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?

A year of freelancing & the benefits of a portfolio career

Posted in Adam, Entrepreneurial Journalism, Freelance, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 19, 2010

Photo credit: Theresa Thompson on Flickr

It’s a bit of a red-letter day for me.

This month marks exactly one year since I quit my full-time job in radio, moved down to the big city to make a break of it. In an attempt to measure success & failure, I’ve just been looking back through all the different things I’ve been paid to do in the last year, from making films to writing books.

The big question: has this whole thing been worthwhile, or did I make a massive mistake? Should I have just stayed where I was, kept my head down and hoped for a pay-rise?

The measure I gave myself when I quit was this: ‘just aim to make as much (or more) than you would have done if you’d kept your full time job’. The good news is I made more than I would have done staying put (phewf!)

A portfolio income

What looking back over the last year has really highlighted for me has been the benefits of having what some people are now calling a Portfolio Career:  several revenue streams all contributing to a net income. To make that point, and hopefully to encourage more journalists to think about this as a valid career option, I’ve decided to publish my first year finances to the world…

…well sort of.

Here’s a pie-chart showing the rough percentages of everything I’ve earned since going freelance. Naturally, I’m not going to tell you what the percentages financially add up too! 😉

As you can see teaching & academic research makes up the most significant chunk, but documentary work, broadcasting and print contribute roughly a third. This pie chart shows 9 of the different things I’ve been doing this year, although there have probably been around a dozen.

Sales of Next Generation Journalist and Newsgathering for Hyperlocal Websites have been healthy too, as have things like training, everywhere from Madrid to Glasgow.

Why have lots of jobs?

I guess the point is this: I love doing every single one of these things: the writing, the teaching, the filming, the directing, the radio…but none of them would I want to do every single day. I’ve learned that having this sort of portfolio income gives me a really exciting variety, and also protects me against the loss of a single revenue stream.

I really think more journalists, writers, presenters, and film makers should consider this way of doing work. And it’s more suited to the 21st century work environment too, with growing numbers becoming self-employed and working from home. The internet is slowly making the office (and maybe even the dreaded commute) more and more redundant.

And even though it’s been a success, I still catch myself thinking, sometimes, even if it had failed – even if I had gone bust and had to go and live with my mum or something – I would still look back at this year and be glad I did it. I have had more adventures, opportunities and excitement than even a top reporter gig on a big radio station could give me, and that’s what matters.

So here’s to year two!

Video: Nick Williams on the portfolio career

Posted in Journalism, Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on September 30, 2010

One of the easiest ways to become a Next Generation Journalist and forge your own exciting work life, is to create a portfolio career.

I go into this in some length in chapter one of the e-book, but the thrust of it is this: we are all good at more than one thing, and we can all make money from more than one thing. The result: a rewarding, challenging and profitable career which takes traditional ‘freelancing’ to a new level.

Last night I went to an event all about portfolio careers, hosted by Nick Williams, one of the thought-leaders on creative entrepreneurialism.  The point of a portfolio career, he says, is not holding down lots of bad jobs to make up a decent income – instead it’s a way of life you purposely pursue.

More and more people are becoming fed up with the rat race, realising life’s too short, and thinking about how they can get paid to do what they really love doing.

Is it something journalists can do? You bet, and many journalists already are. One of last night’s speakers was former ITN newsreader Katie Ledger (pictured, right). She left ITN a while back and now puts her journalism skills to use across a whole range of jobs, from working with Microsoft, to writing a bookAlex Wood, of Not on the Wires, combines his journalism with a thriving web design business; another Not On The Wires journalist, Marcus Gilroy-Ware combines reporting with lecturing and designing software.

I’ve been doing the portfolio career thing for a year now (more on that next week) – but alongside my video journalism and newsreading, I have been lecturing, speaking in different parts of the world, writing books and setting up a new business. It is possible, and it’s awesome fun.

The modern world is calling for more so-called ‘renaissance souls’ as Nick explains:

In this video:

  • you will learn why having a portfolio career is actually more secure than sticking with your 9-5
  • you’ll find out how it’s possible to balance having more than one revenue stream
  • and you’ll hear why journalists are actually positioned perfectly to exploit the demands of the 21st century