On 18 June the UK’s 5-million strong self-employed community celebrates National Freelancers’ Day. To mark the occasion, we invited Gloucestershire freelancer Sarah Townsend to look at why freelance life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be… and why it’s about time we came clean on the messy reality of self-employment.
The benefits of self-employment are well documented – work where you like, when you like, how you like. Freelance life is sold as the ultimate career move for parents of young children looking for flexibility while their kids are small, and it’s now being positioned as the answer for many workers who’ve been laid off due to the pandemic.
Yet despite all the advantages, no one really talks about the messiness and challenges of freelance life. We see it as a chance to spend more time doing the thing we love, and to earn a decent wage in the process. Why aren’t we told just how relentless the business end of going solo can be?!
I started my freelance journey in 1999 and I’ve never looked back. But that’s not to say it’s been easy – far from it. I’ve built up my business as my children grew from babies to toddlers to teens, through divorce, and 12 years as a single parent – yet somehow I still love my job!
The route to self-employment
The path to freelance life is rarely straight. No one goes through childhood telling their parents and teachers that they want to be a freelancer when they grow up – and for me, self-employment was never part of the plan.
I was working as an editor for a large magazine publisher when I became pregnant. I was living in Gloucester and working in Clifton, and while I knew I didn’t have it in me to be a full-time, stay-at-home mum, I also knew I had no intention of coming back to work full-time or commuting to Bristol with a baby in nursery back home.
When I raised the idea of part time work I was politely but firmly shut down. “You’re an account manager,” said my managing director. “You can’t expect your clients to understand you only work three days a week!”
While I was disappointed, I wasn’t surprised. This was the 90s, and flexible hours and remote working had yet to gain popularity. When my managing editor raised the idea of working freelance, it wasn’t an option I’d considered. But when they offered to help me out with work to get me started, it seemed like a good solution.
Fast forward 20-odd years, and I’m still here, representing the “freelance massiv” and writing about my experiences. (I guess you could call me a veteran freelancer – just don’t call me vintage…)
Going solo… without going loco
Sure, the rewards have been great but there have been many challenges along the way.
Being an extrovert who was used to office banter and thrived on coffee time chat, it’s no exaggeration to say I found the isolation that came with self-employment physically painful for years… but even the most introverted of professionals need human connection.
When I started my business, there was no social media, no Facebook groups, no multiuser Zoom calls and no online support. Heck – there was barely an internet!
And don’t get me started on networking. The very idea used to bring me out in a rash (standing making small-talk surrounded by serious, suit-wearing strangers – no thanks!).
I was juggling being a mum with building a business, and it was tough. Years of unpredictable workloads, late-paying clients, self-doubt, rate angst and overwhelm left me on the verge of burnout on more than one occasion.
One day I had a lightbulb moment. I realised if I wanted to attract half decent clients with half decent budgets, I needed more than a half-arsed approach.
And I began to make changes.
I started to treat my freelance career as a business. I hired an accountant and a virtual assistant. I nurtured my connections, set better boundaries, and increased my rates… and both my business and my confidence soared as a result.
Now? Not a day goes by when I don’t realise how lucky I am to have a job that’s fulfilling, flexible and fun.
I make a good living from work I love. I earn enough to invest in my business and take holidays. And I (now) make time for life outside the office.
And those networking events? Once I realised the secret to enjoying them was to find the groups that suit your business, and to meet likeminded people… you know it.
Now I love them.
Sarah Townsend is a Gloucestershire-based freelance marketing copywriter and author of a brilliant new must-read for would be freelancers Survival Skills for Freelancers which is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.