How to be a happy freelancer

I’ve been a freelance digital marketer for around 8 years. At 27, I left my job as an agency marketing manager and took the plunge to become self-employed. I dived in head first, and I didn’t know what awaited me.

Working in an agency, I had a good idea about the types of businesses out there, and I identified that a huge portion of business is ignored by most creatives. I knew how difficult it could be to get in new clients. I knew how stressful some projects were to manage. But there were several things that I hadn’t prepared for or identified as an issue.

When I first started working for myself, I was still young and I really wanted to impress the clients that I had. Which meant that I often bent over backwards to keep them happy. For the first few years of my time as a freelancer, I took sales calls whenever they came in. I took on any client who wanted to work with me. I refreshed my email inbox every half hour….. and had sweats and heart palpitations if I didn’t. I destroyed myself over typos or mistakes. I constantly panicked about clients leaving even though I had a very good retention rate and even though I had new enquiries coming in all the time.

I came to a realisation that in order to be a good freelancer, wife and parent – I needed to calm the f*** down. If I was going to be able to work at the level I wanted to, my clients deserved someone who was turning up well-rested and relaxed. Someone who didn’t have deep-rooted psychological issues about their own business.

Nowadays, I am a happy freelancer. I take holidays. I relax during my time off. I love the people I work with. I feel like I am paid so well and respected, so I am happy to go the extra mile when needed. I am present with my husband and children. I can mindfully watch blossoms and drink tea and all that jazz.

So how did I get there?

I made sure everything had approval before it was posted

This seems crazy looking back, but I didn’t ask for approval on content before it went out. The reason was that often the clients I was working with weren’t responsive enough to actually go through my content and ensure they were happy with it. I was too timid to say ‘hey, this needs to be approved this week’ and push responsibility on the person who was supposed to be approving it if it didn’t get approved in time to be used. I was worried that if I didn’t post that month due to no fault of my own, I wouldn’t get paid. While lacking so much in time to approve, these colleagues seemed to be watching social like a hawk and if anything did go out that they didn’t personally like or had a typo – I would have a tsunami of emails and phone calls asking me to remove it. (They could have removed it themselves.) It felt like I was constantly on watch for emergencies.

It’s my own fault for not managing those expectations and letting clients know that they will essentially be a co-creator with me. I need info from them and I need them to set time aside each month to read my work and approve it.

Now that I didn’t have to worry about intense emails from certain clients letting me know I had screwed something up, I had another opportunity to….

Break up with my inbox

‘Sorry, I know this is weird, I just need to check my emails again….’ – Me, sitting with a friend, refreshing my inbox although I did it 10 minutes ago.

I had tremendous anxiety about my email inbox. Usually, it was completely harmless, but what if….

What if a big job comes in?

What if someone wants me to do something urgently?

What if I’ve been fired?

This was pure insanity. There was absolutely no reason for me to check my emails so damn much. I even checked them at night, first thing in the morning and on days off.

In marketing, there is rarely something that needs to be done urgently, and if there is my clients know they can pick up the phone and call me. If the big job comes in but they can’t wait a day or two for a response then the company is in a rush to hire which is a red flag. If I’ve been fired from a job, it’s not worth ruining my lunch over, that info can wait until later.

I check my emails periodically throughout the day, but in my opinion there is nothing more distracting and productivity-sucking than checking your email. So I read them at the beginning and end of my working day. After that? Done.

Taking my phone number off my website

I’m always available to take client calls. But sales calls?

Between 2019 and 2021, I was receiving daily sales calls. I wasn’t always available to work on these jobs, and some of them I was unsuitable for. Plus, I work flexibly so I would be receiving sales calls while I was in the supermarket, or at a toddler playgroup, or in a deep work session for a client.

Some people prefer to pick up the phone and make a call. That’s fine, but I now require people to schedule a time in with me to do this.

Agencies have someone sat at a desk all day whose job it is to do sales appointments. But I don’t get paid for sales time so taking a sales call when I don’t even want the job is….. not smart. If we start the conversation with email and an appointment is booked in, then I have time to research the company and show up to sales calls knowing that I want the job and have some initial ideas about how to proceed. Plus I can know that I’m in the right frame of mind and I’m not dealing with this challenging social interaction before I’ve even had my breakfast.

I schedule time off

I was working on holidays. This is normal for many business owners, but I didn’t even have much of a reduced amount of work… I was just normally working, but in a different place.

Rest is an essential part of running a business as it builds stress resilience.

People are actually okay with me taking holidays. They want me to take a break and come back refreshed and full of ideas. Clients don’t want me to be burnt out and exhausted. I even take sick days now when I need them, and this is made possible by….

Delegation

I hired a virtual assistant and oh boy, it changed my life. My assistant is fun, friendly and does all of the things I really felt like I can’t face doing ever again. After 15 years in industry, the things that I physically am too bored of to ever face again are new and challenging to her. It might take her a little longer than me to do, but so what? I let go.

I was worried that if I paid someone else, I would lose money. But in reality, it enabled me to increase my income because I can spend my time doing the things that require my skill and expertise.

I am selective

My clients are wonderful, they run great businesses, beautiful brands and are my personal heroes. I learn so much from these fantastic individuals.

In my time, I’ve had some not so great ones. I’ve enough experience to learn who is going to be the type of person who is going to squirm out of paying me, who is going to barter me down on price and then make excessive demands just because I have the honour of receiving payment from them. Sometimes, it’s just a gut feeling.

I also have better vibes about the business itself, which am I going to be able to get amazing results for? What’s the return per customer? Is there a high demand for their product? Have they invested in their brand? Am I the right person for them?

Being picky at the initial stage allows me to make sure that I avoid headaches and problems down the line.

This came with one problem though, I was being too picky and risk-averse and turning down some projects because I was afraid I wouldn’t do a good job. This was until I read Playing Big by Tara Mohr and decided to…

Develop a healthy attitude towards risk

No risk = no rewards. I can’t achieve if I stay in my comfort zone. Sometimes it’s about taking those big jobs and opportunities that you have a little imposter syndrome over, because when you succeed in that, that’s where your real confidence develops.

Working with certain clients has allowed me to feel confident working with everyone else at that level, or in those industries. It feels great and opens up the pools so much. I used to think my career had hit a peak of large local businesses. It’s what a lot of the big local Sheffield agencies were doing, so I thought I was doing pretty well for myself being able to work on the same level. Then I decided to play big, and decided that I could achieve more than the agencies I admired. I took on jobs that scared the hell out of me and did great!

I couldn’t have done that if I was too afraid of messing up. However….

Failure happens

Failure and I are in a complicated relationship. I hate them, but I also know that I can’t live my life without them.

The year that I decided to play big and make my biggest wins, I also made my biggest failures. I worked on a project where the only thing that came out of it were some hard-knock lessons (although I did make some great friends too).

Just like how big success shows you that you can create more big successes, big failure lets you know that failing sometimes isn’t the end of the world.

The biggest thing of all…..

I’m more me

Just like every other human being on this big blue ball, I have insecurities and worry how I come across.

I look young for my age, at 27 I wanted to be taken more seriously and tried to dress and act older. I was looking forwards to my face maturing so that (in my mind) I would be respected more. But it turns out that I have a condition which means that this hasn’t really happened in the way that I expected and people often mistake me as someone younger. Sometimes they do assume a leadership position over me when they shouldn’t, occasionally I get patronised.

As a nerd, I am into gaming and stuff that some people would assume is a waste of time or for kids. I am from Yorkshire and have a Yorkshire accent. I eff and blind occasionally. I have a kooky dress sense. I am on the spectrum and take things super literally to the comedic delight of my colleagues. I’m a feminine person in a traditionally masculine space.

These are all things that I would hide under a blanket of ‘professionalism’. It’s easy to be ‘authentic’ when you’re already totally acceptable in the space that you’re in, when the people around you can identify with you and relate to you really well. It’s a bit more tricky when you feel like an outsider.

But I no longer try and keep up appearances in the same way. I am me, and if people aren’t into my vibe, it’s best that they know that before they hire me. But mostly, I’ve found that people are way more accepting than I gave them credit for. I’ve found that my relationships with my clients are so much deeper when I am being my authentic self and they know who I am and I hope, that it helps them to feel like they, in turn, can be more them.

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