My Freelance Journey – Blog 5: Highs and Lows

AMA conference 2018 © Brian Roberts Images
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MY FREELANCE JOURNEY is a new bi-monthly blog series where we follow Arts Marketing and Fundraising consultant Beckie Smith on her journey into life as a freelancer   

HIGHS and LOWS 

 Those of you with children will know that there are certain phrases that people say so often they become annoying. “They grow up so fast”, “Everything is just a phase”, “We’ve all been there”. Silently, you shout back “I wish they would grow up”, “This isn’t a phase, they are like this all the time” and “Yes, well good for you, I’m here right now and it sucks!” 

I soon learned there are equally annoying phrases associated with freelancing. “It’s feast or famine”, “Make hay when the sun shines” and” It’s not what you know but who you know.”  

Let’s talk about that feast and famine.  

I’ve been a freelancer for about 3 months now, and twice already I’ve planned to take over the world. I think – if I get all of these clients, on top of my existing ones (and they come in at the same time) I’ll need to employ people. I’ll need to get offices, I’ll need a health and safety policy, I’ll be able to call myself a ‘firm”. Suddenly I’m standing in front of a massive glass window with the Bristol city-scape below me, like ‘Jessica’ in Suits. I’ll need a copywriter, a campaign specialist, an internal marketer (because I’ll be too busy to manage my own twitter feed) and of course I’ll need a ‘Donna’  (only in my firm she is most likely to be called Caroline!).  

But the reality is that you will win some of the clients, but not all, and will still need to manage your own twitter feed.  

Your clients won’t all come in at once; instead they will come in staggered, meaning that if you’re lucky you’ll have enough work to keep you going, hopefully with something else in the pipeline. Clients will often change their timescales. You probably won’t need staff after all, and you can cancel your office order entirely, because your dining room table will be just fine for a little while longer.  

When you become freelance, you put so much emotional investment into your plans, it is (almost) as mentally consuming as having a child. Making your website live is like ‘labour day’ and every small success of ‘your first external phone call’ or ‘first genuine enquiry’ is as celebratory to you as when your child smiles for the first time. 

There is a flip side. If you don’t win a client, or you have a quiet day, it is hard not to take it personally – to separate a bad day at work from a bad day for you. You will soon realise that often, contracts are given through personal recommendation.  The saying “It’s not what you know but who you know” has never rung more true. 

We all like to complain when we have so much work it comes out of our ears, especially those of us juggling family lives too. I can think, “I’m supposed to be working part time, but I have so much work on I’m doing a full-time job, and I’ve got the kids and…”This is where the saying “Make hay when the sun shines” comes in. I find I need to  celebrate the busy times, because the quiet times can make you feel quite lonely and – on a bad day –  question why you went freelance at all.  

In the same way that parents often need to join play groups for the sake of their own sanity (a chance to leave the house, make some friends and have someone to talk to), I’ve found it helpful to find ways to meet other people in a similar situation. My advice is get yourself to networking groups, invite yourself to meetings and sign up for regional discussions. Rest assured, you will either bump into someone you know, or will meet someone in the same boat as you. In my experience, every event I’ve been to, has generated at least one new lead, and has made that “why did I go freelance question” quickly disappear.  

So far, I haven’t had any ‘no client time’ yet. But I am told that when that does happen, it is important not to let it show. Clients can sense it when someone is desperate for work and it doesn’t do well for your reputation. When you get new interest, make sure you don’t jump too quickly. Try saying, “Let me see if I can move some things around…” (knowing the dishes can wait until tomorrow). 

My freelance experience has been a roller coaster of highs and lows. The lows can make me feel lonely, very much at sea, and as though everything is down to me. But the highs can make me feel elated. This isn’t just a good day in the office, this is a good day for you, for what you have created and for what you have made happen – all by yourself!  

 

Follow Beckie’s journey as she adapts to the challenges and opportunities of freelance life. Next time, Beckie discusses support that’s available to help freelancers along the way. 

 

My Freelance Journey: Blog One – Introduction

AMA conference 2018 © Brian Roberts Images
AMA conference 2018 © Brian Roberts Images

MY FREELANCE JOURNEY is a new bi-monthly blog series where we follow Arts Marketing and Fundraising consultant Beckie Smith on her journey into life as a freelancer

 

Introduction to Beckie Smith

As I sit in my kitchen with my laptop open, my cup of tea just made and the title of my first blog post just typed, I can’t help but feel a bit like Carrie Bradshaw, posed in her New York apartment looking out of the window as she did at the start episode of Sex in the City.

 

And with that, you have my introduction; I’m Beckie Smith an experienced Arts Marketer and Fundraiser blogging my transition into becoming a Freelance Arts Marketing and Development Consultant, whose coming of age icons include… Carrie Bradshaw… apparently.

 

So, what gets me out of bed each day? Why have I chosen arts marketing? What have I done with the last 12 years of my professional life, and why have I decided to take the leap into the Freelance world? Let’s find out!

 

The truth is, what gets me out of bed each morning is a one-year-old desperate for milk and a four-year-old desperate to watch My Little Pony!

 

I’m one of those very rare, but very fortunate, people lucky enough to have carved a career from what they set their heart on at just 18 years old. Ever since I did my first twirl as a four-year-old dressed in a chimney sweep costume, I knew that I was destined for the bright lights of the performance industry. Thanks to Dr Paul Sutton (the Artistic Director of Worcester-based theatre company C&T) who led a monumental module at the University of Worcester called ‘Running A Theatre Company, ‘ I realised that careers were available in arts marketing and I never looked back.

 

I owe my career to Carol Jones and Aidan Plender. They not only offered me a place on the much sought-after Arts Management Post Grad course at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, but also armed me with a wealth of knowledge and helped me launch my career. I secured my first job as Communications Admin Assistant at Watershed before the course had even finished.

 

Despite going through such first-class industry training, and having sky-high potential and aspirations, I had no work experience. I had to start at the bottom, and I felt like an imbalanced seesaw. With hindsight, I now know that my training enabled quick career progression, as I climbed the career ladder to Marketing Assistant and then Marketing Officer at Bristol Old Vic and Exeter Northcott within just a couple of years.

 

My inner seesaw started to balance out as Deputy Marketing Manager at The Brewhouse Theatre and Arts Centre and then tilted in the other direction completely as Marketing Manager at The Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury.

 

Supported by Deborah Rees (now at Cast, Doncaster) and the best team I could wish for, I was given permission to play. We had fun with our audiences, playing games with focus groups, creating experiments that tested ‘this is how your segment should react- let’s see if it is true’. Self-made project by self-made project, I steered our audience development strategy forwards.

 

Key highlights included selling 274 tickets to an entirely Asian audience (which in Tewkesbury is a real achievement), raising £1M to redevelop the theatre and turning things totally on their head by suggesting that it should be The Roses that invested in the county’s leading business event – The Gloucestershire Business Show – rather than the other way around.

 

As Head of Marketing and Development at The Roses I found it increasingly difficult and very time consuming to keep the marketing and fundraising work separate from each other. To kill two birds with one stone (and to give me half a chance of leaving work before 10pm one weekend) I wrote a holistic marketing and development strategy.

 

That is when everything changed, because I no longer saw myself working in an arts and cultural organisation, but instead a Disney theme park.

 

Disney plans the layout of their theme parks so that every path leads to the Magic Kingdom in the middle. For our sector this means that regardless of whether someone is a first-time attendee or a regular, whether they only come to satisfy the mother-in-law on her birthday or if they pride themselves in seeing the most avantgarde contemporary dance on the planet; whether they throw loose change into a collection bucket, or if they are a major donor; every person is on a journey towards the Magic Kingdom.

 

What does that Magic Kingdom look like? It looks like a place that no one ever wants to leave and where they spend every last penny of their earnings. And how is this possible? It’s because the marketing team makes them want to and the fundraising team makes them need to. And it is this that gets me excited about working in arts marketing and development.

 

I later became Head of Global Marketing for International Theatre Interactive, but after two years the draw to return to an ACE funded organisation was just too strong. But where did I want to go?

 

When you reach a certain level of management, there are few opportunities to develop your career, especially outside of London. Head of Marketing and Development was already under my belt, as was Head of Global Marketing – the only thing next was CEO, but that would mean policy writing, HR, finance, programming, producing, and board meetings, none of which floated my boat.

 

Even if they did, CEO jobs don’t come up very often, especially for a working mum who – despite the sleep deprivation, impossible meal times, and constant pleading to get dressed – wants to spend at least one (if not two) days a week, jumping in streams, reading stories, and hiding under the table with her children.

 

So, after a summer of many long walks, plenty of nights that lead into the early hours of the morning, and numerous extra-large glasses of wine, my husband and I decided that It was time for me to go it alone and become freelance.

 

Follow Beckie’s journey as she adapts to the challenges and opportunities of freelance life. Next up, Beckie discusses the practicalities of setting up as a freelancer.

My Freelance Journey: Blog Two – Practicalities

AMA conference 2018 © Brian Roberts Images
AMA conference 2018 © Brian Roberts Images

MY FREELANCE JOURNEY is a new bi-monthly blog series where we follow Arts Marketing and Fundraising consultant Beckie Smith on her journey into life as a freelancer

 

Blog 2Becoming a freelancer – the practicalities

So decision made – I’m going freelance.

Where do I start?

Luckily, I had a friend who made the same decision 2 years ago, and we agreed to meet for a play date (child lingo for cup of coffee) to get the low down.

“It’s great,” she tells me. “You can work your hours around the kids (or traveling if you’re young free and single) and if you’re too tired to hit the gym after work, you can go during the day and make the hours up on your sofa watching Bodyguard.”

“It’s awful,” she continues. “Clients call me round the clock and they never remember which hours I work. You can have one baby on your hip, one hanging off your trouser leg, oven gloves on, and just as you are about to get the chips out of the oven, a new potential client calls you. It’s enough to tip you over the edge.”

It was hard at first – I felt I needed to respond to everyone immediately – but I soon realised it was essential to buy a separate phone that I can switch off at the end of the day, separating work from home life.

The next big decision is whether to become a sole trader (self-employed), or to start your own company. This is a massive decision, and it is worth taking your time over. I used this website to understand the pros of becoming a limited company and this one for understanding the pros of becoming a sole trader.

My biggest fear was getting to the end of the tax year and being hit with a massive tax, NI and student loan bill I couldn’t pay. I decided to become a sole-trader, but put in place very strict rules to discipline myself.

I then had to organise my finances. I have a personal bank account into which clients pay me and through which I pay company expenses, and a personal savings account. (Some people prefer to have a separate business account.) I take one third of my fee and transfer it into the savings account to cover my tax and NI at the end of the year. Finally, at the end of each month, I give myself a monthly salary, which I transfer into our family bank account.

Now, about paying yourself – I explored two options:

  1. a) Take what I earn that month
  2. b) Set myself an agreed salary that stays the same.

I went for option B because there will be some months where work is hard to find (January, February and August are notoriously bad, apparently), and as a sole trader you don’t get holiday or sick pay – I didn’t want my family finances to come into jeopardy. But how much should I pay myself? This was my approach:

  1. Calculate the number of days I want to work a week
  2. Multiply that by 47 (not 52, because of holiday pay)
  3. Multiply that by my daily rate
  4. Take off 20% to cover any quiet periods. This is my base line projected annual income as a business
  5. Take off the 3rd for tax and NI
  6. Take off 10% to accommodate work expenses. This gives me my annual income as an individual
  7. Divide this by 12 and pay it to myself monthly

Point 6 may well lead to a seemingly low salary but don’t forget, this is my net, not my gross.

Hopefully, you will not be out of work completely for three months (if so, this might be a good time to take a holiday), and your business expenses may decrease. Over time, funds will slowly start to build in your bank account.

Getting work takes lots of sheer hard grind at first; if possible, give yourself a phased entry into the freelance world. For me, this meant looking after the baby during the day and working every evening for two months building my website, getting legal and joining networks.

If you are currently employed you might consider dropping a day a week or condensing your hours to free up time. But don’t underestimate the toll working every day and launching a business in the evening takes on your family life, grumpiness levels and ability to make a cup of tea without putting coffee beans in the cup by mistake.

Then, it’s all about organisation. I recommend making a spreadsheet to list your clients, your working log, your income and expenditure and your invoice numbers.

I use Trello to organise my time because it enables me to schedule my work, create check lists, add notes, and keep clients up to date on my progress. It’s worth checking best practice for invoicing as well.

Ok, that’s done – what’s next?

Follow Beckie’s journey as she adapts to the challenges and opportunities of freelance life. Next time, Beckie discusses how to work out your unique place in the market.

 

 

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