A version of this was first published on the UK Fundraising website in 2015. In 2023 I am updating my thoughts!
What hasn’t changed is that I am approached regularly by people who are about to take the plunge (or perhaps already recently have) to seek my advice on freelancing, consultancy and to enquire about associateships. Here are my top ten lessons:
1. Be clear about what 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.
If you are confident that your prices are right then say no if a potential client will only pay a percentage of that rate. If you are busy working for a fraction of your usual rate you will not be available for the piece of work that is at the right price.
But be clear about your value, which is not the same as working out how much you’d like to earn and dividing it by 100 (this is the advice I was given, seriously). After all, who wouldn’t like to earn £1m a year? That doesn’t automatically qualify me as being worth £10k per day. In fact, who is?!
3. Be clear about who you will NOT work with.
Giving this consideration before you go looking for work will make it easier for you to say no when the fit isn’t right, instead of taking the work and regretting it, with the words “I wish I’d said no to this work” which I’ve heard far too many freelancers say over the years. Who you will NOT work with could mean cause type, or charitable approach. It could mean existing attitude or resources.
4. Not all activity is useful activity.
Spending hours on social media platforms promoting yourself, giving advice, engaging with potential clients is great but is it *really* going to bring you the clients you want to work with? I’m not saying yes or no, I’m inviting you to consider each activity you undertake and then keep everything under near constant consideration. Also in this category are: volunteering activities (think fundraising groups, mentoring, conference organising, conference speaking) that are sold to you (or perhaps you sell to yourself) as great for your profile.
And remember, there are no prizes for working the longest hours, there is no super-league of freelancers who complete for a medal for most effort put in. Perhaps being constantly busy isn’t necessary? I’m going to carry this one on below…
5. Keep balance in your life from the outset – no prizes for longest hours worked
This one deserves labouring as it is a lesson I’ve learnt the hard way. 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 is losing perspective about how much work can be done in a day when I’m 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/marketeer. 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 third I’ve hired. The first was perfectly decent and got the job done. James works with my preferred bookkeeping software and is reliable and dependable. As you develop and grow in freelancing the partnerships you had at the start may no longer serve you. Be open to moving on when its right for you.
9. Cultivate peer networks
We may have all adapted to working remotely from our colleagues over the last few years but going solo is next-level separation. Take time to build a group of peers to replace your work colleagues. I have two WhatsApp groups on my phone, both crammed with people who I can turn to and who turn to me as a part of that group, too. My life is better for them in it – I have people who get our sector, who aren’t clients, who I can talk to about stuff, who I can have the odd rant with, who I can ask things of. The network of associates at Money Tree Fundraising have each other, too – they share their knowledge with each other and ask each other for advice.
10. Keep learning
We are never done learning. Even in trust fundraising where change has only ever been incremental in my 20 years’ experience, we can get stale if we’re not careful. Set aside some of your income to go towards your development. Attend free webinars, read books, pay for training, get a coach, hire someone to read and critique your applications occasionally. Think laterally about how you can keep up your development. In 2022 I attended an online Improv class for 8 weeks. It wasn’t an Improv For Business course, it was “just” Improv.