It’s now been over 5 years since I took the plunge and established my own sustainable food systems consultancy business, Tasting the Future, after over 30 years working with a wide range of other organisations. I wanted more flexibility, more control over the kind of work (more aligned with my own values and passions) and more time to get involved with local community projects. Going freelance can feel like a daunting undertaking, particularly if you are used to a guaranteed regular monthly income and comes with its fair share of ups and downs.
Overall, I have absolutely loved freelance life, which is exciting, satisfying and varied – I can’t imagine working any other way to work on an issue that I am passionate about. It has also improved my work-life balance and my mental health over the last 5 years. I have been fortunate enough to work on some wonderful projects with a diverse group of thought leading organisations and businesses. I have managed to spend less time travelling into an office which has gifted me more time with my family and children as they have grown up; and I have managed to get more involved in local projects; I have recently been elected as a Green Party Councillor for Malvern Hills District Council and manage my own small woodland, meadow and orchard locally.
I am often asked to share my lessons and experiences on my freelance journey and so this blog sets out five of my own top reflections:
1) Build from your experience: There is never a right time to go freelance – for every person there will be set of individual, family, and professional circumstances that will partly determine when such a move is right for you. For me, professionally, I felt increasingly constrained by the organisations I was working with and combined with a desire for more local ‘activism’ and family time, were the key triggers for my decision. The bank of experiences, connections, relationships, skills, and knowledge that I had gained up until that point in my career made this decision easier.
If you are a new graduate or just starting out on your career the freelance route is likely to be a little bit more challenging initially. Overall, I tend to recommend spending some time working with other organisations to develop your skills, experiences and to build those relationships which are so important when looking for freelance work.
2) Develop your support networks: For decades I worked within large organisations with large teams of often very inspiring people. I still miss working with these teams and the ability to bounce ideas around people with a different set of skills, knowledge, and perspectives to my own. As a freelancer it’s important to develop your own support networks and community of practice. I regularly connect with other freelance consultants over an online coffee and chat and there are a variety of freelance platforms which provide an opportunity to share your own experiences and/or problems and challenges.
3) Proactive communications: I recon 70% of my work comes from people or organisations I have worked with when I was in full time employment – people that know me, my strengths, weaknesses, and skills/knowledge that I can offer. Approximately 30% of my work comes from clients that see or hear of my work through various communications channels – my website, social media (LinkedIn especially) and through my food system blog series. You need to take a proactive approach to communications and ensure you dedicate enough time for this. When you have less work/projects use this time creatively through proactive communications such as writing blogs or through proactive use of social media.
4) Managing the buses: Freelance work can be a bit like busses: 3 projects turn up at once and then there can be very little for several months. Its never very easy to plan or manage workloads as a freelancer – sometimes you just have to go with the flow. If you are suddenly inundated with projects, you may need to be prepared to work long days and the occasional weekend to meet deadlines. Often clients want a project completed within very short deadlines – sometimes I have to turn these down recognising that quality cannot be forsaken at the expense of quantity. At other times, I will turn to a network of affiliates I have developed – other freelance consultants that can be called upon during very busy periods. I also use affiliates who have additional skills that I may not have.
Don’t be discouraged by those inevitable quieter times when there is little or no work. Ensure you manage your finances to help you manage through these quieter periods. Use this time constructively for business development, to complete some training or to communicate your work.
5) Don’t ignore the boring stuff: Finally, its important to keep on top of your finances and other administration. You don’t need to be an accounting wizard, but you may want to take on an account who can advise you on how to keep track of your accounts and on your tax return, particularly in your first year – it is money well spent. I use Excel spreadsheet templates to keep on top of income and expenditure – you don’t need anything fancier than that.
I hope these tips are useful – If anyone is thinking of going freelance or setting us as a sustainability/food system consultant then do not hesitate to drop me a line. Finally, a big thankyou to all my fantastic clients whom I have worked for over the last 5 years on a wide variety of projects including, amongst others, WWF, The Global Alliance for the Future of Food, The World Health Organisation, EIT Food, The European Commission, Compassion in World Farming, World Animal Protection, Eating Better, The Food Foundation, Feedback, Alpro Foundation, Quorn, GOED, and Sainsburys. I look forward to continuning to work with existing and new clients over the next five years!