I never thought I'd ever be able to hack being a full-time freelancer. Doing your own accounts, chasing invoices, contracts, legalities, the elusive concept of quoting for a job - and that's all assuming you actually had work to quote for.
Fresh out of university, I worked full-time at a desk in a small corporate production company. One of my colleagues was an ex-freelancer, and even the thought of it terrified me. I had this negative stigma that freelancers were essentially just lazy people - people who couldn't get full-time jobs, so they just did odd bits as and when it suited them between Lost marathons.
The important of saying yes
Mining for details one day, I inquired: "So... how did you get your work?" He paused for a second, glanced at the ceiling, deep in thought; then looked back at me with a shrug and said: "I dunno. It's weird; I just said 'yes' a lot back then."
Fast-forward half a year: I was working on an entry-level contract, my first real 'freelance gig' in an office in Central London. I'd got to know a few of the full-time employees there, and striking up conversation in the kitchen whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, they understood that I was a bit of a 'renaissance man'; not just the quite web designer, but a dab hand in video editing and shooting - after all, seeing as I'd done an entire university course in the subject, why wouldn't I be?
Word got around pretty quick, I soon discovered, as the company director tapped me on the shoulder one afternoon. One of his close friends was looking for a new video camera, but wasn't quite sure which one to get. "This one, perhaps?" - pulling up Google Images, he made a quick search and pointed at a particular camera on my screen - "But this one has a flip screen...isn't that better?"
I smiled and shook my head, then replied with my best non-jargon-filled response that I could manage. I must have failed to produce a simple enough answer, as then came the question: "Could you drop him a quick email with your thoughts?"
Immediately, I was hesitant. Should I be billing for this? After all, I had been hired as a web designer, not a video consultant... what would an accomplished, successful freelancer do, presented with this question?
I didn't want to seem money-grabbing and put him off, in case it was just a favour, as that wasn't part of my personality. I recalled my friend's advice once again back at the production company. With a smile, I obliged.
Making it personal
An email led to a phone call. A phone call lead to a meet-up. The meet-up led to a day trip around London's photography stores. Had I had billed for all of this, I could have easily racked up a two- or three-day invoice - but I pushed that to the back of my mind.
My inner businessman, educated on the blogs of experienced freelancers and entrepreneurial literature, screamed that I should be working on other projects, or hunting down my next client - or even mentioning invoicing for this time; but I ignored it.
I went with my gut, and what felt natural; I helped out as much as I could, just as I would a friend, or relative. This felt personal.
Starting a relationship
After a few visits out to test-drive a couple of the choices we'd narrowed down, I received a pleasant email - he'd bought the camera, and it was exactly what he was looking for.
I felt great. I sent a jolly "you're welcome, any time" email back, and continued my quest for my next contract. The very next day, I got a call: "The company I work for are looking at buying a whole new video studio. I'm going to hire you to spec it out for us - is that alright? When are you available?" I was stunned.
Over the next year-and-a-half, that contract lead to another, which led to many more. That company is now my longest-standing client, providing me with almost half of last year's income.
When asked for a favour with no promise of immediate financial or personal gain, saying no is easy. I'm still young in my freelance career (two years this July) but one lesson I wish I'd learned earlier is that whilst hitting deadlines is important, it shouldn't mean that you have to skip out on simple human nature - and helping somebody out as and when you can.
As a working freelancer, you have a desired skillset; it's fantastic to get paid for using that, but remember that not everybody has five-figure budgets. Maybe it's just a relative's budding hobby; they've always wanted to know how to edit this holiday video of them in the Bahamas, can you sit down with them for an afternoon and show them? Perhaps a friend who needs a new website to show off their super-awesome motorbike collection.
After all, you never know where it might lead.
Words: Sam Piggott (opens in new tab)
Sam Piggott is a freelance web designer and video producer. Follow him on Twitter at @Sam_Piggott (opens in new tab).