What do I Love About Being Freelance, What Do I Struggle With?

The first in a series of blogs on freelance life by Lorraine Finch ACR, LF Conservation and Preservation.

I've been freelance for sixteen years now, and the thing I love most about being freelance has never changed – the freedom. I have no line manager to answer to, no institutional rules or policy to follow, no office politics and no constraints on my time. I had always been interested in running my own business and when I was searching for a career in heritage, one of the criteria I looked at was whether that specialism would allow me to become freelance. I chose conservation, and I have worked as a conservator for 23 years. If you work out the maths, you can see that I spent seven years as an employee. I went freelance in 2003. The reason for doing this was I was fed up with being badly managed. In my first job, at one point, over half the staff in the department were on treatment for depression! By 2003, I could see the same pattern happening again and again, and I'd had enough, it was time to get out and enjoy the freedom.

I love being able to set my own timetable, to make all the decisions about how a project develops, to work closely with clients and to get to know them. It has been great over sixteen years to grow and mature alongside my clients. I've watched their children grow up, commiserated with them when they have split with their partners and celebrated their achievements. This is another great aspect about being freelance. You get to meet such a variety of people and you build relationships with them that last. Some people might argue that being freelance is a lonely occupation if you are a sole trader (and I am). I argue that it is more sociable than being employed. Conservators in institutions are generally stuck in a room on their own away from all the other staff. This is no longer the case for me. I get out and about visiting different institutions and different people. And, going back to the freedom, if I'm having a day where I need to get out and be sociable, I can. I can put down my tools or paperwork and go. Recently, I felt overloaded by the anxiety and tensions that seem to have hit society. I'd spent the day working in London and everybody was shouty and angry. Social media seemed to be full of people ranting and intolerant. The news was worse. I was supposed to be working the day after I came back from London but I moved my work, borrowed Harry the dog and went for a walk. Being freelance has some great upsides.

One of the downsides, and one I struggle with is the slack periods. We all have them. It can feel like you are never going to get any work again. There have been times when it got so bad that I thought about going back into employment. Even though these slack periods are a struggle, I still think that I'm in a safer place than someone who is employed. Some time ago I had a conversation with an employed conservator where she basically said that she could go into work on a Monday and be unemployed by Friday. She couldn't see the bad times coming. I can see the slack periods coming and prepare for them, or even take steps to avoid them.  My struggle with the slack periods is the money worries that it brings. The best piece of advice I was given before I became freelance was to 'keep three months money in the bank'. I have always heeded that advice but it can still be very worrying when you see that buffer start to dwindle, and nothing go back in to build it back up. The advantage of having been freelance for so long is that I know that I have always made it through these slack periods; although it doesn't stop me worrying.

I would say that my biggest struggle is with the lack of a safety net. It can be difficult to be ill or to take a holiday. I struggle to take time off to look after myself when I am ill or need a break. I find that I work through every holiday or time when I am sick. I have been quite seriously unwell over the last few years but I have still been in bed with my laptop on a tray attending a four hour meeting. I do miss holiday pay and sick pay. My sister had three weeks paid bereavement leave when our dad died. I had a morning off.

Another struggle that I have is keeping up to date with changes in business practice such as GDPR and 'Making Tax Digital'. I have found, however, that there are a lot of free business training courses available both as classroom based courses and online. This is something that I love about being freelance, the opportunity to gain new skills and knowledge. In the years I have been freelance I have been able to attend many fantastic courses in business skills. I have learnt so much. Additionally, I have learnt a lot from the huge variety of museums, archives, libraries, galleries etc. that I have worked with. Every one is different. Every one has a slightly different approach. My skills and knowledge have expanded greatly in their breadth and depth. My practical conservation skills have also improved. It has been my experience that if somebody has funding to conserve an object, they send out the worst, the most complex, they do not send out objects which need only basic treatment. My conservation skills have been pushed to their limits and as a result my practical skills are now far, far better than they ever were.

Another point I love about being freelance, is that you are always in for deliveries! Whilst I've been typing this, the postman arrived with a box of goodies that I ordered last week. Brilliant.

All in all, what I love about being freelance vastly outweighs what I struggle with. I love being freelance and would never change. I have never regretted my decision to set up my own business. It is best thing I have ever done.

Lorraine Finch ACR

LF Conservation and Preservation


Twitter: @conserve_lfcp

Instagram: @thecaringconservator

Lorraine and Harry

A superb beginner's guide to freelancing

This blog was originally published on 6 March 2019 by Lorna Denby of Sunnyside Red. It’s reproduced here with kind permission.

It may have been a cold and wet February morning, but, warming coffee in hand, I was absolutely thrilled to be on my way to London to attend the “How to Set up, Survive and Thrive as a Freelancer course” run by Museum Freelance. GWR did their very best to scupper my plans but the train did eventually get to London – I really don’t miss commuting one bit.

I had been looking forward to this course since I booked it in October, and I can honestly say it really didn’t disappoint. Christina and Marge are incredibly knowledgeable about freelancing in the cultural sector. They are both very warm, engaging and really generous with the amount of information they provided in one day. The course offered a one-stop-shop for those new to freelancing or the freelance-curious. Covering topics as diverse as finance and tax; finding your own USP; getting clients and understanding client briefs; learning how to say no; pricing your time, and above all – thinking like a business. The course was packed with useful real-life examples too.

The level of detail in their handouts was second to none. It will take me quite some time to get through the content and put it all into practice. The course really is a beginners guide to freelancing in the cultural sector. It was without a doubt the most useful workshop I’ve ever been on – great value for money.

Please note: I have not been paid by Museum Freelance to say these lovely things about them, I believe in shouting from the rooftops about something when I think it’s worthwhile and value for money. So, if you are a freelancer or freelance-curious in the cultural sector I recommend you give them a try, you’ll be so glad you did.

A note from Museum Freelance team: The next Museum Freelance training workshop will take place on Monday 14th October 2019. Check here for further information or to book.

It’s a marathon not a sprint: reflections on 3 years of independent work

Written by governance consultant, and runner: Mairead O'Rourke

Warning: This article includes running analogies – a lot of running analogies.

“I’m sorry to tell you that your application has not been successful.”

“After careful consideration we have selected another organisation to complete the work but thank you for your interest.”

“We have now assessed your bid and regret to inform you that you have been unsuccessful as you did not achieve the minimum scoring threshold set for one or more of the criteria or did not meet the overall threshold.”

Fellow freelancers will know the feeling only too well of investing hours, sometimes days into bids for no obvious return. The result of bidding for work is binary – you either get it or you don’t. It’s a race – there will be a one winner… and you might fall just before the line.

So why do we take part? How do you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go again? I am guessing, like me, you have had to; to be in this business you need to.

When I was considering moving to freelance work, I remember a work colleague saying they didn’t think I could handle the rejection that comes with the territory. That was possibly, in part at least, a catalyst for me to take the plunge. I like to prove people wrong. A similar thing happened when a friend once said I’d never run a marathon as I’d no idea how far it was. They were half-right - I genuinely had no idea of the distance when I signed up for my first one! But 10 years later I have 15 marathons under my belt and I’m still running.

From planning a race/a bid, to committing to training/a project, right through to post-race/ post-gig reflection and learning for next time, there are many parallels between my running and working life: my company is called CultureRunner for a reason. Whether on the road or in the workplace, I have stumbled more than once – sometimes it’s just not your day. But I’m still running.

I am sure you will have your own ways of staying in the game. Here are just a few of mine.

Pick your race wisely

I am a long-distance runner and I am smart enough to save myself the humiliation of running against leggy teenagers on the track who will leave me for dust. I don’t always get this right in my working life, but I’m most effective when I focus on jobs which play to my strengths. I have worked in governance and policy for 13 years and these areas of work have naturally become my consultancy bread and butter. The governance gigs are where I feel most comfortable – where I’m stretched within my limits, not beyond them. But crucially, they are not the only things I do. It’s equally important to…

Move beyond your comfort zone

The best running training is a mix: some slow, some sustained effort, some lung-bursting intervals. This extends to races: I’ve learned that occasionally taking part in events beyond what I’m used to, is ultimately good for me. Taking on big challenges makes me a better runner, even if the experience isn’t a ‘success’ in itself – I ran a 30 mile trail race last year and seriously messed up eating and drinking during the run… so now I know from my own earned experience, not just from what wise runner friends were telling me before I found out the hard way! I recognise the same start-line feeling of ‘I can’t possibly do this’ in my work life when I take on a project that doesn’t fit my usual profile. I recognise the same finish line feeling of ‘oh, right, so that’s how these things can go’, too. Sometimes you have to do something that scares you and some of the best outcomes for me have come from taking a leap of faith.

Know your current boundaries

I have a dream to one day run the Antarctic Marathon – and I believe I could – but it’s unlikely I will be doing that anytime soon. Why? Because not only is it eye-wateringly expensive, it would involve a far greater intensity of training than I have time for at the moment. Sometimes you have to say no. No, because it’s not the right time. No, because it’s not within your current skill set. No, because you just don’t have the capacity to do it alongside other work. I’ve made the classic consultant mistakes of taking on too much at once, taking on the ‘wrong’ project and this has left me working late nights and holidays to catch up. Learning to say no constructively is like training a muscle to stay free from injury. If it’s really important, you’ll find a way to say yes in future.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

This is probably stating the downright obvious but if I don’t do enough training it generally doesn’t go well on race day. I’ve not yet been stretchered off (thankfully) but I’ve made myself pretty ill on a couple of races. In work there are times where I have also been a bit lax, leading up to the main event. I’ve not prepared well enough for a client meeting, not read all the relevant documents in advance before a workshop or not been on top of my diary management and missed deadlines. It’s not a nice feeling when it happens but each time it does, it’s a jolt of a reminder of the importance of being prepared.

Stay fit

Just like my physical need to exercise I also need to keep my brain engaged. Of course, the work I do this is exercise in itself, but it’s concentrated effort. Like the best mix of running training, work effort needs mixing up with more reflective time to develop knowledge and insight. It’s training events and conferences, meetings with other freelancers and – especially for me – a rich diet of podcasts, some of which relate directly to my work, alongside plenty that have nothing to do with it but stretch my brain in other interesting directions (if you’re not already listening, try Radiolab and This American Life – constant classics).

You don’t get a PB every time

Sometimes it doesn’t work out. It’s just not your day. You’ve done the training; you know you are prepared; you know you can do it, but this one time, it’s just not meant to be. Projects sometimes feel like a real struggle, or don’t end quite as I had hoped they would. There is always something to learn from these stumbles and while it can feel icky and unbearable at the time, I now know it will pass. I allow myself the time to wallow a little, to feel grumpy then reflect more constructively, then I move on. I say this as if I have mastered the art – I haven’t yet! It is something I am constantly working on. But I do keep running.

Find your running buddies

I have learned both in my running and working life that having good people to run and work with ultimately helps me to be better. By working with others and sharing experiences I have improved what I do. My ‘running buddies’ add a richness to my work and life that keeps me going. When I can’t find my way and I’m struggling with a project they help me back on my feet and back on track. 

YOU run the distance

As important as buddies can be, the key parallel between my work life and running life is: it’s down to me. I never work entirely on my own, and I value all the help I get, from colleagues and clients alike, but the truth of the freelance life is: YOU have to get on with it. And that is the beauty of running, too. It’s a simple sport, you get back what you put in. And in the end, the only person you’re ever really racing is yourself. It’s down to me to pick my races, to plan my training, to get the shoes on and get out the door, to set my own standards and try to better them. When I do that, I’m winning.

 Find Mairead on twitter, LinkedIn and via her website.

Your tips on freelancing

We asked the Museum Freelance community for tips on freelancing they’d like to share. We used 24 in our advent calendar on Twitter and LinkedIn but here is the complete set – thanks to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts.

  • Working in/as a team

“Work with people you enjoy working with - you are a freelancer, you can make your own team.” (Claire Adler, Heritage Consultant: Learning, Community, Development. @cladle www.claireadler.co.uk)

“Buddy up with others - do joint projects together, share ideas, give mutual support; Be generous to other freelancers - recommend people, forward on briefs, lift others up; (V hard but) try not to compare yourself to other freelancers - everyone’s journey is different.” (Laura Crossley @lfcrossley)

“Of the 4.8m freelancers in the UK, the best support comes from the other 4.799999m. So get out there and build your support network of trusted freelancers in your area.” (Ed Goodman @edagoodman)

“Team up with others. Find a partner in crime to hustle with - and to share the highs and the hard times. We feel stronger when we say ‘we’.” (www.interference-art.co.uk, Participatory Arts Projects @mckeemaura)

“The #1 piece of advice I’d give is stolen from @edagoodman: ‘no freelancer is an island’. @FHChat and @DIFTK are amazing communities for freelancers! I’ve been a freelance web designer for little over five years and wrote about this recently: https://medium.com/@websmyth/five-years-of-freelancing-20-practical-tips-82137c41f792” (Dave Smyth)

  • Your elevator pitch and marketing

“Become famous in your niche. Blog, write for magazines, tweet prolifically, podcast and speak at conferences. It’s much easier to win work when you’re known as an expert in that space.” (Jim Richardson, @museumjim)

“Work out an elevator pitch. It doesn't have to be fancy. A client raced over to me after I said "I ❤ words" at a networking event.” (Helen Reynolds, freelance copywriter and web content writer. Other tips here:  http://www.inkgardener.co.uk/business/small-business-owners-10-tips/ @InkGardener)

“Freelancers are people, not big blue chip companies. Trade honestly on your personal qualities and real-life experiences, rather than meaningless marketing waffle.”  (Steve Slack, Twitter: @steveslack, Instagram: @museumofsteve, Web: www.steveslack.co.uk)

“A freelancer's business should be in the middle of something they love, are good at, and makes money. If it isn't, it needs changing until it is so it can thrive.” (Ed Goodman @edagoodman)

“Invest in a simple online presence. It’s your shop window. No need for anything too fancy, but it’s worthwhile making yourself known.” (Steve Slack, Twitter: @steveslack, Instagram: @museumofsteve, Web: www.steveslack.co.uk)

“Learn to sell your skills. No one will do it better than you, once you have the confidence to pick up the phone or meet prospective customers face to face. No sales, no business. So learn to sell your skills.” (Ed Goodman @edagoodman)

  • Money and tax

“Keep three months money in the bank as a buffer for the hard times. This was the best bit of advice that was given to me before I became freelance 15 years ago 👍 Accredited conservator, LF Conservation and Preservation.” (Lorraine Finch @conserve_lfcp)

“Set aside time to deal with money. I do Money Monday on the last Monday of the month - chase invoices, pay myself, sort receipts. Really eases the tax return panic.” (Kate Rodenhurst @katerodenhurst)

“This is basic but keep a detailed spreadsheet of dates, invoices submitted and remittances. Makes you feel super smug when it’s time for your tax return 😎.” (Freelance conservator @zoecooksandsews)

“Get paid upfront - at least a deposit. And avoid these clients if you want to get paid: https://kreativcopywriting.com/8-types-of-client-to-avoid-if-you-want-to-get-paid/” (@KreativCopy)

“Invoice promptly and chase debts regularly.” (@stuartramsay)

“Don't forget to do your tax return! It's costly if you forget... and you won't be able to afford costly things!” (@DrNadiaSRandle)

“Always put aside tax money as you go! I move 25% of everything I get in across to a separate bank account for my tax bill. That way there are no nasty surprises!” (Jemma Pentney, Freelance Graphic Designer. @JemmaDesign)

Your approach and attitude

“Learn how to say no gracefully & constructively when your capacity is stretched, & always send your profile for future opportunities. Forward the brief to other freelancers - everyone benefits 😊.” (Carolyn Lloyd Brown @heritageangel)

“Being passionate about what you do is vital ... but remember, first and foremost, you’re running a BUSINESS.” (Caroline Newns @CarolineNewns)

“Pace yourself and don’t worry about keeping up with others. Particularly if you're relatively new to freelancing (like me). I liken it to running a marathon. https://pearsoninsight.co.uk/marathon-learning/” (Adam Pearson, @pearsoninsight)

“Be a fox, not a hedgehog. Don't over specialise, offer a range of services. The hedgehog does one thing really well (a specialist), whereas the fox can do many things well enough (a generalist).” (@BenjaminGammon)

“Don't be afraid to be a specialist and focus on your strengths. Following the @museumfreelance conference in March I realised I was being too generalist in a world of highly skilled, experienced specialists. I've since refined my offer and going back to uni to hone my skills.” (Stephen Miller, @stephen_history)

“Always remain positive and upbeat while with the full time staff of the organisation.  In fact do this with anyone connected to the organisation.” (@andrewsugars andrew martyn sugars, freelance facilitator)

“Freelancing isn’t a job. It’s a way of life. Embrace the freedom of not having a boss, and make the most of the opportunities that it offers.” (Steve Slack, Twitter: @steveslack, Instagram: @museumofsteve, Web: www.steveslack.co.uk)

“Learn to multi-task and love it, you could be working on multiple jobs in the same day. Be curious, do research and be interested in clients as people not just contracts.” (Pamela Johnson, www.bandjconsultancy.co.uk @pfrodo)

“Always say thank you to the team you’re working with-2 little words but they mean a great deal. Many people in the places I work in don’t hear them too often...” (Stephanie Lavery - Living History Interpreter - education and historical tour developer @TSlivinghistory)

“Don't get stuck in a rut, even if you specialise you could branch out to work with different types of clients, be open about revising the way you do things, keep learning from each commission and person you work with.” (Emma Parsons @emmajaneparsons)

“You can always learn something from ‘failed’ bids. Some of mine have really helped me on future projects. They are never a waste of time!” (@MaireadO)

“Develop a review process, I do every quarter an in depth process, where I review things like went (not) well, money (not) well spent, time management, client work and adjust goals for the upcoming quarter. And another thing, learn to charge for extra services and be a good negotiator on your behalf. Don't be afraid to renegotiate an offer.” (@anabelroro)

“Don't forget your own professional development and learning - read stuff, go to events and (if you can) try and work with interesting and inspirational people to keep you motivated and excited by the work you do. And think about your transferable skills, especially when starting out.” (@sarah_boiling)

"Don't stop until you're proud; for the day, for the project, etc. Your business is YOU!” (Ellie Reynolds, marketing and communications, http://www.truetold.com @elliedreynolds)

“Trick your brain into thinking you love focused work! Follow a small routine (water, music, scent) before you start working and do it everytime before you need to work to create a productivity habit that you will stick to. And reward yourself at the end if you've focused!” (@amandaappiagyei)

“Become more self aware about your intentions. Whether you are working on a document or talking to a client, think ‘what gear am I in?’” (@RHBDaveHowlett)

  • Network

“Chat to anyone & everyone at events, openings, coffee breaks. You never know what work might come up from seemingly random contacts!” (Briony Hudson: exhibitions, research & strategy @brionyhudson2)

“Network, network, network. You cannot buy too many cups of coffee - you never know which one might pay off in the future.” (Steve Slack, Twitter: @steveslack, Instagram: @museumofsteve, Web: www.steveslack.co.uk)

  • Time management

“Don’t allocate all your working hours to clients. You need time set aside for your own admin/marketing/cpd. When I started I was advised to do 3/5 client to 1/5 admin and 1/5 development. That worked well for me.” (Lyndsey Clark; exhibitions, interpretation, engagement. @ltclarkuk)

“Don’t underestimate the time to write up reports.” (@shakesjetty)

  • Self-belief

“Remember your initial courage! It takes courage to go it alone, takes courage to sell your ideas/tenders, takes courage to chase up unpaid invoices, takes courage to not compare your work to others, takes courage to stand in front of an audience and do what we do.” (Stephanie Lavery - Living History Interpreter - education and historical tour developer @TSlivinghistory)

“Ditch the inner critic! Listen to client feedback, especially positive feedback (learn from the negative too, but don’t hold onto it). I’ve framed my favourite positive feedback on my office wall to remind me of my strengths and fend off imposter syndrome.” (@mirrielou Miranda Ellis Consultancy, fundraising, training, evaluation, project management www.mirandaellis.online/)

“Believe in yourself and your product... try not to fall prey to ‘imposter syndrome’! Take the compliments and really listen to other people and take on board what they say.” (@TokayNicola)

  • Well-being

“Start the day with a walk outdoors when you can manage it. It really helps you think through what's ahead of you and reminds you why being freelance can be great. I need to remind myself to do this more often!” (Participation, learning, facilitation @quartosisters)

“Do not forget to schedule breaks, holidays, time off. Just because you might work for yourself doesn't mean you have to work all of the time. Look after yourself and rest!” (@DearFreelance)

“Try to find time for a fresh air break most days and allow your mind to wander. Being tied to a desk/laptop isn't conducive to creativity. Outdoor daydreaming is when I find solutions and my best ideas.” (Emma Parsons @emmajaneparsons)

“For your own sanity take your [work] email off your phone. Even better: anything related to work. Better than that: give up your phone.” (Mike Ellis @m1ke_ellis)