Every freelancer has to wear many hats and juggle tasks that they’re both good at and bad. To help with this, the best empathy and support comes from other freelancers – a key reason why Freelance Heroes exists – and this week’s Featured Freelancer is living proof that finding that right person to share support with can make an invaluable difference to help them both to grow their business.
We head to Newcastle, home of Greggs, Lucozade and Mr Bean, for this week’s insight into the life a mind of a Freelance Hero, photographer Gavin Forster. Enjoy Gavin’s story and say hi using the links at the end…
What is your name, where are you based, and what do you do?
Hi, my name is Gavin Forster and I am based in the sunny North! Well, Newcastle to be exact. I’m a photographer of people, places and sometimes things.
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
I have been full time freelancing for 2 years now after being part time for the 2 years before that. As with most people, I think it was a mix of opportunity and circumstance. I had been building the business for the last 5 years in the background whilst still working for Leeds City Council and subsequently Hexham Community Partnership. This was a tough time balancing out developing how I wanted to move the business forward but also giving my all to my project management and community development roles. All of a sudden, a little bundle of fun arrived named Daisy and everything changed! My mind-set and my desire to spend some time with my daughter growing up meant I had a decision to make. It was time to push the business more and move away from my safety net of community development work and a guaranteed income each month, to the freelance world of uncertainty and worry. It was a tough one, but being able to take a passion from the depths of the laptop on an evening and shooting at the weekend, through to a planned and developed business has been a great journey. But you know what? It’s still one of the best decisions I have made.
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
Being new parents, I’m not sure that from the outside, moving from that monthly pay cheque to the unknown would have been everyone’s first plan. I had amazing support from my wife, and being honest, she pushed me to make the decision to do this. I am naturally a thinker, and big decisions often take a bit of time to get my head in to and go through some of the options before diving in. So you can imagine this one was a biggy! One challenge I had was the discussions with my parents. My father was a pitman and worked for established companies like Northumbrian Water for all of his working life, so it was a challenge for him to see how I could move from the very safe Council job in Leeds to move back up North to take a part-time job and take photos more…and then quit that job to only take photos!
Both my parents were obviously supportive of my decision as they knew that I wouldn’t be making it without thinking it all through. Although some of their questions about my plans did add to my own panics! I don’t think anyone told me it was a silly idea or was negative about the plans maybe just a little cautious in light of the very competitive nature of the photography industry these days.
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
I didn’t take up any of the formal support that is there – not because it wouldn’t have been useful, only because fitting it in to my busy life at the time I started would have been tough. I was doing most of my work in the twilight hours at first, as during the day I would be playing with Peppa Pig and tractors with Daisy. Every time I had a shoot to go to, I would be calling in favours from my parents to help with childcare. This isn’t a life that fits with formal support and training. The one massive resource I had since moving back up to Newcastle was the support and connections of Nicola from Digital Sparkles. We met years ago through Twitter and worked together initially with a joint passion for the Eco side of things but her amazing enthusiasm for my business and her network have been pivotal in the growth of my business.
I suppose I still at times feel like I’m still just starting out as there are always new opportunities popping up. You really can’t stand still these days. So I’m now looking for what resources I can access to plan out the next 5 years of my business. I’m very sure it will look different from the first few years, so that is maybe a good time to get some of this professional support!
How would you describe your clients or customers?
Because I do both wedding and commercial photography, I get a huge range of clients from so many different backgrounds. My wedding clients – the couples – are always very relaxed, open to suggestions, and sometimes even slightly creative themselves. This helps as their personalities do shine through in their wedding images. My commercial clients are always ambitious people, which makes sense as commercial photos are all about creating a great visual brand to attract customers. I’ve worked with a range of super creative commercial clients – from shoe-makers to hat-makers and music-makers! They really do make the whole experience loads of fun.
Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?
Each photographer has a completely different style, so it’s all about preference. For example, for wedding photography, my style is very natural – I capture natural moments that are spontaneous and haven’t been staged in any way. Sometimes I may ask the couple to move their head or arm slightly in order to capture the perfect image, but for the most part, it’s completely natural!
Part of it is delivering images that meet/exceed their expectations as they do come back for repeat business. I also think that due to my background in community development, I have a tendency to try and push people together if I see a good connection. So if a new client comes along and onsite they mention an idea or problem they have, I will always see if my network has someone in it to help. This isn’t something that I directly gain from, but helping clients in their business can’t be a bad thing, can it?
Is being a freelancer what you expected? Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
That’s a tough one. I think that overall, the bubble of a 9-5 job didn’t prepare me for the extra skills that I would have to pick up to run a functioning business. The first year was a very steep learning curve, and I’m not sure that the learning will ever really end but it’s certainly a little easier now that I have settled in. With regards to the hours, I have mapped my hours a few times in the last couple of years, and it’s a bit scary how I manage to fit in so many hours around looking after a 3 year old! I suppose the biggest shift for me has been the mental shift rather than the hours shift. In my previous roles, it was tough switching off my brain from the lives of the people I was helping. Going home at 5 didn’t mean I wasn’t thinking all the time about options to help people, etc. Since moving to photography that time is now is full of MY business and MY plans. So the time taken up in my head is the same but a lot more focused on me, which is weird still.
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?
From a photography business perspective, I love Pixifi, as a great CRM – it keeps all of my clients in one place and makes it easy to manage all of the invoicing, etc. But that’s not going to help any of your readers, so from a general business perspective, Evernote is just becoming an integral part of my business. Taking notes on the go, sharing notes and ideas with people is fantastic. In the last few months, it has become even more useful since I have been getting some support on my social media from Alex. Being able to throw notes at each other has been great to collaborate and work more productively. It has some amazing features such as the business card reader too – you can scan someone’s business card on your phone, and it will save a virtual version along with all the information on it. No more piles of business cards in your bag!
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
In such a busy market as photography, it’s a balance between keeping up on trends and delivering quality work that clients are looking for, but more importantly I feel that getting out there and meeting people is key. I know that standing in a networking meeting and talking to people isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but it can really make a difference to your business. Yes, social media is king at the moment and you can reach so many people in an hour than having a bacon sarnie and a cuppa with some people who may or may not remember you, but faces are much more memorable when there is a voice and a laugh associated with them. Being memorable is way easier in person.
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
As I have just mentioned, getting out there and talking to people really does work! I know it’s my background and it was inevitable that I would use those skills to get involved in things, but luckily for me, talking to people and being helpful are key things to pushing your business forward. I have also learned that you have to be in this game for the long run. Connections and chats you have in person or online may not come to anything in the next 2-6 months, but they can come back around in time.
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
I’m sure I’m not the only one to say this, but it’s the flexibility. My family life and my daughter’s life wouldn’t be like it is without me being able to take work on that fits for me. I can’t say how lucky I am to be in a position to do this. It’s not always easy trying to take phone calls and write emergency emails while doing puzzles with my other hand, but the days out at the farm and the beach make up for those.
Also being able to work when I need to each day is really useful. In the 9-5 land, getting up at 6 am to get some jobs finished would be tough, as working for someone else made some of the jobs difficult to achieve before all the other 9-5s were in the office too. As a freelancer, or at least as a photographer, I can work at crazy times and get loads done without impacting on life.
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
Keeping on top of things. As it’s only me (and the awesome Alex for social media), I have to be all of the other roles. Some of those roles I’m rubbish at so they get pushed back in the queue. As things are growing, I’m getting my head around what I can outsource, and everything is still getting done, but it’s not easy.
I suppose the double-edged sword of being able to work any hours of the day also leads to some days being a bit too much, with 6 am starts and 1 am finishes. That said, I’m in control of that, aren’t I? Maybe that’s my next learning challenge over the coming months – to target my time better. Every day is a school day and all that!
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
To have a happy child that gets to visit loads of cool places before she starts at school! From a business perspective, I would like to eventually have a work space and employ a couple of staff to help with editing and potentially shooting for me.
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
It’s not as scary as it is in your head. There are loads of people just as worried and as scared as you out there and the vast majority are happy to help you through the tough bits! Also, there are people out there with the skills that can fill the gaps. Like me with social media. It’s not that I can’t do it, but it’s about doing it well. Alex has transformed my social media as that is her speciality. Ask people for help if you need it!
You can meet and chat with Gavin at one of the following locations:
Commercial social media
website – www.gforsterphoto.co.uk
twitter – https://twitter.com/gforsterphoto
facebook – https://www.facebook.com/gforsterphoto/
Wedding social media
website – www.gavinforsterphotography.co.uk
twitter – https://twitter.com/gforsterphoto
instagram – https://www.instagram.com/gforsterphoto/
as well as, of course, the Freelance Heroes Facebook Group.