Could you go freelance?

,  16 May 2012

There are obvious benefits to a freelance creative career, but what are the downsides? Pete Mosley, creative mentor and advisor, sets out the risks with advice on how you can minimise them.

Sun Ae Kim, ceramicist
Sun Ae Kim, ceramicist

Are you brave enough?

Self employment, by its very nature, is demanding. You need to be able to cope with those demands in order to survive. Have you got what it takes?  

The benefits are enormous. You have control of your life, creative freedom, flexibility to work the hours you want, and a strong individual creative identity.

Have you got the tenacity and self-discipline you need, both to start and to keep going?

You will need nerves of steel from time to time – when people pay late, when customers are awkward, when things don’t go to plan. You need to be an organised person.

Your customers will expect you to be consistent, good humoured, and timely in your responses. You will need reserves of physical and emotional energy in order to cope with setbacks.

You will need to be spirited and independent – the freelance life can be lonely – however...

The benefits of going freelance

The benefits are enormous. You have control of your life, creative freedom, flexibility to work the hours you want, and a strong individual creative identity.

You will feel like you never have done before. My old man ran his own business for most of his life and his anthem was Frank Sinatra singing ‘I Did It My Way’.

I set off down the same path and that tune, old-fashioned as it is, still echoes in my ears. It is a truly unique and thrilling experience. Get it right and it will bring you real joy.

The risks of going freelance

Creativity, skills and talent alone will not guarantee the success that you crave. You must be sure you have a viable business – that is, one based on products or services that will sell in large enough volumes to sustain you and make a profit.

Be sure you have a viable business – one based on products or services that will sell in large enough volumes to sustain you and make a profit.

It’s perfectly possible to pay quite large sums into your bank account and still struggle to make ends meet if you have failed to properly calculate the costs involved in running your business.

Turnover (the money you pay into your account) should not be confused with profit (what’s left when all the expenses have been paid).

A self-employed person can only pay themselves what they can afford from their profits – taking too much out for yourself can be a fatal error.

Don’t overextend yourself. Some entrepreneurs borrow money to finance new businesses – but can you truly afford to do this? Sometimes it’s better to start slow than burden yourself with huge start-up costs and ongoing loan repayments.

It can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Some people simply run out of steam. If you are not a naturally resilient person, beware. 

How do you minimise risk?

Lots of people save up in anticipation of going freelance. Having a cushion will make life much easier. Things seldom run smoothly to plan in the first few months.

  • Plan ahead
    Estimate what you want your income to be, and what your expenses will be. Both fixed outgoings like rent, rates, utilities and phone; and variable ones like travel and materials.
  • Set up a cashflow projection
    This is a projection of how you think income and expenditure will flow. Then track everything and check progress regularly.
    Your cashflow forecast will tell you if you aren’t meeting your sales targets or if you are overspending, it’s a very powerful tool.
  • Have a cushion
    Be sure to save for tax and rainy days.

Find a champion

The kind and supportive words of friends and relatives can be misleading. In fact, you need to be wary of those very things. I've met people who have launched businesses on the basis of feedback from family and friends.

When you are trying to do something ambitious it is really important to find somebody to hold you accountable and to help drive you along.  

Someone close to them said their work was good, and they committed to the whole set up – without bothering to conduct any further reality checks. Then it didn’t work. This may all sound a little harsh but it is, unfortunately, true.

So who can you trust to give you independent feedback when you need to know if an idea or product is going to stand up to scrutiny? Your mates love you too much to be objective. Constructive, objective criticism might be hard to swallow.

But it will save you from making really bad commercial decisions. And if you have got what it takes, it'll help you get where you want to go much, much faster.

Often what stops us in life is less to do with the quality of our work ,than with the quality of our courage and ambition. 

When you are trying to do something ambitious it is really important to find somebody to hold you accountable and to help drive you along. Someone you can meet with regularly to review your goals and make sure that you are actually making some progress. Make a dream list and work through it with them stage by stage.

Where to ask for help

Support can be found in a variety of places: starting up in a business incubator can be helpful for some, finding a mentor is right for others.

Local authority arts officers, where they exist, can be a really useful source of guidance and information. And most regions have creative industry support organisations that can help. Don’t forget local and regional arts networking groups.

And last, but not least, seek out and talk to other more established creative people. They are often the most powerful source of support and encouragement. And they understand exactly what you are going through.

Find out more about Pete Mosley's book, Make Your Creativity Pay


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