Going freelance

For many people, going freelance seems an attractive idea but an impracticable reality. The benefits – no-one to complain if you need a lie-in, for instance – are overshadowed by the uncertainties. You might be able to give up your monthly pay packet, but could you survive without an office Christmas party?

Catherine Masterman, a freelance researcher, knows those feelings. After receiving a job offer in the civil service, she never imagined herself in any other office than the two chairs and a pot-plant kind. But she turned it down and is now working from a small room in her Stockwell flat.

‘I have always wanted to work in international development, and the opportunity just wasn’t there for me in the civil service,’ explains Masterman. ‘And I was certainly afraid of where the next piece of work would come from when I decided to freelance.’ Her first assignment was to research and write a report on the arms trade for a cross-party parliamentary organisation. ‘If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that you have to be very interested in what you’re working on,’ she says. ‘It requires a large amount of self-discipline, and if you aren’t particularly keen on your subject you won’t get it done.’

But the positives have been overwhelming. ‘I have a much more flexible social life and the other benefit is that you can work for the people and companies you really want to. You don’t get stuck somewhere that you’re going to get bored.’ Masterman has found the biggest problem to be knowing her value within the marketplace. ‘If you’re giving an upfront fee, you need to do some digging – speak to people and organisations that do similar work and find out what they charge or pay.’ And for those, who are paid by the hour: ‘You need to be clear with your client what constitutes a chargeable hour. And then you need to keep track!’

John Risebero, a freelance set designer, divides his time between building his models and his theatrical contacts list. ‘Make yourself known, that’s the best advice I have for anyone,’ says Risebero. ‘Be persistent and even if you feel someone can’t help you at that particular moment keep in touch with them.’ The theatre is an infamously insecure profession and Risebero has had to learn new networking skills in order to track down work. ‘It’s all about pushing myself at people, which I’m not very good at!’ he laughs. ‘I write to people, I arrange meetings to show them my portfolio, and it’s very important to chat to people at parties in the hope that they might remember you.’

Masterman and Risebero admit there is a danger of loneliness, but both have come up with solutions to tackle it. Masterman, who says she partly compensates the lack of water-cooler gossip by having ‘a very active social life’, also ensures she does a certain amount of her research face to face and regularly drops in on the offices that commission her reports to talk over the direction of her findings. Similarly Risebero, when not working on his models, visits rehearsals and meets the actors and directors.

Other stumbling blocks have been more psychological. Masterman insists it is very important to have a working space completely separate from one’s bedroom, whether it be a study, a home office or just a kitchen table. ‘You’ll work much more efficiently that way. It took me a while to work out that if I woke up and felt slightly groggy, the worst thing to do was take the comfortable option – work from my bed!’ And Risebero admits that facing up to your tax return can require a strong mind. ‘I’ve been doing this for two years and I’m still not quite sure what’s going on,’ he says. ‘But there are organisations that offer help. In the theatre industry, there’s a guild of designers which can help you understand and complete your return.’ The Inland Revenue itself offers a comprehensive starter pack for the newly self-employed, which can be obtained from your local tax office.

Entering a profession where most of his colleagues – be they actor, director or technician – are self-employed, Risebero had to prepare himself to freelance. ‘It was a daunting prospect to begin with, that that I could never have a regular salary,’ he admits. ‘But I’ve been freelancing for about two years now and I really enjoy it. I could never go back to an office-based job, and I’m learning all the time.’

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