P6 Stories: Life as a freelancer

Here at Point 6, we believe everyone has a story to tell, and it’s in sharing these stories that we learn about what really makes people who they are. One of our most consistent collaborators and creative artworker extraordinaire, Chris Holden, wanted to tell his tale about life as a freelancer and give his advice to others who may be considering a similar career path. Take it away, Chris…

Becoming a freelancer was not a planned move. In December 2014, the company I was working for closed its office in Milton Keynes. I was given the choice of relocating to Nottinghamshire or taking redundancy. Nottinghamshire is a fine county, with many things going for it, but relocation, or commuting from my base in Bedfordshire, was not really an option at that time.  

Choosing to take the redundancy option gave me some time to evaluate my options and even consider starting a new career outside of the design sector. Having a BSc in Environmental Science, it was an area that appealed to me. However, after a few unsuccessful applications and interviews and the realisation that changing career direction would mean starting on the bottom rung of the ladder again, I chose to return to the industry that had served me so well for the previous 25 years.

My first freelance booking came about by chance / luck / fate — whatever you want to call it. Having decided to abandon my plans to save the planet (sorry folks, but Greta is doing a much better job than I ever could), I saw a position advertised in my local rag. It was for a creative artworker at a design agency in Bedford, my hometown. I thought the interview went well and my skills and experience were suited to the position, however, I was pipped to the post by some sickeningly talented individual. Oh well ‘their loss’, there’d be plenty more opportunities, wouldn’t there?

After a week or so of trawling through websites, tweaking my CV and portfolio, Steve (from the Bedford-based design agency) called. He explained that the successful applicant was unable to start for three months and they desperately needed someone to cover until my nemesis could join them. I played it cool for about five seconds before agreeing to ‘help them out’.

In the end, they needed me for six months and the experience gave me a somewhat rose-tinted view of how my new work-life choice was going to pan out. The office was a five-mile bike ride, along the banks of the Great Ouse; the studio was a great mix of characters and very chilled; the work was different to anything I’d previously experienced and the money was much better than I had been earning previously. Why hadn’t I thought about freelancing before?

The Great Ouse river by Peter Corr

This initial plunge into self-employment did prove to be a bit of a false dawn though. When the work dried up at the Bedford design agency, I had a two to three-month spell with no work. This is when the doubts really started to creep in about whether freelancing was for me. I signed up with several recruitment agencies and began a daily routine of searching the web and applying for positions.

I think part of the problem was that I didn’t hassle the recruitment agencies enough, assuming that when new positions became available they would contact me immediately. But of course, recruiters have many people on their books and understandably will approach the people who have a proven record before contacting someone quite new to the game. On reflection, I probably missed a few opportunities through my naivety regarding how recruiters operate.

Fortunately, since those days of doubt and recrimination I’ve not had a similar length of time between contracts, but I’ve had to learn to manage my finances better. Looking back, it does feel to me that once you’ve established yourself as a freelancer and can demonstrate your competence and success through an expanding CV, work opportunities become more frequent. The greatest affirmation that you’re doing something right is being asked back for repeat bookings.

Some of the Point 6 team enjoying a much-needed sugar break

My current contract with Point 6 Design is the fourth time I have returned to West London, since my first stint with them in 2017. We have forged a strong working relationship and whenever I return to the leafy streets of Queens Park, I am always afforded a warm welcome by the wonderful staff and directors. Considering I’m not a permanent fixture in the studio it is a testament to Point 6 that I am always made to feel a part of the team.

The different experiences I’ve had as a self-employed worker over the past five years have been most valuable and taught me many things. I thought these might be useful to share with anyone considering dipping their toe into the freelancing waters.

Manage your expectations

More often than not your first day at a booking will be the first time you’ve set foot in that particular place. You tend to form a picture in your mind of how the first day is going to pan-out. Something along the lines of: I will walk in and immediately be allocated interesting and challenging work, meet my new colleagues over a cuppa in the company refectory and find I have a lot in common with my new co-workers.

In reality you’re often sat waiting to be given something to do, or you learn the ropes by looking over someone’s shoulder. Experience has taught me that the first few days are generally the hardest and after a couple of days things will generally fall into place and your new colleagues will get used to a fresh face in their ranks.

Be adaptable

I’ve had bookings where the role advertised isn’t quite the same as what the client actually requires. One booking springs to mind, where I understood I was going in as an artworker and would be rolling-out ranges of supermarket packaging. When I turned up, the client actually required was a retoucher.

Although I had a fair bit of Photoshop experience, I did not have experience in this type of technical retouching. I was open with the client about my limitations and fortunately, whether out of desperation or some sense of pity for this poor chap who’d travelled all the way into London, the client agreed to give me a go. It turned out that what was required was well within my capabilities and I relished the chance to improve my Photoshop skills.

Be resilient

Not every booking can be a roaring success. I’ve had a couple of contracts where, for whatever reason, your face doesn’t fit, or you don’t feel comfortable within an organisation. One of the less successful bookings I’ve had was for a (not to be named) agency, where it felt as though freelancers were seen as a necessary evil. There were four of us in total and we were all put on a cramped desk in the corner of the office with very little interaction with the permanent staff, given unreliable equipment to work on and perhaps worst of all — you weren’t even provided with tea or coffee!

After enduring this for a couple of weeks I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t for me and gave the client a week’s notice, which they declined and informed me I could finish up at the end of the current week. Experiences such as this inevitably make you question yourself. Was it something I had done? Was my work not up to their standards? After a (little bit) of soul searching and some sage words from my wonderful wife I put the whole experience down as a learning curve and moved on to the next contract.

Having initially fallen into freelancing, more by luck than judgement, the last five years have taken me as far afield as Nottingham, Birmingham, Burton, Leicester, Peterborough and London, working for some great organisations and having the chance to be involved with some fantastic projects. I’ve grown as a person, become more confident in my abilities and feel comfortable going into new organisations, meeting new colleagues and embracing new experiences.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on many sectors, although at the time of writing the design/artwork sector seems to have been slightly less affected than others. There are still opportunities out there. Should things take a downturn, I feel I have developed a greater resilience and a more flexible attitude, which will hopefully get me through these unusual times.

Finally, I’d like to thank Point 6 for giving me the opportunity to share my story, which has hopefully given a small insight into the world of freelancing.

Thanks for reading,

Chris.

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