It seems that almost every day, there’s a new article about the elusive “gig economy”, with forecasters and business experts speculating on whether the future really is freelance, or whether we’re all steering ourselves up a certain creek without a paddle. According to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), the sector contributed £275 billion to the UK economy in 2018, with that number rising steadfastly as more and more professionals take the plunge and go it alone in 2019.
Every single freelancer has their own reasons for embarking upon the “gig life”, ranging from a post-child need to step back from a relentless daily grind, to tiring of office politics and simply, wanting to work on their own terms (and of course, many more!). In new research released last week, it has been revealed that 8/10 millennials want to ditch the 9-5 office-based job to go freelance and a huge 67% of Brits overall are thinking of quitting their jobs to go freelance.
As a bunch of digital professionals who quit senior agency roles to go it alone, we can empathise with those who want to branch out on their own to go freelance, so we thought we’d share our stories.
For a full disclaimer, we’re certainly not advocating “sacking the boss” without due consideration, but it sure helped us to understand what a relatively ‘uncertain’ career choice could mean in the short-medium term, so here’s our story…
Charlotte McMurray – Founder
I started working for myself three years ago, in August of 2016. Previously I’d been working as digital performance director in a large agency, spending most of my time on meetings, people management and firefighting instead of the practical, creative work that attracted me to digital marketing in the first place.
I also had nagging doubts about the entire business model of larger agencies – selling clients on the talents of our senior team only to hand off work to junior executives was frustrating, and didn’t feel like a good deal for anybody. I was burned out and frustrated, and initially decided to freelance as a stopgap to get some perspective on where to go next. 3 years later, I’m still here and wouldn’t change a thing!
I started to see the benefits of working freelance almost immediately in my overall wellbeing. It felt like I’d gained 10 IQ points and all of a sudden I could focus properly. Working for myself I feel more like myself, more interested in and excited about my work.
The most important thing I learned in the early days was that being in control of how you work is only useful if you actually use that power. It’s hard to get over the desire to please people, and that can lead you to make unwise decisions if you’re not careful. Learning to put my foot down at the right times has been hugely important, and while I’m still not getting this right 100% of the time, my odds are increasing.
More recently, I’ve learned how important it is to question the established norms about running a business. Lots of people talk about “disruption” in business, but there’s a very entrenched set of assumptions about what a successful business looks like – get an office, hire a team, grow as big as possible. I know from experience that this isn’t the type of business I want to work in, and I’ve deliberately designed Cameo Digital to avoid this.
Developing from a ‘lone freelancer’ into a collective model came from conversations with friends and colleagues in the months after I decided to go it alone. People were interested in what I was doing and wanted to do the same, but didn’t necessarily have the confidence to make the leap alone. At the same time, I was getting more work through the door than I could handle.
Instead of expanding in a traditional sense, it made more sense for me to decide that I had enough work and enough money for the time being, and to use the overspill to help other people achieve the same flexibility and freedom as I enjoyed.
Working collectively with like-minded freelancers instead of “building my team” works far better for me, for a number of reasons:
- I get to work with people who I probably couldn’t afford on a full-time salary basis, and who probably wouldn’t be interested in working for “just another agency” anyway.
- Rather than becoming solely a manager, I can keep doing the work I enjoy, only with a group of fantastic people to bounce ideas off.
- Because the people I work with benefit from the same freelance quality of life boost as I do, our clients get their best work, with no need for 90% of the red tape that comes with running an agency.
Cameo Digital will never be a huge international agency – I can’t think of anything worse, to be honest. Instead, my longer-term plans centre around optimising for “enough”, and on continually improving the quality of our work.
There’s a balance to be struck somewhere in the number of consultants and clients we can add and still deliver our very best work and maintain a good quality of life. Rather than setting arbitrary growth targets, I’m interested in finding where that balance needs to sit to deliver the best outcomes for everybody.
Lauren Archer – Brand Marketing & PR Consultant
I decided to go it alone in June 2018, just over a year ago, after working my way up the ladder in a range of senior Marketing and PR roles, from the local authority, to finance, to digital, tech and eCommerce.
I managed a large team and found myself spending 90% of my time in meetings, rather than doing the work that I enjoyed and allowed me to be creative, use my talents and deliver results. I’m not the kind of person that can just sit back and let something drift along aimlessly, so I decided it was time to take action.
Having worked with Charlotte for 3 years, I was already well-aware of her diverse and impressive skillset, and seeing her flourish in her work again was really inspiring to me. The Cameo Digital ethos of “Do Good Work with Good People” spoke volumes and was exactly the kind of terms I craved, so after much deliberation and planning, I handed my month’s notice in. I was doing it.
It’s worth mentioning that I had the full unwavering support of my partner, who also works in digital, which was a huge confidence boost for me. Luckily, I picked up work straight away, thanks to building a big network and reputation amongst the B2B, Tech and Digital communities, and of course, through Cameo Digital, for which I’m eternally grateful for.
The overall experience has been overwhelmingly positive, from an improvement in my general wellbeing, getting back into the kind of work that brought me into the profession to begin with and getting to play a role in the story of some fantastic North East businesses. Freelancing suits my working style (I’m not a 5 am riser and don’t believe the time you get up on a morning, or the ‘presenteeism’ epidemic workplaces are suffering from should dictate your professional success!) and I’ve discovered so much about myself.
Of course, there are a few negatives, from moving to client-facing from in-house, which was initially a struggle and actually training myself to say NO sometimes (I’m getting there!), as well as when things don’t go quite right, for whatever reason. There’s a misconception that when you’re freelance, you’re supposed to solely have the answer to everything and that’s just not the case. That said, through working in a supportive collective like Cameo Digital, I have some brilliant people to share ideas, struggles and opportunities with, and the future looks really bright for us all.
If I could give someone 3 pieces of advice before embarking upon the freelance life, they would be this:
- Start before you actually quit your job: Bear in mind, of course, that your current contract of employment might stop you from being able to do actually work on a freelance basis, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be putting yourself out there. In the North East, we’re blessed with a range of events for freelancers and professionals alike, and I wholeheartedly recommend the likes of Newcastle Startup Week and Founder’s Friday for anyone looking to take the plunge. If you can build up a small, manageable roster of clients where there’s no conflict of interest, DO IT! You’ll build a valuable testbed to help you work out whether the change in pace is your thing before you give up your entire livelihood!
- Do your sums: Work out your expenditure and how much you need to live off so you can identify how much business you need to bring in to sustain your lifestyle. Sounds obvious, but I’ve heard some horror stories and would never advocate anyone going it alone before understanding the full scope of their financial needs. Start small and factor in that the more you ‘get out there’, you *should* be picking up more clients. I built a cash-flow forecast when I first started and have tracked income ever since, which helps when I’m mulling over luxuries like a new laptop (my MacBook died a sudden death earlier this year!) or whether I have the capacity to take on more work. Another finance-related tip is to get a good accountant, and we can recommend one if you need.
- Network: Not optional. Sorry! Whether it’s virtual, through social media and forums/groups, or face-to-face via events, you’ve got to get yourself out there. Scour LinkedIn for groups you can join, engage in the conversation, join sites like MeetUp and keep an eye on Eventbrite for events you can attend. Again, we have a heap of stuff in the North East, so keep your eyes peeled and if you need to, set up an alert. Another tip I’d add to ‘Networking’ is to join a professional body if one exists in your field. I’m in the CIPR and currently sit on the North East Committee, so am a regular at events in the region. The benefit of a group like CIPR is that you can continually update your skills through CPD, which often doesn’t happen when you’re outside of the workplace and have to invest in these things yourself!
And finally, just trust yourself. If it feels right, you should give it a go, in one form or another. If it doesn’t go to plan, you can always find another job!
Gemma Neesham – SEO Consultant
After nearly a decade of working under the agency umbrella, it was time for a change. Over the years I’d gained lots of experience and worked with some amazing brands, but the more my career progressed, the further away I got from working directly on client campaigns.
Much of my time was now being taken up by people management, internal meetings and paperwork. Unsurprisingly this was the opposite of what had attracted me to the profession in the first place and didn’t provide anywhere near as much job satisfaction.
Eventually, I reached a point where I decided I wanted to get back to utilising my digital marketing skills, working with clients directly to build and deliver strategies that would allow me to really make an impact and drive increased performance. Going freelance seemed like the perfect opportunity to make this happen.
Taking the leap from a secure agency position, as Head of SEO, into the world of freelancing did feel a little daunting at the time but was made much easier by joining the Cameo Digital collective. Its ethos is very much aligned with my own and has provided me with all the benefits that freelancing brings, alongside the security of working within a collective, sharing ideas and contributing to things I really enjoy, minus all the bureaucracy of agency life.
It’s been 2 years now since I began freelancing and my day to day life is now a world away from where it was when I was still agency side. The biggest change has been on my work/life balance, in that I actually feel I have balance now. It’s no secret that agency life is very often fast-paced and stressful. If you also add 2-3 hours of travel time to that (which was my experience), the days can become very long and tiring, leaving no time for anything else, including personal and professional development.
Freelancing and working as part of the Cameo Digital collective has provided me with quality of life, making me much happier both professionally and personally.
I get to work with great clients and colleagues who share Cameo’s beliefs; I get to utilise my skills and expertise as a digital marketer; I get to directly see the positive impact of my work (which makes me feel great) and after all that I now have the time and energy to make the most of my leisure time.
I very much feel that I am now a master of my own destiny and I like it!
So is the future freelance? We’d say, given the stats above, most probably. Professionals are seeking ways to work that contributes to their life, no longer wishing to “live to work”. The old agency tricks of pool tables and free food are no longer cutting it, either, when talented people can work on their own terms with clients they’re passionate about, and earn a rate they deserve. There’s a change in the wind, that’s for sure.
If you’re a marketer, copywriter, social media pro or digital whizz and are thinking of going freelance, we’d love to hear from you. We’re always happy to answer questions on the realities of freelance life and how it has positively impacted us and our clients, so give us a shout if you want to find out more!