The first year in the life of a freelance… me
At the end of May 2018, I left my ‘proper’ office job to go it alone as a... freelance market researcher? A freelance research and evaluation consultant? A one-person research agency? I’ve still not figured out the title part.
A year later, here I am to tell you all about my first year as Pearson Insight (as opposed to just regular Adam). It’s about the good bits and the not-so-good bits. What I’ve done and what I’ve learned.
The work is great... If you can get it
The work is why I went freelance. In the past year, I’ve been able to work with organisations that I consider to be dream clients in the public and cultural sectors, as well as charities and trade organisations.
Better still, I’ve been able to go for research projects that suit my skills and interests. And do the work to my own schedule. It’s hard to find that kind of variety or freedom in-house.
I’ve worked with a dozen clients over the last year on projects including resident surveys, employee surveys, business surveys, website experience surveys and visitor surveys. A lot of surveys, it turns out.
I’m a reluctant qualitative researcher, but I’ve had to step out of my comfort zone when a project has needed it. In fact, one of the most interesting pieces of work I delivered was a mixed methods study for a network of charities and voluntary organisations.
I’d like to think my work is making a difference in some small way, whether that’s informing organisational strategy, helping local authorities to better understand their residents or providing evidence to support funding applications.
Getting the work, though, is one of the biggest challenges.
When I'm not working on client projects, most of my time is spent working on marketing and tenders to get new projects.
Marketing yourself is essential. Not least because everyone else is doing it.
While I’m far from a research guru ninja rockstar influencer (imagine the pressure of carrying that title around), I’ve managed to build some brand awareness and get enquiries through blogging, social media and a newsletter. Being an active part of the freelance and research communities has been good for referral work too. I’ve found if you show up often with good content and good intentions for your target audience, you will get noticed.
Tendering has proven trickier. There are hoops to jump through in the public sector that mean the procurement and tender process can last days or even weeks, with no guarantee of winning.
When you’re up against big companies with more resources than you, I’ve learned it’s important to pick and choose your projects. Only tender for contracts when you’re confident of offering the best value to the client.
Insight on a shoestring
I love working with the public and cultural sectors. But they’ve had their funding cut over recent years and there isn’t always a lot left over for research.
I’ve found it helps to keep these three points in mind when budgets are tight:
1. Managing expectations. Letting clients know from the start what can be achieved with the money available makes the job realistic. Also, be honest about what you can and can’t do. I’m not a full-service agency. If it’s a huge project that requires a team of fieldworkers, I’m probably not the man for the job.
2. A good brief. If you know exactly what the client wants, you can choose the right methods, ask the right questions and get the analysis right, first time.
3. Being resourceful. What can you do to make the most of the client’s budget? It turns out there is a lot you can do. Like using data that’s already out there and making use of free tools and software.
You never stop learning
I’ve learned more in 12 months freelancing than I have in the previous 12 years.
Ok, maybe not. But it feels that way.
It’s important to take learning seriously for clients to take you seriously.
For me, formal training was a priority. I gained an industry standard qualification from the Market Research Society, attended a course on data visualisation and learned about impact evaluation methods with the Social Research Association (SRA).
This learning helps me to do better work. It also shows clients that I’m qualified to do the work — essential in the early days when I had no portfolio to speak of.
Conferences like the MuseumNext Conference were another worthwhile investment for understanding the sectors I was looking to work in and meeting potential clients.
But what if you don’t have the money to splurge on training or conferences?
With a bit of time, you’ll be surprised at how much you can learn for free.
Copywriting blogs have improved my report writing, design articles have shaped my surveys and podcast episodes have made me think more about how I represent data (the Being Freelance podcast episodes with Andy Kirk and Stephanie Evergreen are highly recommended if you want to learn more about data visualisation).
When you’re running a business, it makes sense to take inspiration from different industries and disciplines to push your business forward. Speaking of which...
Hey, I’m running a business
I own a business. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it when I’m working in my pyjamas, but I do.
There’s nothing like losing the comforts of employment to remind you that freelancing is a business. Things I took for granted like specialist software, training and qualifications, IT and a pension are now on me to fund. I have to take care of my own tax and national insurance too.
Whenever you quote for a job, always factor in these extra costs.
“No freelancer is an island”
That’s a line from Ed Goodman, the founder of Freelance Heroes.
The fact you work alone doesn’t mean you have to do it all on your own. Communities have been a huge factor in my making it to the one-year milestone.
Memberships to industry-specific groups like the SRA and the Independent Consultants Group let me learn from others whilst having support from people who do similar work.
Freelance groups like the Being Freelance Community, Doing It For The Kids, Museum Freelance, Independent Work and Freelance Heroes offer a place to chat and get a helping hand.
IPSE is a membership body representing freelancers and the self-employed in the UK, they offer everything from business to legal advice. One of the standout highlights of the past year (and probably my life to this point) was winning IPSE’s New to Freelancing award.
You’ll likely take more from your communities than you can ever give back at the start, but it’s important to contribute where possible. Because that’s how communities work, isn’t it?
I’ve tried to do this. Often with a bit of moral support or high-five GIFs for a client win. But sometimes with tangible advice. And once with a talk on the challenge of being a freelancer at the Museum Freelance Conference.
Your communities are as close as you’ll get to having colleagues as a freelancer.
Will they stop the feeling of isolation you get from working at home?
But I’ve found co-working spaces, working in cafes or the local pub and meetups (a few of the communities mentioned run regular meetups around the country) are all great for keeping in touch with the “real world”.
Oh, and dogs. Nothing drags you away from your desk like a dog in need of a walk.
Is freelancing everything I expected it to be?
It’s more challenging. But more rewarding than I ever expected.
I get to choose which projects I work on and which hours I work. I have a commute of approximately nine metres, full control over the office biscuit collection, unlimited coffee breaks and the option to work in the garden when it’s nice.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
If you’re thinking of going freelance (or already are) and want to chat, want to see what I’m up to or find out more about what I do, you’ll find me in these places.
I also send out a monthly newsletter where I write about freelancing and research. If you like the sound of that, you can sign up for it here.