Freelancer guru Alison Grade shares her secrets on taking the self-employed plunge
‘Learn to describe those skills as a solution for your customer. What problem are you solving for them and why are you the best person to deliver those services?’
Alison Grade, The Freelance Bible
Being a great freelancer is more than being great at the work you do. You need to be great at being freelance in the first place. Alison Grade, author of The Freelance Bible, led a recent online masterclass for Modern Woman, giving up her secrets on how to prepare yourself for freelance life, so that you are best positioned to find the work you want to do.
“In the past, being freelance was seen as a negative stop-gap, between jobs,” reveals Grade. “But increasingly the freelance workforce is being valued. It doesn’t really matter what work you do anymore, you can find opportunities as a freelancer as long as you can identify where those opportunities are for you.
“If your job is looking vulnerable and you’re considering going freelance, you have to ask: what are my specialist skills? How can I offer my services to clients in a way that makes a difference to them?
“Of course, being employed means a regular paycheque and a sense of camaraderie from working in a team (if you like that). But I love the autonomy of deciding where and when to work – arranging your day around when you’re the most productive, and not having to be at your desk from 9 to 5 just because that’s what your boss says.”
Grade’s advice is gold dust for anyone looking to take the freelance plunge. Here are her five steps into freelance life, as told to us through her masterclass.
Alison Grade’s five top tips
#1. Ask yourself some difficult questions
“Right now, if you get made redundant the chances are that’s happening because your sector is suffering because of Coronavirus. So you have to start thinking, what skills do you have, and how can you deploy them to demonstrate your value?
“Learn to describe those skills as a solution for your customer. What problem are you solving for them and why are you the best person to deliver those services?
“Remember that freelance can be feast or famine. Work all comes at once and then it goes quiet. It’s important to know how much risk you are prepared to take, and manage mental health strategies around that, being positive and just taking charge, rather than second-guessing your choices.
“Freelancers are luxury designer items. We’re coming in specifically for our knowledge and expertise, so we should be highly valued and respected by our clients. So, considering going freelance for the first time means interrogating yourself on the skills you have to offer. We get really tied up in our job titles when we’re employed, without focusing on wider skills we’ve gained along the way.”
#2. Plan your finances
“I run a very straightforward spreadsheet for calculating outgoings – mortgage or rent, utilities, council tax, transport, groceries, Netflix, childcare, how much you spend at the pub. That will help you work out how much money you need to live off.
“If you’ve just been in an employed situation do you have the tools of the trade, like a laptop or mobile phone? These can ultimately be business expenses but chances are, you need that money upfront.
“As a freelancer, you invoice with the tax money included, so all these expenses come after you’ve put aside money for your tax and national insurance. A rough rule of thumb is to put aside 25-30 per cent of what comes in every month, but if your earnings are lower that comes down.
“Then it’s time to set your rates. Benchmark yourself against other opportunities – job adverts that are at the same sort of level, other freelancers offering similar work. Remember that you’ve got to add 25 per cent on top of your fee because you’re paying the tax, not the employer. You can talk to other people in your field, get a mentor. Reach out to people you admire and see if they’ll build a relationship with you, for advice and even to refer you for jobs they can’t take on.
“Depending on your sector there might be unions and guilds, with suggested rates that you can learn about. You can get a lot of rate information if you start digging and then it’s a case of piecing together the jigsaw – what do I need to earn, and what are people paying.
“Don’t be afraid to have different rates for different projects. I have clients that I charge three different rates for different kinds of work. Don’t be afraid to say, that’s a more expensive part of me.”
#3. Generate new clients
“When approaching new customers, I start by thinking about where I would add value. I want customers that will really value me, so once I’ve identified a company I want to work with, I dig deeper and find the right individual there that I want to approach. You can find people really easily now on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter.
“Then I find out if I know someone at that organisation who can give me a trusted introduction. That’s when you reach out, with a succinct and short email that says: I can solve this problem for you, this is how I will do it, and this person recommended that I speak to you.That’s when you start pitching yourself and leveraging your network, asking for ideas and recommendations.
“If you’re strategic, you’re focusing on driving that towards the companies you’ve identified that you’d be a good fit with.”
#4. Keep existing clients
“A common challenge for freelancers comes from not understanding Average Revenue per User (ARPU). The cost of acquiring a new client is high. It’s like when you try to end your mobile phone contract and they offer you the best deal you’ve ever had – it’s because it’s much cheaper for them to keep you at a lower price than it is to find a new client.
“As a freelancer, keeping existing clients is best, because you can work for them and then sell them the next project. But if the client is struggling with their budgets, you have to think, what value are you adding to this business? If you’re creating something that’s driving sales, you can have a conversation about that.
“Finally, how important is this client to you in the long term? Is it worth having a transitional agreement with them to cover the short term? What is the problem and how can you creatively solve it together? Because rolling over and saying you’ll do the same thing for less money gets you nowhere. It just drives down the price.”
#5. Set your work-life balance
“It’s tempting to say, it’s day one of freelancing – I’m going to start at 9 and finish at 5. Tear that up and throw it out the window. When you work from home you can get all the really annoying chores done that you can’t do in an office. You can do your laundry and prepare the supper, go for a mid-morning stroll and pick up your groceries, which is the break you’d take in an office anyway. You don’t have a commute so you can work in different chunks of time. The day can start a lot earlier, when you would’ve left for work, perhaps.
“I let myself go with the flow. If I’m tired I’ll just stop, because I’m not being productive. If I’ve got energy, I’ll go hard. But I don’t have to fight it. That energises me, knowing that I’m not clock-watching or thinking I can’t do this or that.
“I like to work in different spaces. If I don’t want the distraction of the laundry, I might go to a co-work space, or a café. There are lots of flexible packages for co-work spaces.
“People worry about getting lonely as freelancers. Find some buddies that are in a similar position as you, and even if it’s a virtual coffee, or going for a walk, find what works for you, even if it’s just a WhatsApp group. Even interactions in the local store can make you feel a part of the real world. And lockdown has made face-to-face client communications much more commonplace over Zoom.”
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