10 tips for independent working

10 tips for independent working

Before I start, I want to clarify why I call myself “independent” and not freelance. I never really liked the term “freelance”. It seems to suggest a powerlessness with no agenda of ones own, at worst desperately looking out for the next gig. When I found that the term came from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe to describe a mercenary (literally a “free lance”), that put the tin hat on it.
 
I try to only work with clients that I believe in, and whose approach and values fit with mine. I have an agenda of my own (to bring out the potential in individuals and business clients using what I’ve learnt about creativity over the last 20 years or so, particularly ones who I feel wouldn’t get there without my personal intervention) and I work independently so I can be as honest and helpful as I can to my clients, bringing a breadth of experience to bear. 
 
I’m independent, not freelance.
 
Anyway, on with the subject of this post. Having pursued an independent path for the last few years, here are a few things I’ve learned which hopefully will resonate with you and shed some light on getting through an uncertain period economically as an independent worker with clients in both the public and private sectors.
 
1. Keep overheads low. Obvious, but it’s worth stating. I work from a shed at the end of my garden. It’s got a Mac, Skype (with a SkypeIn number – so I’ve got a “landline”, and avoid having a business card with just a mobile number which I think looks flaky). It’s got colour pens, drawing paper and reference books. It’s even got a drum kit in it so I can let off steam. When I want a meeting, I’m got the RSA and The House of St Barnabas
 
2. Open up your client base. For the last few years I’ve started looking far harder to broaden my client base outside of the arts and more recently beyond “creative industries” businesses. This was partly prompted by my natural restlessness and partly prompted by a fear of an impending economic downturn. However, the most compelling reason to broaden your client base when you work independently is you get a broader network and range of perspectives to call upon. The old student Marxist in me still believes in dialectical materialism and particularly that the further apart the thesis from its antithesis, the more powerful the synthesis when they come together.
 
3. Outsource when possible and practical. I really enjoyed reading The Four Hour Work Week in 2007 and even bought copies for friends. I thought its approach was really liberating and so I gave Ferriss’s “outsource everything” mantra a go. Some bits work and some bits didn’t, but I’ve now ended up with two outsourcing partners – one for document transcription in New Zealand and an occasional researcher in Portugal. Alongside a network of trusted specialists that I can call on as and when projects demand (some working independently, some in businesses), that’s enough for me. 
 
4. Lead – but lead from outside a fixed business model. Working independently with low overheads allows me the time to explore what’s going on culturally and creatively. I can  change direction easily in response to new opportunities as I haven’t got to lug around a whole load of costs that I’ve got to service or people with fixed skills to find work for. Also I don’t sit at any one moment in the value chain. I instigate ideas and projects, help clients bring them to life and even produce occasional projects of my own. I once asked Lynne Brindley if she thought it was possible to lead cultural change from outside a large organisation. She looked at me as if I’d asked her “Acha que é possível liderar mudanças culturais fora duma organização grande?”. It wasn’t a language she was familiar with. But I’ve been trying to speak this language for the last couple of years and I’m not only convinced it’s possible, I think it may be the way to go. The people most likely to be agents for radical cultural change could come from outside current business models and value chains as they have less invested in the status quo and are more able to react to change. In difficult economic times, you can’t be agile enough.
 
5. Follow the creativity, not the arts. This is one for me and people that I know who’s spent a lot of time working in what the UK calls “The Arts Sector”. The path I’ve taken in the last few years has been to seek out creativity wherever it may reside, as opposed to merely in organisations with “creative” in their title, or in their spec. The arts sector considers itself creative by right and many of its organisations are, but some are less so. There are many businesses operating outside the arts, and indeed outside the “creative industries”, that are either creative to their core or are ready and open for an injection of creative thinking to help them prosper. It’s tough to seek these out at first and requires a both a realistic appraisal of what you have to offer your prospective client and a great sales job convincing them that it’s you that they want to work with, but I think the benefits are immense. 
 
6. Work as high up the business as you can. People at the top are often at the top for a reason. They’ve most often got ideas and freedom. Seek them out, work with them and learn. 
 
7. Keep working with people at the beginning of their careers. This might sound like it runs counter to the last thing I’ve learned, but it’s not. While I work with larger organisations and will try to apply my knowledge as high up the business as I can, I’ll also try to develop a range of smart people at the beginnings of their careers. At any one time I’ll have half a dozen or so young people I will not only mentor, but will learn from. In time they have become part of a trusted, trusting network of people that I work with.
 
8. Produce work yourself. All the time that I’ve consulted for other people, I’ve always kept on producing my own work. I need to keep face to face with audiences to stay fresh and to stay real. My motto is “I only produce what I’m convinced no one else will try”. This keeps my work distinctive too. Producing my own work keeps sharp the tools that I use when people consult with me for my advice. Some projects have worked, some have not but I’ve learned from every one and have used my learning to enrich the work that I do with my clients. By the way, producing your own work also accumulates IP which can generate secondary income. 
 
9. In a global, networked world, work internationally. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited and worked in 47 countries. People are basically the same, but the differences in approach that I’ve seen are constantly enlightening and energising. Working from London in the age of low-budget airlines, it needn’t cost more to work internationally than working in Scotland or Wales (and sometimes it costs less). And in the age of Skype, wikis, email and Google Docs, it needn’t mean a Sasquatch sized carbon footprint either. 
 
10. You’ve got to love what you do. The thing that I try hardest is to only do work that really interests and excites me. If I get this right, it’s a virtuous circle. I do the work I love; because I love it, I do it well; because I do it well, people ask me to do more work that interests and excites me. Although being your own boss can mean having a boss that works you like a dog and who regularly wakes you with work matters in the middle of the night, that shouldn’t also mean that you have to take work that you think is boring or uninspiring. Doing dull work puts you in an uninspiring place, and that becomes where you reside.  
 
All that being said, if you work independently nothing’s guaranteed and nothing stops the shock of losing a client when the economy goes south. I’ve lost two public sector contracts in the last year, due to “cutbacks”. Both of these were good projects that I believed in, ran by smart, hard working people. But so far the impact hasn’t been too drastic. The work I’ve done to follow the principles above has stood me well so far, so hopefully I’ll continue to do work that I enjoy and that enables me to help others to find their creativity and use it to best purpose. 
 
If you work independently, or work closely with independent workers (hell, even if you work “freelance”) I’ll be interested in hearing your views. Feel free to drop me a line or contribute.