Forging my own path - freelancing instead of a day job!
August 8, 2014 7:08 AM   Subscribe

After starting a new office job, I've realised the large office work environment really isn't for me. I'm finding 9-5 work with a long commute at either end of the day stressful, unfulfilling and unsatisfying. I'd like to use the talents and skills I've developed over a varied career in media and IT to go freelance, and create a sustainable life for myself rather than hopping from job-to-job. Where can I go to make this happen for myself - particularly in my key skill areas of copywriting and IT work - and what should I know before and after taking the plunge? I'm in the UK.

Basically, I think I'd like to shift away from standard-hours office work and go freelance, picking up work where I can and working for various different people rather than one employer. (Initially, I think I'd be looking to work part-time and freelance the rest of the time.) There are a number of reasons for wanting to make this change, not least that I'm just not suited to this kind of work. It's not an environment I can see myself thriving in, or even tolerating for much longer. I'm a talented person, but I am not ambitious in the sense of 'rising through the company / up the career ladder,' I just want to do as good a job for people as I can.

To me, 9-5 office work feels like something of an artifice. I'm really tired of coming into an office first thing in the morning and trying to fill my day with something that feels like productive work - there just isn't enough work to do in each day. It seems really, really inefficient. People seem to spend their days talking about work, building little empires within the company, playing politics, organising each other, engaging in conflicts, having meetings and generally doing just about everything except work. People seem to compete in order to simply try and keep their job, their power, their responsibilities, their team in order to climb the ladder and earn more money. This might be a good life for some people and I'm judging no-one, but I know it's not for me. I want to be paid for the work I do, not by the hours I happen to spend sitting in a certain room, trying to fill time. I am exhausted, from doing nothing.

I've always been a really independent-minded person (to the point where I actively resist any attempt to control where I am, what I do, how I live) and I feel that I'd do a lot better as a person in an environment I create myself, rather than one that's created around me like a company. I don't feel like this is an environment that's particularly conducive to me becoming a successful, fulfilled person in my personal or professional life - I just about tolerate office life, but that's it. This is something I want to do at this stage of my life rather than waiting as right now, I don't have any dependents, no partner or kids, I live a relatively cheap lifestyle in a low-cost area and I'm debt-free. On the negative side, I have no financial support (eg. from a partner) while I get on my feet and my savings are fairly paltry.

I've done a lot of thinking about the pros and cons, and here's what I've come up with already on the positive side:
- Lack of reliance on one employer for everything; in the past when an employer has gone bust or let me go, it's been a financial disaster. If I'm working freelance for a few different people, it's less of a crisis
- Being busier! If I'm working for myself, I'm going to have a lot more work to do, and it's going to be a lot more varied. I like being busy.
- Having time to do non-work things. I'm not talking days at the beach, but more along the lines of training and educational opportunities that I don't have when I'm spending all day at the office. Long-term I want to re-train as a nursery teacher or similar, and I don't have that opportunity right now as I spend every day sitting in an office.
- I'm not on the gender binary, and most conventional office workplaces aren't conducive to this, particularly where I live; working for myself would give me a bit more freedom in that respect

But on the negative side:
- No work equals no money! At least now, when my employer is going through a fallow period, I'm still getting a salary.
- Networking and contacts are not my strong suit; I'm a friendly and professional person, but not great at business-style networking, 'selling myself,' 'personal branding' and similar.
- Tax and insurance and other financial stuff. In the UK, if you work for an employer your taxes are done for you. However, there are no problems with health insurance as we have national healthcare.

So, to my actual question! There are a number of things I've done in my career that I think would make potentially sustainable freelance work. Before I started this job, I spent ten years in local/regional radio where one of the things I enjoyed most was copywriting for adverts, promos, news, features and so on. Where could a copywriter with some experience go to find a bit of freelance copywriting work online (in the UK)? The other thing I have marketable skills in (but don't enjoy so much) is IT work, particularly Linux administration. That's what I do now for a job, and I'm good at it but not especially passionate about it. But if it pays the bills and I am actually doing Linux administration work rather than sitting on MeFi and avoiding office politics, then I'd like to! So again, where would I look to find that sort of work that I can do on a contract/freelance basis?

The world is full of people who have forged their own path in life rather than following the well-trodden road of school, university, career. I'm inspired and encouraged by the stories of those who work and live for themselves, not to get rich, but to form a fulfilling and happy life for themselves. I know I can't keep living like I am, deeply unhappily, and I know where I want to be in five years' time. Help me get there, MeFi!
posted by winterhill to Work & Money (5 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in the U.S., so I don't know how relevant my experience is, but want to suggest considering an alternative: Working remotely, full-time, for an employer. I've done this and in addition to solving the commute problem, obviously, it can also help you avoid sitting around at your desk pretending to be busy when your work is done. Though you can never predict when a company might downsize, on the whole, I think it's much more predictably stable than freelancing.

I freelance now, though for a steady full-time client at the moment (and indefinitely). Looking for freelance clients can be extremely stressful. If you do go down this path, I would attempt testing it out by trying to find a project you could work on on weekends while you still have your current job. You'll get a better sense of a) how hard it is to find clients and b) what the work might be like. You mention wanting to have free time to do other things, like school. This will really vary depending on your situation. If you're struggling to find jobs, or trying to juggle several projects at once, it can be really mentally draining--making it hard to have the energy to do other things. You also have to be very disciplined about managing your time, because it's easier to end up procrastinating and letting work hours bleed into your "free" time.

Also, you might consider just looking for a different 9-5 that has a shorter commute and a different office culture. Office politics really can vary widely, and I would think it wouldn't be that hard to find a job that does keep you busy with actual work throughout the day.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:43 AM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just start putting the word out. And if your taxes are complicated, either it will keep you busy til you figure it out or you can hire an accountant.

You can do it and it sounds like a great idea for you!
posted by aniola at 9:44 AM on August 8, 2014

I have recently incorporated my freelance consulting business in the US, so some of what I can offer under the guise of advice may only superficially be of help, but can at least show you some of the things to be aware of in your endeavor.

Here are some key point I wish someone had explained to me before I began this journey:

The rate your business will charge a client will, in no way, reflect the rate you actually get paid.

Your business has many expenses involved in a contract; not just what you personally make, but other, less sexy tasks also have an effect on *your* costs. This will vary from contract to contract, but is always a factor and affects what rate of pay you actually "see" at the end of your day. I find my only real stumbling block thus far has been forgetting to factor in the cost some of my administrative tasks. Everything you do in the pursuit of your contract has a cost; some you will have to pay, others are meant to be part of the "value" placed on the end product and as such should be calculated into your invoice.

Be prepared for some "lean" time between contracts.

When you first start out in business, unless you are very lucky, you won't have 40+ hours of working directly for clients every week. Be thankful, you have other task that take up some of your time. Occasionally, the start of one contract will nicely coincide with the end of the prior commitment; this is not to be expected and before going completely solo, you should have some buffer of funds to cover your expense during these slow times. I started out without that safety net and it caused me some consternation when negotiations ran long on the next project.

Organization and time management is one of many keys to success in business.

I highly recommend investing time in testing out project manager applications to find one that fits your needs. There are many available and some are actually free to use for single person organizations. I find that my choices there saved me, on average, ~5 hours a week in productivity since I now longer had to think about my next task. Efficiency makes the hours you work worth more in the end.

Most importantly, enjoy what you are doing.

I hope this data helps you in some small way.
posted by schade at 10:09 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

The way that you feel about a workplace aka cubeville, I could have written word for word. I don't think I realized how bad that type of environment is/was until I left it.

Some of your questions.

Where could a copywriter with some experience go to find a bit of freelance copywriting work online (in the UK)? So again, where would I look to find that sort of work that I can do on a contract/freelance basis?

So I am a freelancer and have been doing this for 5 years now. I can't speak specifically to your industry, but this is how I found clients over the years.I am typing this out because I am assuming/hope at least one or a a few of these things will translate to your business:

• Contact your former coworkers who work with or have worked with freelancers. I did this with general queries about pay range, etc., but I was surprised that as soon as I told someone that I was considering freelancing, they promised (and subsequently gave me) tons of work.

• Contact companies directly, phone or email or whatever works for you. So I found a PDF with a list of companies in my industry. I sent of brief emails (a few sentences/bullets max) explaining who you are and what you do. This usually = work immediately to a few years later. There are many places that you can find lists.If a google search doesn't work for you, check out linkedin (and search types of companies, or where people go to and come from), or business libraries even publish lists with tons of contact info.

• You keep on getting work from the same clients that like you and mutually, you like. To be honest, if you have a few clients and they like your work? IT is a company? They can keep you very, very busy. Some of my clients I have had for years. Even if people leave a company, they can find you when they go to a new company.

• LinkedIn. I cannot stress how much has come through this over the yrs. Make it detailed and list your unique skills and the types of projects you take on.Put contact info in so that they can easily find you (I put a link to my web page).

To be honest, I rarely look for work at this point and when I did, it was a week or a few days of sending out emails.

My one big suggestion for you is to find a niche that other people can't grab without training or something additional. I don't know your industry, but if there are billions of copywriters, then it will be challenging. However, maybe there is another niche within there (ie, combine it with technical writing if it combines)? Again, I don't know your industry, but the reason LinkedIn works for me is someone searches certain specialties and only a few people come back on that list. So find a niche that you can own and a limited number of people will grab. The more work you get in this area, the more specialization =even more work.

In regards to some of your reservations:

Networking and contacts are not my strong suit.

Experiment and see what works for your skill set and your industry, but this might not matter. I am horrible at networking, small talk, etc. But I get work, and sometimes, more than I can handle. Over the years I have talked to other people who are successfully freelancing, and they have reported different ways of getting clients. Some people are great with writing blog posts and attract their type of clients; other people might write an article for a publication that their clients might read, and that generates work. Other people are great at gabbing on the phone, so they call companies = work. Do what works for your personality and as long as you have clients, work, it doesn't matter.

In my experience, this has been hard to achieve, although I had the same vision when I started:

- Having time to do non-work things. I'm not talking days at the beach, but more along the lines of training and educational opportunities that I don't have when I'm spending all day at the office. Long-term I want to re-train as a nursery teacher or similar, and I don't have that opportunity right now as I spend every day sitting in an office.

You know how some of the busy work drives you crazy? So a typical cubefarm = 10 hours of meeting, 4 hours waiting for things that you need,5 hour =?? and 10 hours for the actual task, due 3 weeks later.

If you freelance, and charge a normal rate and/or hourly, all the filler stuff is gone. So you will do the 10 hour task(all the other stuff/hours are gone) and it might be due 3 days from now (because no one at the company looked at it, until now, in fact, it might be due tomorrow). So you will have constant work and I would say the more challenging stuff, with tight deadlines. Constantly. Now I like and wanted the more challenging work (I also request types of projects), but ...I find it more tiring in some ways if it makes sense. Maybe if I put this in different words-I find it more intellectually challenging on a daily basis, but that makes reading other material tiring or other (going deep deep deep into topic X) tiring. It might be the type of work that I do. But I don't have the energy/time to do all the other stuff. But this might just be my experience. Before I forget, you don't have to socialize for pointless reasons at a workplace, so I do have more energy for that now. Maybe what I am trying to say is you will still be working, and it might be hard to predict how much and what type of energy you will have for other tasks.

You were not asking our experiences/would we do this again, but ... I jumped ship (quit a job with one client lined up) and figured that it would be more efficient, as in there would be a fire underneath me to get clients.

Highs and lows but I find it ten times better than the work environment that you describe, but that's me, I think some people prefer the cube or a fulltime job, or even socializing -I don't think you will know what you prefer until you try.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 10:40 AM on August 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Something to consider is that finding work can also be a job in itself!

I wonder if you might consider a half-way approach in the beginning maybe picking up a regular part time job and then supplementing it with freelance stuff on the other end?

Even if office life isn't your cup of tea, limiting your exposure to office politics might make it a lot more bearable , and give you the structure and security to be able to take on freelance projects that really interest you rather than anything that pays the bills.
posted by Middlemarch at 10:38 PM on August 8, 2014

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