A woman who quit her 9-5 job and became a freelance writer has released a must-have guide for anyone who dreams of being their own boss.
Fiona Thomas, of Birmingham, decided to go out on her own after suffering what she describes as a ‘mental breakdown’ in her early 20s while working in a stressful management career.
She has used the knowledge she gained first-hand to write Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 and Be Your Own Boss, which offers a step-by-step guide designed to help the newly self-employed, or those thinking about taking the plunge.
It comes as experts predict the need for freelancers could rise in the post-lockdown era as companies seek a more cost efficient way to supplement their existing employee skill set. Meanwhile office workers who have grown accustomed to greater autonomy might find themselves drawn to the freelance lifestyle.
Here, in a chapter shared exclusively with FEMAIL, Fiona reveals the things every freelancer should know when setting up their business – from creating a ‘virtual shop front’ to the type of insurance they might need to take out.
Fiona Thomas, of Birmingham, decided to go out on her own after suffering what she describes as a ‘mental breakdown’ in her early 20s while working in a stressful management career. She has used the knowledge she gained first-hand to write a book for freelancers
There are a few things that you’ll want to have in place before you go freelance, and I’ll be going over these in this chapter.
Some of them are essential, like registering as self-employed, and some are totally optional, like setting up a website or finding a nice co-working space. I’m not going to act like I had all of these things fully in place before I went freelance because, as we now know, there’s no such thing as a perfect start.
But if you check as many of these off your list from the get-go, you’ll find your business runs a lot smoother as a result. It also means that when an insane amount of clients start clambering to work with you (trust me, it’s going to happen), you’re not messing about with the basic set-up when you could be getting stuck into the real work.
YOUR VIRTUAL SHOP FRONT
You can network and tweet people all you like, but when people are ready to make contact or hand over their money, they want to visit your website first. There’s nothing
If you’re selling products online, you should consider setting up a website using Shopify. Experts say it’s the best ecommerce website builder and is an industry leader in that respect.
more frustrating than talking to someone you would love to work with and then, when you go to find out more about their services, you discover that there’s not a single trace of them on the internet other than their personal Facebook page. The good news is that making a website can be as simple or as complicated as you like. Guess which end of the sliding scale I’m going to recommend you sway towards? Yep, you got it: make it simple AF.
When I started out I used a free blogging platform called WordPress, which is the most popular website builder in the world. I didn’t know this at the time. I just picked the first one that popped up on a Google search. I chose a name, a colour scheme and a pre-made template and that was that. I was up and running in less than an hour. I’d put off doing it for weeks and when it was done I was surprised at how quick and easy it had been. Other free services that allow you to set up a basic website for free include Wix, Weebly and SITE123, although bear in mind that there will be an extra fee to purchase your domain name and this needs to be renewed yearly. There are also paid platforms such as Squarespace and GoDaddy.
REGISTERING AS SELF-EMPLOYED
If you’re making money by selling goods or services for a profit then you’ll usually need to register with the government as self-employed. Here in the UK it can be done online31 and really takes no time at all, so don’t put if off for any longer than you need to. If you’re based outside the UK, check your country’s government website to find out more information about how you can register as self-employed.
The great thing about freelancing is that it’s easy to get into, but a lot of people are underprepared for the risks and responsibilities that come with running a business. I know I personally didn’t consider getting insurance until I started writing this book. It’s not legally required, so I just put it off, thinking that it wasn’t essential and probably too expensive. I know that insurance gets a bad name because it’s literally capitalising on fear, but I can honestly say that now I’ve signed up I’m genuinely quite happy to pay £15 for the peace of mind I have right now. Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know about the types of insurance available for freelancers:
PROFESSIONAL INDEMNITY INSURANCE
This covers you against the business risk of causing financial loss to your client through your own negligence. I spoke to Robert Hartley, who is one of the co-founders of Dinghy, an insurance company specialising in policies for freelancers,
and he gave me an example of why you might need professional indemnity cover: Imagine you were a graphic designer and you created a logo for a client and a year later a larger company says that your design breaches their trademark. They’ve also got the funds to take legal action. You could be held accountable for this and need to pay for lawyers and damages. ‘You get your logo design put on your website, printed in a magazine, make loads of banners, and then suddenly someone says you’ve breached their trademark and you owe them £10,000. It’s the designer of the logo who would need to pay this compensation,’ says Robert. ‘Something like this is an honest mistake. You didn’t deliberately rip off this logo design and so professional indemnity cover will pay the compensation.’ Bear in mind, though, that this is only relevant when there has been some sort of financial loss. It can’t be a client saying that they just don’t like the logo!
Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 and Be Your Own Boss by Fiona Thomas is published by Trigger and currently available on ebook, £4.31
PUBLIC LIABILITY INSURANCE
This offers protection against injury to other people or their belongings. It doesn’t need to be a client; it can be anyone in the public who isn’t you as long as it happens when you are working. Perfect for freelancers like me who work in public spaces like cafés, co-working spaces and libraries and live in fear of dropping a scalding hot chai latte over a stranger’s laptop.
Things like your laptop might be covered under your home insurance, but that’s not always the case, so check with your existing policy to find out where you stand. It’s also worth noting that your home insurance might not cover items when you are using them outside of the house and some policies totally exclude business items anyway. I personally have worldwide cover on business equipment so that if my laptop ever breaks or is stolen, I can get a replacement ASAP.
This is something that I don’t have, but might be worth considering if you handle a lot of customer data. ‘Say you visit a website and you accidentally download a ransomware virus and get an email saying you need to pay £500 or all the information on your computer will be deleted,’ says Robert. ‘The insurance company would help with that. If you hold a lot of customer data like addresses or bank details then you would want that protection.’
For most freelancers, loss of income is a major concern. This type of insurance helps by providing you with an income in the event that you are unable to work due to long-term sickness or as a result of an accident. Policies will provide you with a percentage of your gross income for a set time or until retirement, depending on the terms.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
There’s no set rate for insurance policies as it depends on the cover you need as well as what kind of work you do. I currently pay about £15 a month for professional indemnity, public liability and equipment insurance, so that gives you an idea of what to expect.
CHOOSING YOUR SPACE
Finding a good space in which to work may or may not be important to you. If you’re a PR consultant, then a comfortable office chair and a moderately spacious desk is probably good enough. You might even start with just a smartphone writing emails from your living-room sofa. But those with more practical tasks are going to need a space that can accommodate tools and equipment.
Think about your potential clients and how you want to be perceived. Are you going to be having a lot of meetings? If so, is a coffee shop the best place to carry them out? I’m personally a huge fan of the coffee and cake meeting, as I like clients to know that we can relax around one another. I have no airs and graces, but that might not work for your business.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Keeping your expenses to a minimum is essential in the early days. My only ‘start-up’ costs were a laptop (which was actually a Christmas and birthday present combined from my long-suffering husband) and a few apps that cost less than £1. Here are a few things that you may (or may not) want to include in your freelancer starter kit, however, assuming you’re going to be working from home:
- Laptop/desktop computer
- Comfortable office chair
- Storage boxes/bookcase
- Website hosting
Here are some other things that may also cost you money:
- Computer software (e.g. Photoshop, Quickbooks)
- Technical support
- Hiring an accountant
- Travel and accommodation (trains, fuel, hotels)
- Special equipment (especially if you create your own physical products) • apps or services (e.g. social media scheduling apps)
And here’s a bunch of costs that you’d better hope don’t become a regular occurrence:
- Unexpected tax bills
- Legal advice
- Parking tickets
- Replacing a broken computer/phone/printer
And then there’s these other purchases that you swore you didn’t need but end up paying for anyway:
- Branding/snazzy logo design
- Business cards on the posh paper
- Marketing advice
- Online courses
Maybe your client is divulging sensitive information and therefore vulnerable in a busy environment. Maybe you’re delivering training to small groups and need an entire room with catering and equipment to give a presentation. Maybe you’re offering beauty treatments and you need a room with total privacy, running water, a waiting area and a receptionist.
You can see from just these few examples that everyone’s needs are different, and so it’s worth a little forward planning to make sure that you can actually do your day-to-day tasks with relative ease.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING A DEDICATED SPACE
One of the major benefits of freelancing is also its biggest curse; you can work from anywhere. This means that the boundaries between your work and personal life can become blurry incredibly quickly, and in a way that you might not even notice. For example, say you work at your kitchen table, the place where you also eat your meals. At lunch time, do you eat while you work because you don’t have a dedicated space to eat? Similarly, you might get into the habit of working from bed because you don’t have a comfortable desk to sit at. Not only will this do some serious damage to your neck and back, but you could start to associate the bedroom with work and find it difficult to switch off and fall asleep at night. This is why you should at least give some prior consideration to where you want to work. You are going to be your own boss after all, so why not enjoy being in control for once?
WORK FROM HOME If all you need to do your work is a quiet room, a laptop and an internet connection, then like most freelancers you can start your career working from home. It’s the obvious solution because it doesn’t cost anything other than the bills you already pay, although these may increase slightly, especially if you crank the heating up full blast and make twenty cups of tea before noon. But in general terms, using your home as your workspace is the most affordable option for most. If you do opt for this solution, here are some tips to help you set clear boundaries to maintain good mental health:
- Get up in the morning as though you were going to a regular job. Get showered, get dressed, leave the house if you want and walk around the block to create a ‘commute’.
- Always take breaks away from your desk, ideally out of the house but, let’s be honest, the sofa is just fine.
- Arrange your desk so it points away from potential distractions like the TV or the overflowing laundry basket.
- When you have a few hours to kill at the weekend, try not to automatically sit down at your desk. you wouldn’t have used that time to go into the office when you had a traditional job, would you? Go watch Netflix, for crying out loud!
RENT A SPACE Consider renting a room if you really need the space, but remember you’ll need to be 100% sure that you can cover the cost, as you’ll likely be tied into a contract that lasts several months if not an entire year.
CONSIDER CO-WORKING There are tonnes of co-working spaces up for grabs these days, making use of city-centre buildings that put you right in the thick of it if that’s what you need. You can normally pick from either a hot desk (just choose a desk and use it) or paying for a private office. Prices vary depending on location, perks (e.g. printing services, reception, free coffee) and how often you want to visit (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.). According a survey by Deskwanted, the average monthly cost of a ‘flexible desk’ is $195 in the United States, €189 in Europe and £168 in the UK.32 It’s something that I’ve considered from time to time, but I’ve honestly never been able to justify the spend for the type of work I do. I have a perfectly fine home office that has all the perks I need. And by perks I mean the ability to wander around in my pyjamas singing Queen songs at the top of my lungs.
TIP: If you just want a change of scenery without spending any money and don’t care about the social aspect of talking to others, visit your local library and see if there is space available.
PAY AS YOU GO There are plenty of spaces that have rooms for hire if you need to host one-off events or larger meetings. Many hotels, bars and cafés have private function rooms that you can reserve under the condition that your guests spend a certain amount on food and drinks. There are also lots of freelancers organising their own co-working events, and Jessica Berry from Nottingham, UK did just this. She started off with a small group of fellow freelancers and has since gone on to launch an affordable membership scheme which allows people to sign up to get access to co-working one day a week starting at £30 per month. Look out for similar schemes in your area and if you can’t find any, consider setting one up yourself. Such programmes are made easier by other services such as Dispace, an online platform designed to highlight empty spaces in cities that remote workers can use for co-working, meetings and events.
OTHER BORING THINGS TO NOTE
Gawd, here’s the awful truth. Freelancing can be hella boring sometimes. In the past week alone I’ve fallen asleep at my desk at least twice while trying to carry out the basic task of finding the right type of insurance for my business. (Oh BTW, now is a good opportunity to let you in on a secret: I have no idea what I’m doing, and have learnt while writing this book that there are quite a few things that I could be doing better as part of my own OOO life.)
There are lots of nap-inducing aspects of being your own boss, and that’s just all part of the job. One day, hopefully I’ll be able to outsource those dreaded tasks to a friendly assistant who also keeps me motivated, makes me go to my dental check-ups and hands me a strong G&T every Friday at 5 pm (or earlier; I assume with my friendly assistant around we’ll get our work done much earlier than usual), but until that sweet future is a reality, boring jobs are my sole responsibility. Here are a few other things that you might not know you need to keep on top of:
DATA SECURITY If you’re a business based in the EU, you need to comply with the General Data Protection Regulations. Over eighty countries now have their own privacy laws in place, so make sure you are following best practices in your own location. There are various aspects that you’ll need to look at within your business relating to how you store and use other people’s data, such as email addresses and financial details. There’s also an associated fee with this (yay, more money), which depends on the size of your business. You can find out more at www.ico.org.uk. From 25th May 2018, the Data Protection (Charges and Information) Regulations 2018 requires every organisation or sole trader who processes personal information to pay a data protection fee to the ICO, unless they are exempt.33 In America there isn’t a federal-level data security law but there are some state-specific ones such as the Californian Consumer Privacy Act. You should check your government website depending on where in the world you’re located.
HEALTH AND SAFETY If your work poses a risk to others (e.g. you run a fairground ride), then you will need to adhere to health and safety laws. Depending on where you live there will also be other laws that apply to you if you hire employees (another reason to fly solo, if you ask me). The good news is that you don’t need to comply with many health and safety laws if you’re selfemployed and working alone. This doesn’t mean you should run with scissors in between meetings or start operating equipment after a few glasses of Malbec. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about health and safety, but I do want to point out the importance of making sure you don’t cut corners when it comes to personal safety. One example is the importance of a comfortable desk set-up. And no, this doesn’t mean hooking up your espresso machine so that you can reach it from your bed while you crack on with answering emails. I suffer from a bad back as a result of years working in cafés where I was lugging boxes and stacking chairs every day. I thought the pain would improve when I went freelance, but I didn’t realise that being hunched over a laptop for ten hours a day would make this pain even more excruciating. After a few weeks at physio, my husband helped me pick out a proper office chair with arm and back support, as well as a monitor to make sure I was in the correct position when staring at my screen. I also paid a few quid for a little padded strip to keep my wrists from resting on the corner of the table. These are little things that often come as standard in offices but are worth considering as you set yourself up as a homeoffice dweller.
PAPERWORK Having all the boring paperwork in place before you have any clients on your books is a super smart idea. It was not one that I personally implemented and I lived to regret it. Flying by the seat of your pants when it comes to some things is fine, but making sure your agreements are solid is something worth doing. Don’t worry, I’ll delve deeper into contracts, invoices and record-keeping in the next few chapters.
Out of Office: Ditch the 9-5 and Be Your Own Boss by Fiona Thomas is published by Trigger and currently available on ebook, £4.31. The paperback is out 1st October 2020 and is available on pre-order, £9.99.