finding a job in the creative industry – cue a decade of disappointing career moves, job-hopping and roles that were completely unmatched to my skills, leaving me depressed and unmotivated.”

It’s a common enough tale. In times gone by, the ‘proper’ route to work was relatively simple: you studied hard at school, refined your abilities at university and then went into a ‘job for life’ – all of which seems bizarre in a modern context.

The idea that you will know what you want to do by your mid-teens and then make your life decisions based on that inkling almost sounds unhealthy, and these days many people choose instead to delay the decision making until a lot later. ‘Finding yourself’ is more acceptable now than it ever has been before.

But what if you don’t find yourself? What if, like Michelle, you keep searching without finding anything that feels right? Like many people thinking of going freelance, it wasn’t until she made use of her natural creative instincts and abilities that things began to fit.

‘I never stayed long in a job because they all made me miserable in one way or another,’ she laughs, ‘and my CV was a mess! The only job that was in any way related to my degree was the last one I had before going freelance, which was a Digital Marketing Manager role, and it’s no coincidence I stayed in that one the longest.

Years after graduating I did a small logo job for a friend, then a wedding invitation for a friend, then people started recommending me to their friends and it grew – very slowly – from there.’

As she points out, few freelance jobs rocket into the stratosphere from lift-off, and staying the distance is almost as nerve-wracking as taking the plunge in the first place. Many freelance careers have fallen by the wayside because expectations were set too high. ‘It took a long, long time for me to build my confidence after being in a career wilderness,’ she recalls, ‘so it was not so much cajoling as convincing myself that I could do it, and that I was wasting my skills in non-creative roles.’

Ask what her biggest worries were once she got going, however, and she joins what you might call the Freelancers’ Chorus: ‘Money! I had a real fear of running out of it. Before I gave up my job I was part-time for a year, so I spent that time saving up a small “safety net” fund.

I was obsessed with being able to put away three months’ worth of salary, as is the recommended amount, but it was taking too long. After speaking with some friends that were experienced freelancers, I realised that there was no perfect time to do it and I just had to take a risk.’

While cashflow was an inevitable issue, Michelle was lucky in that she had a reasonable understanding of VAT, self-assessments, not to mention the age-old question of whether to become a limited company or sole trader. However, she recognises that this area is one of the biggest issues for newbies, and says that we’re lucky in the UK to have access to so many resources with which you can educate yourself (like here on The Life Hub, for example!)

‘The best advice I got was from a friend who is a patent attorney,’ she says, ‘and he told me all about billable hours and why I should apply that model to my business. Keeping track of your hours and how much actual paid work you’re doing every day, week and month is essential. It’s been a massive help to have friends who are also creative freelancers, as well as in completely unrelated fields, as I have a wide range of career advice available to me.’

Asked if there’s anything she wishes she knew when she was first going freelance that she knows now, she is quick to reply: ‘Without a doubt, I wish I knew that I don’t have to be everyone’s friend to be successful. There is a huge difference between being accommodating and being a doormat, and you don’t have to always be “nice” to get things done. Even if you’re friendly with a client, keep the boundaries clear and don’t assume anything.’

‘As a freelancer, I have no regrets,’ she explains, ‘as whatever happens next, the decision to go freelance has been the best thing to happen to my career since leaving University.’

Would she recommend the freelance life to other people, however? It’s an important question, and Michelle’s answer is among the most sensible we’ve heard hear on The Life Hub: ‘The freelance life is not for everyone,’ she says, ‘and I don’t think you can accurately explain what it’s like.

People just have to try if for themselves. I love the freedom of working from home, but I’m lucky that my partner is a remote worker, as I don’t think I could handle the isolation if it was just me. If you’re not an organised, motivated person you could quickly find yourself struggling!’

If you’ve got a freelance story to tell, get in touch with us via our Facebook or Twitter pages. For more advice on how to set yourself up as a freelancer or an independent contractor, drop us a line via this contact form

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