Career trajectories are meant to go one way: up and to the right. You begin in an entry-level role, work hard, get promoted, get a raise, find a new job that pays more, work hard, get a raise. You’re constantly reaching for the next rung on the ladder, strategically trying to find the kind of position that challenges you whilst also covering your outgoings and making you happy.
Being a freelancer is the same.
You take the leap into freelancing, something people do for many reasons: maybe you hated your job, maybe you got made redundant. You start out small with a few clients, work hard, take on more clients, work hard, find more clients, put your rates up.
While a freelance career can be unstable, and the feast/famine cycle is one many self-employed people will have experienced, there’s still this expectation that once you’re established as a freelancer your career will follow the same trajectory as traditional roles. That if you keep pushing, looking out for opportunities, and increasing rates, success will follow.
When people take a pay cut so that they can move cities (like I did when I left London) or concentrate on a job they love rather than one that just pays the bills, it’s often seen as a step backwards.
But worse still, in a world where the first thing a stranger tends to ask you is what you “do” and it pays, socially, to have something good to say, is the attitude towards those without “career jobs”. The idea that those who work in retail or hospitality or any other sector that doesn’t require you to commute to an office everyday must not have tried very hard in school. That they lack ambition.
It’s a horribly classist attitude, because any job is a proper job. People who work in retail or hospitality aren’t just biding their time until their big break into office work comes about. These jobs, while traditionally attracting students or those who require flexibility to care for children or relatives, aren’t just stop-gaps. They pay the bills and put food on the table. They’re proper jobs too.
Perhaps the reason I get most angry about the way we talk about careers, the way we put high-flyers up on pedestals, and the way some jobs are seen as ‘stop gaps’ while you look for something better, is because for the past few months I’ve been bankrolling my freelance career with a job at a local independent cafe.
Let’s skip back a few months.
In June 2016 I left my digital PR job in London, moved back to Leeds (where I’d gone to university ten years beforehand) and started a new agency role. When I lost that job, in January 2017, I decided to utilise all the social media, copywriting, and digital PR skills I’d acquired throughout my career and went freelance the next day. I was lucky; I secured a contract with the company I’d worked for in London and spent the first couple of months of my freelance career working remotely.
Those first couple of months were exciting and terrifying in equal amounts. I booked my friend Jo, a local photographer, to take my headshots, booked another friend, Bobbi, to re-design my website (I’d bought the domain name years beforehand but never done much with it) and in between running this blog and completing client work I went to as many meetings in Leeds as I could, just to get my name out there.
I think if I didn’t live alone, if I wasn’t single and solely responsible for rent and bills, it would have been a lot less scary, but I threw myself into my new career anyway, making enough in the first six months to cover my rent, bills, and more.
I worked out that, if I continued as I was, I’d be on track to making the same amount of money in twelve months of freelancing as I did in a full time role in London.
But there was a side to freelancing that no-one really talked about: isolation. And that took its toll not only on my mental health but also on my finances.
When I first went freelance, I loved getting to my desk in the morning. I’d moved into my flat six months beforehand and bought a table that would serve as both a dining table (when extended) or a desk, and used it mostly for blogging in the evenings.
Now, I was excited to use it everyday. To make my morning coffee and get shit done.
That lasted for months. I’d wake up, shower, get dressed, make coffee and breakfast and be at my desk by 8:30am or 9am. I was happy with the work I was doing, happy with the money I was earning. It felt good and empowering to be earning money that’d come about through no-one else’s work but mine.
But working from home five days a week when the only member of the team is you has its downsides.
Working alone has never been a problem for me. In fact, in some ways I prefer it. Especially because I was always the child in school who groaned when I had to take part in a group project.
But there’s a difference between working alone and being alone all the time.
Sometimes I’d go to cafes to work, but I was loath to spend all my hard-earned money on coffee and I didn’t want to be that person who buys one flat white and hogs a table for an entire afternoon.
I looked into co-working spaces but it seemed like an unnecessary expense when I had a perfectly good desk at home.
The black cloud had been in and out of my life for years, but got worse when I got back from celebrating my birthday in Berlin in July.
A large contract had finished a couple of months beforehand and, while I’d succeeded in bringing in more clients, financially things looked a lot different to how they did in February or March. I began to doubt myself and my abilities, feelings of failure set in, and suddenly getting out of bed and sitting at my desk wasn’t as exciting anymore.
In fact, I began to dread it.
I still got my client work done, still jumped on calls with potential new clients, still loved freelancing and the variety of work I was doing. But something had to change.
Financially, I needed some stability. And, for my mental health, I needed community. If I could find a solution that would help with both of those? Even better.
Admitting this to myself was hard, because look at the way we talk about female entrepreneurs, about being a ‘girlboss’ and not stopping until you’re a success and quitting your mindless 9-5 to go and do something you *actually* love.
None of it takes into account the everyday logistics of working for yourself and often seems to come from a place of privilege. We can’t all live at our parents’ rent free while we get on our feet. We can’t all ask our partners to cough up a little more money for rent every month while we start our own businesses.
And even if we go it alone without those privileges, a lot of the rhetoric around working for yourself is entirely unhelpful. It focuses on the endgame:your eventual success, while most of us are still down here in the trenches trying to figure out how to write a contract, organise your finances, and celebrate winning a new client when the only thing you share your workspace with is an aloe vera plant.
Financial stability, community and diversifying my income
I sent my CV to a few local cafes, even though I hadn’t worked in a coffee shop since I was a barista in Melbourne in 2011 and crossed my fingers. And it gave me hope, because at the time even though I had clients on the books and money coming in, I needed stability and to feel part of a team again in some way or another.
Of all the cafes I applied to, I heard back from one. My interview took place in a dry store on two stools wedged between shelves of brown paper bags and plastic jars full of baking supplies.
I talked about how I’d worked as a barista in Melbourne, about my job at a pub in Leeds while I was a student, about the waitressing I did during my A-levels at the restaurant in my hometown.
I explained that I still wanted to be a freelancer, but that I missed working with a team. How a job like this would help me out, financially speaking, without impacting too much on my existing client work in terms of headspace. I showed a passion for coffee and customer service and two weeks later I was tying an apron around my waist and starting my first shift.
A couple of months after that, the cafe hired me on a freelance basis to help with their social media and marketing and found myself planning out social media, taking photos, writing newsletters, running Facebook competitions and Instagram stories, and helping out with their blog. Suddenly I had the best of both worlds.
I could have gone back to an agency. Could have said goodbye to freelancing altogether and found myself a stable, high-paying job in PR or social media, just like I had in London. But the idea of sitting in an office again day in day out again didn’t appeal to me. The whole point of finding something part time was so I could diversify my income, not replace my freelancing income altogether.
Right now I get the best of both worlds. I get to do a couple of day’s work with an incredible team of interesting, hard-working people where no two days are the same (and drink flat whites – hello, have we met?), I get to manage the marketing for the cafe on an ongoing freelance basis, and I also get to do my own client work back at my desk at home. The desk where it all started.
I’m still a freelance social media manager and copywriter, still taking on clients, but my freelance life looks a little different now than it did six months ago, and that’s OK. I went freelance with a day’s notice, no prep-time, nothing. I’m alright with not having everything figured out yet.
I thought people would think I was a failure. That, by not following that up and to the right career trajectory I was somehow less of a success. And, with so much of my life “online”, doing something so obviously offline felt like it didn’t fit in with what most people know about me.
But diversifying your income and bank rolling something you love doing with something else you love doing is actually kind of sensible when you think about it. I feel quite lucky to be able to do a few things that make me happy instead of having to choose just one.
And I don’t want to be a high-flyer, I don’t want to be a “girlboss”. What I want is more important than that: stability and community. And, above all, I’m happy, which is more important than anything if you ask me.