10 things I learned about freelancing in ten years – Part 3

So I’ve had my last official day as a freelancer. There are still some loose ends to tie up but I really ought to close out my thoughts on freelancing.

You can also read part 1 and part 2 if you missed them. I’ve already given you 10 things, so here are some bonus experiences. What can I say? It all got a bit out of hand.

11. Business vs Personal branding

When I started out I had no idea what “Oikos” – my business – would become. And I was nervous about being just myself. That didn’t seem right.

So I set up the business with a business name and worked under that. “Oikos” was the brand and it had some ideas and principles behind it. And maybe one day it would be more than just me. That was the main reason I avoided being “Ross Wintle” as a brand.

Over time, though, my personal reputation seemed to become more important. As I started doing some public speaking and taking part in conferences and community events and forums, it was me that was well know.

And also, over time, I realised that I didn’t want to grow and become more than just me. I was quite happy to not have the stress of directly employing other people.

So I kinda switched back to being “Ross Wintle” a bit more. Oikos was still the face of the business and the legal entity that clients dealt with, but I focussed much more on just being me, because that was really what Oikos was selling.

It was important to have the limited company for various reasons that are well documented elsewhere. And I don’t think I have an opinion one way or another on what you should be. It’s YOUR business, and the key is to understand the pros and cons of personal vs business branding. And know that it’s OK to change too… you can scale back on one and focus on the other if that’s what you need to do.

12. You get freedom – you lose freedom

A lot of the big sell of Freelance life is the freedom that you get. And there IS a lot of freedom in freelancing. It’s a huge privilege actually: to have skills that allow you to work remotely doing something you enjoy in your own place and in your own time.

But (and maybe this is just because of how my brain works) freelancing is a bit of a lifestyle. It can consume you. It occupies your thoughts and time when you’re not doing it. And this actually takes away some freedom too.

I’m sure some people can switch off better than I can, but I found it hard.

Part of my rationale for taking a full-time role recently was that both of my kids are now at school and I don’t need as much flexibility.

And with the full time rule I get to switch off. I get to the end of the day and I don’t have to work any more.

It’s taking time to adjust – to train my brain that I don’t need to be thinking about work right now. But I can stop thinking about it.

13. It’s not for everyone

There’s a lot of hype around freelancing and many of the messages are that “Anyone can do it”, “You can achieve your dreams”, “Do what you love”.

But I also see a lot of people struggling. And some that probably shouldn’t have started their freelance/startup/founder journey. So here’s some things that I believe about freelancing:

  • You have to be very motivated – you won’t get by without a good work ethic.
  • You need to be good (or willing to get good) at a whole load of other things in addition to whatever it is you do for a living (communication, organisation, marketing, etc)
  • You probably need some kind of financial buffer to get started.
  • You actually need to have a service or product that people want to pay decent money for.

If you have no money, no specialist thing that you’re good at, and you’re not willing to throw yourself into things then I don’t believe that just “following your dream” is enough.

14. Curiosity is a superpower

Another trait that I think is really helpful is curiosity.

(Aside: “Curious” is my favourite word. I love the double meaning of “unusual” and “inquisitive”. I think both are highly undervalued traits. So to wrap them up in a single word is ACE!)

As I think about this I think about some of the things I’ve had to be curious about in my freelancing that aren’t my core competency of coding:

  • Data protection and GDPR
  • Video and audio production
  • SEO and social media
  • Bookkeeping and accounting
  • Insurance
  • Writing
  • Business planning
  • Coffee brewing (kinda half-joking here)
  • Psychology (habits, mental health, productivity)
  • Software, hardward and other tools
  • Project management

Being curious isn’t required. You can pay other people to do some of these things for you. You can try to ignore them. But I reckon that if you’re willing to spend time going down some of these rabbit holes on your own you’ll broaden your knowledge and this will make you a more useful freelancer.

I spent a lot of time advising my clients on some of these things that weren’t only ancillary to MY business, but to THEIR business/organisation too. My knowledge made me more valuable to them.

15. Be a jack of all trades, but a master of one

Despite all of this stuff – broadening your horizons, being curious and learning lots being to your advantage – I believe it still pays to have a focus. I tried to sell myself too broadly.

I wanted to help small organisations, but it was the bigger ones that paid the bills. I tried to do both.

I wanted to do back-end work, but it was the front-end work that paid the bills. I tried to do both.

I wanted to use my flexibility to work on side projects and build passive income, but it was the paid project work that paid the bills. I tried to do both.

I wanted to offer hosting and support services, but these were often a distraction from the project work. I tried to do both.

Looking back, I was overwhelmed with wanting to be and do everything. And this meant I wasn’t as effective at serving my clients.

I should probably have chosen to be a back-end consultant who worked full time on a single project at a time for a big client, did no hosting, and worked minimally on my side projects in my spare time. I’d have made more money, been less stressed, and…

Hang on… wait… this sounds like having a full time job? And this is what I’m experiencing right now!

Can you see where I ended up?

In summary

You might thing I’m saying don’t freelance because it’s hard, and you need to be a special kind of person, and you’ll burn out. It’s entirely possibly that I just wasn’t very good at it and should have stuck to employment.

No. I’ve used the flexibility of freelancing for 10 years and it’s served me really well, especially with a young family in my care too. It was totally the right thing for me to do. But I am saying: it’s not a golden goose or a silver bullet. It’s not for everyone. It’s sold as a dream that everyone should aspire to, but honestly, I don’t think it is.

It can be really convenient and a great way to broaden your skills, make a name for yourself, and escape corporate culture or the apparent drudgery of employment. But you need to be sure it’s what you really want.

And despite all the hyped-up positive of many business owners, remember that it’s OK to try it and not like it. It’s OK to stop being a freelancer too.

I hope this helps you in your own journey.

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