My first year freelancing: what I learned in 2016

Jack Barclay

Jack Barclay Copywriting

Let’s just say that 2016 has been a pretty steep learning curve for me.

At the beginning of the year, I made the decision to go freelance. (Well, half-made the decision – the in-house contract everybody thought was going to be extended fell through at the last minute, so my plans to start out on my own got brought forward quite rapidly.)

Before taking the plunge, I did quite a bit of research to make sure that I wasn’t being a foolhardy idiot.

It turns out that the general consensus is that freelancing is great, but it’s not recommended for people who have recently undergone a large change in their life – perhaps like moving to a new place or having a baby.

I’d just done both. (Well, I didn’t actually have the baby. But I was there. That’s at least like, maybe 40% of the work, right?)

Which brings me neatly onto the first thing I learnt in 2016:

Listen to your gut

I know, it’s a terrible cliché. But, as I’ve found over the course of this year, it’s one that holds true.

Before I made the leap, I was reading every piece of advice about going freelance that I could get my hands on. Looking back now, I can see that it was confirmation bias, but at the time it seemed like the ‘DO NOT GO FREELANCE IF THIS APPLIES TO YOU’ sections always directly applied to me and my situation.

I was constantly tired, in a new place and – most importantly – had an 8-month old boy depending on me to bring home the bacon. If I’d thought about it rationally, I probably would have taken the job offer at another firm. In fact, even when I think about it now, it’s still a bit crazy that I rejected steady income and financial security in favour of a leap into the unknown.

But something was telling me that this was the right thing to do. Well two things, really – my gut and my partner. (I’m not sure the latter will appreciate being called a thing. Sorry, Vicky.)

(Leading on from that, here’s another thing I’ve learnt: if you’re going to do it, get yourself a hype man (or woman). I can’t tell you how valuable it is some days to just have somebody to tell you that you’re not useless at your job or shit at words. Especially during that dreaded period between sending the copy and getting feedback.)

Anyway, I digress. I didn’t want to go back to an office. In my previous in-house roles, I’d loved the people I worked with and the work I did, but I hated almost everything else: the office politics, the 2-hour meetings to discuss trivial things, the inherent bureaucracy, the awkward tea-room chatter and – worst of all – the goddamn buzzwords.

On top of that, I wanted the opportunity to work on lots of projects at the same time – I wanted to be working on corporate websites one day and charity campaigns the next.

So, I followed my gut. And here we are, at the end of the year, with a whole host of clients, work set up for next year and a sense of accomplishment.

But, of course, your own advice is always the hardest to follow, isn’t it?

To date, there have been three times that I’ve thought ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this’. And on all three of those occasions, like a complete fool, I have chosen to ignore the deafening screams of my gut and take the work anyway.

Work is work right? In the first year, I told myself, it’s better to take on new work than to turn it away – there might be a dry spell on the horizon.

In the words of Donald Trump: Wrong. Wroooong. Wrong.

Those three times I’ve ended up working with difficult, rude and obnoxious people. They’ve wanted extra work for free, they’ve expected me to drop everything else at the drop of a hat and – you guessed it – they’ve taken an eternity to pay.

Had I listened to my gut, there’d be less money in the bank, for sure. But I’d also have been happier, less stressed and would have wasted less time chasing invoices.

Now, whenever I get all Obi-Wan about a project, I ask a few tricky questions –  normally around rates or deadlines. If they’re shitty, difficult or confrontational in their reply, I walk away. And honestly, it feels pretty great.

So, there you go – the first cliché over and done with. (As these retrospective posts are always full of clichés, I might as well continue. Onto the second:)

Know your worth

Over the past year, I often found myself in a situation that I’m sure isn’t an unusual one for copywriters that are new to freelancing. I’ll set the scene:

You’ve found an ideal client. You’ve emailed them a killer pitch. You can smell the deal and you’re starting to feel excited at the possibility. You see the reply appear in your inbox. In the message preview you can see ‘We loved your pitch, but…’ and you know what’s about to happen. You run over the dilemma in your head:

‘Do I stick by my rates and risk losing the work, or do I allow myself to be negotiated down and get some money in the bank?’

I’ve been freelance for almost a year now, and this has been my biggest stumbling block. To be perfectly honest, it’s one I’m still working on.

I set my rates in accordance with the PCN guidelines and what I thought was a fair reflection of my ability and experience. I know that – objectively – the results and return that companies and businesses get from my copy more than justify the prices. However, when it comes to a negotiation, I instantly falter at the first sign of reluctance.

‘For the whole project, including research, copy and amends, that will be £xx.’

‘We’d love to work with you on this, but that’s a little outside of our budget at the moment. Could you do it for £muchloweramount instead? This project is just the beginning, there will be lots of work in the future.’

Here, a potent cocktail of Imposter Syndrome, insecurity and conservative thinking hit me. Can I really justify these rates? The work’s not actually going to take me that long, what’s the harm of lowering my rates a little? All I really do is sit and type anyway. I want the business and working at a reduced rate is much better than not working at all. Just take it – it might even lead to repeat work. Raise your prices when you work with them next time.’

‘Ok – because I’m excited to work on this project and others in the future – I’m happy to work for that amount.’

That’s pretty much how it always plays out. I’ve got a small child to feed and bills to pay – reducing my prices to get some money in the bank feels like the preferable alternative to earning nothing, especially if you think that it’ll lead to the golden goose of repeat business.

(Pro tip: this approach doesn’t work. I tried it and – unsurprisingly – got knocked down on my already reduced rate the second time around.)

Plus, there are no two ways about it, rejection hurts.

When a client says no or turns me down, I find myself as a ten-year-old again, skidding on my knees to ask a girl to dance with me at the school disco. Everybody is watching. I’m full of confidence – I’m in a new shirt and I’ve got the perfect amount of wet-look gel in my quiff – I’ve got this. I see her face contort a little. Oh no. Everybody starts to laugh, and I try to laugh it off with them, but everybody knows that I’ve made a fool of myself.

So, I lower my rates, the client is happy and we shake hands.

Well, that’s what I used to do (and – admittedly – occasionally still do) until I think about the situation rationally and objectively.

As a sole trader or one-man-band, it’s very easy to forget that you’re a business. The money comes into your account, and once you’ve taken out the tax, it’s pretty much yours. You don’t get a salary, you don’t have a boss and – quite a lot of the time – you don’t even leave the house or change out of your pyjamas. You don’t have any of the trappings of being a business. And – don’t get me wrong – that’s what I love about freelancing.

But, it does have an effect on your resolve when negotiating. Rather than seeing a reduction in price in the long term (working for that price not only reduces the amount of money that I get, but also sets a bad precedent and undermines the importance of what I do) I used to see a counter-offer (read: significant reduction) and think ‘Well, that’ll pay for xx tins of formula milk. That’s better than no tins of formula milk.’

I didn’t think of my prices in business terms, but in personal terms.

And so, what I’ve learned that it comes down to – ultimately – is not just convincing the client that you’re worth the money, but convincing yourself that you (read: your business) are worth the money. And, when that fails and I’m having a moment of doubt, I think of this tweet by Andy Maslen:

When you’re a freelancer, confidence is as important as talent and skill. Once you not only know – but wholeheartedly believe – that you’re worth the money you charge, it’s much easier to stick to your guns and *gasp* walk away from projects that aren’t willing to pay you what you deserve.

After all, there’s always another disco and another girl to slow dance to Celine Dion with.

You do you

I thought I’d saved the best, most-millennial cliché for last.

If there’s one thing that you take away from this ever-so-slightly self-indulgent post (if you’re still reading, by the way, thanks!) then it is this: you gotta do you.

One of the great things about freelancing is that there are no rules. If you want to work unusual hours, go ahead. If you want to spend time with your kid, dog or partner in the middle of the day, do it. If you simply cannot be bothered to do any work today (or those last three episodes of that TV series are calling your name), there’s absolutely nothing at all that is stopping you from leaving the computer off. Hell, if you want to work in the nude, knock yourself out.

For those new to freelancing, this all applies to finding work too (well, not the nude part quite so much). I really don’t like in-person networking or phone calls – I overthink everything, trip over my words and then make crappy jokes when I feel awkward. It’s not a good representation of who I am as a person or a professional. But every advice article you read about finding work recommends these techniques as the path to glory. Ignore that – do what feels right to you. I’ve done alright for myself without ever picking up the phone or handing out a business card.

As long as you bring in work, hit your deadlines, smash the copy and make yourself somewhat available if a client needs you, by all means, do whatever you want to, whenever you want to.

Of course, that took me a while to learn. As you may have guessed, one of the main reasons I decided to go freelance was to spend more time with my new son. In the office, I was experiencing those first moments via text and picture messages. I missed his first word and his first proper laugh. Working from home was going to mean that this didn’t happen.

Or so I thought.

I was so conditioned by the 9-to-5 routine at the beginning that I forgot – or didn’t realise – that I was my own boss. I’d take a half-hour lunch break and then be back at my desk. And then I started to work from 7 until 5:30 (and then for an hour or two before bed). I’d work at weekends and dream about work. I was working more hours and harder than ever before – with lots more stress – and reaping none of the rewards of this new freedom. I was still missing those firsts.

That’s when I decided to make sure that – unless there’s a deadline or an urgent project – I take a half day every week to spend with my son. And, if I hear him laughing, I’ll leave my desk and take 15 minutes to play with him. My business, livelihood and professional reputation aren’t going to disintegrate in that time, and it makes the hard work worth it.

Yes, starting out on your own requires a lot of hard work (so does continuing to do so). It’s often incredibly stressful and tiring and everything else that comes with running your own business. And – at the beginning – you need to put in the long hours and tonnes of elbow grease.

But you’ve also got to make sure that it’s worth it and that you don’t lose sight of why you went out on your own in the first place.

And so, as is tradition for these retrospective posts, I thought I’d end with my own cliché – nay, mantra. Brace yourself:

You’ve got to put the free in freelance™©.

(It’s terrible, right? It makes you want to throw up, but at the same time it’s also something you can imagine yourself saying to a mate after (quite) a few pints.)

But, if the truth be told, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, putting the free in freelance, that’s what it’s all about.


4th January 2017

anna whitehouse

Hi Jack,
What a great article, thank you!
I am new to copy writing and have been learning by writing freelance mainly for one agency (I work part time and they’ve kept me busy!) I am currently doing a short course to hone my skills as I mainly write blog posts and I don’t want to get stuck doing just that. Feel encouraged to charge what I’m worth (the agency pay me £10 an hour, which I thought wasn’t bad, but I’m now wondering…..)
Think I need top become a fully paid up member of PCN!

16th January 2017

Gillian Jones

Brilliant – thanks, I enjoyed reading that and feel a bit more positive about the networking-person bit, glad I’m not the only introvert!

19th May 2017

Matthew Drzymala

Great article!

I’m being made redundant next week, and although I did consider taking the leap, I decided not to.

I have a wedding to pay for and really, really cannot afford to go full-time. My new job is an 18-month contract, and I plan to spend those 18 months building clients, and by the end of next year, I may be better placed to go freelance!

Thanks for the above, it’s a great help to those of us who are yet to dip their toe in full-time freelance, I’m sure I’ll get there!

What do you think?

Your email will not be published. ProCopywriters members: log in before commenting so your comment links to your profile.

Become a member

Join ProCopywriters

Connect with peers, develop your skills and extend your reach on our blog.

Become a member
Learn online

Online workshops

Every month we get an expert, an author or a professional trainer to deliver a one-hour presentation on copywriting, marketing or digital media.

Browse events