What I learned transitioning from agency to freelance

Before I made the leap I read blog articles of other freelancers who did the same. People like Stuart Robson, Chris Allwood, people who have made it work. I also called a lot of people - Chris Armstrong, Chris Murphy, Andrew Fulton - without their advice I probably would have talked myself out of it because before you actually do it your mind finds plenty of reasons not to do it.

To cut to the chase: it’s working for me too, and I want to give that reassurance to people are considering making a similar move that it can work for you.

I thought I’d start by discussing a few of the worries I had after I handed in my notice:

  • What if there isn’t enough work out there?
  • What about all that paperwork?
  • Running my own business sounds scary

Firstly there is always work out there. This comes from a place of reassurance rather than any sort of attempt at bragging but my diary has been full since I began. I haven’t needed to advertise my services,apart from the initial announcement in March that I was going freelance. Since then I’ve found traditional word of mouth is still the most effective form of advertising.

The best way to let word of mouth do the work for you is to turn up every day and do the best job you can do. One of the biggest differences between agency and freelance work is that in an agency environment I would plan out how the next day or in some cases how the next week would look. Now that I work for myself I need to know what the next 3 months look like to ensure the pipeline is healthy and that I can continue to work for a variety of different people on different design problems.

Paperwork was strangely my biggest worry. I’ve never owned a business, I’ve produced invoices and estimates before in both of my previous agencies, but not for my own business. I worried that there might have been other paperwork that I hadn’t been exposed to before and that perhaps the amount of paperwork would have been overwhelming.

Luckily clever companies have been solving this problem. I bought a subscription to FreeAgent which handles my accounts including estimates, changing estimates into invoices, sending out invoice reminders, it keeps everything in check for things like tax returns and expenses. Without it, I’d be putting so much more time into this side of the business rather than concentrating on the fun, rewarding stuff.

One of the most exciting aspects of working for myself has been applying the knowledge I’ve gained after over 7 years of industry experience. I’ve learned from some great people like Paul May how could apply analytical thinking to design problems and could lead effective workshops with stakeholders and get the most out of people’s time. I’ve learned from Paul McKeever’s ability to find, create and deliver value for users and clients alike, and I’ve also borrowed heavily from Jamie Neely’s design theory and reasoning to ensure everything I make serves a purpose and fulfills a need.

By observing and working with great people, it’s easier to deliver great work.

The same is true today, if I take on a project where I know someone can specialise on a particular component, I have the flexibility to hire people in and apply their skills. Working with be best helps you keep performing to your best.

Aside from the work itself I have adapted to the freelance lifestyle pretty quickly. I have taken the time to study when I’m most productive and shape my working day around those hours. This means I know when I can do my best work rather than working within a set period of hours that the rest of a team works within.

That flexibility extends to the working environment. If I’m bored of working at my desk I can take my office with me to somewhere else like a coffee shop, or another studio, the library - wherever I want to work.

I’ve even worked a few evenings during my summer holidays - I wouldn’t recommend it for most people if you want to unwind, but I rather enjoy the novelty of working in a different country on the same projects I’ve been working on from home. It means the holidays themselves can be more flexible too - next year I’m considering working from the US for a couple of months and making the most of the school holidays with my family.

The last point I want to make is the most important factor in my decision to go freelance. I went from seeing my kids for 1-2 hours a day to being able to drop them to school, pick them up from school, attend sports days, I’ve been able to be there. That’s the kind of freedom that I enjoy most aside from all the other benefits. I can watch my young family grow up much more closely than I have before, and the best part is they don’t grow up so fast anymore because I’m there to see so more of it and spend time with them. It’s our most precious commodity and now I can shape my time to fit however I want rather than being told how to spend it.