There are several words you could use to describe the traits of a successful freelancer: flexible, resiliant, organised, but one thing for sure is that I haven’t met one yet who has all the skills and knowledge needed from day one. As our latest Featured Freelancer – Dawn Baird – mentions, “no-one has their shiz together”, which is the purpose of Freelance Heroes, to help privide a platform for freelancers to help each other fill in those knowledge gaps. Dawn is frequently involved in the group, both to offer advice based on her experiences, also to ask for help when needed, and her answers are as brilliantly frank and forthcoming as you would expect. These are the expereriences and tips from Dawn’s freelancing journey to far…
What is your name, where are you based, and what do you do?
Dawn Baird. Belfast, Northern Ireland. I’m a Content Developer. I enable clients to communicate better in person, on paper and online. That ranges from workplace learning, 1:1 coaching, snappy presentations, annual and technical reports, writing workshops, presentations and pitches to large knowledge bases about scientific and technical products.
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
I’ve been running Sensei since 2006 with my husband Allen. I hated working for other people – always! I bounced around various temping jobs for two years following university, worked as a youth worker, an ambulance dispatcher, a receptionist and even as an accounts assistant (in an office that used giant paper spreadsheets and an ancient manual calculator in preference to the computer that sat in the corner – agh!). I landed an IT Trainer role after stumbling upon the exact week my first proper employer was interviewing for two new positions. (I’d reached E in the Yellow Pages, during a desperate A-Z stint of cold calling every employer I thought I might want to work for!) IT Training roles led into Training in general, during which I created buckets of content in many different topics and managed the training function for over 140 staff.
As I worked through various employers, gaining “a very particular set of skills”, I began to crave flexibility and independence. It was a combination of personal circumstances that pushed both me and my husband into self-employment, probably a year in advance of when we’d planned to make the jump. Our first big win was when (with little to lose), I insisted that a recruiter paid us five times what they were offering (they offered us three times, and we accepted). With that success, combined with my husband’s new freelance role working for a local university (one of our biggest, longest lasting clients), we were hooked – this was going to work!
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
Aside from my cheerleading mum and siblings, most of our friends and some family thought we were certifiably bonkers! That ranged from the really quite nasty (“who’s want to buy services from you?”) to the curious looks accompanied with “that’s brave!” to the exasperatingly uninformed (“but, but… who’s going to pay you?!”). It amuses me so much to this day that I’ve written a blog post to help others deal with it: Why Your Non-Entrepreneurial Family and Friends Don’t Understand What You Do (link to: http://www.sensei.ie/business/why-your-non-entrepreneurial-family-and-friends-dont-understand-what-you-do/).
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
Yes, we signed up with a local Enterprise Agency, Mallusk Enterprise, who were running a Start a Business Programme, which turned out to be an endlessly useful, if short, sharp shock into the real world. We had an amazing mentor there, Ian Kerr, whose words of wisdom we still reference today. He impressed upon us most sincerely (read: bluntly) that we have to know what we’re selling, to whom and for how much, and hammered home the crucial matters of record keeping and cashflow.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
Our best clients know what they want. They have a problem, a pain point, and they know we can solve it – from a generous referral from someone else, previous experience of working with us, or from reading something we’ve posted online.
They come to us with an exact scenario, ask how we’d tackle it, then book us to help them do so. They value our expertise and have no problem paying for it.
It may sound a little arrogant, but I’d say it’s for expertise. Clients have had enough of the “what do you think” type charlatanism or smoke and mirrors that abounds in the business services world. They very often want straightforward answers to questions. That is something we can provide, in Plain English.
Is being a freelancer what you expected? Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
We work more hours than anticipated, but then we can take time off when we want, without having to put up our hands and ask permission of the Big Boss.
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?
Freshbooks is the single biggest time saving tool. It’s a website and app that helps you mange client invoices, expenses, time, reminders, payments and late payment fees. And Basecamp for managing internal business tasks and external client projects.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
Work in that field before you decide you want to run a business. If at all possible, gain experience managing teams in your industry too. When you start your own business, you will have to manage teams of others to help you deliver a service to you client. Sometimes, your client will even want you to manage their project team. There is simply no substitute for experience, and no-one will take you seriously if your LinkedIn profile shows that your experience started the same day you opened up shop.
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
I’ve learned that flexibility works both ways. I looked forward to the flexibility I would enjoy, but because small businesses tend to have lower overheads than a large agency with multiple staff and smaller office costs (if any) they can be much more agile on client projects. Clients appreciate that, and it’s great to know you can make an impact right away, without having to go through layers of meetings and permissions.
About myself, I’ve learned that I’m much more comfortable with risk than I thought, and that resilience and confidence builds with experience.
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
Freedom to choose my own clients comes top of the list for me. Flexible working options is a close second, enabling me to build my business around my personal life, not the other (unhealthy) way around. Also, I get to work with my husband! He’s an intelligent guy, hard-working, a great listener, always learning, gentle with feedback(!) and ever curious. And, despite being asked “how on earth!!” we manage to work together approximately 347 times per month, our skills complement each other really well.
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
Chasing client payments – I’ve little tolerance for this particular manifestation of amateurism. I do the work, on time; so, they must pay the invoice, on time – otherwise my skin tends to take on a minty hue.
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
It’s difficult to narrow it down to one thing, but 100% location independence would be one. We’re almost there though, with current clients mostly in the U.S. and one in Switzerland. So, I’ll have to think of a new one! And I love using all the fantastic tools available to us now that make location independence possible across many service industries like ours, many of which are free – for communication, file sharing, project management and collaboration.
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
I wish I’d known that no-one has their shiz together, even though they might look like it. Fortunately, the small business community where I live is thriving and very active, with lots of large, formal, structured networking events (that are great for visibility and meeting people) and smaller, niche, informal networking events (that are great for making and developing lasting business friendships, where you can relax in the support of fellow wayfarers). I also love finding niche online networking forums and groups and engaging with other people from other cultures (ya know, like the English!), countries and industries.
You can connect with Dawn at:
Our website: http://sensei.ie/
Us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/senseihello
Us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/senseilearningandperformance/
Me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/senseilp
Me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dawnbairdsensei/
And, of course, at the Freelance Heroes Facebook Group.