Over the last couple of weeks, I've been working with a number of newbie independent communicators - a couple have chosen to move out of full-time in-house roles, while a couple more have had the decision thrust upon them.
As an 11-year veteran of running a microbusiness that has never involved more than four people - and most of the time has involved half of that or me alone, they've been picking my brains as to what it takes to keep in business year in and year out. In the coming weeks, I'll be happy to share any insights I've garnered.
First, I'd say, never turn down work unless you really, really have to. Today, for instance, I had planned to write part of a large report - something I thought would take all day. Mid-morning, I was actually going great guns, so when a request for a news story for a client's portal came in before lunch, I thought I might as well knock it off straight away. I did so - to the client's surprise and got the response "My god man, you're quick." She's a relatively new client, so it's nice to go beyond her expectations. Meanwhile, I've raced on with the main project and probably covered twice the ground I expected today.
But that's just a small example. Over the past few years I've very rarely turned down any work - and nearly always regretted it when I've had to. There's a weird freelance maxim at work: work will only come in when you're busy. There'll be times you look at your calendar and think: 'I haven't possibly got time to do that extra piece'. The problem is, someone out there will find time. If you say no, you don't only run the risk of damaging a client relationship, but are handing an opportunity to someone else who may get the client's call first in the future. And, as has happened once or twice in the last couple of years, the big piece of work that's set to block out the week or month can sometimes arrive late, or not quite as big as expected....or even not arrive at all.
As freelancers, we're not bound by the 9-5 or the Monday to Friday. So, wherever I possibly can, I'll try and say yes to any work that comes in unexpectedly. And if I really, really can't take on the job, I'll at least try and hand it on to a someone I know (and know will do the work well). We're a fairly small bunch in this profession, and I certainly believe if you help fellow freelancers, the good karma will come right back at you.
My second, connected, rule is don't over-promise. The worst possible thing you can do is take on a challenge you're really not up to. While I've choked through my teeth on it sometimes, I've always tried to be honest about what I can and can't do. If something's out of my skillset, I won't pretend I can do it (though that skillset is distinctly elastic around the edges) - but again try and turn a negative into something positive. I've built a lot of good connections in associated professions over the years, so if someone's looking for design consultancy, I know a man who can, and the same goes for quant research, photography, illustration, conference organisation etc.
This job is all about personal relationships - and any independent is only as good as the last impression we've made.