This week’s interview is with an experienced freelance event manager – some great tips here on client management and diversifying your income.
Who are you and what do you do?
Mostly, I run events, but I also sometimes do commissions making one off things for people and organisations. I started running events around 2006, but have been in the field I do them for since around 2000.
What led you to start freelancing?
My former boss! Suffice to say he did a lot of bad things, and I handed in my notice after a particularly appalling one. When I started not many people knew him. By the time I left, he’d built himself a very bad reputation and I needed to get away from him ASAP.
I hadn’t decided between freelancing or looking for another job, but got snapped up immediately on freelance terms by several organisations I’d met through the job. It’s been seven years, and there’ve been difficult patches, but since starting out I’ve never seriously craved a full time job.
What three things do you wish you’d known before starting out?
1. To not bother with guest lecturing. It’s a shame, but universities and colleges repeatedly lose paperwork, require you go on their PAYE system, or demand that a £250 invoice be resubmitted split into ten different budget lines. It’s not worth the hassle and if I did it now, it’d only ever be a favour to a friend.
2. To go higher on corporate day rates. No, higher than that. They won’t often blink at high day rates, but will have someone assigned to ask for a slight reduction on the total, then tick a box saying they got it. It seems to be an exercise for most people in that kind of work, not a difficult negotiation. It’s way easier than haggling with, say, small business owners or university commercial departments (the latter especially will fight tooth and nail over the smallest amounts).
3. Talking to TV production companies is a waste of time because most of them want you to work for free. They’ll try to dazzle you with celebrity names and big audience figures. A few have approached me for expertise in several fields, and not just as a talking head, actually wanting me to design and physically make stuff for them. Since wasting time on an actual meeting with one, I usually respond with something like “Sounds great, I’d love to help! [insert extremely quick initial thoughts on project] My day rates are…”. That’s more than boilerplate, so opens a way for anyone serious, but sees chancers off immediately.
What three issues have you had since starting up?
My field is quite seasonal, leading to slumps in midwinter and midsummer. I have to be careful, and sometimes come up with other income streams in the months before those periods. I’ve also put my rates up for certain jobs to give myself a bit more buffer for downtime.
2. Gossip and politics
Any given industry is smaller than you think, and in most jobs there’ll be some kind of office politics and a power structure to deal with. Freelancing is similar, but you’ll be entering many different organisations as an outsider, with little history or contextual awareness. This makes orientation challenging. Often you’re in a vulnerable position, but it can also give you some immunity too.
It can take a long time to learn which clients really have your back, and you’ll mostly have to watch your own. In some ways, being freelance can really help you figure this stuff out, as you can get multiple perspectives on things and triangulate. You’re less connected within a given organisation, but much more connected between such organisations than most of their employees.
Mostly people get on with the job, but occasionally someone makes a power play to become your new boss, or a client hires someone full time who then tries to sink you for whatever reason. It’s really worth finding the people who talk straight and want to reduce drama. Build relationships with them well before anything bad happens; they’re good at being in charge and solving problems.
3. Client scaling/changes/disasters:
Sometimes, something changes or goes wrong within a client organisation, and freelancers will be first on the chopping block. This was really hard for me to accept the first time it happened to a repeating yearly project. Now I build endings into my expectations for every project, even repeating ones, and even the longest client relationships. Not exactly detailed contingency plans, but at least some idea of what could be next. Nothing lasts forever, no matter how good it is or how loyal the client.
Flipping this, sometimes no matter how good you are, there’ll be clients who just can’t get it together or be good to work with. I’ve never fired a client halfway through a job, as I’m usually stubborn enough to finish difficult ones and fight my corner. There are a couple of clients I’ve fired immediately after though, and refused to work with again. You don’t have to be mean about this, just tell them you’re too busy. Nothing you say is likely to change their problem behaviour. Also, be honest but also fair to them if other freelance friends ask you about them.
What’s the best thing about freelancing?
There are loads!
My own schedule, travel, getting to decide what projects I want to do, getting to work with and learn about lots of different organisations, lie ins, building client relationships where we really understand and respect each other, being able to head out into the hills when I need to.
If I had to pick one, it would be the lie ins.
How would you like to develop your freelance career in the future?
I’d really like to develop some more income streams. I’ve done it before with physical products, but they were quite seasonal and took a lot of work to make. Tinkering with all the products and processes until the margin got bigger was fun, but after that point the actual production work can be quite tedious. I’ve also found with that specific project, I only seem to have the time and energy lined up to do it once every two years.
I’d like to try with a digital product because that’s more open to automation. Digital goods are something I get to look in on through other bits of my work. I don’t quite buy the hype on passive income streams, as most of the people you read on that seem to be talking guff or selling something. I’ve met a lot of people in my field who make a digital thing, whack it up on a storefront then expect it to just sell. Some of them get really bitter when it doesn’t. I also know people who’ve either had massive commercial successes, or at least got their bills paid for a while through moderate success.
Marketing is work, and I hate it, but almost nothing sells itself. It’s probably what I need to learn more about next.
Anything else you’d like to tell anyone thinking of or currently freelancing?
Day rates are really hard to figure out when you first start. There’s some limited information online, but the best thing you can do is talk to friends working in the same field. What I thought was a realistic and reasonable day rate when I first started out turned out to be a low mates rate for most of my freelance friends.
I know a few people starting out who’ve quoted for jobs then had the client ask them to charge more. These kind of people within client organisations are rare; if you find one, hold onto them and do the best work you can… within your scope and budget 🙂