How I Left The Paycheck Behind
When I asked about things people wanted me to write about, a number of you suggested a blog on how I became freelance, why I left a paycheck and what being freelance is really like. There’s a lot there to chew on but for those of you wondering whether freelance is the way forward, I thought I’d give you an honest review of my situation. The pros, the cons, the reality of working for yourself.
I used to be a teacher. I taught secondary English and loved it. I loved being in the classroom, I loved the kids (even the ones that were a pain in the ass) and I loved the creative side of figuring out how to teach stuff in an engaging way. Unfortunately, with the focus so heavily on results and data and meetings and bureaucracy, there wasn’t a lot of room, time or headspace to get creative. I would arrive at school at 7am and leave at 7pm. Yes I had 13 weeks holiday a year but the burn out rate was so high, I spend most of them in bed.
I left teaching with a heavy heart and a distinct sense of failure. I knew I was a good teacher but I also knew the system had hamstrung me. Drowning under piles of paperwork and obligatory meetings that would go on for hours, I was pulling lessons out of my arse all the while knowing that I wasn’t doing the very best job I could do for these kids. The resentment I felt about that was damaging to my self-esteem and my mental health. I knew I had to get out.
Of course, I was only 29. I didn’t have any kids or a mortgage at that point. Giving up a regular paycheck wasn’t quite as scary as it would be now. I was in a relationship with a musician who, from my point of view, appeared to work for a third of the time and earn three times as much. I wanted a slice of that pie. The thought of being in charge of my own destiny after working for so long under the dictatorship of a meglomaniac headteacher and leadership team at one of the most prestigious state schools in West London (known as ‘the socialist Eton’) had broken my trust in the employer/employee relationship.
But what was I going to do? I had no clue so I just started talking about it with friends, family and anyone who would listen. I figured that the more people knew about my plans, the more chance there would be of work. I knew I was good at writing and I’d done some journalism courses at university. I understood what good copy was and I started pitching for copywriting work. Weirdly a big shaving company hired me immediately which came entirely out of the blue via a website I’d knocked up in an evening. Then my sister needed an Editor for a site she owned which was (and I believe still is) the largest of it’s kind in the world. All of a sudden I had some regular income.
Then my boyfriend (at the time, now my husband) got a call from a friend who was drumming with Ray Davies from The Kinks. He knew I was looking for work and their production assistant was on her way out. Was I interested in meeting the Tour Manager? Once I’d research who he was (70s rock n’roll bands aren’t my specialist subject) I headed off to the Albert Hall to meet the tour manager. He’d forgotten we were meeting and was in the middle of the BLS (big London show) and had little time for me. He told me that without any experience, I was unlikely to walk into a Production Assistant job but that he would use me for wardrobe (read: ironing) here and there. Willing to take anything, I agreed. At that moment, the current production assistant walked in blind drunk. She couldn’t have told you what city she was in or who she was touring with and in the blink of an eye she’d had her pass confiscated and had been removed from the building. The tour manager turned to me and said, “I know I said you’d never get a Production Assistant job, but do you want to start now? It’s £280 a day?”
So my first touring job was with Ray Davies at the Royal Albert Hall. That was pretty cool.
Now, almost ten years on I’ve wandered through various jobs. I toured with Ray for about 6 years and that led to a lot more work within the music industry. I briefly worked with Newton Faulkner and Andy Burrows from Razorlight. I tour managed The Saturdays for a little while and produced a couple of huge charity gigs at the Royal Albert Hall with artists such as Bryan May, Alice Cooper and Deep Purple. When I fell pregnant I knew I’d have to give up touring – having two parents on tour wasn’t feasible – and returned to my writing roots. I started Not So Smug Now – the very blog your reading – with little intention to monetise it and even less knowledge about how to do so if I wanted to. Instagram came later and then, of course, Hustle & Fox.
There’s no security net with freelancing. There’s no route to follow or direct path to get to freelancing from PAYE employment. No matter how hard you plan and how good you are, there will always be terrifying periods without work. But here’s what I’ve learned: to be successful as a freelancer you have to hustle. All the time. You have to talk about what you’re doing, what you want to do, to anyone who’ll listen. You have to put it out there that you need and want work and yes, sometimes you have to call people up and directly ask them if they have anything. There isn’t always room for pride as a freelancer.
There’s no sick pay or maternity pay and don’t even get me started on pensions. It can be lonely and you don’t always get exciting projects. Sometimes you’ll take work that you hate because you need to pay the bills. But other times, you’ll get a huge pay check for work that you truly, truly love. Freelancing is flexible and it’s yours. If you want to lie in you can. If you want to take the day off you can. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to put your kids in childcare – anyone who’s tried to write even one work email or take one work call with kids around will know that it’s not an easy option in terms of childcare – but it’s exciting and it’s different everyday.
It’s not for everyone but I couldn’t go back.