When Disneyland first opened its doors in 1955, nothing was ready
The night before the opening ceremony, workers were still hammering nails and painting the rides. In the sweltering Californian heat, pavements melted and food ran short. The park was twice over its capacity, and there was a 7-mile tailback just to get in.
Yet, Disneyland survived its first day. And over 650 million people have visited since its opening.
This survival story reminds me of the weeks before becoming a Freelance Planner. I remember frenzied thoughts of: ‘Am I ready?’, ‘Do I have a business bank account?’, ‘Have I got enough money in the bank?’, ‘Where do I find work?’, ‘Do I need a website or just a LinkedIn page?’
Yet, one year later here I am: a first-year survivor
I am frequently asked: ‘What’s it like going freelance?’. To save repeating myself, I wanted to get down on paper what the first year is really like. I wanted to share three things that got me through it:
Skilling up everyday
Working for a few agencies (and not too many)
Always having 3 months’ salary in the bank
So, first things first…
Why is skilling up every day so important?
When you start out as a newbie, you realise that you're not the only one looking for work. There are more seasoned freelancers who are there to steal your lunch money. I won’t lie: this realisation scared the living shit out of me. I have a family and South East-priced bills to pay, you know.
I made a specific commitment to ‘skill up’ five days a week
Looking back, I am glad that I committed to this. It accelerates your learning better than any CPD log.
And my first step to skilling up was also my best one: to find my own mentor, my very own Mr Miyagi. That is, a teacher that I could rely on to be there most of the time, someone to guide me, someone who was a seasoned pro.
I was adamant that I wanted someone who sees marketing differently
And I found one. In New Zealand. He’s called Sean D’Souza from Psychotactics and I haven’t regretted spending a single New Zealand dollar with him since. (And no, he doesn’t look like Mr Miyagi).
Since finding him, I have spent £2k in 12 months (which is quite a financial commitment when you’re starting out on your own I can tell you). I have studied in detail content strategies, uniqueness, and consumer psychology.
Over the past two months, I have spent one to two hours a day on a content writing course costing £900. And when you have work, a family and a commute, that’s also quite a big deal.
However, I realised that I needed more than specific skills.
I needed breadth too
To get this breadth, I signed up to Audible and I rinsed though two audiobooks a month (costing about £15). Anything to do with consumer psychology, decision-making, habit forming, content writing, storytelling, speech-making — I’ve been soaking it in through my ears.
Audible is like a supercharger to the brain
I like to spend another 30-60 minutes most days listening to Audible walking to and from work. So, when I start a new contract, my brain is full of fresh perspectives for projects.
And, I still read industry news and indulge in reading the ‘weird stuff’ too. But, Audible is such a wonderful service. It pushes you from a steady stream of insight to a Niagara Falls of Insight within a short period of time. Once you start Audible, it’s hard to stop.
Yet, developing one’s skills aren’t enough to survive your first 12 months. I’ve learnt that it’s the number of agencies that you work for that’s also important.
I like working with three to five agencies
Working for a handful of agencies is rewarding.Quality over quantity. It’s tempting to finish a contract and sod off and look for a new contract with as wide range of agencies as possible. But getting to know a few agencies’ needs, their business, and their clients takes time. It feels good when you do.
The idea of gigging from one agency to the next has limited appeal to me
I’m not one of those people who visits countries for a week and then moves to the next one claiming "That’s it, I’ve done Japan. Now onto the next country”. It feels hollow. And as a planner, finding meaning in my work and who I work for will always be of high priority.
This all sounds lovely. Like an episode of Darling Buds of May, perhaps. Except, the rosiness runs out when you check your bank account.
Which brings me to my final survival tip...
Have three months’ salary in the bank – always!
One massive barrier to freelancing is the fear of not being able to pay the bills. It’s a scary prospect when you don’t have enough work lined up. My stomach churns daily at this thought, even weekends.
I’ve found that having at least three months’ salary in the bank at all times is a huge mental relief. Planners and anxiety are natural bedfellows, so a healthy salary-cushion stops me assuming the foetal position and rocking myself to sleep.
To keep this buffer of cash untouched means that you must make new contacts — all the time. Even when you are working and don’t need the income.
My biggest mistake was not making enough contacts early enough
I relied on recruiters a lot at the start (for which I am lucky because they made my first year a prosperous one).
Yet when Christmas, Easter and summer holidays arrive, the phone doesn’t ring so much. Unless you’ve been smart and have a contract that takes you into holiday periods, it can be a bit of a 'twitchy bum time'.
And it’s not just holidays that make bottoms twitch
When agencies cut budgets, you still get interviews. But these interviews don’t turn into more than a pleasant chat. You notice your ‘conversion-to-sale’ rate dropping. It especially doesn't help if agencies have their own black book of strategists too, who they know well and don’t carry hefty recruiters’ fees either.
This means that you must go out and hustle
Avoid the mistake of relying on recruiters only. It’s about keeping the top of the funnel full by any means possible. You’re your own New Business Director now.
Hustle, Hustle, Hustle. (A phrase I mutter like a loon under my breath most mornings.)
And this is what Disneyland did well before their opening day
Despite not being ready, they still had the top of their funnel full before Day One. They had done their hustling and got lines of hungry customers lining up in the sweltering heat. Yet hustling alone won’t do it: it's skills, relationships, and a cash buffer that keep your funnel (and bank account) healthy enough to survive.
Otherwise, bottoms twitch.
Would I go back to a permanent job?
There’s an awful lot to say for being permanent. The lack of loneliness, the stable income. But for now, I rather like the ups and downs of freelancing. It’s quite addictive really.
Plus, I get to see my two-year-old daughter more
She’s growing faster than I imagined and I won't get those years back. I'm around most bedtimes, in the mornings, on quiet days. It means that any worries about ‘how to survive’ are worth it.
Now onto year two.