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

Looking after yourself: reflecting on the Museum Freelance Conference

Written by Research & Evaluation Consultant, Adam Pearson

I was at the Museum Freelance Conference earlier in March. It was ace.

The theme for the day was ‘change’. There were some great speakers. Honest. Inspiring. In some cases, emotional.

I also had a slot. I probably over-delivered on honesty when I confessed to jet washing the drive instead of working. But it went ok.

The theme for the day might have been change, but what I’ve taken away from it is the importance of looking after yourself.

This cut across pretty much every talk and session. Every conversation.

I find it a big challenge as a freelancer. The conference has got me thinking about some things I hadn’t before.

Looking after your health and wellbeing

This can be hard when the work is piling up and you can’t quite tear yourself away from your desk. But with no sick pay, it’s vital to our businesses that we make time for our health.

You might already have this in hand, but I don’t.

I like to remind my wife that I never get ill, and to be fair I rarely do. But it’s bound to strike at some point so getting the flu jab is on my list for next winter.

My diet is pretty poor. Working from home, I should be making healthy lunches and snacks. Instead I usually turn to cheese on toast and an afternoon of crisps and biscuits, with a steady supply of coffee washing these down. I need to do something about it and plan to start by cutting down on the caffeine and getting to know the Freelancer’s Cookbook.

One thing I am good at is getting out for walks with the dogs every day. It’s great from a wellbeing point of view. Fresh air. A break from your desk. If you’re thinking about getting a canine companion, do it!

I like running but I’ve got out of the habit over the last few months. There’s always some client work or business admin that seems more important. I’m slowly getting back into it though and started a group on Strava for freelancers to share what we’re doing to keep fit.

If I don’t get back into the swing of running then my fall-back option is to join the gym. As a tight Lancastrian, by virtue of paying for something I’ll make sure I get value-for-money! If you’re a member of IPSE there are a range of offers on gym memberships. Finally, I’m going to book a bloody holiday! It’s not just about keeping fit, it’s about taking time off and resting too. If you’ve got any recommendations for UK dog-friendly holidays, let me know.

Looking after your family

I’ve overlooked this one up to now. It took a couple of moving stories at the conference to bring this home to me. What if something serious happens?

I’ll be honest, I’ve never had life insurance. I think it’s about time I do. In particular I’ll be paying attention to serious illness cover. Any specific life insurance recommendations for freelancers will be gladly received.

Aside from the insurance side of things, it was another reminder to really think about what we value in life. It’s just work, after all.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the work I do. But I love the people around me a hell of a lot more. Do I really need to take on that extra project if it means I can’t take time off? Does that side project really need to be done now or can it wait? These are the questions I’m asking myself.

Looking after your business

Aside from our health and families, it’s also massively important we’re looking after our businesses. If we don’t get that right, not only could it get messy but it’s going to impact on your life anyway.

I’ve started asking myself the ‘what if’ questions and whether I’m really protecting my business. What if I get a difficult client? Are my contracts and terms of service going to cover me? What if there’s an issue during a project? Do I have the right levels of insurance in place? I also want to look at the data security side of it too. I think I’ve got decent processes and controls in place, but cyber-crime is big and I’m not sure to what extent my insurance would cover that.

This is quite timely as my business insurance is up for renewal. If you’re about to look at your own insurance, I hear good things about Get Dinghy and With Jack.

I also find Dave’s Work Notes site a really useful reference point. He’s super hot on contracts and protecting your business. He’s also incredibly generous with his time on Twitter if you’re ever stuck. Well worth a follow.

Looking out for each other

All things considered, my biggest takeaway from the conference is the importance of looking out for each other.

As a freelancer, you’re not alone.

Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out. Speak to people. Join networks. Attend events and conferences. Value the connections you make. Be open to the advice and knowledge of others. Give back where you can.

We should cherish communities like Museum Freelance. The same goes for Freelance HeroesBeing Freelance and Doing It For The Kids (to name a few).

One speaker at the conference said she wished these networks were around when she started out. She’s right. We’re lucky to have them.

This blog was first published by Adam Pearson on his website, and is reproduced with kind permission here.