This post was first published on the UK Fundraising website in 2015 and is reproduced with their kind permission. I’ve updated it for 2018 – something I have been promising to do for about a year now!
These are my top ten lessons on working for yourself. I learned some of these lessons the hard way and others were gifts from others with more experience than me. I am grateful to them all now, with hindsight and definitely hope that sharing them will save you a few bumps along the road!
1. Be clear about what service you are offering
Don’t drift into becoming all things to all people. This is really tempting at the beginning. Saying no is enormously scary. I used to have a fear that I’d jinx myself and somehow if I said no once, I’d never be asked ever again.
Get your elevator pitch right as there will be a lot of networking opportunities and you will need to say what you offer very quickly.
2. Be clear about the value of what you are offering
Your day rate and your value are not the same thing.Your value is what the client will gain as a result of engaging you. Focus on this instead of the cost to them. There’s an old story about a knocking in a central heating system. The engineer that is eventually called fixes the problem with a single hammer blow in the right spot. He hands over an invoice for £10,000. When asked for a breakdown he says something like “£25 cost of materials; £9,975 knowledge of knowing where to deploy materials.”
In our world our hammers are often our experience and and knowledge. But really the secret is in knowing how to deploy that knowledge for success.
3. A lot of your life will now be spent in coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and bars
There are tools to help you get your name to as-yet unknown charities – Twitter, LinkedIn, blogging, speaking at conferences, the Institute of Fundraising consultants listing, advertising online and offline. There is nothing wrong with trying these and different people have different levels of success on each according to the time dedicated to each.
Most of the other self-employed people I meet get the majority of their work through word-of-mouth. They cultivate those relationships in a variety of coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. Most of us can name a couple of suitable locations near each terminus in London for meetings between Londoners and non-Londoners.
4. There are so many more distractions now that procrastination can be very easy
All of that social media engagement you do to help build a reputation and get your profile out there can become a procrastination in its own right. Be aware of the things that distract us from the important stuff. It is hard at the beginning as you fill your time with this activity before you get a client. Just remember to keep assessing each activity’s value to you.
I am an Olympic-level procrastinator if I let myself. My new tactic is to recognise that it is okay not be busy, instead. There are no prizes for finishing work super-late. There is no league-table of freelancers and consultants that rates us by hours spent on “business development” (my generous term for idly passing time on a variety of social media platforms).
5. Keep balance in your life from the outset – no prizes for longest hours worked
This one deserves labouring. It is one thing to have a couple of contracts that overlap and mean you have to put in the hours but it is something else entirely to be working long days every single day.
Lots of stuff will suffer, including your health which is never an okay sacrifice. The other big side effect for me was losing perspective about how much work could be done in a day when I was estimating for a piece of work (and never in my favour). Just don’t start.
6. Your income will no longer be steady – are you ready for the lag between work and payment
It might take you a while to secure your first contract*. Be prepared for three months of networking, discussing and proposing. You then won’t get paid for another two months (say you invoice at month-end and have payment terms – 30 days is a pretty normal expectation). That is nearly half a year without an income. And you might have a gap between that contract and the next one too – your income will always be unsteady from now on.
Don’t be put off by this, plan for it instead! Make sure you can afford it.
* there is a school of thought that says you should try to secure your first contract before you leave your job. If you can, great. If you can’t and you have thought it all through, then don’t let this hold you back.
7. Know what you’re good at and what you need to outsource yourself
You are an awesome fundraiser/ direct marketer/ new business person/ wordsmith/ other ___________ (delete as appropriate)
You might also be an awesome bookkeeper/ website builder/ administrator/ contract writer/diary manager. You just don’t know yet because you’re never tried.
In the early days you will do at least most of these things, of course. Just get ready to outsource when you are at the right moment. This will let you focus on doing what you already know you are awesome at and what you’ve chosen to make a living from.
8. Shop around for the right person to outsource your stuff to
When the time is right do shop around. Everyone else who is self-employed has a system for bookkeeping and an accountant and some will have a website builder, graphic designer or virtual assistant. Use those carefully-cultivated networks to get advice and opinion. Just make sure that those key relationships are right for you…
My accountant is the second firm I’ve hired. The first was perfectly decent and got the job done. But Matthew gets the software I prefer to use for my day-to-day bookkeeping, he is friendly, tells me off for working too late, offers additional advice and I get on with him, which is important to me.
9. Be a member of your professional body.
Being a member of the Institute of Fundraising means you have signed up to abide by the Code of Fundraising Practice. This is all our clients have to safeguard themselves from a ne’er-do-well. We need to make it easy for them to feel relaxed and confident in us.
And you get all of the benefits of membership which includes a whole heap of your peers, on tap as sources of support, company, clients and advocates, networking events and continuous professional development. Very valuable.
10. You don’t have to pay for a desk to move away from working at home
In London there are lots of free co-working spaces occupied by the freelance generation – on top of all of the coffee shops, of course. This is a small selection:
- Google Campus (you have to register)
- Royal Festival Hall
- British Library
- The Wellcome Collection café
- Your local library – Westminster library is a great resource for all fundraisers in any case!
11. Bonus Material
If you are a sole trader then you and your enterprise are the same thing. Amongst many other things, that means you can use a personal bank account and save the expense of a business one. I set up a new current account when I was a sole trader, just so that I could more easily keep my affairs separate between home and work, with my existing personal bank. They even allowed me to change the name of the account to a “trading as” name so I could receive payments to “Beth Upton Freelance Fundraising”
You do not need to invest in fancy bookkeeping software – a half-decent spreadsheet will work. What you do need to do is keep track of all of the things you spend money on and all of the income you receive. And you need to keep receipts.
HMRC do a series of webinars that are really helpful on everything from claiming mileage to self-assessments. I’m not going to mislead you – they are dull. But useful.
There is now a Facebook group just for consultants and freelancers: https://www.facebook.com/groups/439893049687791/
Good luck and enjoy.