April 3, 2024

The benefit of hindsight: What freelance planners wish they had known before they started

By Lisa Gills

The Interim world

With so many experienced Planners and Strategists embarking on a freelance career, we spoke with some seasoned experts to find out what they wish they’d known before venturing into the unfamiliar world of interim work.

One common theme cropped up time and time again – the teething issues of getting paid. ‘I never realised how slow agencies can be to pay freelancers,’ said one Strategy Director who recently went freelance.

Another contractor, who has been working for himself since 2011, recommends that you should never be remotely apologetic for chasing an invoice – and, if necessary, get your recruiter involved to help speed up communications. He firmly believes that you should ‘only take advice from those with lots to give but nothing to gain from your decision’ and stressed how important it is not to get angry. ‘There is an old Chinese saying: If you sit by the bank of the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.’

For the financially challenged, keeping track of what you can take out of your limited company (if you have one) can be tricky, and having a helpful accountant is almost universally recommended. ‘Even though it’s pricey, it’s worth it,’ says one experienced strategist.

Another freelancer had plenty of tips for those just starting out. ‘Get help from lovely recruiters, accountants, existing client and agency-side contacts. Almost without exception, you find your existing network is keen to help, and give you the tailored support and advice you’d pay through the nose for from a business advisor.’ The strategist we spoke to concurs. ‘Build a network of recruiters you trust – like Lisa Gills! Don’t waste time with recruiters that just see you as a number.’

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of freelance – actually securing some work – you are advised to ‘keep the faith’. ‘LinkedIn and networking are key,’ I was told. ‘Lots of leads are posted on LinkedIn for immediate jobs.’

A calm, constructive approach is recommended when it comes to lean periods. ‘There will be very busy days and quiet days,’ says one Planner. ‘Learn to make the most of your time on the quiet days – reading, learning, making contact with potential new clients, or people in the freelance network. Learn to manage the very busy days – don’t be tempted to overcommit yourself.’

A successful Planning Director raised how important it is to take breaks and not be afraid to do so. ‘Mental effort tires more than physical effort and you need rest to re-set.’

Similarly, one particularly busy freelancer highlights the need to keep fresh and up to date. He explained that you cannot assume that the knowledge you have when you start freelancing will be sufficient for a longer-term career as a freelancer. You have to keep finding the time and the motivation to keep on learning.

Being current was front of mind for one freelancer. ‘Keep in touch with old mates from your 9-to-5 days – not to tap them up for work but to keep in step with all the trends, hassles and changes that are happening in your industry.’

It may be obvious, but nothing lasts forever. Even when you have a longer-term placement, start looking for the next one! That’s why using a recruiter is good as they act as your business developer.

This particular freelancer, again a seasoned pro, explained that it’s important to cultivate a few ‘regulars’ – agencies that suit your working style and appreciate your capabilities. It makes freelancing easier than constantly going into new agencies or client environments.

She also raised a key point in making sure people are aware of your USP or ‘speciality’ skills. ‘Every planner works and thinks differently, we all have different experiences. What are you particularly good at? Why are you different from other planners?’

Among all these challenges, surely there are some benefits to becoming a freelancer? Speaking to someone who recently took the plunge, ‘It’s very different to working in an agency environment. You are free from management commitment, agency politics and office gossip – this is incredibly liberating, and really allows you to focus on your craft.’

Despite being highly experienced in his field, he said, ‘You’ll learn more about planning, agencies, clients, and yourself when you freelance. It makes you incredibly rounded. I reckon I’ve developed more in the last 12 months as a freelancer than in the previous five years doing the same job day in, day out.’

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