Celebrating the first year of business felt good. Sure it wasn’t all plain sailing and I was avoiding bank statements for fear of what I might see but I had managed to find a few clients who were providing regular work, my website was live (albeit without much identity) and, although I wasn’t making a killing, I had survived.
My client base was extremely eclectic at the time ranging from a corporate company who flew me around the world for events (sounds more glamorous than it was) to shooting interiors for estate agents (was more glamourous than it sounds) and my personal fashion projects that were taking place in the evenings and days off.
The estate agency work was a real find. My girlfriend at the time got me the job and I would shoot premises a couple of times each week for their brochures, window displays and website. The work developed into a great little side business as I offered my graphic design skills on top to help with all post production work and touted my services to all the other local agents as my portfolio of work grew. After a few months I even found a partner who designed floorplans and we offered our services as a package. The work also led to other opportunities such as shoots for property magazines and involvement in a software business for estate agents.
It became clear that having a niche opened a lot of doors. For the first time since starting the freelance racket I was getting calls requesting my services. I also really enjoyed the work. It wasn’t fashion but the spaces were lavish which enabled me to get creative. It also represented a steady income which was a new sensation and allowed me to add new kit that I could use on other jobs.
The turning point in my career came when a friend who I had recently collaborated with on a test shoot landed a job as the lead makeup artist with a new online fashion startup. They had asked if she knew a photographer and soon after I landed my first paid ‘fashion’ job.
Looking back, it wasn’t exactly an editorial cover for Vogue but at the time I was thrilled. After a few months they asked me to produce the shoots and source the fashion team. They also paid me to work on the images for their website which actually paid more than the photography. Over time, I was working a few days a week for them all in all. The money was great and it allowed me to focus more time on the personal projects. It was at this point when I made the decision to stop shooting property completely and gave up my other clients to focus on what I had always wanted to do - fashion.
Six months later, I had truly settled into the role. The company was great and our relationship was solid in and out of work. We hit a slight speed bump when they missed an invoice due to an accounting error but promised that would be rectified by the following month. The next month came and went without payment so I thought best to investigate. Still working out the bugs in the system. No worries. Month 3 was when it got a little tricky. I had to borrow money to pay the rent and the company’s head office were no longer getting back to me. I was still working for the company so asked around for answers but nobody seemed to know what was happening.
Financially, I was now against the wall. 5 months had passed without payment and I had foolishly continued to work for them based on trust. With nobody left to call I marched down to the head office where a friend of mine who worked in the same building let me in. Swinging open the door I was met with an empty office, papers strewn on the floor and a flickering ceiling light dramatically adding atmosphere to the bleak scene. They had gone bust and none of my ‘friends’ who worked at the studio had the guts to tell me.
In major debt without a client list and a company that owed me thousands of pounds now in liquidation, my biggest challenge to date was upon me.
Matt Dowling is Director of The Freelancer Club, a members club aimed at supporting creative talent.