Sarah Townsend has spent 20 plus years as a freelance marketing copywriter. In her Amazon number one bestseller, Survival Skills for Freelancers, she shares strategies for tackling the inevitable ups and downs of freelance life based on her own experience, backed up by research, resources and quotes from over 100 small business owners.
We sat down with Sarah to find out what made her want to write the ultimate guide to self-employment and what advice she has for people who are considering starting their own freelance journey.
What made you take the leap into freelancing, and do you ever miss being employed by someone else?
I’m going to answer these the wrong way around: I haven’t once missed being employed by someone else in over 20 years – even when things were really tough. I love being my own boss. Yes, being freelance comes loaded with challenges, but when it’s good, it’s downright brilliant, and I heartily recommend it.
As for what made me take the leap – did I jump or was I pushed?! Freelance life was certainly never part of my career plan!
Long story short, I was working as an editor and account manager for a magazine publisher. I became pregnant, and because I had a client management role, my employer wasn’t open to taking me back on part-time. They suggested I go freelance – and offered to support me with some work initially… the rest is history.
As a freelancer, how hard was it to establish pricing and get paid the money that your work is actually worth?
It’s damn tough! Being unsure of how much to charge when you start self-employment is one of the most daunting things about going it alone. It’s also one of the most common concerns. Even the most experienced freelancers have ongoing anxiety when it comes to charging.
I call it the Goldilocks effect – aim for a rate that’s competitive while reflecting your skills and experience. Not too steep, not too cheap… somewhere comfortably in the middle. Outside this happy medium you risk being judged for being too expensive (“who does she think she is?”) or too cheap (“he can’t be that good”).
I recommend adopting value-based charging – quoting a fixed fee for each piece of work. It helps you move away from the traditional model of exchanging time for money (which is often a recipe for burnout) and has the added benefit of helping your clients to budget.
Day rates and hourly rates are meaningless without context, so businesses should never choose a freelancer without getting a clear picture of their experience, skills and how they can help your business.
The decision should be more about finding the best fit to help you achieve your goals than how much they charge. (Don’t let me get on my day rate soap box!).
You’ve talked about the importance of educating clients about your working practices so that they don’t become ‘mini-bosses’, how did you go about doing that?
There are so many ways to do this. What you don’t want to do is get off the treadmill of employment and find yourself on another treadmill altogether.
Remember, the idea is to be your own boss – not to end up with a series of client bosses, each dictating how much you charge, the hours you work, and how you spend your time.
Be clear and confident about the way you work – not just how much you charge, but things like asking for a deposit, setting payment terms that work for you, how many times a day you check in on emails, whether you work evenings and weekends (everyone’s different – you might prefer to take the mornings off and work later in the day).
It’s about finding what works for you, and educating your clients accordingly. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to them what time you start and finish work – as long as you get the job done well, on time and on budget.
How do you look after your mental health and wellbeing and avoid freelancer burnout?
Avoiding stress, overwhelm and burnout comes down to balance and boundaries. This is a core theme throughout Survival Skills for Freelancers and I share plenty of strategies and advice in the book.
Start by realising that asking for help is a strength not a weakness. You don’t have to do everything yourself, and the sooner you learn to outsource the things you don’t enjoy, you’re not good at, and which don’t make you money, the more you’ll enjoy self-employment.
Learn to recognise the signs of stress – perhaps you’re not sleeping well, you’re having difficulty concentrating, or you’re feeling constantly anxious or worried – and act quickly to nip bad habits in the bud.
It can be hard to switch off – not just because you’re busy doing work for other people, but because you love what you do and enjoy working on your business.
Keep stress in check, keep talking and be sure to build in time for you, for things like fresh air, exercise… and fun!
What made you decide to write your book, Survival Skills for Freelancers?
When my business got to 20 years old I wanted to do something to give back to the self-employed community. I wrote a blog sharing some of my freelance secrets and it became really popular for its heart-on-your-sleeve reality.
Survival Skills for Freelancers was born from that blog. I wanted it to contain everything I wish I’d known about freelance life when I started my business, to help people avoid the pitfalls and mistakes I’ve encountered over the past 20 years.
160+ reviews on Amazon prove it’s done just that. And that makes me very happy.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting a new freelance career?
Buy Survival Skills for Freelancers! I’m only partly kidding. I’ve had so many emails from people saying it’s given them the tools and confidence they needed to take the leap into self-employment.
It distills 20 years of experience into 220 easy-to-read pages. And not just my own experience, either: it contains advice from over 100 freelancers. It’s literally like having your own pocket business coach.
How important is an online presence and website to your freelance business?
Oh, it’s vital! A professional website is a vital tool for any successful career – whatever field or industry your work in. It’s your global shop window that represents your business while you sleep. I recommend a website-first approach to all my copywriting clients. You can produce the highest quality content in the world, but if your website isn’t up to scratch you’re wasting time and money. Nail your website before anything else.