Start your creative freelancing career off on the right track with advice on going freelance, the best freelancing courses and more. We spoke to some successful creative freelancers for their top tips.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the Great Resignation – and now many of these job leavers are carving out their own career in a field that they’re passionate about. Creative freelancing is undoubtedly rewarding, but it also comes with issues around finances, mental health and tricky clients.
If you’re want to know how to be a freelance writer, photographer or other creative professional, consider this your comprehensive guide. And if you’re convinced you want to take the plunge, enrol in our brand new freelancing course from Kingston University, Survive & Thrive as a Creative Freelancer.
To help us navigate the murky waters of freelancing in the creative industries, we spoke to three successful creative freelancers: Steve Daniel, a content creator and influencer, Samantha Shannon, a family photographer; and Alli Hill, a freelance writer and writing coach.
“Freelancing is worth it in the end – the freedom to be able to discover and build a name for yourself,” says Steve Daniel. “To become a freelancer is personally one of the best decisions I ever made.”
What are the advantages of creative freelancing?
Unlimited personal and professional growth
In a conventional job, you might get told off for possessing ideas above your station – but when you are your own boss, you’re limited only by your imagination.
“Freelancing can be so rewarding and offers incredible growth,” says Samantha Shannon. “For me, it’s always been worth it to have total control over how my career grows: the only limit is my own mindset.”
There’s no rule that says you need to stick with one discipline, either. Adding photography, video editing or copywriting to your skillset can help you to maximise your earning potential.
“I got to rediscover myself,” says Steve Daniel. “I started as a social media manager with no skills in photos and videos, and over the years I picked up those skills and became a renowned content creator in my city.”
Once you go freelance, you get to write your own job description and tweak it whenever you find something that isn’t working.
“Despite its challenges, freelancing can be one of the most rewarding career paths because it’s something you build for yourself,” says Alli Hill. “It’s a chance to create a job that fits you rather than try to fit someone else’s job description – to use your best skills, and find real career freedom.”
For a step-by-step guide to realising your dream, check out our six-part Starting a Business course from the University of Leeds.
“The flexibility to adjust your hours when needed or take a vacation without approval from a boss is great!” says Shannon.
Many beginner freelancers will implement a nine-to five schedule just to add a sense of routine to their day – but really, there are no rules.
“Fixing up your own schedule is one of the main pros of being a freelancer,” says Daniel.
“The lifestyle can be glamorous but it is exactly what you want to make of it – you can go with the nice travels and activities but others would rather focus on their work and stay at home. You create what you want to create because you now own the 24 hours a day in your life.”
This flexibility makes freelancing a popular choice for carers, parents, and others with extra responsibilities outside of work.
What are the drawbacks of a creative freelancing?
The best thing about freelancing is that every hour can be a holiday – and the worst thing about it is that every hour can be a work hour.
“You will feel that you quit the nine-to-five for something that is 24/7,” says Daniel.
“The hours, especially in the beginning, are long as you establish your business,” says Samantha Shannon. “Keep in mind your end goal and work hard at the start to set your business systems up for the flexibility and time commitment you want.”
For those who enjoyed receiving the feedback and input of office colleagues, going it alone can be a shock.
“It gets lonely,” says Daniel. “You are working for yourself and at first you might have no one to really talk to – you’ve got no ‘work friends’.”
“You’ll have to make all the business decisions on your own,” says Hill.
While there are ways around this – social media groups, networking events, conferences – ultimately, the day-to-day minutiae of running your business are up to you.
Without a boss to report to, it’s too easy to fritter away hours online or abandon your business efforts in favour of household chores.
“No one is there to motivate you but yourself,” says Daniel. “If you decide to procrastinate it might be the beginning of the ‘end’.”
Lack of stable income
“You have to balance the flexibility of freelancing with your desired income. There are no sick days or vacation days to cover you financially if you want to take time off,” says Shannon.
“Freelance work also means your income is totally dependent on the clients you bring in, so if your work is seasonal or your marketing efforts aren’t working, you aren’t getting paid.”
How to manage your time as a freelancer
Deciding how to spend each day, hour and minute is one of the hardest aspects of being a new freelancer. In fact, time management issues make up the bulk of the questions Alli Hill receives in her coaching sessions.
“The main problems I help my coaching clients address are to do with consistency – building a daily routine that allows them enough time to finish their work, finding consistent work, and maintaining a predictable income.”
To resolve these issues, Hill usually starts with a time audit to see how the freelancer is spending their time inside and outside of work. This helps them to see how much time they have to devote to pitching clients, marketing, professional development and client work. In addition to organising activities, they also start to create systems for tracking income, sending invoices and following up with clients.
How to find work-life balance when there’s no nine-to-five
New freelancers – reeling from the sudden removal of the nine-to-five – tend to fall into one of two categories. The first fail to apply themselves: socialising, sleeping in, and ignoring their shrinking bank balance. The second group, on the other hand, work so long and hard that they burn out in a matter of months.
Finding balance takes time and effort, but it’s doable.
“It’s all about being intentional with your time and goals,” says Hill.
“Decide what your ideal work-life balance looks like, whether it’s working 60 hours a week to reach big money goals or working only during school hours – like me – so you can be free for your family when they’re home. Once you know this, you can start prioritising the right steps to take you there.”
To reach her personal goal of working only four days per week, Hill reduced the number of projects she accepts. Fitting work in around family sometimes means working in her car while her kids are at dance or baseball, which is another point that freelancers should keep in mind – your office can be anywhere, at any time. It’s important to compartmentalise, however, so that your work and life don’t bleed into each other too much.
Marketing: how to get freelance jobs
“There are two main pillars of freelance marketing: credibility and visibility,” says Hill.
“When you have a solid grasp of both of these things, marketing becomes easier. A portfolio, bylines, and online reviews will help your credibility. Combine these things with a website, social presence, and in-person events to boost your visibility.”
No matter how hard or smart you work, however, don’t expect overnight results.
“Focus on being out there and letting people know what you can do. And, most importantly, be patient,” says Daniel.
Cold calls and emails
“I come from a sales background where I had to do cold calls on a daily basis and meet potential clients every day,” says Daniel. “Knowing that before becoming a freelancer made me understand that not everyone that I meet might be a client, but the most important thing was to put myself out there.”
Though many freelance professionals can, and do, forge careers without ever meeting their clients, in many cases it’s a good idea to convert that initial outreach into a face-to-face meeting.
“In the first year, I would have three to four meetings a day with different companies, professionals and influencers just to get to know them and soft-pitch my service to them, to keep me in mind if ever they need any of these services,” says Daniel.
“I started going to local events: restaurant openings, networking events, Business Network International meetings and more,” says Daniel. “By being out there, my phone started ringing and I started getting clients.”
Those based outside of London may find this more difficult, as the majority of events take place in the capital. In this case, be selective about the events you do attend, so that the money spent on accommodation and transport is worth it. Attend online events and get active on social media.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is another important way to grow your client base.
“Informational blog posts that serve my clients well and proper keywording structure on my website mean that a good portion of my clients find me on Google,” says Shannon.
Word of mouth
Fancy digital marketing techniques are all very well, but our experts agreed that the most old-school technique was also the most effective.
“Word of mouth has always been essential for me: from reaching out to friends to referrals from past clients or other vendors I’ve worked with,” says Samantha Shannon. “The key for me has been to focus on connection and serving my clients so that referrals happen naturally.”
“I delivered the best service – basically exceeding the customer’s expectations – and the referrals started coming,” says Daniel.
“It’s been five years in the industry now and I haven’t done a cold call or email in the past three years – I generate lots of business because of the work I did five years ago, as well as keeping a good relationship with those clients.”
How to handle your first freelance jobs
You’ve got your first commission – now what? According to our experts, there are several things you can do to make your first freelance jobs pain-free.
Always have a contract
“Before using contracts for my clients, I was at their mercy: they could cancel me anytime,” says Steve Daniel.
“However, since I started using contracts where I would ask for a deposit, a set number of months for the service and a clear understanding of expenses, I started to build my financial stability and was able to focus on the process of being a creative over thinking about how I will pay my bills.”
How to spot (and deal with) difficult clients
Difficult clients are a drain on your time, income and mental health, so it’s important to know the tell-tale signs.
“Similar to dangerous animals in the wild, difficult clients usually bear their own stripes, colours, or spots that tell you to proceed with caution,” says Alli Hill.
“Some red flags I look for are: long lists of demands, negotiating discounts even before they learn the price, micromanagement before you start working together, offering you a rate before you tell them your rate, and persistent messages that go beyond normal follow-up.”
Even clients who were initially easy to work with can become more demanding over time – a phenomenon known as ‘scope creep.’ The great thing about going freelance, however, is that you can fire your clients – just make sure they don’t realise that’s what you’re doing.
“If you end up with a difficult client and want to cut them loose, make it look like you’re doing them a favour,” says Hill.
“Tell them you don’t feel you’re the best fit for what they need and want to free up their time and budget to find someone who is better suited for them.”
Finding financial stability as a freelancer
“Financial stability is the hardest thing to achieve as a freelancer,” says Daniel. “One of my good friends – another freelancer – told me that when you start working for yourself you will always feel the pressure of money on your shoulders. He was right, but it took me three years to finally ‘get it’.”
For reasons not entirely clear, three years is the period of time most often cited by creative freelancers as the time taken to reach financial stability and earn at least as much as they were earning in their ‘corporate’ job. It may take a little less time if you already have connections and capital, or a little more if you’re dealing with family responsibilities or, say, a global pandemic – but in general, it’s a healthy target to aim for. It’s close enough to apply some pressure, but not so close that you feel guilty for not making millions in your first week.
The no.1 factor in freelance financial success
Financially independent freelancers – the ones that bring in a reliable income year after year without reliance on a part-time job, wealthy spouse or trust fund – all have one thing in common, and that’s recurring work.
Recurring work is any work that consistently comes in every month or year, without you needing to do any marketing to get it. In addition, it pays you at least enough to cover all of your basic needs: rent, bills and food. Without recurring income, there will always be an edge of desperation to your work and marketing efforts, which will hamper your creativity and prevent you from fulfilling your potential. Worse, it may force you to accept work from low-paying clients “just to pay the bills.” Over time, this can do lasting damage to your mental health.
Recurring work will look different depending on your chosen field. For journalists, it could be a monthly column in a magazine. For content creators, it could be weekly blogs or twice-daily social posts for a corporate client. Photographers can aim for a retainer with an events company or newspaper. Crafters should scout out yearly festivals and expos.
“My work is seasonal, with about two months that are usually much slower,” says Samantha Shannon. “The first few years this sent me into a panic, but now I’m able to plan ahead since I’m expecting it.”
Personal finance types often extol the virtues of keeping an emergency fund – a cash amount, preferably in a separate bank account, equivalent to three to six months’ basic living expenses. This is sound financial advice for anyone – but if you want to go freelance, it’s critical.
“There are always going to be ups and downs, so it’s smart to have savings built up to cover your business and personal expenses in slower times,” says Shannon.
Diligent record-keeping will also help with this.
“I noticed that for a while, January and February were my hardest months because most of my clientele were restaurants and their marketing budget was low during these months,” says Daniel. “So what I did was to make sure I could boost my sales in the month prior and then take ‘vacations’ in February.”
If you’re considering launching a creative freelancing career, you’re in good hands. FutureLearn has a range of courses that will give you the skills you need to flourish in a range of careers, including journalism and photography. We also cover business essentials such as online marketing and budgeting.
For a complete guide to freelancing, our The Freelance Bible: How to Be a Freelancer in Any Industry course by Mission Accomplished is a perfect choice.
Freelancing is hard – but it’s worth it in the end.
“Being a freelancer means that you are actually going to work for your dream – so enjoy the journey,” says Steve Daniel.
“There will be ups and downs, but understand that all the work you are doing right now will pay off. Don’t give up. Oh, and have a good accountant!”