28 August 2008

Going freelance - getting started

A couple of days ago, a journo friend of mine dropped by for a coffee during the mid-afternoon lull. I could see she was really stressed and it didn't take long to find out why. She works really hard on our local paper and we all know that salaries on British regional papers are a joke. My friend has real talent for writing but is struggling to raise her family on her pitiful income. Unsurprisingly, she's looking to freelance on the side until she can make the leap and do it full-time. Time for a brain-pick.

My top tips?

1. Get a blog. Build it in Wordpress or Typepad so you can have static pages as well for showing clippings, adding a biog and a contact page. And the blog is not only ongoing proof you can write, it's a chance to specialise in niche areas you are passionate about. Result - instant website at minimal cost.

2. Join a good freelancing forum. I always recommend Journobiz as it is supportive - members are very generous with advice and contacts, and it's a good watercooler when you feel alone. I wouldn't survive the working day, stuck at home as I am, without dropping in regularly.

3. Get an accountant. When you're still on a contract and PAYE, freelance earnings are easy to declare on the tax return. But once you make the leap, the time you'd spend struggling to fill in the form is time better spent earning money. My accountant takes a day maximum to verify my accounts and file my tax return. If I did it myself, it would take a week. I save money by paying the accountant to do it for me. And she's a tax-deductible expense. The same theory applies to other situations. It would take me half a day to clean the house (which I do actually do right now) - hiring a cleaner would be cheaper. Ok, the char is not an allowable expense but the convenience frees up my time to earn.

4. Pick your listings. I pay for listings in several professional directories. None are massively expensive (each averages at £55 pa) but they have to earn their keep. I only need one really well-paid gig from each to justify renewing the listing when it's time. Anything else is a bonus. I choose my listings with care - any that don't pay their way get discarded. Well, you wouldn't run an ad in a magazine that didn't bring in business, would you?

5. Join your union. It's no secret that I have deep misgivings about the NUJ, which I recently rejoined purely for practical reasons. When you're staff, you get the press card automatically. When you're flying solo, if you want accreditation, you need to join something. It's not just about the press card. The union does offer other benefits too, like free legal advice and cheap professional indemnity insurance. And it's funny how when redundancies loom at a workplace, the NUJ sees a spike in membership applications... But seriously, it's better to be in the tent pissing out when you work for yourself, and have at least something behind you.

The bonuses? No boss, no commute, no office politics and complete freedom to work for whomever you choose...


Anonymous said...

If your friend is looking to start a blog, take it on a step further and publish your own online magazine - but I would say that ;-)

Unknown said...

Indeed you would! ;)

I think that step is probably a lot further down the line for her right now, though...

Anne said...

Also... learn about tax and NI even if you get an accountant. When I started freelancing on the side I didn't know I needed to get myself exempted from extra NI until the bill arrived. I know a few people who freelance in various fields who are absolutely clueless about what they can claim as expenses (one friend does not believe she can claim her laptop that she bought especially for work, no matter how many times I tell her). Also, understand the implications of working in-house and being put on PAYE as a casual (so you get holiday pay in your shift allowance but can't claim expenses, and you also don't get any employee benefits or any security).

What else? Learn about copyright/IP law so you don't get stiffed by contracts you don't understand. Learn about syndication (says the girl who hasn't done any yet - but only because Planet Syndication seem underwhelming and I haven't found anywhere else to try).

Also: you need a spine. You need to be able to stand up for yourself to negotiate fees and chase late payments. You also need to be able to handle having your ideas rejected. I don't see how anyone thin-skinned can survive as a freelancer.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Anne, all excellent advice to those just starting out.

When I went freelance, the best thing I did before I started trading was going on a free course run by my local Chamber of Commerce, which covered all the accounting and taxation issues in depth, as well as issues like banking, trading standards, sole trader vs limited company or even a partnership, etc etc. I learned a lot and it certainly prevented me from making huge errors.

There is so much to consider when you start to make the leap. My top 5 was really just the first issues we chatted about.

Anne said...

Ha, I still don't know about a lot of those things!

If I hadn't learnt a lot on-the-go from people on forums I'd be tempted to fork out for a day's coaching, actually. I can see it paying for itself.

I recently spent about a few hours coaching a journo I know who wants to do more freelance on everything from tax basics to how to pitch. I'm now thinking I should do that for money at some point. Didn't realise how much I'd learned in the past year or so!

Unknown said...

That's why I recommend joining a forum, because you can suck up a lot of wisdom just by lurking. Obviously, if you post questions you learn even more. And then one day, you can give it back to another greener.