If you’re wondering how to go self-employed as a creative, you certainly aren’t the only one. It’s difficult to find guidance that can help you to not only get the ball rolling and take the first few steps in your freelance career, but also establish yourself within an industry and secure your first commission.
As someone who has been there and done it (some 20+ years ago), I understand that whilst it’s not always as straightforward as we would like for it to be, it’s also not as complex as it may seem when we’re still weighing up our options and deciding whether it’s actually worth walking away from full-time employment to pursue a freelance career. So, to help you prep, I’ve listed a few tips on how to go self-employed as a creative.
Keep scrolling to read 5 things to do before leaving your job, and then sign up to my mailing list to have weekly career tips land in your inbox (you’ll also receive 7 weeks of free advice on what you can and can’t charge for as a freelance creative).
How to go self-employed as a creative: 5 things to do before leaving your job
1. Build up an emergency fund
I’m no financial advisor, but I do know that it’s advisable to have an emergency fund of 3-6 months’ wages saved up before taking the leap and leaving your job to go self-employed or freelance (actually, most financial experts recommend having an emergency fund regardless of your circumstances – just to be safe).
The hope is that you’ll secure enough clients and commissions that you won’t actually need to touch this stash of cash, but the reality is that sometimes it’s not quite that straightforward. Sometimes commissions fall through. Sometimes magazines – if that’s the kind of work you’ll be doing – pay on publication (so, if you complete a piece of work that isn’t due to be published for another three months, you may have to wait until then to receive payment. That said, publishers are getting better at paying their freelancers promptly). Sometimes the work just doesn’t come in as quickly as you would like it to. That’s what you have an emergency fund for.
To learn more about freelancer finances, I recommend following Natalie Scott, a money and mindset coach, on Instagram for lots of helpful tips for saving and investing, and Vestpod for increased awareness around finances.
P.S. Whilst you’re sorting your emergency fund, I also recommend opening a business account specifically for work income, and creating a space to save for taxes – you definitely don’t want to get caught out there.
2. Network and find your first clients
One of the most fruitful ways of finding work when you’re self-employed or a freelancer is to build a contacts list within the industry. This doesn’t just include those who manage the budgets, but also peers who can put you forward for commissions when a job comes up that they can’t commit to or requires a different skillset.
Building a network takes time, but you can make a start by (considerately) making conversation with people on social media, connecting with individuals on LinkedIn, joining Facebook groups relevant to your industry, or cold-emailing people to introduce your work. This might sound a little nerve-wracking, but most people are delighted to expand their network and work support system.
If you work in the interiors industry, I recommend joining a community such as Inside Stylists, where you can connect with others and also find work opportunities.
3. Build a portfolio of work
I say this time and again, I know, but it’s really important to have a body of work that represents your skills and notes your achievements – particularly when you’re first starting out.
If you’re yet to secure any paid commissions, set to work building a portfolio in your spare time. Will you be looking for writing commissions? Type up a few articles in the style of the publications you’d like to contribute to. Pursuing a styling career? Style and shoot some sets at home or at friends’ houses to showcase your skills. Keen to make it as a photographer? Hone your skills by shooting the kind of content you hope to receive commissions for.
Make it as professional-looking as possible (though, worth noting you don’t need a state-of-the-art camera if you’re looking to be a stylist – clear images shot on a decent-quality phone camera will do the job), and make sure that the work really represents your style.
4. Establish yourself online
I’m not talking about becoming an influencer or public figure (unless you want to, of course), but establishing yourself online will help you to secure commissions.
Think about it: if you’ve ever connected with someone on a dating app, I’ll bet you probably went straight to social media to learn more about this person – who are they, what do they do for fun, how do they show up online (do they seem kind, professional, easy to get along with, funny, passionate, and so on), and are they someone you’re interested in spending any amount of time with – virtual or IRL? Well, the same is true when you apply for work opportunities.
People will search for your website to look at your portfolio, they’ll check your LinkedIn to see who you have worked with previously and read recommendations, and they’ll check your social channels to see how you conduct yourself online. So, make sure you’re showing up in a way that will help you to build your career.
Invest in a professional-looking website (it needn’t be too costly – Squarespace templates can look very clean and are easy to navigate), ensure your portfolio is of great quality, keep your LinkedIn updated, and be sure to share your work on social media, too.
5. Register for tax
Not a tax expert, but worth noting that you absolutely do have to register for tax with HMRC. If you aren’t sure how to navigate this, check out the website or give customer services a call (yes, it may be a faff, but it’ll save you so much stress further down the line).
Get all your documents and logins together and keep them safe – there’s nothing worse than going to complete your tax return and realising you can’t remember your sign-in info. It pays to be organised, I promise.