Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Six tips to help you upgrade your freelance career

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 4, 2011

Image: nurpax on Flickr

The portfolio career – one where you are self-employed, and have revenue from not one but several different activities – is growing in popularity.

There are now books about it, including this excellent one by former ITN journalist Kate Ledger (affiliate link)…and for journalists, photographers, multimedia producers and other creatives I think it often beats freelancing alone.

I personally have found it an exciting, fulfilling and logical way to run my career – full of lots of variety and a more secure income. They come and go, but my different ‘revenue streams’ so far have included:

After doing it for nearly two years I feel I’m on a more stable track, with fewer wobbles along the way. I’ve learned some important lessons – vital for anyone embarking on the same path.

Six ways to manage your portfolio career

.01 Compartmentalise

You have to be able to mentally compartmentalise all the different things you do, and focus on one thing at a time. For example, I lecture one day a week at Kingston University’s journalism department, most recently on Tuesdays. It’s really important (although not always possible) to make sure my university work doesn’t intrude on any other days.

Other than checking my uni email once a day, I don’t think about that work except on Tuesdays. By the same token, on Tuesday, I focus solely on that work and leave all my other commitments until the following day.

.02 Use good online tools

Your big ally in this type of career is Google Calendar (or any other type of online calendar) which is vital for organising my week. I use its colour-coded calendars to separate all my different streams of income, and ensure they all get the right amount of time. As well as being editable, and viewable on your mobile, colouring calendars allows you to see, at a glance, whether you’ve got your priorities straight.

I’ve currently got mine coded in two ways: the red/orangey calendars are current paid commissions on the go; the blue and green ones are the longer term – and personally more important – projects I need to make sure don’t get overshadowed.

I have recently brought in Evernote to help manage my projects too, with a different notebook for each project. It’s great because you can add ideas, tasks and links from anywhere, even on the bus.

.03 learn how to describe yourself

The worst question for anyone with a portfolio career is ‘So, what do you do?’

I still haven’t got this right, and at house parties end up stumbling through a vague description of my various roles in an utterly unconvincing way that leaves most people suspicious that I might actually be unemployed.

So, find a compelling and memorable way to describe what you do. Even though you might have lots of various income streams, we usually find they are connected some way. Katie Ledger describes this as looking for the ‘red string‘ that draws all these together. So, looking at my roles (above) there’s a common theme amongst all of them, of storytelling, communication and education.

Make sure your website reflects your varied career in a positive way too.

.04 start your own projects

Lots of us go freelance to be the master of our own time. If you’re lucky enough to have made this work, don’t waste this power filling your time on paid work alone (as tempting as this is).

I try and ring-fence as much time as I can for personal projects – the ones that really excite me, and might one day make money. At the moment this includes developing a concept for multimedia explainers and starting an online magazine. If you’re scared of the commitment, the 30-day-challenge concept by John Williams is a great place to start.

Why bother? These ambitious, risky projects are the ones that really stretch you, and have the potential to push your career much further than client-based work could do. Sadly, this important work is the stuff that most often gets pushed aside to finish a last-minute story or commission for a client.

.05 keep on top of your finances

When you’ve got lots of revenue streams on the go, it’s vital you keep on top of your finances. The first thing I did when I went freelance in 2009 was register as a sole-trader (a legal requirement in the UK) and set up a separate business bank account. All my work related income comes into this account, and from it, I pay myself a monthly salary.

This really helps deal with the feast-and-famine nature of freelancing.

You need to ring-fence time to deal with the necessary paperwork – that includes sending (and often chasing) invoices, paying bills and taxes and dealing with invoices from others. I often hire camera kit from suppliers for certain gigs, so I need to make sure there’s a paper trail for clients.

.06 take a break!

Finally – and most importantly – give yourself breaks.

If there is one thing I have failed to do in my freelance career so far, it is this, with a total of about 10 days off in the last 18 months. I almost always do some work on weekends; when you work from home, like I do, separating work from play is even harder. I’m writing this blog post at 9.30 on a Thursday night, having started my day at 8 this morning.

Holidays are tempting to postpone if the money is irregular, but they are vital for your work – and I mean vital. Your brain – the fountain of the creativity that gives you ideas, inspiration and drives your career – needs ‘down-time’ to function. If you don’t top it up (with rest) you’ll soon find yourself running on empty: the result is a depressing drought of ideas which really affected me in the early months of this year.

But a brain-break need not be on a beach in Cyprus. It can be as little as an hour long walk round the park: if you do it often enough. I often take an afternoon off to meander around Wandsworth Common, usually twice a week. It’s hard to stomach, especially when there is no money coming in, but those two hours spent staring at a screen will do you little good either. The best ideas come to you in those moments of ‘creative idleness’ so give yourself lots of opportunities to have them.

These six principles have really made a different to me over the last two years, so much so, they are ingrained into my routine now.

I’ve written about portfolio careers before: you can take a look at the finances here, and see an interview with Nick Williams here.

It’s different for everyone though – so how do you manage your portfolio career?