We spend so much of our time at work and to feel fulfilled, challenged and satisfied is all to often an aspiration that we don’t achieve. We all have other interests we enjoy and even the pipe dream of turning those into a full time career. But what is the reality of doing that? Is it achievable? Does the dream match the reality and how do you start to get there?
I asked my good friend and occasional collaborator Becky Dixon who has built her business from scratch how she had gone about doing this.
“If you had told me, when I was 8 years old, that my penchant for making up radio plays on my Fisher Price tape deck, complete with dubious accents and hand made puppets could possibly lead me towards a freelance career as a storyteller and music workshop leader, I would have given you a pretty hearty dose of the withering look I was also perfecting at that age. The only jobs I really knew existed were teacher, lawyer, doctor and something mysterious ‘in an office’ (presumably shuffling bits of paper around) and everyone in my family seemed to have sensible, solid careers, so freelancing was never even on the agenda, and creative hobbies were just that, hobbies to be done on the side of work.
So, that I now spend my days lugging my cello around London and telling stories and singing songs for a living, often spending my weekends dressed as a pirate leading story trails around SE London community gardens was not a career direction I ever had mapped out… But these days I run my own small business leading story and music classes for little folk in my home area of SE London, and also freelance for various arts organisations and arts venues in London telling stories, and after gradually gently dipping my feet into the freelance world, I have been doing this for the past three years.
The experience has been great. Terrifying, exhausting and frustrating, but mainly, one of the best decisions I’ve made. In the past year or so, I’ve had hundreds of children bopping along in the foyers at the Royal Festival Hall as I’ve played my ukulele and sang, I’ve had a commission to write a new story about dragonflies to tell in a yurt on a nature reserve, I’ve set up indiepop discos for babies and I’ve written and performed ditties on the cello about misunderstand dragons and slightly camp wolves, and all in the name of earning a crust. The freelance life also means I can pick my hours (particularly useful fitting around my little folk), and I have a very mobile office – today I’m working in the park café overlooking the sun dappled grass. But I have never worked harder, longer or more intensively. Freelancing may look like copious amounts of fancy coffee, lie-ins, flexible hours to work around childcare, and perfectly rose-tinted Instagram feeds, but it’s also working on risk assessments and accounts until 2 in the morning once the kids are asleep. Rather than spending my days writing new feminist fairy tales and perfecting the Bach suites on the cello, more time has been spent becoming a marketeer, a graphic designer, a book-keeper and more. It also means constantly being on the look-out for work, working through illnesses and never really entirely turning off the emails and the work brain. So if you’re thinking about becoming freelance, know this: if you are doing something you love, it is undoubtedly the most fulfilling way to spend your working life, BUT it is all-consuming, exhausting and requires more organisation and resilience than I could ever have imagined!
I’m often asked what inspired me to take the plunge, and how did I prepare for it? Rather than a ‘lightening bolt’ moment of suddenly deciding to quit daily grind, it was a gradual process for me, of easing out of my very lovely job and gradually laying the groundwork for leading workshops rather than managing them. I had an interesting job helping run music education projects for the BBC, but I to become more senior in the job, meant going further up the management ladder, and what I liked doing was the practical side of the job getting down on my knees running workshops, talking to families and making music. When a (rare) job vacancy came up at promotion level, more senior, better pay but more management, which I wouldn’t be able to make work with the flexible working pattern I had at the time, it was clear, if I wasn’t going to apply for this, I never would, therefore this was the the time to quit and do the freelance thing full time.”
My top four tips for going freelance are:
1. Get the skills
Sounds ridiculously obvious, but if you’re going straight into your new freelance life and need to get the pennies rolling it, you need to be good at what you’re doing, and, possibly even harder for Brits like me, you need to be confident in telling other people that you’re good at it! If possible, whilst you’re doing your job or training before you transition into freelance work, get all as ready as you can be. I managed to negotiate an 85% contract so I could have Mondays off to do a course in workshop leading. I put myself forward to lead sessions where possible (not strictly part of my job description), and when a new colleague and I clicked and found that we had similar aspirations and worked well together we took the plunge and set up our own one-off test workshop as freelancers. You may be able to afford some time off between jobs to do this, but if you don’t, there will be a period inevitably when you’re doing two jobs at once!
2. Get the paperwork in order and know your financial plan
Lord, it’s dull, but living with a more unpredictable income (at least initially) takes a huge amount of organisation, and if you’re not on top of your paperwork whilst it comes in, it can be a nightmare. I say this from the bleak experience of being up until 3 in the morning every night for a fortnight, weeping over receipts trying to get my accounts ready for a mortgage application. I wasted hours trying to backtrack over my accounts, so don’t make my mistake! Keep on top of stuff, filing your receipts by month, getting organised and keeping track, even when it’s just the first few gigs rolling in.
3. Know your market, and remember that good work will lead to more work
Every blog post on this topic will come to ‘go to networking events’. But, god, it’s true, there is some hustling for work, and you have to learn to ’sell yourself’. This said, though, whilst I’ve nervously sipped warm wine and plastered on a smile at creative industry networking events, I can say hand on heart, I’ve never directly gotten a job this way, probably because I end up wittering about cacti and shoe sizes, rather than brandishing business cards and elevator pitches, I am not your girl for networking event advice. *BUT* I know I’m best when I can get people to see me work, and so I’ve gotten jobs through inviting people along to see my sessions, through remembering people’s names and through sending speculative emails.
Once you have a job with someone, you need to make sure they book you again. Obviously, back to point one, be good at what you do, but also, as someone who used to be the administrative assistant at events with freelancers leading, turning up on time and planning things in advance will get you hired again (and, in my industry at least, whilst you may be trying to impress the bigwig top folk at organisations, it’s often the administrative assistants who you’re loading up with last minute photocopying and cups of coffee requests who have a lot of influence over future hiring decisions)
4. Find some friends and colleagues
If you’re in full-time work, you probably spend more time with your colleagues than your loved ones! They’ll be the folk you often have birthday drinks with and the people you share your Monday moans and celebrate work highs. I was lucky as I had an amazing business partner and friend, so when I took the freelance plunge, she and I went straight into working together. When the partnership split due to her move up North, I realised I had to do some work to make sure I had human contact… Seek out other freelancers to work alongside on your laptops, go to training events and co-plan projects with other people. Finding a working network is really vital to bounce ideas off, celebrate successes, chew over issues and also to chat nothing sometimes!
There’s much more I could say, but good luck if you’re thinking of freelancing – yes, it’s tough, unpredictable and lonely. But it’s exciting, spontaneous, exhilarating and wonderful too. I reckon it would have to be some job to lure me back away again!
About the author
Becky Dixon is an entrepreneur and professional storyteller. She setup her business Nimble Tots, a creative music and storytelling organisation running imaginative, arts lead workshops for 0-5s and their parents and carers in 2013. She and her team run regular classes,workshops, parties and events.