6 lessons from a year of freelancing

A year ago today I joined the freelance world. And, for a 51 year-old copywriter who’d spent the rest of his career working for other people, it was a massive, scary step.

Yes, I’d won quite a few awards and gained quite a healthy reputation in the recruitment communications industry over 25 years, but the truth is that it wasn’t something I’d always planned to do. In fact, if I hadn’t been made redundant, I wouldn’t have even considered it.

It’s been an eye-opening, exhilarating and, very occasionally, worrying 12 months. And a year down the line, I know that it was definitely the right decision. But it obviously isn’t right for everyone, so if you’re thinking about going freelance, here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

1. Finding work can be tough – but only if you let it be

That’s what everyone told me. And, to be honest, I believed them. I hadn’t had to go out and try to find work for myself for 25 years and the thought of it didn’t fill me with joy. But I suppose necessity is a great driver and I was determined to make my freelance career a success. I was also in the happy situation of having a great list of contacts – people I’d worked with over the years who had moved on into more senior – and more influential – roles.

So I spent my first week meeting people and showing them what I’d been doing since I’d last worked with them. And it worked – by the second week I had my first freelance job, and the phone has hardly stopped ringing since.

Which brings me onto my next lesson:

2. Use your network 

It’s no use being embarrassed about asking people you’ve worked with in the past for a job. After all, it’s not as if you’re asking for favours (or it shouldn’t be). If you’ve enjoyed working together in the past, it’s more than likely they’ll want to work with you again. But don’t assume that’s the case – you still need to show them a strong portfolio of work and get any subsequent contracts on merit.

This has worked incredibly well for me. I suppose it helps that I’ve been around so long and got such a wide network of ex-colleagues. But every piece of work I’ve done over the past year has either been directly for, or as a result of, a recommendation from someone I’ve worked with in the past.

3. Promote, promote, promote

The most difficult thing when you’re on a contract – well, for me at any rate – is thinking about the next one. But, of course, it’s no use coming to the end of one job and then thinking: “What am I going to do now?”

One of the first things I did after I set up my company, Welch Words, was to secure accounts in that name on Twitter and Facebook. I also changed my LinkedIn profile to make it clear that I was looking for work and my credentials.

Again, I used my network, asking anyone I’d worked with for a recommendation on LinkedIn. This, I think, is a powerful promotional tool. After all, I had 20 people, including colleagues and clients, prepared to say how good I was at the service I was offering. And certainly LinkedIn has been one of my most successful tools for getting new work. But Twitter and Facebook have also been useful – particularly for building a new network of contacts who now know me as Welch Words, rather than ‘Phil the writer’.

4. Get the finances right

One of the first pieces of advice I had when I went freelance was to get a good accountant. And certainly, that was useful when it came to deciding whether to set up a limited company or not. But, whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to take some responsibility for your finances.

This means it’s important on a day to day level to keep up-to-date records of the work you do and the amount you’ve quoted for it. But the most important thing is to invoice regularly. I do my invoices every weekend and invoice the clients I work for each week – even in the middle of a contract. Why? Because of the next lesson I’ve learned:

5. You never know when you’ll get paid

This is something that I thought would be standardised. When I started out as a naive, not-so-young freelancer, I thought that if I sent an invoice out, there would be a standard amount of time I’d have to wait before the money came in. But no, apparently not.

I even checked the legal position. And the government’s website makes it perfectly clear: 

“Unless you agree a payment date, the customer must pay you within 30 days of getting your invoice or the goods or service.”

Yet I’ve had some payments a week after I’ve sent the invoice and a few others over 60 days afterwards. Luckily I’ve had to chase very few invoices over the year. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that’ll continue.

But even though the finances are obviously important, I’ve also found that you shouldn’t let them take over completely. Because, if you’re a freelancer, you have to make it enjoyable. And for me that means making the most of the free time you have, rather than worrying about why you don’t have any work for a day or two.

6. Your time’s your own

This is one of the best things about being a freelancer for me. I’ve had some very busy times during the past 12 months, but there have been a few slower weeks. And, although I’ve used these to email potential clients and post messages on social networks to try and get more work, I’ve also tried to make the most of them. So, my wife and I have been out for long lunches, or even whole days. And I’ve had a couple of enjoyable holidays. It’s made the whole freelance experience far more pleasurable. 

Overall, the results of my first year as a freelancer have been very positive. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. And I’m happy to say that I haven’t had a single week when I haven’t had any paid work – apart from those I took as a holiday. I’ve been involved in some extremely interesting and challenging projects and tackled work in sectors that I haven’t worked in before. I’ve made some new contacts. And I’ve ended up earning more than I would have done if I hadn’t been made redundant. 

So, Welch Words Ltd. is definitely looking forward positively to it’s second year of trading.


What counts – age or ability?

A fellow writer, Alasdair Murray, recently wrote about his experience of redundancy in the recession that hit the UK in the early 1990s (you can read the full blog here). It seems like things were very different in those days.

I recently went through the redundancy process, too. And, at the age of 51, my main concern was where on earth I was going to get another job. Thankfully, things have turned out pretty well. In fact, I’d have to agree with Alasdair that it’s not only made me stronger, but it’s actually improved my life. And I think part of that’s down to a big change in attitudes since he faced a similar situation 20 or so years ago.

People on the outside looking in assume that advertising’s a young person’s game. And, yes, if I’m honest, when I was working at my last agency, at the age of 51 I was one of the oldest people there. And definitely the oldest in the creative team. But thankfully, I’ve always found that if you’re full of good ideas that are right for your target audience, people don’t care how old you are. They’ll always judge you on the quality of your work.

But until recently, this attitude to age wasn’t universal. There were many industries, particularly those that were more physically demanding, that only wanted fresh young things. If you lost your job at 50+ you were virtually on the scrapheap.

Phil 2


So, what changed? Well, with the age discrimination legislation introduced by the last Labour government, I think employers in general are more inclined nowadays to judge you on your ability, rather than your age. And if they don’t, they could be taken to court, as this recent story about John McCririck shows. As someone who specialised in employment communications, I’ve had a number of discussions about this with clients over the years. And many responded to the legislation by focusing on people’s competencies during the recruitment process.

Now, as it happens, I didn’t go out and get a job with another agency. Instead, I set myself up as a freelance copywriter. But I still have to deal with the same concerns as if I was looking for a permanent role. In fact, although I’m regularly employed and am building a good list of clients, almost every day is about searching for the next job. And, although I seem to have a decent reputation, that means selling myself to people I’ve never worked with before and wondering if they’ll see my ability or my age first.

Fortunately, I think attitudes have definitely changed for the better. And, as I’m discovering, most people are prepared to put up with the grey hairs when they discover that I’ll do a damn good job.