This article was orginally on Stir Up Media a couple of years ago but I have just re-found it and thought it may inspire anyone who is thinking of setting up their own business. It's not a walk in the park by any means, but it's so damn rewarding!
If you’ve often wondered how other people structure their freelancing lives and what on earth got them into running their own business in the first place, you are in the right place for a good old snoop.
This Friday Jane Horwood of Catfish Web Design gives her insight into the wonderful world of freelancing and shares her thoughts on the good, the bad and the not so organised.
So, first of all, give us a mini bio and tell us something we won’t know about you!
I am the owner of Catfish Web Design. I’ve been running my own businesses or freelancing in some way for most of my working life. Previous jobs, and there have been many, include charity fundraiser, advertising in the 80s (like everyone else), designing and making my own range of clothes which I sold to Harrods, painter and decorator with a bit of plastering thrown in, cook in a small London bistro, theatre administrator / producer. I’ve been married twice – once to a dancer and now to an actor. I have one son.
How long have you been running your business and what got you started?
I set up Catfish in 1999. I’d been working for a legal charity that needed a website. I decided ‘I can do that’ so promptly handed my notice in and enrolled in evening classes as well as spending night after night in front of the computer teaching myself. The first website was a great success and the client delighted. Seeing the results, a colleague recommended me to a charity run by his brother. I got that job too. I won’t pretend it wasn’t hard moving forward from there and getting more clients though, and it was by far the steepest learning curve I have ever been on.
Are you freelancing full time or part time? Do you have a second or even third means of income to keep you moving forward?
Catfish has always been full time from the time I set it up. I knew from previous experience of running my own business that it was crucial to focus on it 24/7. In the early days it was extremely difficult to make ends meet but I was living in London at that time with 2 spare bedrooms which I rented out to students studying English. This supplemented my income for a couple of years while I was establishing the business and looking after my young son. My husband was on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company so there was a steady income from him at that stage. However, I often found myself working through the night to make up for ‘lost time’ in the day.
Did you launch straight into your business idea or did you spend time planning, training or even worrying before you got kicking?
I jumped straight in feet first even though I knew absolutely nothing about web design. I approached a friend I’d worked with in advertising years before as we’d always wanted to run a business together. In the past we’d come up with some hair brained ideas that were nonstarters. But this one I really felt would work. We pulled the name of Catfish out of the air and I started learning all the ‘technical stuff’ as we began ‘touting our wares’ around town. I discovered that I could apply for a small business start-up grant, and at that stage I had to prepare and present a business plan and cost projection. But that was about the extent of my planning. All a bit crazy now I look back on it but it has appeared to work as 15 years later I have a successful business.
Tell us about your typical working day - Are you an early bird or do you tend to work throughout the night?
I am an early bird and often at my desk by 6.30 am to check emails and my social media. I try to run most days and usually like to do this in the morning. I have a home office so I am based here most of the time but I often get out and meet potential clients or attend business networking events. My son is 18 now so I don’t have to work around the school day but when you’re a freelancer that doesn’t really matter as you’re in charge of your own diary.
What’s your biggest challenge as a freelancer?
I would like to have more confidence to speak to groups about web design and development. I simply hate public speaking and it frustrates me that I find this so nerve-wracking.
And what’s the best element of being your own boss?
Making my own decisions, whether they are right or wrong. I can get an idea and roll with it without having to ask permission or run it past other people. There are no office politics to contend with. I’ve worked in places where that has taken up too much of the working day as far as I am concerned. I am also in charge of my own timetable so if I want to spend the day in London at the V&A or the Tate Modern I can do that and catch up on work in the evening. There is a lot of freedom if you use it properly.
How do you manage a good work/life balance (or do you struggle with this at all)?
I used to struggle enormously with this. I am by nature a bit of a workaholic but when your business is in the early stages you need to devote a massive amount of time to it in order to build up the momentum, get yourself known and keep the work rolling in. Now I don’t worry so much about the next job. There are quieter times but then we’ll get 5 or 6 jobs all with pressing deadlines and the pressure is on. I no longer work at weekends and rarely in the evenings apart from a bit of social networking.
Where do you work from and do you co-work at all?
I work from my home office in Haslingfield and my programmer is based in London. We’ve been working together for 14 years so we each know what the other is thinking. We are on the phone/Skype every day though so it’s almost like he’s in the same room. I partner with other locals on some projects: marketing, search engine optimisation and logo design but they all have their own home offices.
Do you allow yourself a regular break for coffee, exercise or lunch?
Two years ago I completely changed the way I worked. I saw a local nutritionist/personal trainer who was horrified at my diet which was not unhealthy but insufficient. I was running on empty a lot of the time which was causing unnecessary stress but I found it hard to tear myself away from the computer. Since then I always break for lunch, a cup of tea (coffee is now out of bounds), a run or a walk to clear my head.
Are there any apps/tools/gadgets/people that you just couldn’t work without?
As you can imagine I am pretty tethered to my PC. But I love my ipad and use my phone more and more now on the move. But I could not work without my programmer who is an absolute genius. We’ve been working together for 14 years. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
My team is really important and has been built up over the years. While we work in separate offices and on a project basis, I really value their advice and input. They are all local so we can get together for a meeting if necessary but 99% of the time we’re working electronically.
I use social media a lot – I need to practice what I preach! It’s also important to keep up with what’s going on in the industry so I use sites like econsultancy and scoopit.
Is there anything you really don’t enjoy as a freelancer? Perhaps something would persuade you to go back to a “regular” job?...
Absolutely nothing would persuade me to go back to a ‘regular job’. Anyway, I am probably unemployable having worked for myself for so long. If Catfish really was no longer viable then I guess I would have to reinvent myself yet again but I feel that I have found my niche at last.
We would love to hear your thoughts on “networking” – do you go to any regular events or meet ups to meet other freelancers?
I am a big believer in networking, both physical and virtual. I set up and ran Cambridge Women, a business networking group, for 8 years. Networking has helped me find new clients and also people whose services I can use, like graphic designers, photographers etc. I joined the WIBN in April and have also just started attending the Business Progression Group.
What essential advice would you give to anyone thinking of becoming a freelancer?
Do it! Take the plunge. If you are passionate about something you will inspire others including clients. It’s a great way to earn a living but you need to be self-motivated. Initially you will probably need to work extremely long hours to get your business off the ground and finances may be a bit tight. But stick with it. If you have a good product or service you WILL succeed.
As a web designer I would also strongly recommend that you get a good website professionally built at the outset. Don’t be tempted to go down the DIY route and end up with something that looks amateurish. It will reflect badly on you and that’s not a good start for a fledgling business. A professional will also get the site built quickly so you can focus on what you’re good at.
Anything else you would like to add or share?
Go with your gut instinct when taking on clients. I know when you start out it’s not always possible to be choosy. But I have learned the hard way. Now if I feel the client or the job is not for me I move on. It works both ways.