By Helen Campbell,
PR can seem like a conveyor belt at times, or perhaps a roller-coaster.
Planning Christmas in July – and twelve months of strategy for each client by the end of every year – may leave us wondering when we might finally get to figure out our own hopes and dreams. And as each year passes, it’s possible to progress through the (many) ranks that agencies and in-house employers offer.
By the time we reach Account Director, we might be looking for the security a regular income can bring, as we plan our homes and our families… leaving the question ‘When is the right time to go freelance?’ unanswered.
With ten years of working for other people and then ten years of working for myself under my belt,* I’d like to offer an insight into the possibilities of being an independent practitioner.
Ask yourself WHY you are choosing freelance life
If you’ve flirted with the idea of working for yourself, as a freelancer or consultant, or even setting up your own agency, the first question to ask yourself is WHY?
What would motivate you to leave the security of regular payments, a structure, a workspace, colleagues and a pipeline of clients (internal or external) for a life of chasing unpaid invoices, trying to cobble together your own client base from scratch and working all the hours in the world, simply to meet your mortgage or rent payments each month?
Or, looking at it another way, why would you possibly want to enjoy the freedom to work when you want, where you want and how you want, choosing your assignments and choosing your own work style? Why would you want the freedom to plan your hours flexibly around family or other commitments or choices, and why would you possibly wish to build your own network of clients and associates, based on people you enjoy spending time with? Put it like this and it feels much more appealing.
The reality is, most likely, somewhere between the two of these scenarios. But focussing on why you want to leave your day-job for freelance freedom can really help bring clarity. Here are some of the reasons people tell me that they choose to freelance:
– To find work that fits with my ethics and values, doing work that aligns with what I believe in
– Choosing to work flexibly so that I can care for a relative who is unwell
– In order to live where I want to – in a remote and beautiful location, with my animals and to be in nature every day
– To go part-time so that I can also fulfil another project that’s important to me, such as writing a book, or renovating a property
– To fit around my own mental health needs and to help me manage my anxiety
– Because I’m very ambitious and I believe I have the potential to earn more and achieve more working for myself than in a traditional hierachical role
– Because I love to connect with other creative, independent people, and I don’t work well in a traditional office environment
These are just some examples, inspired by real-life case studies. If you’re going freelance, I’d urge you to do it because you’re moving towards a positive outcome, rather than running away from something negative. Freelancing angrily to get away from a nasty boss is unlikely to create the right vibe. In order to believe in and support your clients, it helps to believe in yourself, and so setting out your stall at the start – what you do, why you do it and how you do it can really help.
It depends WHAT you are offering
If you have a great new, time-sensitive idea (such as a freelance office that runs entirely through virtual reality and artifical intelligence) then you might want to jump on that now before someone else does. I’m half joking but someone IS probably building that just now.
The WHAT in your freelance offering is as vital to your success as the WHY. What are you offering? What problem does it solve? What do you need in order to be able to deliver that?
What will you do every day/week/month for your clients and what makes your offering different/better and more exciting than your competitors? There is a misconception that going onto LinkedIn and saying ‘I’m freelance now’ will bring in a flood of new business… but that’s only the case if what you are offering solves a problem that someone else is experiencing, and you can provide a great answer to that problem, at a sensible price, by the deadline. Of course the client may not know they even have this problem… so explaining what you do is a key part of your offer.
In deciding whether freelance life is right for you, I’d suggest starting with some simple research. When I was thinking about setting up on my own, I got in touch with the most senior journalist in my contact list and asked if they thought I’d cut it as a freelance PR.
I asked whether freelance PRs ever got coverage for their clients, or was it all about agencies? Was I capable of putting together succesful pitches and strategies for my clients if I went solo? The answer was all about attitude. Bringing a positive attitude, a solid contacts book, sufficient skills and plenty of ideas can be more effective than top-level skills and a bad attitude. Being ready to learn and make mistakes was also on the ‘to-do’ list.
The research can begin online, and then I’d suggest having some conversations with real-life people, not only freelancers but potential clients too. In addition to the CIPR, IPSE can be a useful resource for people wondering how freelancing works on a day-to-day basis. Recruitment consultants, such as my friends at Moxie and Mettle, can offer services around sorting out your CV, LinkedIn and so on – they’re experts and can explain what works and doesn’t from years of placing freelancers (and perm staff) into contracts.
WHO are your clients?
I’ve shared this story many times, but another important part of my research into whether or not to go freelance (ten years ago) was to ask a successful freelance photographer friend up in Manchester what I needed to kickstart my freelance career. I began telling him all about the logo, design, website… but he cut me off (we are old friends, and this interruption was ok)
“CLIENTS!” he yelled, “YOU NEED CLIENTS BECKETT” (My surname at the time).
And that was that…
“But I… the website…the business cards…”
“CLIENTS, CLIENTS, CLIENTS!” and of course he was right.
When I started an agency in London a few years later, we secured our first client two months before we launched. There was no website, no business card, no office, when we received the call, but we had great reputations, strong contacts, good strategies and skills. We were working out of a private members club, with laptops on our knees.
He was right, the only thing you really need are clients. The other bits can be useful to help you get those clients, but a website does not a business make.
Clients are the most important asset to any new business. And, as I always say, it IS a business: self-employed or Ltd company, the clients rarely care which you are… but they do care that you are professional, knowledgeable, have an appetite for the work, good ideas and sound strategic skills. Who you are will determine in many ways who your clients are.
HOW will you work?
There are very few things that make me angry. But one of those few things is people who leave their 9-5 job ‘to escape the rat race’ and then sit at a boring grey desk, next to a boring grey filing cabinet, wearing a boring grey jumper, from 9 to 5, with an hour for lunch and do everything their clients tell them to. It really gets me. And it is absolutely their right to work in that way. I have nothing against the colour grey, but I do dislike a lack of imagination.
How will you work? In any way that you please, as long as you are prepared to accept the consequences. That’s it.
Take responsbility and then work as you want to. Have some consistency, a plan, a strategy, but be agile and able to change tack if what you are doing is not working for you and/or your clients.
If you’re lazy, it may affect your bank balance, if you neglect your wellbeing it may affect your effectiveness, your happiness and your loved ones. Choose your path, find your balance, accept responsibility. Make a plan. If you want grey, choose grey.
WHERE will you work?
Working from home can be extremely enticing, but the reality of it might not be as fun as it sounds… if you need to have a private client call but your kids/dogs/lodgers are at top volume or your wifi is dodgy, the kitchen table may not be the best place to begin. And in the wider sense, where will you work from as a consultant? Having a sense of place can be helpful.
Are you a specialist in the South West of England or a worldwide operator? Do you want to set up as a digital nomad and jump on a Zoom call before jumping into a warm sea?
Where you work from can mean all kinds of things, and may include taking account of any health and/or family needs too. Worth giving it some thought, plus the legal and financial implications of your location, quite simply, do you have permission to work from there and what happens if something goes wrong… who’s responsible?
Co-working spaces are a great pay-as-you go option if you are unsure… and working out of Huckletree in London suited me very well when I was city-based. Having a private members’ club was also good for me at the time too.
Ultimately the choice is yours
A lot of people tell me they HAVE to freelance, but I do believe in most cases it’s a choice, even if it’s a default option. You either choose to walk towards it or you reluctantly ‘fall into’ it. Please don’t fall into it… you give the rest of us a bad name.
If you are holding you nose and freelancing through necessity, it’ll start to show. It’s like when you’re on a bad date or in a relationship with someone you don’t really have the butterflies for. Sooner or later it’s going to have to be raised… don’t let someone else choose your life for you… if you want to freelance, make a plan, set your goals and do it like you mean it. When is the right time to freelance? When you really want to do it!
*give or take a short hiatus
**which I started a number of years ago
The CIPR Greater London Group is holding an event on building a sustainable freelance PR career, in partnership with the CIPR Independent Practitioners Network, on 5 February. Further details and booking available via Eventbrite.
Helen Campbell is a business and personal coach, working with individuals and small groups. Helen worked in PR and communications for almost twenty years before she moved full-time into coaching. She has run PR campaigns in the areas of personal finance, business, technology, public sector, charity, beer and wine, and directly advised a number of CEOs at various innovative start-ups. She lives near Hay-on-Wye and Brecon, in Mid Wales and is currently writing a book for Business Expert Press.