Wednesday 26 October 2016

"So, how are you finding freelancing?"

The single question I've been asked the most since making the freelance jump has been, of course, a general one about how it's all going. So... this is how it's going.

I promised myself I'd try and document how everything is panning out, and apart from the "OK, I've done it!" post, this is the first time I've actually sat and put my thoughts down about the whole thing. At the time of writing this I'm about four months in, which is hardly any time at all in the grand scheme of things. But, it's given me enough time to settle into a routine and figure some things out.

I guess firstly, the snapshot version: it's going pretty well, thanks! The freedom is wonderful, and the money is great. But: I'm working fucking hard for it, it's stressful sometimes, and I've found some aspects incredibly difficult (although interestingly not in the ways I was anticipating, at all).

Overall, I'm more confident than ever that I've made the right choice. Looking back over the last year or two, I don't think I realised at the time exactly how massive a change I was making. The conversations with family and colleagues about it all are still fresh in my mind, and I spent so, so many sleepless nights freaking out about it. I mean, I effectively quit my perfect job in many ways, and transitioning away from that was always going to seem crazy on paper. Of course, there's a million other things to consider than just "job", and actually it's those aspects that I've made the most gains in.

The biggest positive aspect by far has been the freedom. The freedom to actually sit and have breakfast with my kids instead of sitting on trains and trams. The freedom to say no to shit jobs (this one felt particularly great). The freedom to work when I know I'm at my best. This last one is really important and is something I've banged on about in many a conference talk and pub ramble - creativity and productivity don't operate on a 9-5 schedule for anyone, and trying to cram my peak output into hours that aren't my best ones is something I've always found very difficult. Now things are on my own terms, I get an insane amount of stuff done, but at the times and in the places that make the most sense for me (pro tip: if you're a morning person, you've won half the battle already. Nobody's badgering you to come to the pub at 7am, twitter/Slack etc is quiet, and generally distractions are not present. Glorious.)

The "saying no to shit jobs" thing also extends to my own work too - I've been far more free to poke at personal projects, doing longer things like my recent HOME residency, and explore speaking and performance opportunities that I wouldn't have been able to consider before. My direction as a practitioner is also changing too, in terms of now seriously considering funding and residencies and similar opportunities for my work, which again were out of the question before. My 'side projects' are now just straight up 'projects', and that on it's own feels pretty amazing.

On top of this, the money of course is much better, although I feel I'm working a LOT harder for it. It's a funny one to talk about with people though. On paper a freelance day rate looks like a fat wedge, but it's easy to forget about the tax/VAT, admin overhead of actually handling money/clients/life, and of course all the stuff you no longer get as a freelancer: paid holidays, sick pay, company benefits, all that jazz. I've had a few awkward conversations with people where they've gone "wow you must be loaded" after looking at one number, and of course the reality is nothing like that. I've also found myself almost justifying it to people? I don't know, talking about money is weird isn't it. But yeah, overall, I'm much better off than I was (especially given I was on a modest BBC wage, not a rockstar startup wage), but there's always a lot more the equation than the number at the bottom of the paper.

A lot of this is down to the fact that now the amount of money I'm pulling in is now directly related to the work I'm taking on - any preconceptions that I'd be able to do two lucrative days a week and then fuck around watching Cash In The Attic for the rest of the week have been completely blown away. Heh. The reality is that so far I've had no real working days off since going freelance, at all. And this for now is a conscious decision - at this early stage I'm going great guns trying to build up not just money, but also a client base and opportunities. It's been insanely intense though, and I'm not going to be taking any more work on until January now so I can regroup a bit. I've been doing three days a week at my old agency, on rolling three month contracts, and this will be continuing until December, but I'm not going to cram stuff into the other two days any more I don't think - I need to relax a bit. As of January I have a clean slate at the moment, but already there's a few things on the horizon. All good.

Of course though, it ain't all roses.

My anticipation going in was that my biggest stress point would be getting work, finding clients, and staying busy. This is traditionally the big fear for freelancers of course. In my case, this so far has caused me zero stress - I'm very visible due to all the stuff I do, proactive, and generally already had many fingers in many pies to begin with. I've been busy throughout, and right now I'm turning down (well, passing on) more work than I actually do.

The real big stress for me has been admin and money. I've found this side INCREDIBLY hard. Although I guess really I don't mean 'hard', I just mean stressful. One of the things I'm good at, ironically, is understanding what I'm really bad at. And, organising money and things is something I'm really, really bad at. That's not to say I'm doing anything wrong - in fact, I organised my banking this morning and I'm correct to the penny! What I think is stressful really is that, money and tax and admin just feel like something you really really shouldn't fuck up. I generally learn by doing stuff wrong, and with my actual career that's been fine. This does not apply with money! Ultimately, I know full well that I'm a worrier/flapper with things like this, and so far although it's been stressful, ultimately I'm keeping a handle on it.

Specifically, based on the recommendation of a few friends and colleagues, I'm using Crunch accounting. A full review is beyond the scope of this post, but broadly it's a semi-automated service where you do a fair amount of legwork yourself, but the online system handles things like tax and VAT and expenses and everything else for you. You do also have a named accountant to speak to as well, so I see it as something between doing it yourself and having a traditional accountant. So far, Crunch has been brilliant. I feel like it gives me a really good handle on things, and saves a ton of time. I think if you're running a larger business or have employees etc then perhaps Crunch might not be enough, but for a one man band like me it's perfect.

So yeah. It's going alright, but it's been tough adjusting. However, at the same time the whole thing has been very satisfying - I feel like my hard work over the last few years put me in the good position, and so far my work ethic and dogged persistence is powering me through.

No regrets so far... but ask me again in a year. :)

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