What are the challenges of freelancing?

Creative freelancers pride themselves on working independently. But even the most confident one-person supplier is prone to wonder whether the challenges they face are unique to them or universal to all freelancers.

As many freelancers will testify, it’s hard to put a pound sign on the value of knowing that other freelancers, including your rivals, are in the same boat as you when icebergs appear.

Thanks to an insight into the careers of five freelancers who took part in the PCG’s National Freelancer’s Day, FreelanceUK can reveal the key obstacles confronting freelancers in 2009.

All of the freelancers work in the UK’s creative industries, and supply client companies with services such as journalism, photography, PR and design and production. So what are the key challenges they face?

Finance - Money matters

Being a freelancer is often the equivalent of having your own small company, says Nicholas Ridley, a freelance digital design and production consultant. On top of the legal duties they might need to undertake to set up, he says freelancers have to tackle the challenges that many fully formed companies have an entire department to deal with. Most notably for the creative-minded, these challenges revolve around ongoing financial issues – tax and chasing payment being the biggest.

Luckily, Ridley points out, there are many outlets to help in these matters. With tax, freelancers can turn to industry portals or publications; non-profit outfits, like Business Link, or private sector firms, such as accountants and independent financial advisors. With payment issues, freelancers can use credit checking facilities; follow the best practice from the BPPG, and, in the worse case scenario, approach collection agencies and bailiffs. Freelancers who are incorporated can lighten the load of payment and tax issue by employing a company secretary, who could help with accounting and administration, although this is no longer a compulsory appointment.

With or without a company secretary, getting paid on time is tricky, agrees Laura Dixon, who has been freelancing as a journalist for three years. For being only “small fry”, she is regularly paid late and feel there's nothing she can do about it. Enacting late payment legislation can often be counterproductive. Not getting paid promptly is a risk of freelancing, she says. Her next assignment is yet to emerge and none of her work is secured on a monthly contract. Retainer agreements get round this problem though remain hard to come by, as publishers are still reeling from the fall in advertising revenues.

Skills - You are the training department

In tough market conditions, it’s very easy for freelancers to cut back or cancel any expenditure that they may have set aside for training or professional development. But one consequence of the recession is that cash-conscious clients are asking, if not demanding, that their freelancers provide them ‘more for less,’ potentially making some skills less relevant, while making others more sought-after. To keep up-to-date with the latest technologies, Ridley spends many weekends and evenings learning new software updates and improving the content of his portfolio. He says that, in today’s jobs market, having a particular skill can often mean the difference between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’.

Freelancers thinking of investing in their skill-set will be reassured that the future for freelancing looks bright, according to the CBI. But the champagne might be best left on ice, as the employers’ group says the onus for training will increasingly be on the freelancer, as employers are unlikely to fund the skills of a worker whose position with their business is only temporary.

Work – A lead generator’s job is never done

Finding work and marketing themselves to new leads was a challenge for all the freelancers. Before they can actually do what they do best, each of the freelancers say they invest time, energy and sometimes their own cash in the art of self-promotion. This involves informal or organised calls and emails to existing and prospective clients; the use of referrals and testimonials; ‘cold’ and speculative pitches and even payments to a recruitment or talent agent. All these activities have the same goal – to drum up new business for the freelancer. Like Ridley, freelance photographer Andre Kirby endorsed using an agent to help with the challenge of winning new clients, allowing her to concentrate on cultivating her existing ones.

Finding the time to market yourself AND do enough work to earn a living can indeed be a bit of a juggle, concedes Naomi Mackay, who has 8 years’ experience as a freelance journalist. But when such a balancing act can be pulled off, she says, the rewards are worth it.

Dixon adds that, for freelance writers, getting stories placed is tough right now. Even though she has a wide array of outlets, some great stories she has penned have fallen by the wayside, “in a way that they wouldn't if I was a staffer.”

Competition – Less qualified rivals are depressing

With the availability of temporary workers at a historic high, freelancers can’t afford to be complacent about the competition. In fact, the hundreds of people out there who want to do a bit of writing ‘on the side’ – often for a cut-price – are Mackay’s biggest bugbear. Another well-established freelancer writer, whose clients include The Guardian newspaper, hinted just as much, saying that the pay rate which a less experienced writer offered a prospective client on a bidding site made her own rate seem extortionate, even after she downgraded it, twice.

In the PR sector, one established freelancer last week advised that now was the right time to be dropping rates, in the light of clients prioritising ‘value for money’ hires. Elaborating, communications consultant Rona Levin said that once the economy gets stronger, and budgets for PR get bigger, freelancers could then look at increasing fees among their hopefully expanded client base, having by that time already proved their worth.

Deadlines – time seems more finite alone

As a one-person unit, the typical freelancer is without another pair of hands to handle the many and different tasks before their business. This absence is felt most acutely when a freelancer is working to a deadline and needs to bounce final ideas off another person. Because they often can’t, unless they have a good network of contacts to hand, the result is an effective ‘brain drain’ due to the sheer weight of multi-tasking. Vikki Rimmer, freelance PR consultant of the year (2008) according to Xchangeteam, says multi-tasking is probably her biggest challenge. She sometimes finds herself juggling three or four campaigns at once, helping explain why “12-hour days are the norm.”

Holiday – your vacation is also a break from earning

For freelancers, whenever you go on holiday you are also taking a break from earning money. In almost all client-freelancer relationships, the freelancer foregoes any pay for days off, whether the days were for taken for holiday or health reasons. In theory, freelancers can take as many days off as they like. However their bank balance and a professional care of duty to the client both tend to limit the number of days out that they take, in practice. Having to work out how much money you'll lose if you go on holiday, in advance of booking your trip, is certainly a challenge, agrees Mackay. Freelancers who feel the lure of travel but neglect their client’s needs risk leaving the engagement without a good reference, and will likely lose the chance to work for that client again.




27th November 2009

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