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Nine essential tips for the (successfully) self-employed

Thursday September 3rd, 2020
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Nine essential tips for the (successfully) self-employed

Being a successful freelancer is no easy feat. Avoid some of the common pitfalls with these top tips for a more productive and lucrative working life

In the UK, about 4.5 million of us are registered as self-employed. Given how many of us work for ourselves, it’s pretty surprising how little we are told about the working life of the self-employed – and how to survive it better.

Nobody teaches you how to be self-employed. Everyone just does it, and makes a lot of mistakes along the way. Over the past 17 years, I’ve learned a few things that might have saved me a grey hair or two (and a lot of money for the coffee fund) had I known them when I started out.

Here are a few pearls of wisdom that I’ve picked up during my years as a freelancer.

1. Behave as if you are at work
Because you are. This sounds obvious, but few of us do it. We slob around the kitchen in our pyjamas at lunchtime and send half-baked, error-filled emails while frying bacon. We make work calls from the toilet and do our self-assessment tax return online at 11.58pm on January 31st, while downing gin and weeping into the phone at the nice girl at HM Revenue and Customs.

None of this is very conducive towards producing good work or being offered more.

Even if you work from home, it’s just occasionally a good idea to pretend you are in an office. Get properly dressed, turn up on time, maintain an organised workspace and try to keep life and work separate.

2. Be a good boss
The most damaging trap that many self-employed people fall into is not treating themselves well. It’s obvious why; everything costs, and we pay for it all. There is no stationery cupboard to raid; no tech team who will fix a computer or magically replace a broken mobile phone.

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So we try to cut corners at every opportunity. We scrimp, starve and deny ourselves the basics that we need to do our job well.

So be a good boss and treat yourself as you would expect an employer to treat you. If you travel for work, travel well. Don’t rent a cold, damp room with no desk or proper lighting, as I foolishly did one grim summer in Edinburgh. Stay in a hotel. Have a nice breakfast. You deserve this – it’s not a luxury and you don’t have to justify it or feel guilty.

3. Get paid
Securing the work and getting it done is the fun part. Actually making sure you get paid for it always feels like an extra chore. After years of freelancing, I think I’m owed literally thousands in unpaid work and expenses. I am just hopeless at keeping track and chasing people up for money, as are most of my self-employed friends.

Don’t let this happen to you. Keep a note of every piece of work you do and tick it off only when you have been paid. You don’t need a fancy spreadsheet to do this, though they do help.

4. Banish guilt
When I’m at work, I feel guilty about not being with my children. When I’m with my children, I feel guilty about not doing my work. It’s classic lose-lose situation, and so many of us do it. So stop doing it. When you work, work. When you don’t, don’t.

In my experience, men are (generally) much better at this than women. When they go to work, they are at work, whereas we pointlessly haul several tonnes of maternal guilt around with us on our aching shoulders all day. Learn from them: lose the guilt.

5. Take a break
You know what they say about running a business being like a millstone around your neck? Well I don’t know if you’ve tried living with a millstone around your neck, but I’m pretty sure it hurts after a while and results in very costly osteopath bills. So sometimes you need to take it off.

Take a holiday. Allow yourself sick leave. Have at least one day per week off, even if it can’t be at the weekend.

6. Get a raise
As your experience increases (and with it your skills and standard of work) this should be reflected in your pay. In an employee role you would have regular appraisal meetings with your boss at which point you would, every so often, ask for a pay rise.

The self-employed can, and must, do the same. Inflation is real and your income needs to reflect this, so don’t undersell yourself. How else are you going to afford the £400-a-week caffeine habit of the self-employed?

7. Use ‘work speak’
I learned this very late in the freelance game and it’s improved my professional life immeasurably. It applies especially to working parents, whose home and work lives have a terrible habit of running into each other and getting into a massive punch-up.

Here are some career-savers. Use them:

“I’m picking Ellie up from school” = “I am in a meeting from 3.30-4.30”.

“Jake is throwing up and can’t go to school for three days” = “I am on annual leave”.

“I can’t answer that now, I’m at gymnastics with Maisie” = “Let me ask my PA, when she’s back from lunch”.

Speak like a professional and you will be treated like one.

8. Learn to say no
Self-employed people very rarely turn down work and our employers know this. This is why they often treat us like desperate, drooling little puppets, throwing urgent work at us at the last minute, demanding it immediately.

Sometimes enthusiasm and efficiency are essential. But being occasionally unavailable often has the magical effect of making you instantly more desirable to potential employers and thus getting more work in the long run. Try it. Just say “no, I have deadlines to meet, so I can’t do it today. But I can do it tomorrow.”

9. Have a Christmas work do
Christmas can be a depressing time of year for the self-employed. Office Christmas parties spring up everywhere, with sparkly dresses, cocktails and hangovers filling everyone’s diary for weeks. And what do we have? Nada, that’s what.

So throw yourself a party. Decorate your kitchen, put on a party hat and some ankle-breaking heels, give a drunken speech thanking yourself for your excellent work and commitment to coffee-drinking this year, award yourself the Employee of The Year trophy, photocopy your bum and snog yourself in the understairs cupboard. Go wild. You deserve it.

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