Being a freelancer often means being taken out of our comfort zone. For example, a great designer continues to be a great designer, but once they start as a freelance designer they have to manage their paperwork, juggle additional responsibilities, market themselves, and so much more.
This week’s Featured Freelancer, Carly Stringer, stepped out of her comfort zone in January by recording a minimum of one Instagram Story a day for the month. This not only increased views to her Instragram channel, but also, as Carly told me: “a collaboration which is coming up and lots more conversations with my followers as I end up getting quite a few messages in my inbox as a result of my stories. Plus a huge amount of self confidence.” It also grabbed my attention and made me want to find out more about Carly’s journey in her first year of freelancing. Thankfully, she agreed to take part and here is her story…
What is your name, where are you based, and what do you do?
I’m Carly Stringer, Founder of Keystone Virtual. I offer business, digital marketing and social media consultancy to small service-based businesses with big ideas. I live in Maidstone, Kent with my husband John and our two children – Freya (5) and Leo (2).
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
I’ve been working remotely for three years but launched my freelance business last February. So, I’ll soon be celebrating my one-year business anniversary!
I launched Keystone Virtual because I knew that I could add more value than I was able to do as an employee. Since having my second child I moved to a more flexible way of working, but this held me back from achieving my career goals and as a result I was unfulfilled. I knew I could do more. I wanted more. I didn’t want to be labelled a ‘mum’ or ‘wife’. Yes, I am one and I love it, but I didn’t want that to define me or be all that I am. Just because I had other commitments didn’t mean I was any less ambitious. Then something clicked, and I started to see my situation not as barrier but an opportunity. An opportunity to build something of my own, that I was passionate about and that would provide real value to other people. All while working around my growing family.
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
My family and friends have all been extremely supportive, especially my husband. He’s stepped up a gear when it comes to helping with the kids and doesn’t complain when I need to put in a few extra hours when he’s at home (like now!).
He also bought me a new Mac just before I launched. I was going to make do with my old laptop because I wanted to keep my start-up costs to a minimum until I knew I’d made the right decision and was actually bringing in some money! But on Christmas morning in 2016 he bought out this big box and told me that he knew I’d be successful. That gesture definitely gave me the added boost of motivation and confidence I needed!
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
I decided I wanted to make a go of freelancing a good 8 months before I launched. I spent those months doing a lot of research. I joined several brilliant communities for freelancers and virtual assistants and gained a lot of insight, resources and support from these groups. Special mentions go to Freelance Heroes, Doing It For The Kids and VIP VA, which I still turn to on a daily basis!
I also turned to KoffeeKlatch, a small legal team that supports freelancers and small business owners, for my contracts and policies as it was really important to me that I had the legal side of things covered from the outset.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
My clients are brilliant, and I love working with them all. They all run small businesses so are completely understanding of the way in which I want to work and actively champion the flexible working lifestyle. And many of them are parents too. But they all run very different businesses and that’s what I love so much about my work – the different people I get to work with and the variety of projects I’m involved in.
Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?
Most of my clients come to me through recommendations from other clients, so there is an immediate level of trust.
I put a lot of emphasis on client service. I’m reliable, fast-working and have really high expectations of myself. I’m able to pick up new skills, concepts and information extremely quickly, meaning that I am of value to my clients from the get go.
My clients often say to me that I’m more than just outsourced support. They view me as a strategic partner. I’m proactive and am not afraid to challenge my clients’ thinking or suggest new ideas and approaches if I think they will be of benefit.
Is being a freelancer what you expected? e.g. Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
I definitely work more hours than I anticipated. Firstly, because the work of a small business owner never ends (especially when it comes to your own marketing!), secondly because I love it so much that it doesn’t feel like work most of the time, and thirdly because I’m always investing in my own self-development (last year I completed the Digital Mums Social Media Marketing Course on top of the day to day running of my business). That said, I do practice what I preach and outsource some of my own business work to other freelancers, which definitely eases some of the workload.
While I work more hours than I thought I would, being a freelancer is everything I expected (and more!). I’m now not only completely fulfilled by my work and in control of my career path, but I’m able to work completely flexibly around my two young children. I’m there for every school and nursery drop off and pick up, school assembly, parents evening, after school club and sick day.
I’ve also met so many fantastic people along the way. One of my main concerns when going freelance was the isolation. But I can honestly say that I’ve never felt more part of a team in all my working life. I speak to other freelancers on a daily basis – and not just online but through Skype and often face-to-face. The support network and camaraderie are incredible. Everyone is so collaborative and there is a real community spirit. Gone are the days of office politics. Freelancing has allowed me to build genuine connections with like-minded people in a way I never imagined possible.
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?
I can’t pick just one I’m afraid! My go to apps are:
Trello – for generally organising all of my to do lists, plans and workflows
Toggl – for tracking my time
Wave – for my invoicing and accounting
Office 365 – for all my work, emails and cloud storage
LastPass – to keep my passwords secure and ensure I never have to remember a password ever again
SmarterQueue – for social media scheduling and content finding
Canva – for all my design needs
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
Do your research so you go into business clear on your proposition and how you differ from others in your field.
Everyone says it, but having a niche really does help. Whether it’s a certain service or type of client, being specific means that you can be more targeted in your marketing and it is that bit easier to establish yourself as an expert in your field.
Don’t stick your head in the sand when it comes to the legal side of things. It’s not sexy but having the right contracts, insurance and approach to data protection in place is essential if you are going to run a credible business.
And finally, do not undersell yourself! I see so many virtual assistants and other freelancers (especially women!) undercharging because they don’t value themselves.
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
That everyone is winging it. No one has it all mapped out. No one has the answer to everything. And everyone else is having to learn just as much as you are to keep up with changes in their field and make their business successful.
It’s okay to pivot. In fact, you’ll need to. Often!
Oh, and I am not an impostor (okay okay, I’ve still got a little way to go until the final one sinks in, but I’m getting there!).
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
There are so many things! But coming out top has to be the flexibility and freedom to fit my work around my young children.
I also love being in complete control of what work I take on, who I work with and where I take my business next. There is nothing more motivating than that!
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
Having to do my own finances and tax returns!
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
Ultimately, I’d like to be able to offer more than just selling my time. This year I’m starting to map out other things I know I can, and want to offer – including training, workshops and online courses. It’s not something I’m going to rush into because I want to get it right and I’m still working out exactly how it will all look and fit together. But watch this space – there is definitely more to come from me!
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
Where I’d be today. Heading into the unknown is daunting and I wish I could have had a bit more confidence from the beginning. That said, I’ve got no regrets and I think that’s important when working for yourself. It’s all a learning process and whatever happens you need to look for the positives, take the learnings and move your business forwards.
To get in touch with Carly, visit:
and, of course, the Freelance Heroes Facebook Group.