I’m one of the lucky few who have been able to forge a career working for themselves. In fact, I’ve worked for myself for the better half of my career. In around 2005, I found myself at home with a small child and a willingness – plus a need – to work. In seeking the kind of employment that would give me tonnes of flexibility, I stumbled upon the idea of working for myself. Fortunately, I had some transferrable skills – at the time, I was a web designer and developer, with a lot of content experience thrown in. And so I became a freelance web designer. Now that I look back at it, it was the perfect choice, because at that time many small businesses needed an affordable yet experienced person to help them get their businesses online.
So my transition from employee to freelancer happened smoothly and organically. Later, after I’d had another child and some more freelance experience under my belt, I started the Information Access Group. This business allowed me to take my communications skills and put them to further good use, making content accessible for people with disability. I started the business with the help of a graphic designer and, over time, built it up to employ a range of content, design and accessibility experts. It was a fun ride, and I sold the business in 2021.
Now, I inhabit a joyful freelance space – the one I’ve dreamed of all my life – where I get to balance client work with my writing practice. I currently have three clients, which is a tiny number compared to the number that some freelancers might aspire to, and to the good old days when I was running the Information Access Group. But I don’t have as many mouths to feed now – my biological offspring have moved out and I don’t have any employees, so I can be more discerning about what I’ll take on.
I do think a food metaphor captures the experience of setting out on your own. When you work for yourself, you can be hungry, especially at first. Even in the midst of success, times can be lean and this is something that I didn’t know as I leapt into freelancing way back when.
These days, I have a lot of friends who are either taking the plunge to work for themselves or who are sitting on the fence, trying to decide if they should stay with an employer they no longer enjoy working for or go out on their own. They have plenty of experience in their chosen profession and they believe they can fend for themselves, taking that experience out into the world as consultants and business owners. When they ask my opinion, I tell them: dive in!
How to get started
For those of you who are thinking about taking the plunge, here are some of the things that are essential to get started with a freelance or consulting career. In writing this general advice, I have a consultant of some sort in mind but the basic concepts apply to anyone setting out to make a living as an independent contractor in the creative industries as well – or in any industry, in fact.
Let’s start with some personal characteristics. I’ll be honest and say to you that you need to have at least a small streak of entrepreneurial spirit. You’re gonna have to sell yourself, whether you like it or not. You can still be an introvert and do creative or detailed behind-the-scenes work, if that’s where your skills are. But you’ll need to believe in those skills, wholeheartedly, and you’ll need to be willing to talk about them in a positive light.
You’ll need to be self-motivated and be flexible about the work you take on. You might need to try out different opportunities while you’re setting yourself up. You might fail at some and succeed at others, but by doing this, you might just find your niche – which, by the way, is the absolute coolest thing. It creates demand for your skillset in a particular area and, from there, word-of-mouth helps your business grow. In 2009, when we started the Information Access Group, our niche market was small and was just waiting for a design-driven provider to dive into it, so that’s what we did.
Craving financial security is a trait that so many of us possess. Over a long period of time, I was able to turn this to my advantage. The aforementioned hunger was a powerful drive within me. This didn’t always serve me well – there were many times when the stress of a dry spell strung me right out – but I’d suggest that it’s possible to transform this fear into a great marketing campaign or a new service offering, expanding your repertoire and skills.
But I reiterate that you might just have to be willing to do anything for a while. Whatever pays the bills. Even though a small job may seem unrelated to what you’re trying to achieve, you might just have to stretch your capabilities until you get enough clients under your belt.
So where do you get clients? My suggestion is that you start with your existing networks on your preferred social media platforms and in your industry. Then I suggest that you get yourself to some business networking events. Thankfully, we’re back in a world where we can meet face-to-face. You can do some research on your industry and your potential niche areas and work out where those people congregate. You’ll need to take your business cards (see my suggestions on branding below) and your entrepreneurial self. I promise, you won’t have to do this forever. But if you’re starting from scratch, this kind of relationship-building is essential. Remember also that it can take a while. Networking can be a slow burn.
What do you do about money while you’re waiting for the jobs to roll in? Some people decide to keep a foot in both camps – to work part-time for someone else while they set up their consultancy. This is a good plan but it means a lot of hard work at nights and weekends – great if you’ve got plenty of energy. In this situation, it can be hard not to prioritise your main job above your own thing, meaning that you're creating a side hustle rather than the main event.
Casual and contracting opportunities might be the way to go to allow you a bit more flexibility to work on your business when you need to. As I suggested above, maybe you’ve got to take on some work that doesn’t seem like quite the right fit. That’s OK for a while as it helps you establish your working style and your lifestyle parameters. Maybe you could wait tables, walk dogs or pull beers while you build up your client base. Some of us are willing to do whatever it takes.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have some good contacts already and you’ll have something vaguely promising lined up before you take the plunge. If you’ve got some financial runway behind you, all the better. A few months’ worth of income tucked in a savings account might help reduce the number of sleepless nights you face.
Personally, I’ve always found those sleepless nights worth it compared to putting up with, or shaping myself to fit in with, someone else’s s*%#. And I’ve always loved this quote from American businessman Farrah Gray:
‘Build your own dreams or someone else will hire you to build theirs.’
Here are some lists of all the practical things you’ll need to help you get your independent contracting off the ground. This list is written with the Australian business environment in mind but you can adjust it for your part of the world.
Basic items for your small business setup:
- a laptop or device of your choice
- an Australian Business Number (ABN)
- a good accountant
- an hourly rate. You can adjust this as time goes on but you have to start somewhere. Your rate will depend on your years of experience and what the market will bear in your industry. Do some research. Ask around. Back yourself
- an invoice template – you can start out with something in Word but your accountant can advise you on your other options
- a nice space to work in. Don’t go all out spending on this in the beginning. Just make sure you’re comfortable and can get work done in the space. You can make it pretty later when the money rolls in
- relevant software and other tools for your line of work
- an email address. I suggest you start with a custom email address that is based on your web address (that is based on your business name). However, you might be starting without a business name and use your own name instead. That might be ideal for your industry.
Once you’ve got those things in place, you can start working.
Establishing a brand
When you’re ready, you can start thinking about branding and how you present yourself to the world. Some people start with a brand from the outset and, if you’ve got the budget to do that, great. But if you’re starting with nothing, it’s OK to live without the brand for a while. I know several freelancers who don’t have a business name or any branding at all and they are forging successful careers. The need for the brand will depend on your industry and the kind of business you want to create.
For branding, you’ll need:
- a good designer. You might like to choose a freelancer and turn the wheels of karma
- a business name if that’s the direction you’d like to go in
- a logo. A simple, clear logo with an accompanying colour palette will be the basis of your brand
- a design element. This goes with your logo. It’s something like a stripe or a swoosh or a set of shapes that you can use across your marketing collateral. It helps your designer use and extend your brand. Your designer will advise on this
- a basic website. If your budget is tight, you could start with a Google site. Google sites are cheap and they are very easy to set up and edit. Or, if your designer has other suggestions, go with those
- business cards. You can have some cards printed or use a digital version if you like
- a social media presence. Tell your existing networks that you now have a business. Work out which platform is the most commonly used for your industry and stick with that. Consistent posting and commenting will help establish you as a regular voice
- a nice photo of you. This will be great for social media and potentially your website. Some people go all out with professional photography – go for it if this is in your budget. Or ask a friend or family member to take a nice photo and start with that.
If you can afford it, a marketing plan will really help. This doesn’t need to be complicated at first. It just needs to explain who you’re targeting and how you’re going to go about it.
Suggested resources to help you on your journey:
- The Freelance Jungle – this is an Australian Facebook group for freelancers. If you live elsewhere, look for the equivalent type of group in your part of the world and don’t be shy – this kind of group can be an amazing resource.
- Freelance communities like Rachel’s List. This is a community for communications professionals like writers, editors and PR people. You might find similar groups in your industry. Rachel’s List has a job board where jobs are posted regularly plus a fantastic social media community to tap into. Oh, and they have a pay rates report, which is really useful for comparisons in this industry.
- Professional associations. Paying the membership fee to be kept in the loop can be a great way to stay abreast of the news, events and activities that matter in your industry.
- This great marketing book, even though it’s targeted only at women: Marketing Launchpad: The ultimate, no-fluff marketing book for women in business.
The good news is that a lot of the expenses of running your own business – like memberships, books and subscriptions – are tax deductible. Ask your accountant for advice about this, and keep all of your receipts.
And if you’re brave enough to take the leap, I wish you every success. Something that I wasn’t quite aware of when I started out all those years ago was that I was building an asset. A brand, a client base and your content are all saleable things. This is one of the very best reasons to go out on your own. In the beginning, it may seem impossible that you’ll ever want to leave your business, but don’t underestimate the value of what you can build.