Not every story finishes after the happy ending and it would be negligent to paint that picture of my first attempt at freelancing. I had hit rock bottom thanks to a potent combination of personal naivety and the greed of a company but hope had arrived from the strangest of places.
An events company had read my sorry story of freelance exploitation in the paper and asked me to speak to a group of aspiring entrepreneurs about the journey. Although a step in the right direction, both cathartically and financially, it was no more than a plaster on a wound.
Money was tight, debts had mounted, and I was more or less clientless. It was time for a rethink and a rebrand. Freelancers are nothing if not adaptable. Step one was to assess, reflect, and do things right this time.
When you’re faced with a new beginning and strapped for cash, it’s all too easy to make career decisions that are purely financial. Many nights were haunted by anxiety over money matters and for those unfortunate enough to have experienced such stress, it’s a debilitating plague on your physical and mental state. However, I was a creative freelancer and an artist at heart. As important as it was to figure out my cash flow issue, the work had to matter.
One of the few business techniques I did get right during my first foray in freelancing was recording all my ins and outs. I used a simple spreadsheet to document sales and expenses and also kept a folder in my email account of prospective clients. Looking back over this info enabled me to see where most of my earnings had come from. Unsurprisingly, it was corporate events and business clients (I had shot interiors for a number of estate agents in the local area) that provided the lion share of my income. Together with my new found role as a speaker on all matters ‘freelance’, there was the bones of a business. Shooting fashion was always my main objective but I knew that would take time to grow into.
The term ‘business plan’ has always made my toes curl and, to this day, I still am allergic to forms of any kind, but I wanted structure to accompany the new direction. So, I bit my lip and put pen to paper. I say business plan but in reality, it was a stream of consciousness laid out on a piece of paper that resembled the scribblings of a crayon-wielding infant.
What’s my brand? Corporate clients, corporate brand? Should I include my fashion work along with my events portfolio on the website? How to sell my services? What is marketing? Did I turn the oven off? Should I hire an accountant?
Hardly a carefully structured business proposal, it was a mess, but a starting point. I made a list of everything I needed to do in order of priority, ticked off the jobs I could do myself, and got to work. One trick that really worked well was listing every task that had a value of less than £10 per hour and outsourcing these jobs. I also assessed my abilities in a very honest and brutal way. I had Photoshop skills from my retouching work as well as experience designing logos, flyers, and business cards for clients so that was work I could do myself. My accounts were a mess and most definitely not a strength so I found a bookkeeper to handle that. I also recognised that the website had to look professional if I was to attract corporate clients which meant sourcing a pro to do the work and paying top dollar.
‘Spend money to make money’.
It’s not an easy concept to wrap your head around especially when you have no money to spend. Today, I’d agree wholeheartedly but amend the phrase to, ‘spend money wisely, to make money’. The website was a great investment as so many potential clients would see it. How I presented my work also mattered.
A great photographer once told me that, ‘less is more when it comes to portfolio’. Only show your best work even if you don’t have much to show. Clients make judgements on poor work more readily than strong work. Looking back, the feedback from those who knew better than I proved decisive and I only wish those generous people were in my life the first time around.
A sympathetic client, who managed one of the estate agents I worked for, made a huge difference. Having someone in the industry who reflected the mindset of potential clients meant I could tailor my brand and marketing approach to suit their needs. He provided me with constructive criticism that was invaluable. His insight into what his peers were looking for in a photographer formed my decisions on so many business choices. A mentor, guide, guru, or kind soul within your industry can save you so much time and money. Their input is unquantifiable and if you are lucky enough to find someone of authority to help you, hold on to them tightly. Also, being confident in your owns strengths helps one recognise that there are others who know more than you - another life lesson that still rings true.
And so it began, round two of the great freelance adventure but this time with structure and direction. Money jobs during the day, fashion shoots in the evenings and weekends. Slowly, it started to work. Business picked up. I stuck to my guns and sourced enough clients to drag myself up by the shoestrings. The fashion shoots were fulfilling the creative void and, although I was still using friends and non-professionals to test shoot, my portfolio was growing.
Alas, never one to take the easy route, the next slap in the face was around the corner in the form of an infamous fashion stylist verbally abusing me over a cafe latte. Happy endings are way overrated.
Matt Dowling is Director of The Freelancer Club, a members club aimed at supporting creative talent.