a guide for first-time freelancers by UWTSD
Is freelancing for you?
Establishing your brand
10. Finding work
Asking for money
Connecting with other freelancers
Managing your cash
More ways to improve your skills
What do to if things go wrong
Helpful stuff and services
22. Expanding your skills
Welcome The UK job market has changed a lot in the past few decades. While our grandparents often had a ‘job for life’ straight out of university, that’s not the reality for new graduates in the 2020s - and it’s not necessarily the future you might want, anyway. Freelance workers have a more flexible work schedule, more choice over the projects they take on, and work from where they want to (which is sometimes from the sofa - that’s what we call living the dream!). This change has been reflected in figures from the UK labour market. The Office for National Statistics reported in May 2020 that between January to March 2010 and January to March 2020, the estimated number of women in self-employment grew by 45.3%, and the estimated number of men in selfemployment increased by 18.4%. That’s not to say that freelancing is an easy ride - you need talent, determination and self-motivation to make it happen (read more about this in the next section). To succeed in this bustling marketplace, standing out from the crowd to catch the eye of potential clients is all-important. However, if you’re willing to put in the work to make your mini-business a success, it can be a lifestyle swap that isn’t just achievable - it’s incredibly rewarding. With the right resources and support, your goals are within your reach, and - lucky you! - you’ve picked up just the right guide to help you begin. At University of Wales Trinity St David we are dedicated to research and development of enterprise and entrepreneurship education, and we are proud to be home to the globally renowned International Institute for Creative Entrepreneurial Development (IICED). The IICED team develop international best practice in enterprise, entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial teaching, learning and evaluation. We help graduates develop the business acumen they need to create the career that works best for them. That’s why we’ve produced this guide, which covers all the freelancing basics you will need to get your self-employed journey off to a brilliant start. From managing your money to getting into the right mindset, this guide will help you design your very own freelance career path. So even if you’ve never thought about freelancing before, or you are already making your first steps - let’s start working it out, together.
Is freelancing for you? Starting your own business - even if it is just you, your laptop and a cup of tea to begin with sounds like a thrilling prospect to some new graduates, but certainly not to all. And it’s true that you need to be aware that this career journey comes with lots of dangers as well as massive wins. So how do you work out if it’s the right path for you? To help you, here’s what we at UWTSD think are some essential traits for budding freelancers. 6
First and foremost, you need a sparkling talent that you can sell. Whatever your speciality, there are a raft of freelance opportunities to embark on and startup businesses to build - and it’s likely you might already know what your unique strengths are. If not, drilling down into what you want to do is the first step, so put your thinking cap so you can move forward into a career that works for you.
Why are you attracted to freelancing? Whether it’s the freedom to organise your own time, the opportunity to work on a variety of different projects, or you want to do something no one else has thought up yet, you need your purpose to drive everything you do. Some of us have a higher moral calling, and some of us just think we can make lots more money if we go it alone - there’s no wrong answers here, but getting your priorities in check is super important before you move forward without a purpose and become demotivated. Photo by thoughtcatalog
Being self-employed can be the best thing ever - but it can be also be a huge drag. Sometimes you’ll be on the top of the world and have loads of work coming in - brilliant! - but, inevitably, there will be times you’ll be staring into an empty inbox (not so brilliant). The trick is to remember that if you’re determined, you can pick yourself up and weather whatever comes your way, even when everything feels really, really rubbish.
Some may see it as a chance to show off while others will find it excruciating, but an inescapable challenge of being self-employed is shouting about your work to people who don’t know about it (yet). Self-promotion can feel incredibly cringe-worthy, especially when you’re first starting out, but it is a necessary evil that pays dividends. And don’t confuse selfconfidence with arrogance - we’re talking about standing up for yourself and your work in the way that you deserve, not being a snobbish salesperson.
You don’t need a constant resource of energy to make it as a freelancer because that’s unrealistic - but you do need to access some internal jet fuel when it matters most. If you’re a solo entrepreneur, this becomes all the more difficult as you only have your own reserves to draw from. While this is an unavoidable annoyance, it is very much doable - and so incredibly rewarding when you single-handedly smash your objectives.
Establishing your brand
Finding your personal brand means establishing who you are and the kind of work you want to do, and then thinking of all the methods you could use to communicate this to potential clients in the most effective ways possible. This could include your social media accounts, your website, and your physical marketing materials. In any kind of freelance work, youâ€™ll have to develop a personal brand in order to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack and get people to understand the kind of work that you do and why. Hereâ€™s how to start. 8
Photo by Fas Khan
Starting from scratch
How do you sound?
To begin your brand-building journey, you need to tap into what makes you and your business tick. Authenticity is key here, so keep true to yourself and the way that you work. What drives your passion for your business? Is it making a difference in the world? A love for the written word? Wanting to help people reach their potential? Or just love what you do? Any of these and many more can form the backbone of your mission statement which can then become the core of your brand. Now you know what you’re passionate about and what you can offer that others don’t, you can work that into ideas for visuals, a company name and more. What’s important is that you keep your vision front and centre.
The way that you write and talk about what you do speaks volumes about the way you conduct your business and the results customers can expect. Communicating clearly in a jargonfree way will net you far more customers than writing lots of industry-specific speak that they’ll struggle to understand (even if those words are part of your everyday lexicon). A good way to test this is on your family and friends. Can they identify what you do and why in your writing? As well as keeping your language accessible, think about the tone of voice your target audience will click with most. If you’re a fashion brand for teenagers, for example, your tone of voice will sound very different to an insurance broker’s (unless you’re a very cool insurance broker, that is). Think about slang, grammar, and the length of your sentences as you write.
Specialise, don’t generalise While it might seem like a good idea to be able to do ‘everything,’ in fact, the opposite can be true. Having skills in image editing, copywriting, and organising your work are all valuable and will probably come into a lot of work you are commissioned to complete, but, unless they’re your speciality, they shouldn’t be the main offer of your business. Freelancers that offer every service in the book, even if you think this is a tempting offer, come across as less knowledgeable than businesses that know what they’re exceptional at and are interested in. They have taken some time to establish their niche and have a more powerful portfolio as a result. So, take a breath, and decide on what your business can offer best.
Make sure it all matches up For potential clients to form an accurate and lasting impression of you, you should make sure your website, social media accounts and business cards all match. That means your social media descriptions should match the ones on your website, and that if you use graphics, that you should use the same ones across the different ways you advertise yourself. Once you’ve settled on what your brand will look and sound like, make sure that’s carried through onto everything you use.
Show off your specialist knowledge While you don’t want to give the whole game away - clients can purchase your services for that, after all - there’s no harm in demonstrating some of your skills so your audience can see what you can do. LinkedIn can be a great platform for this. When something timely happens in your industry, why not write a short blog post that discusses it? If you keep popping up in your client’s social media timeline with in-depth expert opinions, it will seal your place in their mind that you’re an authority in your field. Another idea is filming yourself using your unique professional viewpoint to answer questions or solve problems sent in by those outside your industry.
Logo or no? It may seem unprofessional if you don’t have a logo straight off the bat as we see big companies plastering them everywhere, but you don’t actually need one to make your branding consistent, easy to understand and effective when you’re in the first stages of your business’ setup. What’s more important is to have straightforward branding that makes it clear who you are and what you do. Once you have a better understanding of your business, that’s the time to make an investment into a highperforming, well-designed logo that represents you and your customers.
Get some cards that mean business There are still some people that do stuff offline - weird, right? But business cards still hold authority, and are invaluable when you’re doing some in-person networking and you need to make an impression. And you don’t have to carry boring, forgettable business cards any more - you can make your own much more memorable ones on websites who let you design your own for an affordable price. This could be especially helpful if you work in the visual arts and you want people to remember your signature style.
Photo by hello im nik
Finding work So where is all this freelance work hiding? The truth is, to be a success, you’ll have to look for it. Unless you’re an established freelancer with a great rep that precedes you, it’s unlikely work will just plop into your lap. Sometimes finding work is half the battle, and you will have to account for work droughts as well as times when lots of work is flowing in when you plan out your financial year. Work hard enough, though, and you’ll be well on your way to being a self-promoting smash hit. Here are some tried and tested ways to get work coming in, even when you’re a self-starting small fry.
Get on the job boards
Once you’ve been in the freelance saddle for a bit, your own little community of other freelancers will form around you, especially if you make the effort to get to know others in social media groups and at meet-ups. Staying in touch with fellow freelancers can be really helpful as you can refer each other for work that comes up - graphic designers often hear about work for copywriters, for example, and you can even team up and sell your skills as a package if you end up working really well together. Don’t be greedy with your knowledge - if you help out your fellow freelancers, they’ll help you out as well. You don’t just have to ask other practitioners, either. Sometimes family and friends who work in totally different places will know of stuff you can get stuck into. Don’t be shy about this - it’s very standard freelance behaviour.
This might be a bit of an obvious one for finding longer-term work and permanent contracts, but if you’re a freelancer who thrives on shorter-term projects, this little tip might pass you by. Websites like Indeed and Monster have adverts for mini-projects too, and jobs that have fixed terms. Make sure you don’t miss out because you haven’t combed through them.
Photo by Siz Islam
Go to employers directly
Keep your website shiny and searchable
So you’ve seen an organisation and you want to work for them - but you’re freelance and love it. There is a way around this. If there’s an organisation you really admire and you think you could make great work for (or with) them, there’s nothing that says you can’t approach them head-on. Slip them an email with your ideas and you may well blow their minds and score yourself a commission, or, invite someone who works there out for a coffee and find out more about what they do and what they’re looking for. It’s a great way to get an insight on the company and see what they’d be into collaborating on.
You’ll be surprised at how many freelancers underestimate the power of the internet, even when they’re using it themselves all the time. Every time you complete a new piece of work, you should be shouting about it on your socials and winging it straight into your online portfolio - you never know who might be looking at it right at that second. It just might be a potential client who’s eyeing you up to make some brilliant work.
Use freelancer-only websites to search (and be discovered) On freelancer-specific job websites like UpWork, Fiverr, and The Dots, you can upload a mini-profile that reflects your individual skills and unique personality. Employers can then surf these sites looking for the best talent possible for their upcoming project. Alternatively, you can search for jobs on these sites and pitch yourself as the best fit. The upside is the ease of getting straight into employer’s eyeballs - the downside is, unfortunately, that some of these websites will take a cut of the earnings you make through the site.
Make your online presence professional If you want to keep your personal and private life apart online - which can be great for some, and a disadvantage for others - make business-only social media accounts. Post your silliest memes on your private, locked personal accounts that only trusted eyes can see, and have your best professional account ready for when you’re ready to send out links to potential leads. It’s also worth shining up your professional network pages properly professional social media site LinkedIn can provide invaluable leads without you even leaving your living room, while The Dots is an online network especially for freelancers looking for their next dream project. The trick is to post stuff that’s happening in your industry on those pages to drum up interesting conversations that make you look engaged in your work’s landscape, and to share your own amazing projects.
Collaborate with other creatives Double your pool of contacts by collaborating with other practitioners. They don’t even have to do the same thing you do - think a dressmaker collaborating with an artist to make an exclusive print that’s sold through both of your online stores. Pretty cool, no? Also, by sharing your resources, you can make a bigger impact. If you launched a collaborative project with two other freelancers, not only could you promote it to three times as many people via your combined social media reach and contacts, you could also use your united resources to host a massive launch event.
Do a good job and they’ll be back for more Never underestimate word of mouth when it comes to getting employed - you might even get commissioned by the same company a few times in a row, especially if they have multiple departments. Being direct, confident and proficient in your work will soon make you a company’s go-to person for your respective talent. Keep your clients close as building strong, lasting relationships is one of the most important skills you can learn as a fledgling freelancer.
Asking for cash:
Jamie Panton’s tips that work for him UWTSD alumni Jamie is a filmmaker who is known for his vibrant, engaging work. These are his top tips to help you charge what you’re worth as a freelancer. When people ask me for advice about becoming self-employed and running a business in the arts, there’s one query that crops up a lot: what do I charge for my work? This question seems to induce more anxiety than any other. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question. You could, of course, simply work out an hourly rate. But for me, one of the perks of working for yourself and offering people your art is escaping the trappings of earning a set amount per hour. I prefer to have different daily rates, depending on the job. Having freelanced for five years now, I’m lucky because I can pick and choose my work much more freely than I could starting out. So, I typically charge more for corporate work I won’t enjoy, than if a cool band asks me to produce a cool music video. This a nice place to get to, but starting out, you might need to be a bit less cheeky. Before I get onto my top tips there’s one other thing worth mentioning: your portfolio, your online brand and work examples will become your currency. Starting out, I made the decision to go into videography at a very cheap rate, just to build my body of work, find my style and build up a big list of happy reviews and references. While it’s not my place to tell you to do the same, I can say this worked out for me and meant that I built the business I wanted to relatively quickly.
With that said, here are my top money tips. Be matter of fact
Before I went to uni I worked in telesales. Yes, I was one those people, calling you about PPI refunds - I’ll redeem myself later in life at some point. As much as I like to be bitter about this section of my life, it did teach me a few invaluable tips, one being don’t leave your client thinking about the price of something - leave them thinking about the value of what they’re buying. Too often freelancers get nervous about saying the price of something and leave it till the end of a conversation with a potential client. Don’t do this. Introduce it matter of factly in the conversation (you’ll get better at this with practice) and once the client understands, move onto planning the work, discussing more details, and setting things in motion.
There was a point when I started freelancing where I was doing okay, and there’s a very definite point that I look back on and think, ‘ah, that’s the moment I lost all my social life and was flatout all the time.’ Strangely, that point was when I put my prices up. A lot. I still wonder if it was just lucky timing, but I think it was because with higher prices I started to be taken more seriously by potential clients. So, once you’ve got a solid portfolio and reviews to back up what you’re doing, be brave and start asking for a lot more money. See what happens.
Another trick here is using an alternative close. For example, after telling a customer the price of a car, asking them whether they’d like it in red or blue. This moves them away from the monetary aspect and back onto the excitement of the product.
Saying this, sometimes it’s important to know when to pull back and work for a little less. I’ve had bands approach me with little cash, but with great music that I’ve wanted to work with. So instead of saying no, I’ve asked them if I can have more or even complete creative control over the video - so I can experiment with new looks or techniques that I know I can then use to attract other clients. Pricing is a juggling act. Sometimes it pays more in the long run to work for less. Don’t let this become the norm - just use your best judgement here.
Odd pricing Building on the last idea, I offer various different prices for different services - none of which are rounded figures. For part of a video shoot I might charge £175 for a day of research or preproduction. For the shoot anywhere between £195-245 per day. And then another price for post-production days. Unless your client is very good at juggling numbers they’re not going to keep track of this. This isn’t to manipulate or trick them, as I’ll follow up the conversation with an email detailing a price breakdown. But in that moment when you’re pitching, it serves to keep their mind away from getting bogged down with the price, so you can hammer them with the value of what you’re doing and the service you’re offering. Odd prices also make you look professional. I dunno why… I guess it looks like you’ve put some thought into them?
Find out more about Jamie’s work on his website, jpvs.info
golden rules for making connections (and keeping them) Rachael Wheatley is the founding director of Waters, a Swansea-based creative agency. Here she shares her insights into the benefits of networking as a freelancer, and how to do it best.
When freelancing, it is vitally important to make connections and keep your networks growing. When you stop connecting, you run the risk of becoming isolated. Not having colleagues sat at a desk next to you to use as a sounding board, delegate work to, or be motivated and inspired by, can be really difficult to get to grips with at first. New freelancers should never underestimate the value of their contacts. Having likeminded and trusted individuals to reach out to can be nothing short of life-saving. This applies to your continual learning and skill development, maintaining a stream of enquiries, generating leads, securing work, and your own personal wellbeing. The best piece of advice I ever received when starting out was ‘help each other out,’ even if you cannot see the immediate benefit. One day when you need it most you’ll realise that making those connections was the best thing you ever did. Always remember ‘strength in numbers’ - collaborations are possible, they are rewarding and enjoyable for everyone involved. The more people you meet and connect with, the more likely your sales pipeline will keep filling.With that said, here are my golden rules of connecting.
Preparation • When attending networking events, I recommend planning your introduction. Keep it short and clear. Remember to include why you are there and what are you hoping to get from attending. Chances are, the person you talk to may be there for similar reasons, or are looking for the service you provide. • Invest wisely in a decent set of business cards that reflect you. You’ll have these for a long time and your connections may keep them for even longer! • Try a mix of events that happen at different times of the day – you may find evening events or meet ups fit in better with your work schedule, and that they may give you improved access to likeminded individuals. Just because you are a creative person does not mean you can or should only go to creative events. • Sign up to relevant mailing lists to be notified of networking opportunities and events ahead of others, and sign up before spaces run out. • Practice your small talk, either with your friends or family, or record yourself on your phone. Play it back and self-critique. • Always have a notebook to hand to make notes or doodles in. Or type notes in your phone and email them to yourself afterwards. • Plan ahead as to when you’ll set aside time in your schedule to attend events and networking, and stick to it.
• Never skip an event because you just don’t feel like it. You might miss meeting someone important that day, or miss out on learning something new.
Attitude • Be approachable, and smile. • Be authentic and genuine – be ‘you,’ but you at your best. • Be grateful for any connections you make and any opportunities that arise. • Enjoy yourself and be engaged, not just in the event or the talk, but in the people that took the time to connect with you. • Be helpful and offer to help the organisers of events out – whether that is handing out leaflets or clearing up at the end of the event. Sometimes the most fruitful conversations happen after the event, and not during. • Be forthcoming with helping others and give your best advice if asked. This will be reciprocated. • Be passionate about what you do and sound interested in future events. Show that you are keen to learn more. • Be proud of your recent achievements and be ready to talk about them – make it interesting, and make it memorable! • Remember that every event you attend is another door of potential opportunity.
• Don’t expect too much too soon. • Your confidence will build the more you attend. • Someone there will be thinking or experiencing the same thing as you. • Ask one of the organisers if they can introduce you to someone they feel may be useful for you to know. • Be able to adapt your communication style depending on who you are talking to.
• Nothing good or worthwhile is EVER easy! • Networking sessions and events only last for a few hours maximum – make this time count. You need to work really hard whilst attending – you can relax later. • Make an effort to introduce yourself to someone new, someone you may not have talked to before, someone who is clearly there on their own, or someone who simply looks interesting to you. • Connect other people, be inclusive and make other introductions. It’s not solely about you - you could help others connect. Being that connector helps to build your reputation. • Follow up in a timely manner on anything you promised to do with the connections you make. • Take the time to locate and
Presence • Be present. If you aren’t sure what this means, read The Present by Spencer Johnson. • Be focused. • Ask questions, but don’t ask too many at once. • Know when to listen and when to speak out. • Share real experiences with the people you talk to – be honest about the good, the bad and the ugly. This makes you more human. • Tell people which other events you’ve been to and the best bits about them. • Be aware of who is in the room (a potential client, a past employer, or a competitor). • Don’t moan about anything or anyone - there is nothing worse. • People are people, even the most accomplished, talented or famous of people, are just that – people. Don’t let nerves or being ‘starstruck’ prevent you from making an important connection.
follow the people you’ve met on social channels. • Check in with your connections from time to time. • Attend a mix of events and talks to find out what works for you best. This could include business networking events, and creative sessions.
The events Rachael recommends: • Creative Mornings Cardiff: creativemornings.com • Design Swansea: designswansea.co • Ignite Wales: ignite.wales • TEDx Talks: ted.com/tedx • Swansea Software Development Community: @SwanseaSDC
Find out more about Rachael’s work on Waters Creative’s website, waters-creative.co.uk
Managing your cash During the initial excitement of setting up on your own, your serotonin-seeking brain might try to skip over all the more boring money bits. When you’re employed by a company that has its own finance department, you can take it easy - but now, you’re the one who needs to be aware of dealing with the government’s finest tax experts at HMRC. Although you’re a newbie, they won’t hesitate to inflict fines or worse on you if your taxes aren’t up to scratch every financial year. It’s grim, but as your own mini-business, you represent the finance department as well as HR, IT, and more. That said, knowing exactly how much you’ve earned and how much you can hold onto after paying up to the government can be an incredibly rewarding feeling. Here’s our starter pack of things to be aware of when you’re tentatively wading into the world of freelance finance for the first time. 16
Photo by Matthew Lancaster
Getting your head around it As soon as you’re self-employed and earning over £1,000 in a tax year, you need to register as a ‘sole trader’ with HMRC. This means you’re putting yourself forward to be recognised by the government as a self-employed business. This is a relatively easy process you can complete online that won’t take you too long - just have your passport or another form of ID to hand, as well as your National Insurance Number and a list of addresses you’ve resided at for the past few years. After receiving your unique details via post, you’ll be able to log into your account to complete your financial responsibilities, including paying your own taxes. This is where keeping accurate and comprehensive records of your income and outgoings is really important so grab a calculator, a spreadsheet and a spare day and get filling in those little boxes with those all-important numbers. This gets more complicated when you’re ready to become a limited company or employ others - so do your reading. There’s resources all over the web that can help.
Looking into getting a business account It’s not compulsory, but having a business bank account that’s separate to your personal one can do wonders for sorting your in-goings and outgoings, as well as saving for your everpresent tax bill. You’ll be able to see at the blink of an eye what’s happening to your cash, as well as being able to easily divide your fortune into your income, your tax, and your other outgoings. If you have a separate card, it’ll stop you accidentally going mad on a Friday night down the pub with money you’re supposed to be saving for work-related stuff, too.
Don’t forget to claim your expenses There’s a long list of things you can claim expenses back on when you file your yearly tax return, and it’s well worth keeping organised throughout the financial year to reap these benefits. What you can claim on depends on your occupation - if you’re a kids’ entertainer, for example, you can claim on the costumes you use for performances. Scour the net for the job-specific items you can claim, or ask an accountant. More generally speaking, every freelancer should hold onto receipts for things like stationery, train tickets and more throughout the tax year. When all these costs start to add up, you can claim them against the total of your tax bill, and balancing them makes your business’ bank balance look decidedly less deadly. If you work from home, you can even claim a proportion of your rent, electricity charges, council tax and more. Painstakingly collecting your utility bills throughout the year, while boring, might just be worth the effort.
You need to set up your own pension, and more When you’re working for a company and paying your tax through Pay as You Earn, a contribution your pension is worked out and popped into your state pension for you. You can have a personal pension on the side, if you like, but you won’t be going totally without saving something in your pension each month even if you don’t. However, when you’re self-employed, you’ll need to start up your own private pension. Although this sounds very dry and complicated, there is no need to fear - it needn’t be a horrible process. In fact, the hardest thing to do is get started. Don’t let yourself get over-absorbed into setting all the more exciting parts of the business up - you must remember to complete this essential step. There’s a few options from more traditional ordinary personal pensions to digital-only options, so find the one that fits you and start squirrelling away some coins. You won’t regret it. Another supremely sensible thing to look into is freelancer insurance. This covers you if you can’t work due to sickness or otherwise, or, in extreme circumstances, a client decides to sue you - so that’s something else to get on top of.
Getting a mortgage can be more challenging When you’re buying a property and you’re not paying for it in full (this writer can only dream), you’re going to need a mortgage. To get one of those when you’re employed by a company and paying your tax via Pay As You Earn that’s pretty easy - you just need your employer to confirm the amount you rake in every year via the company. Unfortunately, it gets harder when you’re first stepping out as a startup because you don’t have a lot of proof that you can bring in the big bucks that can pay for a house each month. Mortgage lenders will usually want three years of tax returns to look at to make sure you can afford to own your own home. Makes sense, but also very annoying when you’re waiting for a chance to move into your own place especially if you’re a first-time buyer. That’s not to say it’s totally impossible, either - a good independent financial advisor or mortgage broker could really help you out of a disappointing outcome if you’ve fallen in love with the home of your dreams.
When in doubt, outsource your financial services Whether you have no head for numbers at all, or you just want a second opinion on your sums, sometimes it’s best to call in the professionals. The phone number of an understanding, efficient accountant that specialises in freelancer finances can be an invaluable addition to your arsenal of handy things that keep your brain free to think about your creative practice. Sometimes, time is the most valuable thing we can buy - but of course, an accountant comes at a price. That said, you might find that the accountant costs less to hire than you make back in those expenses we talked about previously.
What to do if things go wrong Things don’t always run smoothly for startups - but that doesn’t mean you can’t climb back to the top again. Jay Smith and Jo Ashburner are two incredibly successful entrepreneurs who have overcome obstacles to run their dream businesses. Here are their stories.
I started out in business at the tender age of 19, and as you read this, I am now 30. I was studying at UWTSD at the time for my degree in performing arts. For a few years I had worked for different theatre companies, but I was frustrated by the way they were run and their lack of basic business ideology. I knew that I could do it better myself.
Jay Smith is the award-winning founder of The Stage 8 Group and The Stage Y Llwyfan. As a young but experienced business owner, he knows sometimes you have to get things wrong for a while before you get them right. Here, he shares his story so far. My name is Jay Smith, and I run The Stage 8 Group Limited and The Stage Y Llwyfan Limited. We specialise in musical theatre tuition for young people and theatrical production. We also operate a small theatre and rehearsal studios. I set up a business because I wanted to feel successful, and really, that want of success is rooted in many years of failure. I’m very proud now to stand up and say I failed multiple times, and if anything, it’s made me the business owner I am today. I would say that I am a square peg and the ‘traditional workplace’ is a round hole. We don’t fit - and that’s not to say I haven’t worked. I started my first job at 15, finishing college and working until half past ten each night, so I’m far from work-shy. Quite the opposite! But I’ve always challenged the status quo. I have a problem with misuse of authority or status in the workplace and ultimately, I know I don’t fit into the ‘9 to 5’ or ‘normal job’. I have a deep-rooted love of entrepreneurship, and I’ve always wanted to be 100% responsible for my own destiny, no matter how hard the process is.
So - I started running a theatre school with my then girlfriend. Bad move! We split up not long after, but we still had this business together… rookie error. It was an awkward fumble through business which ultimately ended in failure. When I wrapped up the business with her, I decided wanted to go it alone. Generally, when you do something very similar to what you did before, you tend to get the same outcome - but with determination, I set up my second stage school, and fumbled through. Ultimately it came to an end a year or so later. I swore then that I wasn’t going to run my own business again, and as much as it pained me, I needed to get a normal job. Apparently, due to my creative nature, on paper and in interview I do well, and quite quickly, I landed myself a job with TechHub Swansea. It ended up being one of the coolest places I have ever worked. I felt like I belonged. I was surrounded by incredible entrepreneurs, ran brilliant events and I was given the freedom to make the job my own. A few months later, I got a call from UWTSD offering me an admin role in the Performing Arts department. It was a great offer I couldn’t turn down, so I left my job in TechHub to work for the university - only to be made redundant six months later. I then found myself applying and subsequently working in a call centre. The reality was that I needed a job, as my wife was studying for her nursing degree and we needed money. But I hated it. I’d go as far as to say I was depressed. My fun-loving nature had disappeared, and one day before a shift I sat on the bed and cried. I couldn’t face going in. My wife asked me what I wanted to do, and I replied that I had no choice, I had to go in. She said, ‘no - what do you want to do in life?’ I explained I wanted to feel successful, and the next thing she said changed my life. ‘Go on then, do it,’ she told me. ‘Do whatever you need to do to feel that way.’ It was with her unwavering support and love that I walked into work and quit on the spot.
I decided I wanted to go back to what I knew. I wanted to run a successful theatre school, but I had failed so many times before - what was I going to do differently this time to make sure it didn’t happen again? I needed to go back and find out where things went wrong. I interviewed people involved with my previous businesses to get their thoughts on it all, and boy, did they let me know! It was horrible nobody likes being told where they have failed, but if I hadn’t humbly gone back you wouldn’t be reading this today. Using that feedback I spent four months building a brand before opening my first theatre school in September 2015. I’m so proud to say that this year we turn five years old and we have grown from one school with thirty students to four schools with nearly 500 students. We have also opened a production company and delight audiences with sell-out shows. My biggest achievement was taking over a derelict dance hall which hadn’t seen the light of day for over 40 years and turning it into a 140-seat theatre and rehearsal studio. I’m also thrilled to now represent the Welsh Government through Big Ideas Wales, speaking to young people all over Wales about entrepreneurship and enterprise and I have developed a strong relationship with UWTSD Enterprise and entrepreneurship team over the last nearly 10 years. If you take one thing from my story let it be this: failure does not define you. Sometimes, only once you have failed will you be able to see the path forward to success, so get out there, be disruptive and make waves! Find out more about Jay’s work at stage8group.com
Jo Ashburner is the Managing Director of Red Dragon Flagmakers. Her entrepreneurial spirit took her from personal disaster to becoming UK National Businesswoman of the Year. Jo shared her story with us. I came to university as an old timer. 34 years of age, a single mum to a 10-month-old with lots of experience and adventures behind me but suddenly and unexpectedly, a single parent statistic. I was penniless and looking for a way out of my situation. Three years later I had achieved a First Class Honours degree, a European Social Fund Scholarship to do a Masters and had a readymade concept for a product and a business which I had worked on from year two of my degree. On graduation I was even chosen to exhibit at the New Designers Exhibition in London - but getting there wasn’t straightforward. After completing my Foundation year in Art and Design at UWTSD (then called Swansea Institute), I’d expected to experience the same creative happiness during my next step - the Surface Pattern Design degree. But it was evident that my ideas didn’t fit. I had absolutely no interest in the fashion-orientated direction everyone else was focusing on which all seemed rather fluffy and same-y. An all-too-familiar feeling of being vulnerable and frightened came lurching back into view.
Still, I wanted to take full advantage of all the facilities and opportunities available to me. My lecturers insisted I could only do three modules so I did five – two without telling them. By year two I’d comprehensively fallen out with those same lecturers and there seemed to be the unanimous decision to leave me to my own devices. They never knew that I was homeless for a while, that I lived on 12p a day, or that all my student loan went on childcare. When I needed materials or petrol or nappies it was a huge struggle to find the money. I lived on the food parcels my wonderful Dad delivered every Monday and I earned money by typing up other students’ work and making cushions and curtains through ads I placed in the local paper. When my car was torched on the council estate where I lived, the uni stumped up the cash from their hardship fund to buy me a new banger because the then Dean of Faculty understood how determined to succeed I was. My son Zac didn’t care where he was as long as he was with mummy, so he would come to Uni with me every day that he wasn’t in pre-school. He spent three years with a fantastic group of 20-something undergrads who I credit with his amazing social skills. He’d sleep on piles of fabric under my studio desk, build tents, collects pins and sit in lectures filling sketch books with his fantastical pictures. Throughout the degree I concentrated on the idea of design for children by children. I studied all three levels of printmaking and used my son’s artwork as inspiration. I’d get scrap plywood offcuts and give him a permanent marker. He’d lie on his belly and draw from his imagination – then I’d hot glue gun over his marks, prep and ink the boards and transfer the images, some of them four feet tall, to paper. During this time my interim grades were frankly desperate and at the end of year two I was leaning towards believing I’d made a chronic mistake. No one was more shocked than I when my final year grades were pinned to the studio wall. My lecturers were agog. First class Honours, 87% and at the top of the year no less, all marked and graded externally. Three years later I was awarded UK National Businesswoman of the Year. I had built the affordable eco brand named Noonoo from nothing in an ethical factory in Vietnam with strong social
values, fair wages and a safe environment for abandoned women and their children. I ran production remotely from the UK, paying rent and wages for the twentyeight people employed there and visited for a week every eight to keep on top of it all. At its peak, Noonoo sold worldwide through eight distributors in Australia, Japan, Scandinavia, France, two in the US, Taiwan and New Zealand, and I employed seven staff in the UK on sales and admin. I was exhibiting at trade fairs worldwide, travelling and having adventures. I was in the media and press regularly - and all this on the back of the product I designed in my second year at uni from my gut instinct, impatience and entrepreneurial rebellion. In 2014, I formally registered the only social enterprise flag-maker in the world and one of the very few registered social enterprises manufacturing exclusively in Wales. We make world-class custom flags, banners and installations right here in Wales and as we work to a ‘just in time’ model, there is no production line system which enable us to adapt to market changes at the drop of a hat. I donated the bulk of Noonoo stock to a UK-based charity, In Kind Direct, in 2016 which has since gone on to benefit over 200 children’s charities and I recently developed a new product called a ROOF coat bag to help break the cycle of homelessness. If I had to personally change direction career-wise as an alternative to running my own business, my perfect happy place would be to share my experiences and enable and teach future generations of rebel entrepreneurs. I have been credited by the University for forcing a step change in the commercialisation objectives of the Surface Pattern Design degree and I sometimes wish I could do it all over again with the advantages of the open door policy available to students now. But I have that same buzz in my own business – the camaraderie of the studio, the diversity of challenges and full-blooded excitement of the whole creative process, the debate, the frustration, the risk-taking – and of course the great people. Learn more about Jo’s work at reddragonflagmakers.co.uk
Expanding your skills I studied Advertising and Brand Design at UWTSD. After graduating in 2016, I dived straight into an internship that took me to a global agency based in Amsterdam - 180 Kingsday. I’m still there today, working as an Art Director for clients such as Under Armour, PepsiCo, DHL and Qatar Airways. Since leaving uni, the learning hasn’t stopped. I’d like to think I’ve got better at my job, and all the other adult stuff that comes after graduating (with the exception of ironing!). Here are a few things that have helped me improve.
Building your brand
Make, make, make
While I’m in the business of building brands on a daily basis, as a creative professional, it’s important that I don’t forget about my own. I’m not suggesting you need big marketing budgets or a hefty brand book to follow, but you should be aware that everything we put out into the world adds to our personal brand and how people see us. Social media posts, attending events, fashion, writing articles - they all help potential or current employers to get a better understanding of you.
The beauty of being a creative is we get to make whatever we dream up - but sometimes work can be really slow! So when I’m not getting the satisfaction of creating in work, I try to find it elsewhere by pursuing my own side projects in writing and designing. And this isn’t time wasted - throw your mini projects online or in your portfolio to show a different side of your skills. During my time in COVID-19 quarantine, I built a pop-up bar out of cardboard and an ironing board. Thus, The Quarantina was born, and now my whole agency wants to join!
As creatives, we have to pull on all our knowledge and experience to create great work.
Having a focus
Mentors are essential
I find keeping motivation for work is easier when I focus on what I want from it. Every few months I ask myself a few questions, like, am I happy with the work I’m making right now? What work do I want to make in the near future? Where do I want to be in the next few months? How am I growing? After my roommate has asked me if I’m done talking to myself, I can concentrate on what’s happening now, rather than thinking too far in advance.
However prepared you think you are, you’re probably not. And it didn’t take me long to realise that. The workplace is a far cry from the comforts of uni. Things are fast, projects are real, processes are new and deadlines are crucial. I needed to learn quick, so I searched for a few mentors that I shadowed, asking dumb questions and watching their every move. Rather than putting me down as a stalker, those people were key in establishing me in the agency and securing my first job. To find a mentor of your own, look for people that are better than you and ask them to be your mentor.
The more info we soak up, the more ingredients our brains have to work with, which gives us a better possibility of thinking up great ideas. A lot of the time I make ads for a target audience that doesn’t include me, so if I want to make effective work I have to be open to understanding and learning about what other people enjoy or do. Being constantly curious makes my job easier, and more fun. And it doesn’t have to be ‘work’: playing video games, whiskey tasting and people watching are all research that has helped me be better at my job.
Even when you’ve established your business, that doesn’t mean you should stop learning and growing as a practitioner. UWSTD grad Ross Weaver knows that - he even relocated to Amsterdam to follow his art directing dream. Here he shares the stuff that’s kept him on top of his creative game.
Find out more about Ross’ work on his website, rossweaver.com
More ways to improve your skills As the world of work develops around you, you should be developing alongside it to become the best freelancer you can be. Thereâ€™s loads of ways of achieving this. Hereâ€™s a just a few ideas.
Identify what you’re missing
Look, listen, learn
Whatever your main line of work is, there’s a bunch of complementary skills that make sense for you to learn alongside it. If you’re a word whiz, you may be missing out by skimping on your SEO knowledge, while if you’re a dab hand at web design, developing your illustration techniques on the side could add something new to your work. Social media specialists could even look into how to make personalised GIFs and memes… you get the idea. By discovering different ways of getting your brain ticking, you can keep your work relevant, keep things fresh for yourself and even rake in some extra cash by offering additional services.
There’s a treasure trove of informative videos, podcasts and articles out there on the web that can answer many of your newbie questions before you get too stuck. YouTube tutorials are brilliant at brushing up all kinds of expertise, particularly visual work, while podcasts hosted by leading lights of the business world can have you looking at things in a whole new light. This sort of short, snappy material is also easy to slip in around your daily routine. Chopping veg for lunch while absorbing new ways to make your working life better via a podcast? Sounds delicious to us.
Make the most of your mentor Earlier in the guide, designer Ross Weaver told us about the importance of having a mentor. Don’t underestimate the knowledge your mentor holds - if you’ve chosen wisely, this fellow practitioner will have been around the block a few times already and will be able to steer you in all kinds of directions you may not have even dreamed of. We’d recommend catching up with them on a regular basis if possible - keep them in the loop and you’ll both get a lot out of your professional relationship. They’ll likely learn a lot from you, too - it’s brilliant to get two minds on one challenge, and freelancing can get lonely.
Be generous with your own skills When you’re working with others, you’ll naturally soak up some skills from those you’re working alongside. That becomes a bit more of a challenge when you’re working solo. We highly recommend sticking your neck out a little bit and offering out some of your own time to other freelancers, so you can learn from one another. One way of doing this is setting up a little skill swap. Reach out to a fellow freelancer and ask them one thing they’d like to learn off you - we’re sure they will return the favour. You’ll walk away from a chat over coffee with a brand new skill, as well as a closer professional bond. Sharing is caring, after all.
Use free resources online Whether you’re interested in programming, image editing, or any other tools of the trade, there’s an abundance of free online resources available to help you expand your skillset. Codecademy offers free, interactive coding lessons that are very handy when working in web, whatever your role is. They’re so easy to use, even total beginners can get stuck in. Getting into graphic design? GIMP is an image manipulation program that is free to use and more than capable of handling less heavy editing projects. There are lots more dotted all over the web.
Investigate postgraduate study Continuing your university studies after undergrad has many advantages. By committing yourself to postgraduate study, you will have the chance to specialise in your field, create an academic network of coursemates and professors, deepen your knowledge of your subject, and have the internationally recognised proof that you are a highly skilled practitioner. This can help you bag higher-paying projects, catch the eye of more clients, and feel more confident in your work. University of Wales Trinity St David offers a wide range of Masters, Diplomas and Certificates that cover everything from Advertising to Youth Work. It’s well worth checking them out to see if one of their many course could enhance your CV and strengthen your skills.
It’s not all about work Being a freelancer can be hard on your mental health. By keeping tabs on what you feel like both in and out of work, you can steer clear of burnout, which is what we call that awful, specific feeling of exhaustion, alienation, and inactivity. When you work alone, you’ll become more aware of your energy, rhythms, and boundaries. It’s a great time to tap into how you create your best work, and why you feel good about doing it. Learning when to take breaks is a super-valuable skill, so don’t ever stop exploring your own brain.
Helpful stuff and services There are lots of resources available to support the development of your next big idea. Here’s just a few useful resources for budding entrepreneurs, freelancers, and everything in-between - and lots of them are free to access and use.
Big Ideas Wales This site, concentrating on launching your business in Wales, offers all kinds of support - so do have a good look through their vast range of tools, guides and inspiration. Our favourite bits are the Business Routemap, which really puts your idea into a realistic context and helps you plan out your freelance journey, and the Start Up Guide, which is a hyper-helpful PDF that highlights some of the support you can access up to the age of 25.
Business Wales Even more case studies, information, ideas and opportunities centred on Welsh business, but aimed at an older audience.
Prince’s Trust Under 30? This programme can support you to start your own business. Since 1976, they’ve worked with over 825,000 young people, offering practical and financial support to develop their skills to move into employment, education and training. See the resources for Wales here.
Entrepreneurial Spark This team is passionate about getting you and your ideas growing as quickly and effectively as possible. They offer virtual courses, foster entrepreneurial communities, and provide tools that ‘make business make sense.’ Apply for one of their courses here.
Arts & Humanities Entrepreneurship Hub With video stories, resources, and even a training guide, this website aims to get arts and humanities students thinking in an entrepreneurial way.
Start Up Donut This site is chockablock with helpful resources, from lists of top tips for finding funding, to hosting Q&A sessions about social enterprises. The people behind Donut have been running this site for 25 years, so you know they’re a trustworthy team.
gov.uk There’s more than the dreaded self-assessment tax portal here, thank goodness. They offer both Starting a Business and Growing a Business pages, depending on how far you’ve developed your ideas.
Flying Start This is a free, downloadable ‘how to start a business’ guide that’s written in plain English - no jargon to be seen here! It covers finances, laws, and lots more.
Youth Entrepreneurship in Wales This video highlights the rising popularity of portfolio careers and the likelihood of self-employment for younger people in Wales.
Our friendly and experienced team at UWTSDâ€™s International Institute for Creative Entrepreneurial Development are on hand to help you with your self-employed career. A number of us have firsthand experience of running our own businesses and we always keep up-to-date with the latest research and initiatives in order to support you best. Contact us and be part of our community - from a spark of an idea to an already emerging business, we can help you bring your ideas to life.
Working It Out was inspired by UWTSD alumni and brought to life by freelance writer and editor Sammy Jones.
The comments and opinions expressed by the contributors to this publication, do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
A guide for first-time freelancers by UWTSD