Why freelancing is a long, hard slog

Irregular income causing a general sense of financial instability is the number one reason freelancing can sometimes feel like a “long hard slog,” Freelance UK has learnt.

A group of freelancers specialising in the creative sectors yesterday unanimously agreed that while ‘going it alone’ has many perks; the downside is serious and almost always financial.

This week the Small Business Service is expected to show that despite these pitfalls, the number of micro businesses – those with a maximum of one employee – has risen every year since 2003.

The figures, to be unveiled on Thursday, will suggest big is not beautiful for the UK’s self-employed, and keeping the venture small, rather than empire-building, is now the norm.

But new start-ups and innovators who choose to stay small face a unique set of business challenges, which can force even veteran freelancers to reassess their career choice.

“If you are freelance, you live entirely on your wits and your ability to sell yourself and your services,” said freelance copywriter John Beavis, director of media consultancy Communique.

“When things are going well, you don’t worry so much. When they’re not the whole business consumes you, completely and it is hard to ever switch off.”

Beavis says that during almost two decades as a creative project manager, often working from home, he has become aware of self-employment’s worst enemies.

“Not seeing anyone for days on end, and only having yourself to rely on to gauge sanity, performance, expectancy and accomplishment are among the the hardest aspects of working for yourself.

“Clients are really poor at providing any sort of positive feedback but; they are as quick as hell at giving you a stab in the heart!

“That and chasing down payment,” he said, are the toughest battles freelancers, especially newcomers to industry, should be wary of before they become familiar foes.

Freelancers chasing payment, he said, should be “bold, brace and front-on brassy” if they want to recoup money owed to them.

He advised: “There are two things to remember here: you didn’t keep them waiting for the work, and slow payers kill companies! Don’t let them turn you into a victim and be right upfront about the fact that you don’t work for free. They don’t. Why should you?”

Carol Vincer is a Surrey-based freelance artist who has specialised in natural history, equestrian, botanical and architectural illustrations for over two decades.

“My most recurrent problem as a freelance has to be obtaining prompt payment from clients - although most pay within one calendar month some put it off for three months,” she said.

“My lowest moment is tied to this and it came some time ago, when I had no commissioned work at all for over four months. Difficulty of earning a substantial income is easily the biggest burden facing the self-employed.”

The age-old problem of earning enough money to survive, live and hopefully prosper is alive and well in the UK media sector, as Jan Murray, freelance contributor to The Guardian explained.

“The freelance life has many, many advantages, but it also has some downsides - the biggest one being that if you don't work, you don't get paid.

“This means you find yourself saying 'yes' to every offer of work, even when you are completely snowed under.”

The unpredictability of freelancing leaves its practitioners in the media sector in a state of constant ‘job-searching’ – compelled by the fear of not meeting bill payments at the month-end.

“Even when the work is pouring in, you just can't help thinking 'what ifs' and, as a consequence, try to earn every penny you possibly can, even if it means working round the clock,” added Ms Murray, who is also the founder-director of media portal JournoBiz.

“One of the most valuable lesson to be learned is the art of saying 'no', but it can take years to master that one!”

Colleagues of media freelancers in the PR and Marketing sector say that ‘going it alone’ into promotions, advertising, public relations and consultancy is equally haunted by monetary fears.

Debbie Staveley,founder-director of PR & Communications firm, BClearCommunications, said: “The only complaint I hear from others wanting to start-up a small company is that some people feel insecure at not having a fixed income.”

Gill Taylor, freelance marketer and director of Contract Marketing, said a cash crisis typically reveals itself at the early stage of starting up as a freelance, and for many, it will never totally disappear.

“The financial insecurity of setting up my company was the biggest problem. Sitting there at the start of the month with a zero on the spreadsheet, not being quite sure how I was going to pay the mortgage was quite scary.

“I made sure I had a buffer of capital to keep me going, which was enough; as it turned out - once I’d sold the BMW” she mused, “but watching it dwindle to start with wasn’t easy.”

Asked to name the biggest challenge of working for yourself, Ms Taylor replied; “Inconsistency of income. This is less of an issue when you have clients on retainer but that is not always possible.”

She agreed with fellow freelance John Beavis that all the pressures of an owner-manager’s business, most notably the financial ones, are laid firmly on one set of shoulders.

“Not being able to ‘let go’ at any point is a problem,” said Ms Taylor, who provides marketing services to IT and telecoms clients.

“It’s tough knowing that there is no longer someone else there to delegate things to – not that I’d trust anyone else of course anyway!”

Freelance copywriter Ray Christodoulou, was crowned Freelance of the Year by staffing company Xchangeteam in February this year.

He says his experience in the industry confirms that the biggest burden of freelancing is ‘making sure you’re paid on time.’

But for the new entrants into the freelance sector, who will be trumpeted by the SBS on Thursday, there is some good news despite evidence of the ‘long hard slog.’

Mark Hillman, a freelance designer and founder of Hypermedia, yesterday revealed what he sees as the biggest challenge of working for himself.

“Deciding whose turn it is to make the tea,” he quipped.

But one freelance said the financial challenges should not be underestimated.

He cautioned the ”long hard slog of freelancing” is so all-encompassing that the perks of self-employment can start to fade, especially in light of cash flow problems or financial concerns.

“I can’t think of many rewards of being a self-employed freelance. You don’t have to suffer fools or office politics and you get to choose, sometimes, what work you’ll do,” explained John Beavis.

“But, come the end of the month and you haven’t worked at all; believe me it happens – and there’s nothing much rewarding about that!”

Meanwhile Anna Packham, a freelance copywriter, has perfectly captured the feeling among today’s self-employed creatives, whom despite admitting to the ‘long hard slog,' tend to be certain about why they chose to 'go it alone.'

“The best bit about being a freelance copywriter is being paid to do what I love.

“Yes there are bad days, but they’re like windy days on Brighton beach – I still wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she wrote on her business website, inkspiller.co.uk.

The Better Payment Practice Group offers clear, concise and practical advice to owner-managers and freelancers chasing payment: http://www.payontime.co.uk/index.html

If you have a problem recouping a commercial debt why not ask the group’s in-house business doctor?

Freelancers are also invited to register with PaymentScorer – the league table that reveals whether UK public limited companies are prompt or tardy at paying their supplier invoices. http://www.creditscorer.com/sites/PaymentScorer/index.cfm


30th August 2006

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