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10 steps to take starting out as a freelancer

24th April 2019

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For the first part of our freelancer series, Charlotte Lorimer, who has recently become a freelance writer herself, spoke to Starling business customer Olly Browning about his freelance career and advice.


Going freelance means taking a leap. For creative freelancer Olly Browning, 22, the most important thing is having conviction in your work and believing in yourself. “As a freelancer, you’re really vulnerable. You’re putting a price on yourself. The leap is having faith in that price,” he says.

Not many 22-year-olds have the confidence or the skills to go freelance, but Olly has five years experience in the industry. When he finished school in 2014, he went straight into job at a marketing and advertising agency in Guernsey, where he grew up. He later moved to work for a creative agency in London. Last year he felt ready to set up his own creative agency, Mighty Oak. “I felt like I was a Jack of all trades, master of none - I could do a bit of design, video editing, campaign ideas, copy,” he says. “But then I thought, maybe that’s a service?”

Olly smiles against a grey background, in a marl blue tshirt.
Olly Browning, founder of creative agency Mighty Oak
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Decide between setting up as a sole trader or limited company

One of the first freelance decisions to make is whether you operate as a sole trader or as a limited company.

As a sole trader, you have to register for a self-assessment tax return and present your income, expenditure and profits. You’ll pay National Insurance contributions and Personal Income tax on anything over the tax free allowance of £11,850 (as of 2018/2019). A benefit of being a sole trader is that you generally have less paperwork, but once you’re turning over a certain amount, you may pay more tax than limited companies.

For limited companies, you’ll need to register with Companies House and any money withdrawn from the company must be formally recorded as a salary, dividend or loan. You’ll pay corporation tax on taxable profits. If you have personal assets, such as property, a benefit of being a limited company is that your personal assets are protected against company debts, which is not the case for sole traders. Something else to consider is that some of your potential clients may have a policy of working with limited companies only, not sole traders. It’s worth doing your research before deciding which option is best for you.

“I set up as a company because I wanted to have a mission and a brand,” says Olly. “The name also meant a lot to me.” Mighty Oak comes from the phrase ’Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.’ “It’s a perfect reference to startups, as well as being an homage to my grandfather, who had a little boat called Acorn.”

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Apply for a business account

Olly uses Starling for both his personal and business banking. What he likes about the app is how intuitive it is: “You can answer most questions yourself. But the support is there when you need it.” He uses the Goals feature to set money aside from his main balance to help him budget and pays his salary with one tap in the app by transferring money into his Starling personal account.

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Set up regular work with clients and look for new projects

When Olly started Mighty Oak, he worked three days a week for the company he had previously worked for full-time. He therefore had regular, reliable income for the first year.

“It was smart to be more secure financially, but it had the side effect of making me more complacent. I didn’t really look for new clients hard enough, as luckily most clients came to me. The end of the year was a bit rocky when that work dried up. It was a good lesson in being aware of my workload and finances month to month.”

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Don’t say yes to everyone, stick to your vision

That said, Olly doesn’t want to take on every opportunity that comes his way. He wants to find work he will put his all into.

Earlier this year, when he didn’t have enough client work coming through Mighty Oak, he looked for gigs he could do as an individual through graphic design websites. He was reassured by the opportunities available but decided to buckle down and keep pitching through Mighty Oak, rather than as an individual. “I’m not going to let two rough months make me pack it all in or rest on my laurels.”

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Find your network

Working on your own isn’t easy but there are plenty of ways to connect with other freelancers through co-working spaces or online. Last year, he entered a competition run by shared workspace company The Office Group. He won a year’s worth of free co-working space to help grow his company alongside other young entrepreneurs. “I’ve also connected with a lot of people who work for themselves through Twitter, Slack channels, and creative communities like Glug and The Dots.”

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Ask for help

If you need help or advice, ask for it - that’s what your network is for, whether that’s your friends, family and other freelancers. “When you ask explicitly and honestly, people are often very willing to help you,” he says.

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Find your fee

Being a freelancer doesn’t mean working for free. “Everyone starts out too cheap,” says Olly. “There’s no right answer as to how much you should charge but if your rate is readily accepted, you perhaps should have charged more,” he says. “When I started, I thought I’d do a fixed day rate regardless of the client - whether a big corporate or a startup. I quickly realised that this wasn’t the best approach. Big clients often require more amends, and startups needed more time or support through the briefing process.” He now evaluates his rate depending on the size of the client and the type of work.

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Use digital tools

There are lots of websites and apps designed to help freelancers keep track of their time, projects and money. Olly uses the app Cushion to keep on top of project timelines and invoices. “It makes everything more visual, which is how I like to work. It also lets your clients pay by card - you lose a bit on fees but you’re more likely to be paid on time.”

Three iphones showing elements of the business account, and a Starling business card at the front.

If you have a Starling business account and use FreeAgent or Xero for your accounting, you can sync your bank feed with your accounting app through the Starling Marketplace.

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Know how and when you work best

One of the benefits of being a freelancer is the control you gain over your time. “I’m a night owl. I wake up late, safe in the knowledge that my best work comes later in the day, often at stupid times like when I’m in the shower.”

What motivates him throughout his working day is setting out one achievable thing he can tick off the to-do list. He also finds that having one or two meetings helps him to structure the rest of his time.

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Reflect on your achievements

Freelancing is full of highs and lows. What keeps Olly going is writing down what went well and what could be better. “I sit down and do a big list of good stuff and bad stuff,” he says.

When he looks through past work, it helps him recognise why he started Mighty Oak: “I’m good at this - this is what I do.”

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