Being your own boss, flexible working, varied projects: there are myriad benefits to freelancing. But then came Covid-19. While some freelancers worked throughout, others reported stiff competition, spare capacity and weaker earnings.
How should freelancers navigate these turbulent times, and prepare for the challenges and opportunities ahead, as the country reopens and recovers? Experts and self-employed veterans share their top tips.
Retaining and sourcing clients can be daunting – but it needn’t be. Word of mouth is invaluable. So work to the best of your abilities: be flexible, professional, personable and meet deadlines.
Nurture existing relationships, but regularly reach out to potential clients, even if work isn’t immediately available. Sign up with agencies, recruiters and sector-specific job sites. Ensure your details are up to date, and keep checking in.
“Keep your presence out there,” urges Julia Kermode, founder and chief executive of Independent Work (IWORK), an organisation for freelancers. “If you’ve pitched for business and didn’t get it, find out why and keep in touch. It only need be light touch – once a month or so – but it keeps you in the forefront of people’s minds.”
Networking worked well during the pandemic: professional bodies put on numerous online events, while technological innovations included audio app Clubhouse. Indeed, it worked so well that most agree online networking is here to stay (though as restrictions ease, don’t be afraid to ask to meet up in person).
Chloe Jepps, head of research at IPSE, says: “There are so many freelance communities online. They allow you to get to know the other freelancers working in your space; you need to make sure you’re meeting these people. Look for collaborations, and share work, if you’re busy or it’s not your speciality.”
Examples include Doing it for the kids, for freelance parents and Leapers, which provides mental health support for the self-employed. There are some great newsletters out there too, such as Anna Codrea-Rado’s Lance.
Use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram to build your profile. Tailor your output to your audience and engage. Look to showcase your skills; a blog if you’re a writer say, or publishing source code if you’re a developer. LinkedIn has a host of industry-specific groups: ensure you’re in ones that best apply to your field.
Regularly update your skillset, from keeping up-to-date with the latest sector-specific technology to responding to new challenges. Most television programmes now budget for a Covid supervisor, for example. “A huge percentage of people have done a Covid compliance course and can now put that on their CV,” says one TV producer who regularly hires freelancers.
“Freelancers are pretty bad at training,” concedes Chloe at IPSE. “They have to pay for it, and lose money from not working while they do it. But it’s important to develop existing skills and new ones to stay ahead of the competition.” Professional bodies, unions and e-learning providers offer a range of online training, from one-off webinars on niche subjects to industry-recognised qualifications.
Organisation and resources
IWORK’s Julia recommends setting aside an hour every week to deal with admin. “There are also lots of tech and tools out there that you can use,” she adds. These include bookkeeping tools such as Starling’s Business Toolkit.
Unions can also help. The National Union of Journalists, for example, offers financial and legal advice for members. Spokesperson Frances Rafferty says: “It provides a network, it’s good for picking up work and it’s good for seeking advice. Freelancing can be quite bewildering if you don’t have that back up.”
Perhaps the best piece of advice though is to look to the future. “When we last came out of a recession, we saw a huge increase in freelancing,” explains Chloe. “Companies wanted to minimise risk so were happy to employ people on a freelance basis, and we think we will see this again. Freelancers are able to bring specific skills as businesses rebuild.”
2020 was tough, and conditions remain unsettled. But the benefits of a freelance career are unchanged, and as Covid-19 restrictions ease and the economy improves, demand should pick up. Opportunities for freelancers should grow too.
Some companies have become more comfortable employing people who work remotely - a massive benefit for freelancers. So take time now to invest in your freelance career - and reap the rewards in the months and years to come.