After graduating in 2007, I packed my possessions into two bags and flew to the US to join Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Iowa. Working from a cramped Des Moines office, full of empty pizza boxes and hope, I watched him rise from a relatively unknown politician to a global sensation.
I came back from the US inspired but with an empty bank account, so I took a temporary job recruiting student nurses for the University of Southampton.
Many of our prospective students were in their 30s and 40s and we saw that they were daunted coming to information evenings at a university, so we took our events out into the community, encouraging them to speak to us in shopping centres and town halls. In part thanks to these changes, recruitment increased by 11%.
That summer, I was invited to join the Vice-Chancellor’s office and work as an aide to the University’s senior management team. This role gave me a terrific insight into the running of a £500m per year organisation at the beginning of a period of massive change in the higher education sector.
Specialising in communications
Over the course of my two years in the office, I became increasingly interested in employee engagement and communications. In 2009, I helped to coordinate the induction of a new Vice-Chancellor, and when he announced an immediate restructuring of the University, I asked to be seconded to the programme team and work on the internal communications.
This was an in-at-the-deep-end introduction to change communications. The programme was busy, complex and unpopular, but I was proud of the quality and quantity of work that we produced to help people stay up to date.
At the end of the programme, I decided to join the University’s relatively new internal communications team. Here, about half of my time was spent on the day-to-day management of internal channels, and the other half was spent helping teams across the organisation talk about their work – including collaborating with the University’s sustainability team to create a campaign that became one of the most impactful on campus.
Early in 2012, I started to consider the possibility of going freelance. Working on projects as a ‘trusted communications adviser’ had become the most enjoyable part of my role and I wondered whether I could build a career out of this if I were self-employed.
In a cafe in France in September 2012, full of post-Olympics positivity, my wife declared that she thought I should take the plunge. I returned to the office the following Monday and handed in my notice.
In the early months of self-employment, I faced many of the challenges that are familiar to other freelancers – working out what to charge, how to find new work and manage my time, in particular – but I found my feet and haven’t looked back.
10 years on…
Over the last decade, I have learnt a lot about about what I’m good at, what I enjoy and how I can provide the most value for my clients. I’m an organiser at heart, so I’m increasingly emphasising my role as a project manager who can lift the burden from local teams.
My biggest assignment to date came at the beginning of the pandemic when I was asked to manage the communications for a significant saliva testing pilot in Hampshire. Despite the challenge of working from home with a newborn in lockdown, it was exciting to be part of something so significant, collaborating late into the evenings with a talented and dynamic team, brought together at short notice from local government, health and education.
A sideline in enterprise education
Six months into my freelance journey, I was approached by a university and asked to work with students who were thinking about starting their own businesses. Enterprise education had been an important part of my own time at university (in fact, it took more time than my degree), but I hadn’t considered that it could ever form part of my work.
Over the last decade this has developed into an enjoyable sideline, and I now dedicate time each month to mentoring, running workshops and advising organisations that encourage enterprise. More recently, I’ve been focused on helping people find their own routes into freelancing, working with them as they think about their motivation, the lifestyle they hope to create and their plans for the future.
You can read more about my communications and enterprise experience on this site. I’m always keen to hear about interesting new projects, so please get in touch if you’d like to discuss something you’re working on.