Ellen Manning

What I’ve learned in six years of freelancing

Running your own business is a funny old thing. One minute you’re sat there on the first day, staring at a laptop wondering if going it alone will ever work. The next, years have passed and you’re still there, doing that thing of working for yourself.

That’s exactly what happened to me this week when it dawned on me that it’s exactly six years since I sat at my little desk at home feeling a bit vague and uncertain, a bit optimistic, but mainly very very frightened. Each time the date rolls round I think of that day. I wonder how on earth I have survived not one, but six, years (not forgetting a global pandemic). I wonder what the future holds, and I plan for what might come next.

This year I’m taking a moment not to look ahead, but to look back. To give myself a little pat on the back for making it this far – for growing my freelance hustle into a legit business, for surviving the downs as well as the ups (global pandemic included), and for all the little things from learning how to navigate spreadsheets to winning new clients, helping people pro bono despite being a micro-business myself, and hopefully doing what I do decently as well as effectively.

I don’t profess to know it all. Six years in I very much still feel like that first day. In fact, most Mondays I probably sit staring at my laptop in the same way I did on May 25th 2016. But I’ve learned a lot since then, so I’m sharing it as a little note to myself and as a vague bit of help to anyone in the same position. It’s not exhaustive – it’s just a few little things that spring to mind when I think over what’s happened in the time between then and now.

Trust your gut

It took me a long time to do this. We often think ‘business’ and ‘personal’ are different, but when you are your business the two are actually inextricably linked. I used to ignore my gut, thinking I was being too personal about things but ultimately if something – or someone – doesn’t feel right, then you don’t have to enter into a relationship with them, whether that’s a work relationship or something more personal. Both can be damaging, and sometimes when your gut tells you to steer clear, you should do just that.

You can work in whatever way you want

For me freelancing was always about flexibility., Yet very quickly I found myself worrying about what I ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be doing. Was I working too many days? Should I keep weekends scared and never work in them? Should I be at my desk fully dressed at 9am? Should I hire and office? Work in my home office? Work at the kitchen table? Should I buy airpods, business cards, do social media, have better branding? It’s neverending.

And the answer is that it really is up to you and that stuff changes as you go along. The way I work is in some ways hugely similar to that first week in 2016, but in others completely recognisable. But what I have learned is to do it on my terms. I work a lot – it’s my choice. I work evenings and weekends – again my choice. Sometimes I work in my office, sometimes the kitchen, sometimes the campervan. I have a virtual assistant, a business coach, a few social media accounts promoting my business. But they’re all things that I’ve added along the way.

You don’t have to do anything just because other people do it, and you also don’t have to do everything right now. Do it your way.

Collaboration is key, but it’s okay to be wary

As a one-man band, you just can’t be an island. It doesn’t work. Other people are your support network. That might be by helping you deliver projects that require their skills, or even just an extra pair of hands. It might be more personal. It might be through others recommending you. It might be the simple nuts and bolts stuff like getting a website built, or teaming up with other freelancers, or sharing tips. It’s the lifeblood of freelance life and of small business life and shouldn’t be ignored.

That said, you don’t have to dive in bed with people just because they offer their help, or because you happen to need them. Just like personal relationships, there’s no harm in taking it slow, doing a bit of due diligence, and being prepared to end things if it doesn’t work out. Some relationships will blossom and grow, others will be great for that particular project then you’ll both move on, and the occasional one will sour.

It’s never the end of the world, but it will remind you that people are people and not everything is a fairytale.

People will let you down, but that’s okay

Yep, there’s a running theme here. The world of business is not different to the world of personal stuff, because people are people. They’ll let you down, do you over, or just treat you a bit badly. They won’t mean to, and at times you’ll find you’ve done it to other people too without realising and that will then haunt you too. It’s not nice to go through but it’s the way it is. It never gets easy but you learn to deal with it.

There’s always more to learn

Trite, yes. But it seems to me people often forget this. You never know it all. And even if you know a bit, new stuff happens and things change and then you need to learn other stuff. Or you decide to do something different, or take your business in a new direction, so there’s a load more to learn there too.

If you’re selling a service, you should know your stuff. But there’s plenty of people out there who pretend they know more than they do. The key is recognising that you don’t know it all, but being prepared to learn it to make sure that you’re giving your clients what they’re paying for.

The ups really do tend to outweigh the downs

On a blue day it’s so easy to think you may have made a mistake. To focus on the unpaid invoices, the demanding clients, the challenging projects and the fact that someone bad-mouthed you or said something about you. But when you try to look at it objectively, you’ll see that the highs always trump the lows. So take a moment, think of the good stuff, and remind yourself that you did this for all the right reasons and yes, it is worth it.