The Blog

10 Essential Tips for the Self-Employed

One of the weirdest things about self-employement, is that nobody teaches you how to be self-employed. You it. And make a lot of mistakes along the way. Over the last 17 years at the Freelance Coalface, I've learned a few really valuable things that, had I known them at the start, might have saved me a grey hair or 50.
Tom Merton via Getty Images

One of the weirdest things about self-employement, is that nobody teaches you how to be self-employed.

You it. And make a lot of mistakes along the way.

Over the last 17 years at the Freelance Coalface, I've learned a few really valuable things that, had I known them at the start, might have saved me a grey hair or 50.

So here they are, in the hope that they do the same for you:

1. BEHAVE AS IF YOU ARE AT WORK. Because you are. This sounds embarrassingly simple, but few of us do it. We slob around the kitchen in our pyjamas at lunch time, send half-baked emails while frying bacon (a piece of culinary multi-tasking no chef would attempt), lose Very Important Documents because we were arseing around on Facebook and forgot to press 'save', make work calls from the bath and do our self-assessment online tax return at 11.58pm on January 30th, while downing gin and weeping into the phone at the nice girl at HM Revenue and Customs who sorts us all out...until next year at the same time.

None of this is very conducive towards producing good work...or being offered more.

Even if you work from home, it's just occasionally a good idea to pretend you are in an office.

2. BE A GOOD BOSS The deepest, most damaging trap that most self-employed people fall into, is not treating themselves right.

It's obvious why; everything costs, and we pay for everything. From the cheapest essentials like pens and paper right up to the Big Guns of a new laptop or monitor, we cough up for the lot.

There is no stationary cupboard to raid; no Tech Dude who will fix a computer or magically replace a broken mobile phone (whose contract is paid for by the company). Everything we eat, drink, write on, communicate with, wipe our bottoms with, print out and travel on, is paid for by us.

And so, because we are all skint, we try to cut corners everywhere, scrimp, starve, and deny ourselves the basics that we need in order to do our job WELL, and without going insane.

And so we go insane.

So be a good boss, and treat yourself as you would expect an employer to treat you. If you travel for work, travel well. Don't rent a cold, damp room with no desk or proper lighting, as I foolishly did this Summer.

Be a flipping employed ADULT. Stay in a hotel. Have a nice breakfast. If your 'properly employed' partner were going away on business he or she would be in a nice hotel, having drinks on the veranda before going out for dinner with clients. Again. You deserve this too. It's not a luxury. It's nothing to feel guilty about, or have to justify. It's part of being employed, and you will work better for it.

3. GET PAID. I am terrible at this. Getting and doing the work is the fun part. Actually making sure I'm paid for it feels like an extra chore I have to do, when my brain has already signed it off and zipped onto the next thing.

Over the last seventeen years of freelancing, I think I'm owed literally £1000s in unpaid work, and expenses. I am just hopeless at keeping track, and chasing people up for money. And most of my self-employed friends are the same.

So please, please don't let this happen to you; keep a note of every piece of work you do - and only tick it off when you have been paid. You don't need a fancy spreadsheet to do this for you, though they do help. In the Olden Days we did this is notebooks, and that still works: if it's not ticked off, THEY OWE YOU MONEY. So go and get it!

4. BANISH GUILT. You know how it goes: I'm at work, so I feel guilty about not being with my children. I'm with my children, so I feel guilty about not doing my work. It's classic lose-lose, and SO many of us do it.


When you work, work. When you don't, don't.

Easy to say, I know, but if you say it out loud to yourself, and really try to put it into practice, it can work.

In my experience, men are (generally) much better at this than women. When they go to work, they are at work, whereas we haul 10 tonnes of maternal guilt around with us on our aching shoulders all day. And it's hard to do that without collapsing.

So learn from them, and lose the guilt.

The funny thing is, many children much prefer it when you do this. Mine hate when I try to combine work and parenting, and fail at both. They much prefer when I just say, 'guys, I need an hour to finish this article' and just go and DO it, like a calm, working adult setting a good example of work-life balance, rather than trying to write a column while mending a Lego castle, baking a cake, helping with GCSE maths, and shouting at everyone in the process before crying myself to sleep on the landing floor. For example.

5. GET DRESSED Amazing how many people who work from home don't. I know it's lovely to be able to hang out in trackies and eat cake all day and 'work' on the sofa. And for some people this really does work. But for most of us, getting up, getting dressed and getting into Work Mode really is better for our psyche, and results in us being more productive and professional. It doesn't have to be a full-on SUIT. But at least not the thing you just slept in, is a good plan. (If you're a bee-keeper or an astronaut then just wear whatever you have to, to survive.)

6. TAKE A BREAK. You know that thing they say about running a business being like a millstone around your neck? Well I'm not sure if you've ever tried to live with a millstone around your neck, but I'm pretty sure it's very bad for you. And sometimes you need to take it OFF.

Take a holiday. Allow yourself sick leave. Have at least one day per week off, even if it can't be at the weekend. Allow yourself these things! You need them. Yes, you are the person who suffers by not being at work; but you are also the person who suffers if you never stop. And so do those around you.

7. GET A RAISE. You are worth what employers are prepared to pay you, and as your experience goes up, and (one hopes) with it your skills and standard of work, so this should be reflected in your pay. In a 'Proper Job' you would have regular Appraisal Meetings with your boss, at which point you would, every so often, go for it and ask for a pay rise. And we can, and must, do the same. They might say no, of course, but you can at least ask, or just increase your standard Day Rate a little bit. Inflation is real, and your income needs to reflect this. So don't under-sell yourself. How else are you going to afford the £400-a-week caffeine habit of the self-employed??

8. SLEEP WITH YOUR BOSS Self-employment is one of the only situations where this is not only not frowned upon, but would probably be positively encouraged by your partner. Especially if they could watch. We self-employed types get few perks. This is one. Take a break, flirt with yourself and see where it leads. Then, 'refreshed', get back to sending angry emails to sub-editors who are ruining your work. Just make sure you quit Skype before you start...

9. USE WORK-SPEAK I learned this very late in the freelance game, and it's improved my professional life immeasurably. It applies especially to working parents, whose home and work lives have the terrible habit of meeting in the playground and getting into a massive punch-up.

Here are some career-savers. Use them:

  • "I'm picking Ellie up from school" = I am in a meeting from 3.30-4.30.
  • "We're going to Legoland for the day" = I am not available on that day.
  • "Jake is throwing up and can't go to school for 3 days" - I am on annual leave.
  • "I can't answer that now, I'm at gymnastics with Maisie = let me ask my PA, when she's back from lunch.
  • "Ohh, I'm SO sorry, haha, I forgot - Mummy brain!" = NEVER NEVER NEVER. Ever.

Speak like a professional and they will treat you like a professional. Which, I have learned, is a lot better than a person in a ball-pit, covered in rice cakes and snot.

9. SAY NO. Self-employed people almost NEVER turn down work. And all of our employers know this. This is why they often treat us like desperate, drooling little puppets, desperate to dance to their every tune, throwing URGENT work at us at the last minute, demanding it NOW! and knowing that we will nod feverishly and get to it immediately, even though it will half kill us. And they actually didn't need it all that urgently at all.

Sometimes such keen-ness and efficiency is essential, if you want any work at all, and want to get a good reputation. (Which you do. Trust me.)

But being occasionally unavailable 'for work reasons' (which we know means I am cleaning out the fridge drawer, but it's best not to mention this) has the magical effect of making you instantly more desirable to potential employers, and thus getting more work in, in the long run. Try it. Just say, no, I have deadlines to meet, and I can't do it today. But I can do it tomorrow.

It's AMAZING how many times they suddenly say yes anyway, and you get to do the work in your own time terms.

Don't be a drooling puppet. Be a professional self-employed person.

10. HAVE A CHRISTMAS WORK DO. The most depressing time of year for the self-employed is Christmas. And when I say 'Christmas' I mean any time after mid November. Office Christmas parties spring up like zits office Christmas party, with sparkly dresses, cocktails and hangovers filling everyone's diary for weeks.

And what do we have? Nada, that's what.

So throw yourself a party. Go on! Decorate your kitchen, put on a party hat and some killer heels, give a drunken speech thanking yourself for your excellent work and commitment to coffee-drinking this year, award yourself the Company Employee of The Year trophy, photocopy your bum, and snog yourself in the understairs cupboard. Go wild. You are deserve it.

You self-employed HERO, you.

Liz Fraser's next book, Lifeshambles - notes on the epic shitstorm of midlife, will launch on 4th October 2014.