Saturday, July 16th, 2016
This is very much one of those self-reflective thought pieces about making the jump to work for yourself, which are admittedly quite common online. Nevertheless, even if my experiences and thoughts help convince one person on the edge of making the figurative jump, then it’ll be worth having written. There’s a great deal I’ve learnt in the past year, and simply writing everything down is also going to help me reflect on where I was at the beginning, where I am now, and importantly where I want to be. So in short, sorry for the 1st person rambling narrative style.
Let’s go back a bit
So to start off, I’ve always imagined and fantasised about working for myself or running a business. Whether that’s creating ‘clothing brands’ and t-shirt designs to sell in my early days, or concepting ideas for products, services or apps which could become full-time ventures. Regardless of the avenue, I’ve always seeked to have a bit more control of my life and ultimately destiny… which is somewhat at odds with my personality.
Being an introvert, who is somewhat shy, I’ve usually found comfort in letting others lead and have the final say. I’ve always enjoyed small group discussions about design problems, where everyone has an equal voice and a solution is worked out together, but would rarely want to lead. Never lacking for something intelligent to contribute, I simply didn’t like the attention it would bring, and the pressure/stress of being decisive.
For most of my working life as a designer I was happy with the above, and the grand plan of working for myself was relegated to spare time and fate. However, upon working for McCann Birmingham, I found myself feeling like a cog in a very big machine, and almost immediately felt like something was wrong. Happiness is something you don’t always realise you have until you lose it, and whilst there was a lot to like about the opportunities McCann presented, for me personally the drawbacks forced my hand.
No more excuses. No more ‘what ifs’. No more thinking a side project would naturally result in me leading my own destiny by chance. This was my time to make the jump, face my fears and battle against my nature to become a lean mean (cliché writing) self-employed machine.
No commuting (car or train)
While it may seem trivial, not having to commute to a place of work is incredibly liberating. There’s zero stress in the morning, and you can take your time knowing it doesn’t matter when you do start work. And when you do, you feel more focussed and ready than if you’d sat in traffic for an hour worrying about not being at your desk for 9.00am.
Choosing when, how and where you work means that side of your time fits in around the rest of your life, and not the other way around. Work on a project when you feel creative, and more robotic tasks and jobs when you don’t, opposed to forcing an idea because it’s booked in for the afternoon on a particular day. More mundane tasks like getting a Doctor’s appointment, being at home for a delivery and simply doing the washing or preparing a dinner are also much easier and leave your free time as free as possible.
Mood & happiness
Both the above points have resulted in me being a great deal more positive in life, and moaning about work considerably less. This on the whole has contributed to me feeling happier and more content with life, and I constantly remind myself how lucky I am to be in the position I am.
Working directly with clients
During my years working for design agencies I’ve experienced everything from directly speaking to a client, to everything being abstracted via 2 levels of management. Needless to say, I feel the latter is counter-productive to the design process, and simply being able to talk to people about their aims, motivations and thoughts is both beneficial to project processes but also immensely rewarding personally.
Life skills and challenging myself
With the added responsibilities of seeking, managing and completing work, I’ve found myself growing as a person in both the professional and personal senses. Things which used to scare me no longer give me the same level of fear, and I’ve naturally become more confident when talking about projects.
Whilst my skillset is limited, and I have contracted friends to assist with certain tasks/roles, I’ve had to push myself to learn more and try things myself. It’s not always successful, and may take me longer (in my own time), but when I do grasp something new instead of relying on others, It’s a euphoric feeling.
Taking 6 weeks off for a South East Asia adventure
I’m not sure this would have been possible during my time at McCann, and potentially possible at Substrakt, but being able to do this on my own terms is a luxury most don’t have for the fear of losing their ‘secure’ job. Why put off adventures until you’re too old to appreciate them?
Freedom, what freedom…
Despite my early intentions, I haven’t taken advantage of my new found freedoms as fully as I could. There have been times where I’ve taken days or half days off spontaneously, but for the majority of the time I feel a gravitational like pull to my laptop and work space.
They’ve become the norm for me sadly, and I find it difficult to stop working. I rationalise it as being a choice, and that it benefits me in the long run as I continue to build my business. I tell myself that if I work overtime or a day on the weekend I’ll take some time off in the week, but I never do due to a perverse avoidance of not working. Writing lists have helped me manage my day and feel accomplished at the end, but I tend to keep adding to it throughout the day which in-turn leads to overwork.
Difficult to switch off from work
Whilst being able to discuss and work on a project at any time is an advantage, it does mean the line between work and relaxation is difficult to see. When checking emails on your phone becomes almost second nature, any time spent not working can easily and instantly be effected by an email. Even when I choose not to check emails, it doesn’t take much for a project to start circling the ol’ brain space, which in turn can effect mood and ruin the point of relaxation.
Money money money moneyyy
Whilst being successful in my first year, I still worry about my income, and as a result feel compelled to hoard my earnings incase I have a bad month (or 6). It’s hard not to worry about money initially when you’ve been used to a solid salary every month, knowing what to spend, and what to save. But adapting to a life of no guarantees, invoice terms, project delays and non-consistent cash flow is hard. You know it’ll be alright eventually, but it is difficult to adapt to varied income month to month.
How was your weekend?
I miss the casual social interactions of an office environment, and occasional spontaneous post-work drinks and get togethers. I thankfully often work with my partner Lisa, so I’m not totally devoid of chit chat and ‘bants’, but it is something I miss and want to address somehow going forward.
Things to know before you jump
Plan, what plan?
Many in ‘business’ will advise you to have a plan. Plans are redundant as soon as you’ve finished them and they’re based on guesses and variables which could change at any time. Opposed to a plan, just write down why you want to work for yourself, and the approach you’ll take to ensure people will want to pay you to do it.
Get used to being comfortable with money
Spending money is easy, but charging people and businesses, and talking about it isn’t. Being English, these opinions may be somewhat localised, but initially it’s not easy to charge honestly for your time, or to simply say how much something is and why. It may take time, but you’ll want to get comfortable with this as quickly as possible, as it’ll only cause problems in the short-term when you’re over-worked and underpaid, and the long-term when you get referrals based on your price, not your work.
Initiating my own projects and freelancing on the side has been a way of life since 6th form (college), so motivating myself and being strict about deliverables and productivity comes easy. However, I appreciate this isn’t true for everyone, so maybe question how badly you want to work for yourself, and if you think you can keep yourself motivated with the absence of a manager or boss. It’s not hard by any stretch of the imagination and anything can really work, but it’s not for everyone.
Your network is your business
Doing great work and caring about what you do sadly isn’t enough, as that work’s got to land in your inbox from somewhere. Thankfully for me in my first year the vast majority has come via referrals from my network of friends and peers who’ve either worked with me in the past, or know I can be trusted to assist their client or contact with their project. Send work both ways where possible and try to grow your network naturally to increase your reach.
Take responsibility (for everything)
Working for yourself means there’s no one else to blame for problems, and even if there is, you should probably take the heat anyway. It teaches you to act and work in a responsible manner, and knowing that everything lands at your feet keeps you in check.
You’ll be sat down a lot more probably, and you may prioritise exercise less, but the last thing you want to become is a fleshy blob attatched to a desk and display. Whether it’s taking regular breaks to go for a short walk during work, or longer ones before or after, it’ll help you feel better and stay healthy. I personally find running 3-5 times a week is beneficial to my stress levels and general mood. On runs I reflect on situations and problems, and always feel better after than I did before I threw on my gear and pulled myself onto the streets.
Where you’re going to work
You don’t need to have your own studio or desk space arranged for the day you start, as initially you may want to just see how you work from home or coffee shops etc. But wherever this is, you’ll at least want to consider it all beforehand. My partner Lisa and I share our spare room in our spacious apartment, which is well-lit with floor to ceiling windows, and has 2 expansive and open views, which I find improves mood and helps avoid the trap of an artificially lit box room.
Now I feel somewhat established, and my network of friends and contacts is growing, I need to focus on longer-term goals, as well as these immediate short-term improvements to my working life:
- Take more time off when I have a quiet day
- Feel comfortable with procrastination and developing skills (on ‘work time’)
- Stop checking my emails so much, and don’t read them after 6pm
- Work on my own projects more, and as a priority
- Always go with my gut instinct (it’s been right every time so far)
- Work away from my desk more often
- Meditate more before, during and after work.
- Simply be better at self-promotion, as currently I’m abysmal on social channels and don’t have a portfolio (I’m the worst…)
Beyond the next few months, and after a big holiday in November, I want to reassess my approach, process and ask myself some difficult questions and make sure I’m heading in the right direction for the future.
Wrapping things up with a quote…
Freedom lies in being bold.
– Robert Frost
Further reading and the tools I use
As I mentioned in the first chapter, there are quite a few other individuals who have written detailed blog posts/articles on this subject, and all better structured and written than the one you’ve just read.
- 3 years of freelance – By Jack Smith
- A dreamers guide to going freelance – By Lisa Barrett
- The perils of being self employed and working from home – Nate otto
- False realities of being self-employed – Eunice Chen
Doing my job wouldn’t be possible without the following tools, and whilst I’d always recommend looking around for whatever suits you best, I’d personally recommend each and everyone of these.
- FreeAgent – Accounting software (Use my referral link and we’ll both get 10% off)
- A real flesh and blood human accountant – Their advice & service will save time and money.
- InVision – For prototyping, collaborating and presenting work to clients
- Trello – Keeping track of tasks and project development
- Sketch – UI focussed vector based design app (MacOS)
- Pens & paper – Can’t beat the inviting, non-judgment allure of a blank layout pad and a chunky pen.
- Slack – This helps alleviate social isolation, and it’s something I plan to use more