For any freelancer, going it alone can be daunting.
While choosing your own hours and projects and no longer working for ‘the man’ can prove to be an enticing prospect, there are many realities of running a business that will doubtless fall outside your established skillset.
While not being quite knowledgeable enough at some things – such as how you market yourself – might only see your bank balance grow more slowly than it otherwise might have, being bad at other things – such as paying your taxes – could land you with hefty fines or maybe even put you behind bars.
So, for any freelancer, getting the right advice at the right time, whether it’s to cover the basics of setting up shop on your own, or taking every opportunity you have to grow your business still further, is crucial.
Unfortunately, though, the realities faced by many freelancers is that that specialist advice is simply not there.
A survey by the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) found almost a third (30%) of self-employed people they questioned wanted help with tax and legal issues, while 23% wanted help to expand their business.
Beyond the everyday tasks of operating and growing their business though, there were also concerns over things like pensions, something which an employee of an organization may often not have to worry about at all.
According to IPSE’s pensions report, 33% said they wanted help and advice about pensions and financial planning.
Where once councils, government agencies and quangos may have been awash with cash and experts willing to dispense business advice – some of them no doubt less effective than others – increasingly over the last decade of austerity, funding for such schemes has been slashed or discontinued altogether.
Jane Rogers, who runs her own freelance and PR business, says the dearth of available advice has been exacerbated by cuts to services.
“I’ve been a sole trader for eight years and, in the beginning, there was a lot of free advice available,” she said.
“But since the demise of government support like Business Link, it’s made it much harder for very small and microbusinesses like me to access good quality advice.”
She adds that although professional business coaching is available, costs can oven be prohibitive and that this has resulted in her turning to free online advice and good old-fashioned networking.
“I have largely built my business on advice I’ve found online such as Facebook groups and online forums, through my own skills, going networking and by speaking to friends and family in business.
“There are organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses, which I’ve recently re-joined, to see how they can help. But even these come at a cost.”
The Taxman Cometh
For a lot of freelancers, starting their own business is born out of passion. A hobby that turns into something bigger, a creative outlet they realise they’re actually pretty good at and that people are willing to pay for.
During these exciting formative stages though, it can be easy to lose sight of one big – arguably the biggest – issue; taxes.
Death and taxes are the only certainties in life according to Benjamin Franklin, and for any freelancer paying HMRC what they’re owed is no simple task for a beginner. This is made even more daunting by the potentially dire consequences of getting it wrong.
This was the experience of freelance copywriter and social media manager Caitlin McAllister.
“I think the biggest roadblock I hit was the financial and tax side of things.” She said.
“Without a degree in accountancy, I think many new freelancers feel hugely out of their depth with this topic. It’s such a minefield to go onto the HMRC website and try to fill in your first tax return. The money stuff has never come naturally to me, so this was the thing that held me back the most in the beginning.”
The long and winding road is all too familiar to Spaghetti Traveller Tom Bourlet. A freelance marketing expert, his travel blog has earned him an army of online fans. But just like Caitlin, one road that proved to have a few bumps early on was setting up how he paid tax.
But having also found it difficult to find the right advice from any specialist or public sector experts, he turned instead to fellow freelancers, but it didn’t quite work out the way he’d hoped.
He said: “A couple of freelancers I knew mentioned that an accountant wasn’t necessary and they could walk me through the process.
“The issue was the moment I switched, I didn’t hear from them for a good while and I didn’t know how to handle any of the transition practices, including paying myself a wage, handling HMRC and PAYE, setting myself up as a LTD company, dividends etc.”
Tom later found an accountant that now handles that side of his business but says the blind alleys he headed down early on made a dent in his bottom line.
Being a creative freelancer can often be doubly confusing when it comes to accessing support due to the fact the more jazzy side of things can be well catered for, at a price.
After Russian lawyer Antonina Mamzenko moved to the UK she decided to pursue her dream of being a professional photographer. Taking the plunge back in 2009, she found advice for creative freelancers was particularly hard to come by.
“I just enjoyed taking photographs and would have happily done it for free,” she said.
But equipment, insurance and websites cost money, and she began searching for advice on how to turn her passion into a business.
“At the time there was very little out there in terms of solid business advice for creative freelancers especially.
“I could find a lot of information out there on how to take good photos, how to build a website, even how to market the “sexy” topics as I call them, as it’s easy to dispense advice on that, but there was very little in terms of such business basics like how to price your services so you’re profitable, the psychology of pricing and selling without being salesy and so on – the stuff that can make or break your career as a freelancer.
“It is very hard to put a monetary value on yourself, especially when you do something you love, so I did struggle with arriving at a sustainable and profitable pricing structure.”
Like Jane, Antonia too turned to online strangers for advice, hanging out in photographer’s groups on Flickr and then on Facebook.
“My way was through a lot of trial and error.
“Making friends in the industry and talking to people and discovering what works for them and what doesn’t. Purchasing a lot of online training – mainly from the US, which wasn’t always applicable to the UK market – making some more mistakes and starting over.”
This lack of available advice sources has led freelancers like Antonia to start providing their own advice to start-ups so they can avoid some of the pitfalls they themselves encountered in the early days.
With her business now 10 years old, she says she still sees the same gaps in advice that she encountered back then, citing a lack of advice about pricing as a particular problem in the photography industry.
She said: “There is a lot of money to be made in online courses and retreats for freelancers. There are estimates that it will be worth over $300bn by 2025.
“But as I mentioned, a lot of online courses and retreats mostly cover “sexy” topics like marketing or how to do the thing that you already do but better.
“I think it’s relatively easy to teach that, and people can see positive results right away. However, when it comes to pricing, or running a sustainable business, or staying in business long enough to start seeing results, it’s not as quick or straightforward.”
It was Caitlin’s early experiences that also prompted her to start offering tips to fellow freelancers. Having launched her career with the help of another copywriter who gave her some sage advice, she launched her own blog to recycle some of that good karma and help people who are in the position she once found herself.
She said: “Speaking to someone with this experience gave me great insight, and I’ve found that although I would technically become a competitor in a way, people are always really keen to help you out, which I really appreciate. I began writing my blog Desk Life Project to share the interviews and information that I learned and pay it forward!”
Beware Bad Advice
With many freelancers often being forced to resort to advice sourced online or from others who have trodden their career path, they should still keep their wits about them when it comes to where they place their faith, so says Tom.
“I think a lot of people are keen to offer advice on how they went about the process, but they’re not necessarily in the same position as you or have the required knowledge to explain how to handle the transition.” He said.
“Someone might have been a freelancer before, but it doesn’t mean they know what their accountant handled.
“The advice is normally overly positive. “you’ll love all the free time”, “try a co-working space to make lots of friends” and “within six months you will be earning more money than you can spend”, these all seem like nice sentiments but they don’t actually help at all.”