After six years as a freelance PR – four of them as part of the Comms Crowd collective, PR Pro Debbie Smith muses on why it’s essential to know when to turn work down.
When you first go freelance, it takes a while to attract the volume of work you need to meet your financial targets, and for new (and hopefully exciting) opportunities to find you. You spend almost as much time networking as you do on client work: going to events, emailing friends of friends who might be helpful, meeting contacts for a coffee in the faint hope of a referral and stalking people who might be useful on social media.
After a while things settle down. You find some regular clients, even acquire some work on a retainer, and develop a healthy pipeline of new business. You’re enjoying your improved work-life balance and wondering how you ever managed a daily commute followed by 9-5 (and usually longer) in an office.
But then one of two things happens. Either a) you realise that work is gradually taking over your evenings and weekends or b) you don’t have enough work. Before too long, I guarantee that you’ll experience both. But the solution is the same in both cases – assess the situation, take a deep breath and if the situation isn’t working for you then simply and politely say “no”.
Turning down work is unlikely to be something you think about when you’re planning your freelance career. You’re too busy wondering how to find enough of it to pay for all the holidays you’ll now have time to take! But it’s a vital skill, and one where my track record has been a bit mixed. Here are some tips based on my experience.
1. Have a network of contacts with complementary skills
One occasion where I got it right was when someone who organised a local business club asked me to do some PR for her company. It was my first year in business and I needed more work. However, I’m a tech specialist and she worked in financial services, which requires very specific skills. I knew immediately it wasn’t for me, but fortunately I had a solution – a former (and trusted) colleague who’d also set up her own business and had many years’ experience in the sector. I put the two of them in touch, they hit it off and worked together for several years. The result was a success for all parties: excellent media coverage, both people remained good contacts of mine, I wasn’t stressed by trying to do work I didn’t have the skills or knowledge to do or ruin my reputation by doing a bad job, and the PR colleague passed on some other work to me.
2. Don’t be seduced by a challenge – and if it smells fishy, it probably is
In year two I wasn’t so smart. I wasn’t as busy as I would have liked and was flattered to be contacted by a tech company with an exciting new product. I should have said no when they said they wanted to get it into the national press – not my strong point – and looking back with 20:20 vision I should have asked more questions during the briefing, as something didn’t seem quite right. But they positioned it as a challenge, so I said yes. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to generate any national interest – and then I found out that they’d already try to do the same thing themselves, and called me in when they were unsuccessful. So the product wasn’t even new! The lesson I learnt was that if it’s outside your comfort zone, and especially if something doesn’t seem quite right, trust your instincts and quickly and firmly say NO THANKS.
3. Don’t overload yourself – remember that work-life balance
Recently a combination of retainer work, my own holidays and an urgent project meant I found myself working late into the evenings and going to bed with list of actions and priorities whizzing round in my head. Add to that the need to change all my personal emails away from my previous account (not recommended but unavoidable) and the pressure was on.
I managed to get everything done, but realised that I didn’t want to continue at the same rate indefinitely. As Sam pointed out when we discussed it, you need to remember why you started freelancing in the first place. In my case, that means time for family and friends, hiking, work with a community group, my new hobby of kiln-fired glass and our extremely bouncy rescue dog.
So we reorganised a few things, made sure everyone was playing to their strengths, and life is now returning to normal. The question I’m asking myself is why, when I’m so busy, did I offer to write a blog? When I suggested it Sam’s response was “that’s really funny” – but here I am. So practice saying no when life gets too frantic. Believe me, it gets easier every time!
Simona Cotta Ramusion shares lessons learned from her first year as a freelance PR and digital marketing consultant:
So it’s already been a year since I took the plunge into freelancing and it’s certainly been a crazy, scary, and self-rewarding time for me. As the summer approached, I remember starting off tentatively, double-double-double checking every email I was about to send out and running every action past Sam. But after a few weeks I found my feet …and my voice. As I started working with different clients and different accounts, I rediscovered the real me, a more confident “me” who could take an active role in new prospects’ meetings, could produce good writing, and could come up with interesting suggestions for her clients without being scared of saying the wrong thing.
1. Its Ok to be scared: being scared helped me to look at different options and opportunities; it helped me focus on the job; and, because it doesn’t come natural to me, it forced me to go out there and look for some local networking events.2. Find a good accountant: you won’t believe how important this is when you start off. S/he will help you:
- Decide whether you want to set up a Limited company or be a sole trader – there are different tax implications here depending on what type of business you are in, who you are going to work with etc so ask friends if they can recommend anyone or look on LinkedIn;
- Set up the Company for you;
- Recommend contacts for opening a business bank account;
- Set you up with accounting software or spreadsheets for recording your accounts
- Advise you on business expenses;
- Do your financial year end accounts:
- Recommend a pension advisor.
3. Set up a healthy and comfortable office space: again, from experience (back aches, neck aches, colds) it is important that you have a good size desk, not too close to a radiator and not too close to draughts; if possible, do invest in a laptop stand and a second monitor, (I found it free through a local company that was refurbishing their offices… you’d be surprised what gets thrown away). And if things are going well after a year, reward yourself with a new laptop.
4. Learn from your mistakes: like in any job, things sometimes don’t go to plan and when this happens as a freelancer you feel the blow even more. When this happened to me, I was able to look at why this situation had occurred and what could have been done differently. This has helped me take a different, customised approach for each of my clients, as each operates differently.
5. Be prepared to work on weekends or when other family members are on holiday. The myth that freelancers can take days off when they want it is not true. Especially at the beginning, you must be prepared to work long hours, be idle in the middle of the day and work late evenings. But…it is definitely a rewarding day – and that for me is what matters.
PR Pro, Lianne Robinson, ponders how to have a proper holiday as a freelancer:
So that’s it, I’m all packed, the suitcase is by the door and my laptop is…safely locked away!! For the first time in two years I won’t be taking it away on holiday with me.
In the early days of freelancing it seems that every waking moment is spent glued to your computer. You’re trying to prove yourself to newly secured clients as well as on the constant look out for new opportunities to build your portfolio. I even had my laptop with me in the maternity ward while waiting for the arrival of my son (yes really!). But this time, things are very different.
One of the reasons that I wanted to work for myself and be my own boss was because of the unlimited holiday entitlement and freedom I would have. The dream that I could base myself anywhere in the world and not be tied to one location as long as I had good enough wi-fi connection was one that I wanted to make a reality. And while this has worked well so far, it has meant that I haven’t really afforded myself some proper time off.
But for the first time, I now feel I have established myself enough as a freelancer to justify taking some proper time out. I’m probably (hopefully!) not going to lose the clients I have spent time building up for the sake of a two week holiday. And while I like to believe that my beloved clients could not possibly do without me, if you’re clever about it, this is not the case.
Being part of The Comms Crowd collective means that every client is covered and serviced as they normally would be thanks to the ‘virtual team’ of support that we have between us. As a team of six, every one of us is kept looped in on accounts so that we can handover when we want some time off, safe in the knowledge that the client won’t miss out on opportunities and business will continue as normal.
That’s not to say that the last couple of weeks haven’t been extremely busy. While day to day account running can be handled by the team, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get as much work done as I can before heading off. I’m not very good and leaving work in an unfinished state so as far as possible I work hard to ensure that all loose ends are tidied up. The second part of this is monetary related. Freelancing and the flexibility that comes with it is great, but the trade-off on this is that there is no luxury of holiday pay so you want to earn as much as you can while you are working.
But having some proper time away from your usual routine – work, life, family – gives us a chance to take stock, regroup and gain some perspective. I plan to come back refreshed, full of new ideas and enthusiasm ready to hit the ground running (once the jetlag subsides). My clients will benefit from this too.
So while I like to think I’m irreplaceable, I’m not! My clients will continue business as normal and I will be back in two weeks, ready and raring to go with a fresh perspective and a suitcase full of souvenirs and new ideas. And the other benefit to working remotely, you don’t need to share your holiday sweets with your colleagues!
See you soon!
In this blog post PR PRo Debbie Smith discusses a less frequently cited reason for freelancing – one which changing demographics may make increasingly common.
Why become a freelancer? The reasons people usually give are flexibility, fitting around your children and getting a better work-life balance. I certainly wanted a better work-life balance – I’d had enough of spending my Friday evenings with First Great Western Trains – but another key factor was helping my sister support our elderly mum.
My sister lived near Mum and helped out when needed. However, we noticed that whenever my sister went on holiday, Mum would fall ill. I’d been fortunate to have an understanding agency boss when I had to make a midnight dash to a hospital 150 miles away and take several days off, but the writing was on the wall – I needed to do more.This helped to crystallise an idea that I’d been considering for some time, so a few months later I took my first steps as a freelancer. I soon discovered the joy of being able to schedule meetings to suit myself and my clients, without having to fit round a team of colleagues. One client was based between my home and where my mum lived. When I suggested meetings on Fridays so I could then go to Mum’s for the weekend, she was more than happy to help. In fact it worked better for her too. Her MD was usually in the office on Fridays so I could be sure to get a meeting with him. As you can imagine Mum loved this – and it helped to stop her worrying that she was a burden.
This also taught me something interesting about clients’ attitude to freelancers. They still expect the same quality of work, and deadlines don’t change, but they understand that you have a life too.
Fast forward a few months and I won some work with a big new client just as my sister was about to go on holiday, so I was on ‘Mum duty’. The project required a lot of international conference calls, but no problem – I worked at my sister’s using her Wi-Fi, then went round to mum’s for coffee and a chat. The people I was interviewing had no idea where I was, nor did they care. On other days I kept Mum company and wrote articles at her dining table. I don’t think she understood what I was working on but she enjoyed introducing me to her visitors!
As we reached the stage where one of us needed to be nearby all the time ‘just in case’, the benefits of freelancing really kicked in. My sister could have the breaks she needed while I worked from the south coast. This is where it helps to be part of a freelance agency like the Comms Crowd, as your colleagues are there to share the work.
Sadly Mum is no longer with us, but the career I built from her dining table has continued to grow and I’d never go back to a 9-5 routine and the daily commute.I’m surprised more people haven’t discussed this reason for freelancing. I very much doubt that I’m unique, but perhaps caring responsibilities aren’t something people tend to raise except with family and close friends. However, with an ageing population and the growing issues around social care I’m sure we’ll hear more about it in the future.
Digital marketing Pro, Simona Cotta Ramusino advises on how to manage interruptions when you work from home.
Before working as a freelancer, I spent over 10 years in various PR agencies where time keeping was an essential skill. You often had to juggle more than one client at once and more than one task a day and only had a certain amount of hours each day so a good time management was important in order to be productive and efficient on clients’ accounts. I have always prided myself on being a good timekeeper, being able to multi-task and on delivering work on time. But things changed a little bit when I took the plunge into freelancing and not through any fault of mine!
I want to share this with you – freelancers and freelancers-to-be – because you will experience this in some shape or form and particularly at the beginning of your new career.
Time management as a freelancer becomes more difficult because…people (and I mainly mean friends and family) don’t think you are working. They don’t really know what you do but they think you are at the computer for a couple of hours and then you do housework or food shopping or go to the gym (which I do but early morning or during my lunch break). Sounds familiar? This leads them to ask if you can go over for a coffee in the afternoon, or babysit or call you for a mid-morning chat.
So although I may have a strict work routine to be at my desk for 9.00, have a lunch break and be finished for 18.00 following normal office hours, other people don’t and that’s how my time management goes out of the window and ‘external sources’ disrupt my day. And because they are family or friends it is hard to say “I’m working, go away” without sounding rude. But you have to. The sooner you do that, the better. And stick to it. You will be hated for a bit but it will be your saving grace in the long run.
I have the added challenge that my husband also often works from home and Ihave to admit, we did have quite a few ‘discussions’ when I first started freelancing. Now, if either of us doesn’t want to be disturbed (even if it is “Just for a coffee”, “Just for a second…”, “Just…”), we close our office door. I know we both mean well when we interrupt each other but from my side I don’t want to spend an hour on the same sentence when I am writing something and get interrupted many times (“What do you want for lunch?” “When do you want lunch?” “What should we do for dinner?”…etc). One could say that if you were in an office you would get interrupted anyway but a colleague wouldn’t come near you if they saw you madly typing on your laptop and if they did, you can ask them to come back later and they wouldn’t think that was rude. And so should your family and friends.
So my advice is: treat your freelance working time as if you were in an office. Be diligent and respectful about it so that your family and friends will be too. Whether you work from 7.00 to 15.00, 10.00 to 18.00, or 12.00 to 19.00, that is business time. Like in any agency, at the end of the day your timesheets should show how hard you have worked that day.
Sharing this recent article from PR Moment to which I also contributed, Ref Brexit, can’t speak for the rest of the industry but my crew of freelancers have never been busier. In an uncertain market, you need to make sure your PR budget is is invested in PR talent, not a nice reception area.
From newest member of the team, digital marketing diva – Simona Cotta Ramusino
Reality has finally hit. I have updated my LinkedIn profile with my new job title so it must be true: I am a PR And Digital Marketing Freelancer.
After 20 years of working for top class agencies and in-house marketing departments of international brands I have decided to take the plunge into freelancing. Making the decision to go freelance was a scary moment and I am just beginning to get to grips with my new status. It is something that, in just a short period of time, I have already come to appreciate and enjoy and won’t change my mind any time soon. Why? Well you need to know how I got into freelancing.
It’s really thanks to Sam.
Sam and I worked together a few years ago, and one of her talents back then was the ability to read people’s strengths and personalities and make it work well within a team. When I asked Sam for advice on whether I should join her band of freelancers she knew my type well: I am not a risk taker, I am someone who always has to think things through, always needs to have a Plan B (or C or D). So Sam not only laid out the naked truth about the freelance world but she also made sure I didn’t have too much time to think over the cons the new path would entail and got me straight to work as part of the Comms Crowd gang.
The “plunge” came with an important life lesson. As I started reconnecting and talking to previous colleagues, they all agreed it was a great career move for me, some even wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner. It surprised me. They knew more about me, about my skills and talent than I did. At the end it was their support and comments that gave me that final push and made me realise it was indeed a career change, it wasn’t something temporary, something I could do in my spare time or just as I was looking for something else. It was my new job title.
To answer my initial question on why I wouldn’t change being a freelancer this is because it lets me use all the communications skills I have learned through the years and apply them for a variety of clients that an agency wouldn’t even have on their books. I also feel it has elevated me professionally and it is giving me so much satisfaction, both professionally and personally. Because the relationships I establish with my clients seem to be more on a par, the recognition I receive for my work feels more personal and genuine.
So while some people may decide to go down the freelance route because they want a better work/life balance or be their own boss, for me these are just by-products. Freelancing means doing what you do best and enjoying it!
When I said goodbye to early mornings at Cheltenham station and trains to PR offices around the UK, one of my main worries (apart from finding work of course!) was whether I’d miss the daily contact with colleagues. According to psychometric tests, one of my characteristics is ‘extraversion’, which means I get my energy by interacting with other people. I’ve always found this to be true, so how could I combine it with a freelance life?
To make things more difficult, I’d been commuting since I moved to Cheltenham, which had left me little time to make friends in the area. At one stage I joined a running club, but two weeks later I began a project which meant lots of time in London, so my only friends in the area were those I’d met via my partner.
The answer came from an unexpected and low-tech source – a noticeboard by my local shops, where I spotted a poster for a business talk organised by a group called ‘Cheltenham Connect’. I thought I’d give it a try and duly went along. The speaker was interesting, the people welcoming and I decided to go again the following month. It might help me make new contacts and would at least get me out of the house. The group also organised an informal co-working session in a local café every week, called Laptop Friday, and this helped me put some structure into my early weeks of freelance life.
Fast forward a few months and Wendy, the human dynamo who’d set up the organisation, invited me out for coffee. That’s nice, I thought – and then she sweet-talked into doing their PR! I didn’t really enjoy local PR but – oh well, why not help out for a few months? The first activity I had to promote was a business conference/exhibition, and before I knew it I was exhibiting and helping with event planning too. But it wasn’t all business related; there was a Christmas craft fair, a music festival with bands from the area….and local PR stopped being a chore because I could see the positive impact these events had on the community. They really mattered to the people involved, and they started to matter to me too.
But this was about more than feeling good by doing some pro bono work: I found I’d tapped into a ready-made support community. We swapped information on local activities, bounced around ideas, tipped each other off on new business opportunities and shared lifts to events. You could ask for a second opinion, or discuss something that was bothering you about running a business – chances were that someone would be able to help. If I had a week with no meetings, I’d arrange to meet one of my new contacts for coffee to swap ideas and recharge my extrovert batteries.
The year rolled round and my business grew, but I stayed involved with the group. I’ve become co-organiser of the business event, which has grown every year and now has 200+ attendees. Through it I’ve met a wide variety of people, from our MP and councillors to entrepreneurs running all types of businesses. I’ve also used it to try new things, such as chairing a discussion panel last year (it went really well, so it’s back again this year!).
As I specialise in technology PR, I didn’t expect any of this generate any business, but surprisingly it did. People sent me leads they’d seen on social media, recommended me to designers needing copywriters and passed on work they were too busy to handle. I even swapped writing a press release for attending a course on social media.
Five years on and as well as a positive glow from doing something for the community, I have a local support network I never dreamed of when I first became a freelance. Many of the people I’ve met have also become good friends. Three of us have had operations over the summer and we’ve had practical support and lots of encouragement during our recovery. My partner is continually surprised by how many people I know – and now he’s offered to help out one of the team with dog walking!
So my message to freelancers everywhere is use that extra time and contribute to your community as part of getting that elusive work-life balance right. You’ve nothing to lose except your inhibitions…
What’s it like being a freelance PR when you’ve only got a few years’ experience under your belt? Our first freeelance account exec, Hiwot Wolde-Senbet, weighs in on the perils and perks.
Freelancing was the last thing I thought I would be doing at this early stage in my career. But, as a natural risk taker, this opportunity came with perks that I could have only dreamed of, so I grabbed it without hesitation.I figured, I had participated in enough weekly meetings; done a few new business brainstorming and planning sessions; pitched in plenty of stories; not to forget the never ending reporting; to give me a rounded view of the PR life. But let’s face it, I may have spent a few years as a junior in a few agencies, but there aren’t enough clippings in all the world to prepare me to fly on my own.
This is why being a part of The Comms Crowd works for me, as it’s made up of senior freelance PR and marcomms people, with loads of experience. So I get to work on what I really enjoy while they shoulder the responsibility, they even look after my training and devlopment too. And just because I’m the ‘junior’ doesn’t mean I get to miss the hunt, in fact, in less than three months of being a part of The Crowd, I found myself sitting in front of a possible client sharing my ‘out of the box’ thinking – way out of the typical junior’s comfort zone. As Sam says, “Well… you’re a freelancer now, no one to hide behind, so get on with it.” So you do just that and learn from your experience.
As a freelancer, I get to work from home so, I make my own hours. It sounds fantastic right? You would assume so when you are on the ‘nine to five‘ schedule and wish you could skip the rush hour. But freelancing comes with its own set of issues, not least isolation, turns out you really miss the mini chit chats and light hearted banter that gets your day going in an office.
And there are times when life as a junior freelancer can make you feel like pulling your hair out (the occasional side effect to Excel drama). And you really miss the days that you used to ask your colleagues to help you with those unsolvable IT problems (which you probably took an hour to deal with) and then they come and sort you out in a click, leaving you feeling inept but ready to roll. When you are a freelancer, your time is money and just that fact alone makes you become very aware and conscious of your time. So you can’t afford to spend an hour on some stupid Excel issue, yet you have no choice. Not having a colleague that sits next to you means are a bit at the mercy of email response and there are the inevitable, albeit occasional, misunderstandings that you get from working remotely. So everyone really has to work at overcoming the ‘cloud barriers’, but we’re getting there.
But then the niggles just melt away, when you look through your window and see that it is sunny and bright outside. It feels like it’s calling you to come and enjoy it, feel the sun touch your skin. Living in London, I already know sunny days don’t come by often, so I pick up my sunglasses and iPad and move to the café nearby with an outdoor space. I get my to-go cappuccino and lay on the grass to draft an artcicle. That’s when I realise that I am living the dream I never had, as a real life Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and The City. Except I don’t do my research in nightclubs.
When you live and work in the same place, life can truly get tangled up. Becoming a freelancer will really test and challenge your organisational skills. However, with clear objectives, support and training; the cloud-based agency model can help you release your inner Carrie and achieve a fair work life balance. Until then, be prepared to, learn fast and be out of your comfort zone.
On how being kind can be good for your career. Really! Recently I was asked how I got started as a freelancer. “Oh it was Karma really,” I replied. And this greasy sort sidled up.“Who’s Karma?” He said. “Are they hiring?”
Come to think about it, maybe ‘they’ were:See, it all started when I was agency side… Once a year I would host a day for visiting US students. It started off as a favour for a client, but we loved engaging with the students, so sunny and bright and we became a regular stop on the US tour. And this lone kind act, helped counter-balance those days when I used to lock myself in the office bathroom and recite, “I’m not paid to be popular,” before marching back out there to rain on someone’s parade.
A few years passed, then one day in 2010 the US tour organisers asked me if I knew of a senior comms consultant that could head up a London internship programme for media post grads for The USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.And I thought, that could be me that could…And within a week of resigning I was jetting off to LA
So that became my first freelance contract, going to LA and working with the sunniest people on the planet. We are on our fourth contract now and it’s one of the most satisfying projects I have. But it doesn’t stop there…As a result of that work, I gained a great understanding of the whole PR landscape, not just my bit. I also experienced first-hand how incredibly difficult it was to secure internships in our sector. So I volunteered my services with the Taylor Bennett Organisation to share what I had learned with our home grown talent, helping the trainees prepare for their first roles in PR. I have been working with TBF for the last three years now, and I love it. I stay in touch with many of the trainees and it’s a huge buzz watching them develop and succeed in their careers…
And it didn’t stop there, either. Chuffed to announce The Comms Crowd has just taken on our very first freelance junior. A TBF alum! You can only imagine what a difference she has made to the team, and by all accounts she’s pretty happy to be working with us too, being able to execute agency-calibre work but with the freedom of the freelance lifestyle.
But wait! There’s more! Courtesy of a recommendation from another TBF alum we have a new client, which is great of course, but this client happens to be the UK’s foremost skilled volunteer and charity matchmaker and itself is a massive force for good. In the UK alone GWYGA has enabled professionals working in IT, Finance, Marketing and HR to donate £12 million worth of their time to some 3,000 charities around the world.
And now we are helping out with the PR around that, spreading the word, which has to be a very good thing right?Thank you Karma, a pleasure doing business with you.