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The fallible freelancer – a cautionary tale

29/09/2011

turns out life is not a rehearsal, shame becasue this month has been a shambles

Sam Howard  shares some freelance fall out…

Everyone who’s their own boss bemoans the roller coaster ride of being solo. Secretly I have always thought this could be avoided if one was just a little bit more organised and realistic. I believe I may have even posted helpful advice on the subject. But it feels like September has gone out of its way to prove I knew nothing. Nada. Zip…

Week 1
Spend week in US to kick off big project, been looking forward to this since May. I’ve kept things ticking over in the summer but made sure the decks were completely clear for this big kick off. I’m sensible like that.

Week 2
Return all geared up, spend a week organizing myself and putting systems and processes into place. File every last mail both ‘in’ and ‘sent’ so I can access everything easily once project is live.

Week 3
Monday: News from the US. Project cancelled for internal reasons, no notice, no warning. Spend day feeling a bit numb… I have no work. I check contract, there is no provision for cancellation at this level. Christmas is cancelled.

Rest of week: Tempted to spend rest of week navel gazing. But navel gazing doesn’t pay the bills, so tell myself to buck up and see this as an opportunity to work with new people doing new things. Spend rest of week reaching out to industry contacts and worthy causes to see if I can earn my keep or at least be useful. Submit super competitive quotes, agree some freebies. Garner enough interest to keep myself busy for the next month or so.

Week 4
Monday: News from the US. There’s been a rethink, Project resurrected! Tra la la Christmas is back on. But now diary looks a bit messy what with the other commitments I’ve taken on and what if those not so super competitive quotes come through now? Tempted to go for a long walk, it’s all been a bit emotional. But realise I’m now effectively a week behind schedule on the big US project, so better just get my head down and stay focused.

Tuesday: Beloved vntagelaptop crashes, no notice, no warning. I take it to local repair shop, “All the docs are backed up,” I say with a touch of swagger, I am after all a sensible freelancer. “I just need you to restore mail.” How hard can that be? My IT team at the agency could fix things like this in ten minutes. “I’ll wait.” I say, casually flicking open a copy of PR Week that I’ve had the foresight to bring with me.

The repair man slowly and carefully explains that Outlook does not live in the ether like Gmail or Hotmail it lives on the laptop, the very dead laptop.

I was aghast!

He went on to explain the raw data from the mail service provider will come through on to a new PC, not this one, obvs, but my profile is gone and with it, sent mails, appointments and contacts…

I gather up my traitorous laptop, my tattered dignity and slink out of the shop.

Wednesday: OK, still no need to panic I’m a sensible freelancer and I have gadget insurance bought especially for such an eventuality. Nice gadget insurance man says of course they can and will help me. They’ll post me a claim form, I must post it back, once they have that they will arrange collection of my laptop and try to repair it, if they conclude it cannot be repaired then they will go about sourcing a replacement to the value of a whopping £300.

Wow and in that time I could make myself a chocolate tea pot too, I’m sure that will be equally bloody helpful.

Thursday: Don’t have time to source an on line bargain, go to high street and pay lots and lots for a new laptop, whose price doubles by the time I’ve bought all the stuff I need to make it ‘go’. I can pick it up tomorrow.

Friday: Pick up sexy new laptop, and fire up Outlook – there in one very bulging ‘in box’ are all the emails I have ever received since going solo. But I have been severely humbled and for this unwieldy mercy I am truly grateful. Spend my birthday weekend working through ‘inbox ’reclaiming contacts and filing so I can have a clean start for Monday. Don’t sleep so good, as now two weeks behind on several projects. ( Er yes the stupid priced job did come in.)

Week 5
Monday: Printer breaks. Is it my aura?

Tuesday: New mail – Would I like to head up a big, new and exciting project, already a month behind, very labour intensive with very tight deadlines oh and it’s really rather lucrative? Hell YES!

This morning: Smart phone implodes. I fear I may be heading same way.


Ten tips for going freelance

18/07/2011

It’s been six months since Sam Howard turned freelance. If you are contemplating ‘the big leap’ here are her early days tips, while the pain of learning them is still fresh:

the cat can stay but the table and the chair are going to have to go

1) Take a break before you begin: Contrary to what I was advised, I recommend you do not quit your day job on a Thursday and start your first contract on the Friday. I think I would have been more able to absorb the culture shock if I had allowed a month in between. Ideally a couple of weeks of doing NOTHING, after 22 plus years of ‘real’ work, I guess I could have cut myself some slack there. And then the next few weeks can be spent sorting out behind the scenes stuff and not just the paperwork but the basics like a comfy chair, stationary etc.

2) Apply some discipline to the financials: To quote Jessie J ‘it’s not about the money’. I knew that from the get go, but it’s quite tricky to unhook your real worth from your ‘take home’. Let it go, you are not your agency day rate or your old job title. You are so much more and being a freelancer gives you the space to explore it. But to avoid the feast or famine syndrome that everyone warns you about, set up a separate bank account, tip some cash in to it to ease yourself in, say three months of a notional wage. You’ll have enough to adjust to, without worrying about money from day one. Keep all your business outgoings and income in this one account, from this you can transfer an appropriate amount for tax into a savings account and also pull a regular wage so you can continue to budget as you did when you were employed.

3) Don’t underestimate how long tasks are going to take:One of the biggest shockers I found was that there was no one to whom I could delegate. I was so delighted that the decision making process was now instantaneous, but all the time savings made on that side were swallowed up by the implementation process now that it was just me to execute. I had to relearn skills I had abandoned years ago, like formatting, attention to detail, spelling…

4) Get out and talk to people: My first project was initially difficult and intense, that compounded with no team support or general water cooler chitchat meant I did feel overwhelmed at first. I quickly made a point of meeting an industry mate at least a couple of times a week to help keep my own trials and tribulations in context.

5) Dress the part: After a few months of looking like Bridget Jones in the throes of a messy divorce, I smartened up. For me the standard that works best is to dress as if you have a mild crush on the postman. Oh and you’ll have to schedule some regular exercise too, if you’re gonna have a chance with that postman.

6) Don’t be mean with yourself: I wish now I hadn’t bought a basic printer, trotting off to newsagents to pay for photocopies or coloured printouts, pains me man, it pains me. Also my dining room table is not the right height for a desk and sooner or later I am going to have to come to terms with this.

7) Find your natural rhythm: After so many years working Monday to Friday 9- 5 it’s natural to feel obliged to keep it up, but being a freelancer you can set your own rhythm. Mine follows the sun, if it’s sunny I do less, if it’s not I do more. Family commitments not withstanding, I’m happy to work in the evenings or weekends, if it means that when the sun comes out I can potter in the garden, keeping a squinty eye on the emails. Let go of the guilt. As long as you get the work done and it delivers above, beyond and ahead of your client expectations, then really you can please yourself when and how you do it.

8) Stay in the loop: Now you’re not part of the company chatter, you need to put extra effort into keeping up with what the industry is talking about and what’s trending. Make time in your daily schedule to read, comment and connect. Also go to conferences, training seminar’s etc, not just to network but to actually learn and assimilate.

9) Try to hold out for interesting projects:This has to be a huge plus of going freelance, work for people you like, take remits you enjoy. This is pay back for all those years of doing tasks to which you were painfully unsuited and having to work with people that normally you’d cross the street to avoid. You’ll end up doing such a great job you can easily widen the remit and referrals will surely follow.

10) Finally enjoy being nice to people! When you go freelance there are no power battles to win, no points to prove, no office politics to survive, you can just hang up your battered old ego and be nice. It feels great, really! And who knew people could be so responsive when you show some genuine consideration for their day and their challenges? Certainly not I.


The scruff, the diva and the freelance wardrobe

17/05/2011

Sam Howard on why actually it does matter what you wear even if no one is watching.

this is now as ‘fancy’ as i get…

The day I turned freelance was marked by a ceremonial trip to the loft where I deposited my dry clean onlys, anything with cuffs or collars and my entire collection of 40 denier. As for the suits I gleefully deposited the lot at Oxfam with a note of apology.

On the way home I popped into M&S for several pairs of their finest tracky bottoms, (first time I have ever considered velour as a valid option) and tatty Ts. ‘That’s me.’ I thought, ‘I’m a proper freelancer now, all chill and unassuming with an elasticated waist’.

Over time this basic uniform was added to with several layers of indeterminate styling but always including leg warmers, hiking socks and sheepskin slippers as my tootsies were in a perpetual state of perma-frost. Looking back, it was about this time that Elliot said I need not pick him up from school any more.

There was also a weird side effect of looking a tad casual by day in that I possibly over compensated of an evening: rocking up to watch the match on the neighbour’s HD in full vintage;, an early evening showing of Rio sporting a doorframe-bashing bouffant; and mincing to Asda in killer heels, full make up & ‘no photos please’ sunnies. Again Elli seemed to be dawdling somewhat when it came to accompanying his mama with the trolley.I’m not sure where it might have ended, (what is the female equivalent of a wife-beater vest?) if it hadn’t have been for the very lovely Cherry Chappell, who recently gave an inspiring chat on the joys of freelance at the CIPR.

“The thing is,” she began solemnly, “One is never to wear slippers,” and I felt her eyes bore into mine, as if she knew! “It’s very, very important.” she said slowly for the slowest of us to catch up.

The reason why it was so important, she explained, was because I was very important now too. Indeed I was the CEO and the President of My Own Company. And as the CEO and President of My Own Company I should dress accordingly, affording myself the respect I deserved for being so very brave and clever. “And that starts,” she said making her hands into a steeple, “By how you chose to dress.”And the thing is I can see she has a point. One of the trickiest things I have noticed in these early months, is to stay consistent in your self-belief. You no longer have the job title, the rank and recognition that you had in the ‘real world’, nor do you have the support and sense of perspective your cronies gave you, cackling around the water cooler swapping ‘you think you’re having a bad day’ horror stories. You can only look to yourself for courage and encouragement. But if ‘yourself’ looks unemployable, then it’s not really going to give you that boost you need. Because in freelance as much as there isn’t anyone to rain on your parade, there’s no one to tell you you’re a little superstar either. That’s your job now. You need to look in the mirror and feel quietly confident – not like calling NHS Direct.

So thanks to Cherry’s fashion fix, these days I put a decent level of care into my appearance, even the flip flops are colour coordinated. Best of all, Elliot said if I keep this up he’ll let me come and watch his school play. Though part of me still hopes it’s the Rocky Horror Picture Show.


The highs and lows of a fledgling freelancer

11/03/2011

A month into being a freelance PR and each day I lurch from dismay to delight – here’s a taster:

oh that chair looks really comfy..

High – first day, dancing around in my kitchen to Katie Perry ‘Firework’ deciding that was me, that was – a freelance firework.

Low – second day, no fireworks just housework which I never do but now don’t think I can afford for anyone else to do.

Low – first week, emailing myself to see if email was working (it was).

High – first blog, getting comments and being retweeted.

High – first client meeting, in a cake shop. Decided henceforth all client meetings shall be held in cake shops.

Low – first follow up, realising notes taken in said cake shop had to be actioned by me, and they take AGES!

High – office view, it looks out on to a snowdrop-littered garden with a giant rabbit hopping around in it. His name is Maximus.

High – office colleague, my desk has a cushion with a small cat on it. Her name is Lily. She looks at me with purry pride.

Low – office banter, turns out giant rabbits and small cats are not that great at office banter.

Low – office comfort, I just can’t get warm and the chair is wildly uncomfortable, I finish the day looking like a frozen Quasimodo.

High – office economies, my new printer was real cheap.

Low – false economies, my cheapo printer doesn’t photocopy I have to walk half a mile and pay 10p pay for one, so takes about 30 mins out of my day.

Low – office technology – still can’t get my Outlook to talk nicely to my HTC phone.

High – food, munching lunch while following the Archers (it’s all going on).

Low – food,  my sandwiches are just not as nice as Prêt, nor is my coffee, I haven’t had a muffin in a month. I don’t know how to make sushi and don’t even mention Burritos.

High –food, lost two pounds in weight, go figure.

High – making decisions, making my own decisions and implementing them in the same 10 minutes is truly liberating.

Low – making mistakes, two hours later, realizing that half the time they are the wrong decisions is somewhat disconcerting.

What can I tell ya, it’s a learning curve…


Culture shock

24/02/2011

Anyone for fun? How very dare you!

Has sam gone LA LA?

A long flight, a big immigration queues and too many healthy looking people. Everybody’s smiles are perfect, everybody’s thighs are toned. I’m tired. I’m disorientated.and I’m not going to like it here. I decided that when I was about 14.

But just as my weary, cynical, sooty, London soul was about to curl up and demand room service, that Californian sunshine played some rancid trick on me and my inner Tigger came bounding out. Just like that! And before I knew it I was hopping on and off the buses (a remarkable event in itself) visiting 50’s shops, farmers’ markets, the Kodak Theatre, the Walk of Fame, and the place with all the signed paw prints of the famous and the dead. Since the beginning of time it seems Hollywood A Listers have had very small feet, as do LA gang members I noticed, not that I pointed it out. I even visit the gym everyday and courtesy of jet lag can be found there at 6.30 every morning, working out and smiling. I can’t explain it myself.

Then after catching up on an episode of Millionaire MatchMaker ( I LOVE that woman) and dressed in American Vintage, I sashay over to campus with my big cup of something all psyched and ready for my post grads. Everyone is engaging, bright, kind and respectful. It’s culturally shocking but don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it, it’s quite infectious. Today I even sit in on a class to hear all about US privacy laws and how they apply to news reporting. It appears that people no longer put their hands up anymore in class, even registering this at the time I could not help but go all Hermione-like, with my arm shooting up with a bad case of girly-swat tourettes, so determined was I to participate.The group coped with me as best they could. Seems they were expecting some bored, aloof, disdainful English chick, (so was I) so this bouncy bird with the bad teeth has taken them by surprise.

The only time my enthusiasm faltered was when I noticed how sexy everybody’s technology was. The power supply for my machine was bulkier than the entire classroom’s kit put together. So who knew that I’d get out to LA and shrug off all my body/lifestyle/age/fashion neuroses, and just come back with gadget issues!

At least I still have issues and for that we’re all truly grateful.


First project nerves

18/02/2011

One week of being a PR freelancer and  Londoner Sam Howard is off to LA. What can possibly go wrong?

are palm trees supposed to look this intimidating?

So, I’m in the final throes of preparation for my trip tomorrow. As brag factors go, jetting off to LA, a week after turning freelance, has to be right up there. I’m off to a super swanky US university to mentor post grads. And it’s not that I’m not grateful for this opportunity, I am.

Really I am.

It’s just that:

Among other things, I’ve volunteered to give a three hour workshop; and although I’ve worked in the comms industry for 17+ years I’m not sure I can talk about it for longer than 20 minutes…

AND I’ve prepared all the materials from scratch, AND in an enormous hurry, it’s a shiny new deck and probably every slide harbours a typo which will only declare itself when projected onto a 20 foot screen in a room full of clever people…

AND, LA is 500 square miles, I have a disgraceful sense of direction, I am a rubbish driver and walking apparently is not an option. I know I’m going to get lost on my first day, arrive late, look a total twat etc etc…AND, I don’t know anyone, any restaurants, any shops, any neighbourhoods, any reasons d’être to be in LA. I could just go to the beach, but it’s Venice beach and it’s February and I’m not sure my pale and imperfect bod will even be allowed on it…

AND everyone keeps telling me that I will love LA, everyone. That the people are like the weather – warm, beautiful, friendly and relaxed. But the thing is, I am more a product of our own inclement climes, frigid, haggard, hostile and neurotic. What if I make students cry?..

Besides I love New York, love it, love the people, the food, the shops, the art, the weather, the architecture. I know my way around New York . I know my way around the people. Everyone says that LA is nothing like New York…AND last night, I phoned a friend and whimpered that I’m about to go down more like Ricky Gervais than Piers Morgan. Obviously I wasn’t actually looking for a practical solution, just to hear the sound of my own voice bleating. But he only goes and ‘helps’! Hooks me up with his fabulous friend, an LA local, assures me we’ll get on like a house on fire. Turns out she’s a supremely successful fashion stylist, dresses the A List for the red carpet…

AND so now, on top of everything else, I don’t know what to wear. I’ve always been so disdainful of labels. Will that catch on do you think? In LA??

So think: a badly dressed – Ricky Gervais – arriving late  – at the Golden Globes – no one to talk to – and fluffing his lines  – on already ill-judged script.Only difference is, I do want this gig again.

 


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