I’ve been a freelance writer for (gulp!) more than 30 years now. I’ve made all the mistakes – so you don’t have to. So here are a few things I wish I’d known from the start of my career as a creator.
1. You are not for everybody
Not everyone will love the work you make. And that’s OK. It really is. They’re just not your people.
Try to make something that will please everybody, and you’ll end up pleasing no one. You won’t even like your work. And that really is depressing.
You’ll start by copying the greats in your field. Learning from them. But aim to develop your own voice, your own idiosyncrasies, your own niche.
Make it something you love. Then go out and find like-minded souls, people who will love what you do.
Kevin Kelly wrote a famous and often-quoted essay explaining that in the age of the internet, you only need 1000 true fans to be successful. It’s worth reading. Only a thousand people to please, world-wide. That leaves you a lot of space to really own a niche, to be authentically, gloriously you.
2. Save for taxes
Seriously. Like death, there’s no escaping them. Every payment that comes in, you need to put a portion of it aside for tax. (I use a separate account, so I’m less tempted to dip into it.) Otherwise you’re in deep, deep trouble when the bill comes in. And it will.
You know this already. But it’s easy to forget. Especially when that payment comes into your bank account, you’re dizzy with the achievement of actually getting paid for your work – and there are bills to pay.
Every time you see a director helming the kind of commercial film they swore they’d never make, an actor in an ad that compromises everything you thought they stood for, a band who clearly hate each other doing a reunion tour, or a fiercely edgy and independent designer suddenly signing a tacky licensing deal… the odds are you’re also seeing an unpaid tax bill.
(Or the aftermath of a messy and expensive divorce. To avoid that one, read points six and 12 below.)
3. Say no more often
It’s a short word, starting in N and ending in O. With nothing in between. (Nothing, that is, except the fear of the abyss, a lifetime of people-pleasing, a dread that if turn down work once, we’ll never get the chance to say yes again.)
But just get comfortable with no. Use it without guilt, emotion, or apology. No, I can’ort do hours of extra work, without more money. Nope, that’s outside my skillset. Can’t do it, I’m taking a week off. If you’re struggling, here’s more about setting boundaries, and saying no gracefully.
It gets easier, with practice. You will lose some work. But the clients that stay will respect your boundaries, and not expect you to be on call, 24/7.
4. Build a freedom fund
If you chose to be a self-employed creative, the chances are that freedom and control over your time are important to you. So build savings that enable you to make choices that aren’t just based on money. People sometimes call this a rainy day fund, but I think that’s all wrong. I prefer to think of it as a Freedom Fund.
Sure, it’s there to help me deal with emergencies. But the savings I’ve built also give me the freedom to go on a spontaneous trip, or take time off if I need it. It allows me to do a low-paid project that will be great fun if I want to, to do more training or take on help if I need it.
So try to build up at least 3-6 months living costs in a savings account, over time. Real freedom, real autonomy is having choices.
5. Trust your instincts
When you get a funny feeling about a potential client, trust it. When a job just doesn’t feel like a great fit for you, turn it down. Learn to recognise your own red flags.
Sometimes it’s hard to hear our own still, quiet inner voice – our deep, primal knowing – because we’re too busy dealing with anxiety mosquitoes, our inner critic, imposter syndrome, and a host of other nagging voices in our heads.
Tip: if it’s unkind, rude, snide, angry, harsh, it’s not your deep truth speaking. It’s that chorus of inner voices who are ineptly trying to keep you safe, by keeping you well within your comfort zone.
Even when it’s telling you that you can do better, your inner mentor is kind, encouraging. That voice is your ally. It believes in you. Trust it.
6. Take more breaks
You now work for a lousy, demanding, over-critical boss. Yourself. Seriously, you’re brutal.
Learn to cut yourself some slack. Rest more. Take breaks. Take weekends off. Finish your day at a reasonable time.
Allow yourself recovery time after a tough day/big deadline/difficult meeting. And especially after being full-on with a project that has stopped you taking weekends off or finishing at a reasonable time.
You’ll work better, be a better friend, parent and partner, and you’ll be happier. Which, in the end, is why you decided to build your own business, no?
7. Stay curious
Keep learning. Keep asking questions. Read lots. Look what others are doing, not just in your own field but in all disciplines.
As a journalist, I was lucky to meet and interview all kinds of people at the very top of their creative fields: artists, chefs, movie stars, designers, musicians, architects, directors, authors. If they have one trait in common, it’s this: they are interesting because they are also interested.
8. Charge what you’re worth (not what you think they can afford)
You are responsible for your own work, your own bank balance, your own life. Don’t waste time and energy trying to guess what’s going on in everyone else’s.
Concentrate on doing the best work you can, and learn to present and market it well. Then price it accordingly. The people who can’t afford you? They’re not your customers.
(PS This doesn’t mean that I don’t work for less sometimes if it’s a friend, a cause I believe in, or a project I really want to do. But it feels really different when you’ve made an active choice to do that. There’s no resentment, for a start.)
9. You don’t have to do this alone
Freelancing can be lonely. So find support. There will be a professional body, a Facebook group, a sub-Reddit, a virtual community of people who do what you do. Join it. (You’ll probably have to try a few before you find the one where your tribe really hangs out.) And if you really can’t find the right group, start one.
Connect with others. Help when you can. And ask for help yourself when you need it.
Get a coach, join a mastermind group, seek out a mentor, hang out with other creatives. Collaborate on projects, when that feels right. Experiment with co-working spaces, even if that’s your local coffee shop.
If you get help to do the work you don’t enjoy, or aren’t good at, it can free up time to take on more of the work you love. A cleaner, a Virtual Assistant (or a real one), accountant, tech support can all make a huge difference. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness.
10. Pitch, market, sell – every day
Don’t wait for the phone to ring (or the email to ping). Create your own work. Do your verbs. If you’re a writer, write. A photographer, take pictures. If you’re an artist, make art. And if you’re a performer, perform. Initiate projects. Don’t wait for permission.
Go ask your ideal clients what their biggest challenges are, what keeps them awake at night. Then find solutions for them, and add it to your services. Make ideas your currency and your habit.
But also, learn how to sell what you make. How to pitch those ideas. How to show your work, build an audience, and sell it. These are all skills that can be learned.
Find what works for you: that might be selling online or via social media, but it could also just mean connecting with people in real life, making offers to existing clients or asking them to refer you to others.
When you know what brings in work, make it a regular part of your routine – permanently.
When you have a lot of work, it’s tempting to put marketing and networking on hold for a while. But being consistent ends that familiar self-employed cycle of famine or feast. And if you’re consistently getting more work than you can handle, it’s time to take on more help – or raise your prices.
11. Build multiple income streams
No matter how small, it helps to have cash coming in from different clients, different sources. Then if your industry is disrupted by new tech, your biggest client disappears, or your business changes, you still have some bills covered.
Continue to build new income streams. Look for new clients. Explore new markets. Run experiments, to see what works for you. Then make each new income stream as easy and as much fun as possible. At first, some of these will be little more than a trickle. But it all adds up, over time. And it helps build real security, and the confidence that you can create your own money when you need it.
12. Let go of perfectionism
You’re creative. You have great taste. And so your standards are high. But done really is often better than perfect. As a recovering perfectionist myself, I know.
Get your work out there, learn from the response, improve and make more. You don’t need a perfect website, perfect product, perfect branding, all the best tools and equipment, your own office or team. Not at first. You just need to begin.
13. Enjoy the journey
Celebrate your successes, no matter how small. Make sure you take a moment to savour the big victories, when they come. Don’t put off enjoying life until you’ve reached your big goals.
Always make time to spend with people you love, to have fun, to take care of yourself, as well as your business. When you’re old and looking back on your life, that will be what really mattered.
14. It’s not always about the big leaps
We dream of the big break, of getting signed/discovered, of overnight success. But progress can also be about making tiny, incremental changes, little tweaks and improvements.
Aiming to become just 1% better every month compounds into huge progress, over time.
15. Don’t get too fixated on the numbers
Money is great. It buys you a lot of freedom. But it’s not everything.
Focus on the life you want, then use your creativity to get it. Move to a more affordable location or even another country where the cost of living is cheaper. Try house-sitting or pet-sitting if you’d like a short-term change of scenery. Use the gym or the pool in off-peak hours, when it’s cheaper (and emptier). Cycle everywhere at home, then rent a really top-end car when you’re on vacation, or a work trip.
There are a million ways to get what you want, without needing to own it.
Get really clear on why you want to work for yourself, the lifestyle you want, what you want your work to do in the world, and what gives meaning and satisfaction to you. And work out what you need to get by financially, and what you need to be comfortable. Those are the numbers that count.
Far too many of us are fixated on some arbitrary goal – £50k, £100k, £250k – and sacrifice our health and happiness to get there. This is about making a life you love and work you are proud of. Not working yourself to death for some external measure of when you’ve ‘made it’.
I am a writer, but I‘m also a coach helping creatives get the success they want, making work they love. I have a free ten-day course for creatives who want to grow their business, helping you give your established career a health-check, or put firm foundations in place if you’re just starting out. Sign up for it here.