Five lessons from five years freelancing

This week, I’ve been invited back to the University of Southampton to speak at the end of the 12th annual Dynamo Enterprise Challenge. I attended the very first event in Winchester as a student in 2006, and I’ve been asked to share some of the lessons I’ve learned since then.

It’s timely as I’m also currently reflecting on half a decade of freelancing. This time five years ago, I had handed in my notice and started the process of establishing my business.

Here are five of the many lessons that freelance life has taught me:

1) Take the time you need to define your offer


Like any product, it’s hard to market yourself if you’re not clear about exactly what you’re offering, but it’s ok to take time to carve out your niche. Find interesting projects that take you out of your comfort zone and teach you more about your strengths and what you enjoy.

I came to realise that what I was really interested in was how organisations change and develop new initiatives, and the best thing that I could offer a busy and harassed project manager was to completely look after their communications, giving them one less thing to worry about.

2) Expect setbacks

Setbacks are inevitable, but as a small business you’re well placed to adapt rapidly.

I had two very clear avenues of work that I wanted to explore when I first went freelance. Neither of them came to fruition.

My contacts said ‘Let’s keep in touch!’ and ‘Let’s work together again!’ when I first started on my own, but the reality was that many of them didn’t have the time or budget to take the intention forward. But I got back up and carried on.

3) Know your price

The question I hear more than any other from new business owners is: How much should I charge?

The vast majority of new freelancers that I’ve come across have been undercharging.

I learned the hard way that it was easy to negotiate down, but much harder to put your prices up later. After a year, I worked out what my time was really worth by benchmarking against my peers and working backwards from my desired income.

There are always interesting projects that I’m happy to make an exception for, but I assess these as and when they come along.

4) Manage your time

You might be conditioned to 9-5 life, but that doesn’t mean that’s when you’ll be at your most productive or your most creative.

If you’re at your best first thing in the morning, or your creative juices are flowing at midnight, freelance life can give you the flexibility to take advantage of this.

While I might find that there are some weeks when I’m working unusual hours Monday through Sunday, one of my priorities starting up on my own was balance, so I’ve actively made sure that there’s plenty of time for the other things that are important to me: Travel, home life and involvement in my local community.

5) Use that freedom to design your future

So, what else to do with that valuable flexibility?

The chances are, if you’ve started freelancing early in your career, you probably have a few other roles ahead of you – however much you might enjoy what you’re currently doing.

Set-aside some of your time each month to start experimenting with your other interests. Want to write a book? Why not start with a blog first? 

Dave Evans from the Stanford Design Lab outlines a helpful way to approach this

Going freelance gave me the freedom to pursue one of my other passions, enterprise education, and this subsequently developed into a completely separate sideline.

That’s just five of many lessons. I’m always keen to hear from fellow freelancers, and to chat to people who are thinking about starting up on their own.


Three business lessons from Team GB’s Olympic success

I read this morning’s Guardian article on British Olympic success with a lot of interest. With the 2016 medal tally climbing, I was keen to understand what had changed since the disappointing performance in Atlanta exactly 20 years ago.

Reflecting on this article, I realised that there are valuable lessons here for business owners and entrepreneurs:

Marginal gains

Business lessons from Team GB - cropped portrait

When I met with my friend and business coach Rob Wood earlier this year, we discussed the British cycling team’s meticulous pursuit of excellence, including how they break down all aspects of their work to make a series of tiny, almost imperceptible improvements, the sum of which gives them an edge over their opponents.

Whether we’re running large, established businesses or just getting started on our own, we can all continually look for even the smallest improvements to the way we work. These changes can help to save time, reduce costs and improve the experience we provide our customers.

We can also improve our own personal performance – understanding when and where we work best (what Tom Kelley calls finding your muse), who we need on our bench in order to succeed and what tools help us make better use of our time.

No compromise culture

In her book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 (which, incidentally, I read in one sitting yesterday), Stanford Professor Tina Seelig talks about the need to target our precious time at the products, projects and businesses that are most likely to help us achieve our goals. This includes knowing when to walk away from a failing idea.

Letting go can be hard, and sometimes we need to take an objective viewpoint. The sooner we do this, the less we invest and the easier it is to step away. In Seelig’s words: ‘Even though it is always difficult to abandon a project, it is much easier in the early stages, before there is an enormous escalation of committed time and energy.’

Regenerate talent

The Guardian article refers to Team GB replacing a reliance on ‘maverick geniuses’ with a system that delivers sustainable success.

We probably all know a maverick genius. They can be great when you’re getting started or trying to generate ideas. To ensure our businesses are successful in the long term though, we need to design practices and cultures that ensure an ongoing supply of talented, reliable and motivated people – not just staff, but partners and supporters, too.

We might think about how more experienced colleagues coach and mentor newer members of a team, and how, when staff inevitably move on, their knowledge and skills are captured and shared.

What else can we take from the team’s success this summer?


Looking back on three years as an ‘Entrepreneur-in-residence’

This summer marked the end of my three year stint as Entrepreneur-in-residence at Solent University – an occasional role that saw me supporting students and graduates who had started, or wanted to start, their own businesses.

I say ‘occasional’ because, by definition, Entrepreneurs-in-residence run their own businesses and develop new projects at the same time. I spent, on average, two days per month at the University.

I’ve been involved with enterprise education activities for more than a decade, but when I went freelance with my communications work in 2012, I realised I had the opportunity to package up my experiences, professionalise what I had to offer and set aside time for it each month.

Enterprise education workshop - portrait crop

In 2013, I was approached by Solent and asked to work alongside their enterprise team to develop and grow a network for graduate entrepreneurs. I wrote about the network last year.

Initially this group revolved around monthly meetings, with a guest speaker who would either share a skill or their own story. The monthly sessions are still important, but an online network has developed, too, allowing members to share ideas and successes, and arrange their own meet-ups and events.

This definitely wasn’t easy. In fact, it was a lesson in continuous improvement. I was constantly trying to judge what makes a network like this relevant to its members and how to support very different businesses – many established, others just starting up. I trialled a number of channels to manage and communicate with the group – Facebook remained the most effective.

Working closely with the in-house enterprise team meant that I was able to identify and flag alumni that were still eligible for the University’s funding scheme, or those that would make good mentors and speakers.

I learnt a huge amount working with these smart and ambitious graduates, including:

  • When you’re running your own business, you can’t always identify or articulate what support you need. The role of the mentor or the adviser is to re-frame the question.
  • Although we encourage students and graduates to prepare a business plan for funding panels, etc., there’s no substitute for just getting started with an idea.
  • SENSE members run a range of businesses, but regardless of whether it’s an architect, a product designer, a photographer or even a chocolatier, everyone faces similar challenges.
  • Established business owners needn’t feel out of place in a room full of early stage start-ups, in fact they often enjoy sharing the benefit of their experiences.
  • Sometimes the biggest barrier to creating a really successful business is just a little bit of confidence.

I’ll be keeping in touch with my SENSE friends and can’t wait to see how their businesses develop and thrive over the years ahead.

Enterprise Education has become a growing part of my work over the last few years and I have some exciting new projects in the pipeline. I’m always interested in the enterprise programmes being run by local colleges and universities, so do get in touch if I can help.