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Starting a freelance business: what I've learnt in 3 years

There are ups and downs in any business - and so far, my business journey has been no different. In this post, I’m sharing some super lows, unbelievable highs and things I’ve learnt over the last three years.


If you’re hoping to start an online service business - whether you’re a consultant, advisor, freelance writer, designer - learn from my mistakes below.


P.S. Scroll past all this intro crap to get to the lessons learnt!


58% of us dream of becoming business owners - but 59% say they don’t have the confidence to start, and 42% say they don’t have the necessary funding and financials to do it.


Starting an online service business just like mine doesn’t have to cost the earth. All I had when I started was a laptop, Wi-Fi, my knowledge and a handful of expenses. Here is a breakdown of my initial outlay:


  • Domain and website hosting - £20/month (you can find much cheaper alternatives)

  • Business insurance - £7.99/month

  • Registered business address - £50/year (not necessary, I just didn’t want my address out there in the ether!)

That’s it!

When I first started my freelance writing business, I rushed it - I was armed with practically zero savings and hatred of the mundane 9-5 job. I walked blindly into freelancing and hoped I’d never have to look back. How hard can it be? I signed up to all the freelancing sites and battled in a race to the bottom where I caught myself celebrating when I won a job for £25 to write an eBook. YES, I’m making money, finally - or so I thought.


What was I winning exactly? Instead of winning anything, I was wasting hours of my time writing detailed and personalised proposals for jobs I didn’t want - and most of them I didn’t hear back from.


In 2017, after seven months of self-employment, I took a full-time job as a marketing executive. And for the next year and a half I fantasised about building my business again - after all, trying once wasn’t really trying. I could do better, and next time I was determined I would.


I quickly realised that office life hadn’t changed and neither had I, the restrictive eight-hour day still did not excite me. I wanted a job that I didn’t dread as Monday rolled around, and I wanted to pick and choose the clients I worked with and build a working day I enjoyed.


And in July 2019, that’s what I did. Round two of freelancing began, and I was much better equipped:


  • I had savings behind me

  • I learnt how to generate leads from LinkedIn

  • I built a pricing structure, and I thinned down the services I offered

  • And, most importantly, I picked my clients carefully


The last three years have certainly had their fair share of steep learning curves - but with it some fantastic highs; here’s what I’ve learnt…


The last year brought with it my first £1,200 monthly client -which I was super excited about.

Lessons I’ve learnt in three years of business


You have to be willing to learn new skills


Upskilling is a must. I’m not just talking about the service you’re delivering - but you have to learn to create invoices, manage admin tasks and how to do your tax returns competently. If you’re not willing to learn stuff outside of the realm of your skillset, you can forget being your own boss.


Being the boss means understanding your business inside and out. The buck stops with you - if you make a mistake on your tax form, it’s your fault, if you mistakenly put the wrong date on your invoice, guess who’s fault that was? And yes, this has happened to me before.


We’re all human, so we’re going to make errors. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself a few freebies but after that, refine your processes and ensure these mistakes are a thing of the past - let’s be honest, repeating mistakes is just lazy and looks unprofessional. But I still make a heap of mistakes - you live and learn!


If you’re not sure how to do something, there’s a YouTube video for it! Just do a little digging, and voila, you’ll have your answer.


P.S. Don’t let not understanding tax forms or setting up a business hold you back from trying your hand at self-employment; if I can do it, you can do it!


You need to work out what’s worth your investment


The first time I started freelancing, I thought it was a waste of the little money I made to buy contract and proposal software.


Since July last year to July this year, I’ve sent 24 proposals, with 19 completed agreements sent back - that’s a pretty high conversion rate from submitting a proposal to becoming a client - it’s a conversion rate of 79%. And that’s because, over three years, I’ve honed my processes, my service and my communication - which includes my contract and proposal software, PandaDoc.


Without this software, I look unprofessional; it’s as simple as that. The use of this software means that my company looks trustworthy - ya know, like I know what I’m doing!!


Be able to explain the value your services bring clients


Sounding confident in your delivery and knowing your worth can take you far in your business. Stick to your pricing, and only reduce pricing for bulk buys or don’t - it’s your call!


The ‘elevator pitch’ as it’s known should be something you can reel off about your business in your sleep. Without being able to narrate what your business is all about concisely - how can you sell it to others?


I used in-person networking events to help me hone my elevator pitch. - In-person? I know, right? What’s that?? Coronavirus has been going on so long I’m not even confident I know how to speak to another human any more…


But seriously, if you don’t know why you differ from your competitors, why are they going to work with you?


You need to learn to say HELL NO


When I first started freelancing, I was like ‘sure I can do this in under an hour for no money!’, ‘you’re late paying me, no worries, I wait 90 days for payment.’ or ‘totally, I can completely re-write this article for you because you changed your mind on the topic last minute.’


Not only was old me sounding a little desperate, but I clearly had no self-worth. Do you want extra changes? You’re going to have to pay for that because my time is not free. You need to know where to draw the line.


You’ve spent years honing your skills and building your knowledge - don’t give it away for free time and time again.


Storytime!


Back in 2017, I was working with a client registered in Malta. They agreed by email - I still have the email chain - to pay me £300 a month for four blog posts. I was so excited - my first proper monthly client!


I researched and wrote the blogs and sent them over as agreed with my monthly invoice. (spoiler alert: I never saw any money from them).


Here’s my first mistake - well, my first mistake was working with them! But the next mistake was continuing to write for them, even when the invoice due date had been and gone. Why did I do that? I was naive.


‘Payment will take 30 days even though we agreed to your payment terms.’
‘Payment has been made.’
‘Payment is still being processed.’
‘We need more bank details for you to process your payment.’
‘We’ve already sent payment.’
‘Some businesses don’t pay until 120 days, and that’s just how business works.’
‘Stop messaging us on email, LinkedIn and text when we don’t respond, we will eventually get back to you.’
‘I know your invoice is a month late.’
*RADIO SILENCE*

I am STILL owed a month and a half - £450.00. Which I could have really done with at the time, so thanks for that.


I’m thankful for this experience because if it weren’t for this client I wouldn’t have reframed my onboarding process and now if I get a gut feeling they’re not a good egg; I steer well clear.


The highs and lows of self-employment


The last year brought with it my first £1200 monthly client - which I was super excited about. Making steady money was vital to me - how can I save and live my life without knowing what I’ve got coming in?


To cover me a little, I have a monthly notice period clause in my contract. This means I know my income from all my clients for at least the next month.


Securing my first few high-paying clients helped boost my confidence and my monthly income. It gave me confidence knowing that I could make a stable income, and I started to make more than I had ever made in any 9-5 job.


The lows? Working with clients who expect more from you than they’re paying for is surprisingly common. Which is crazy, I don’t understand their logic. But aside from the bad clients (who you get better at sussing out immediately), running a business means I never switch off - I’m always checking my emails, and I even took a client call on a mountain walk the other day. But I’m ok with that because it’s something I love doing and helping businesses grow through content is something I am passionate about. It’s not like being tethered to a work phone when you’re an employee - you’re making your own money and supporting yourself, and it’s a pretty great feeling!


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© HelenJ Marketing

Freelance writer Liverpool

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