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Saying no to 'jam tomorrow'

There are a handful of times in your life when the alarm goes off and you get out of bed completely unaware of the significance of the day ahead.

March 3rd 2017 was one of those days for me. It was the day I walked away from my last full-time job. I planned to have a few weeks off, enjoy the spring and recharge my batteries before joining another design agency. Fate intervened to push me in a different direction.

Fate would not listen to all my protests that a freelance life was not for me. That I would: 1. Be no good at it

2. Get no work

3. Hate it

4. Starve.

Well, four years on and I didn’t starve or live off pot noodles. I did get some work and, turns out I’m actually quite good at it. I’ve met some amazing people and worked on all kinds of crazy cool stuff I could never have imagined as I boarded that last commuter train home.

I’ve also worked lots of late nights and weekends, artworked numerous business cards and created a murder of PowerPoint presentations. That is the collective term for PowerPoint right? Or is that just crows?

In honour of fate, every year, about this time, I’ve written about my freelance journey. It’s been a steep learning curve at times. None more so than this last year. Unsurprisingly, 2020 drove a Covid shaped juggernaut through the work. I’m glad that I have been able to build my business across so many different sectors since starting out. That has certainly helped lessen the impact that I know many of my fellow freelancers have felt.

Pandemic aside, I started 2020 with a plan that I decided to stick to even though it felt crazy given the landscape. The plan was to say "no", more. When I started freelancing I said yes to everything. And that is still my default setting being a people pleaser. However, it can easily turn me into a busy fool. So I said no to the big project that suddenly had a 20% budget cut. Even though ‘this could lead to lots of other work for you.’ Thank you for the opportunity but you can keep your ‘jam tomorrow’, I need to buy bread today! And I walked away from a contract with a clause that meant I could potentially wait months for payment. I value my peace of mind more than my bank balance.

It’s a whole lot harder to say no when you already have a good client relationship though. But there are times when you probably should. When you are just not right for a particular project, however much you want to help. You wonder if they will come back to you when another project comes up or will they have found someone else? That's when you need a little self-belief! Given that I’m one of those designers who is always going on about the importance of brand, I need to make damn sure I follow my own freelance promise. I wrote it when I started out so that clients would always know what to expect when working with me. One of those six points is honesty.

"If I can’t help you, I will tell you. I’m good at lots of things but not everything. I only take on work I can do a great job on."

Four years on and I still live by that.

Looking back on my fourth year freelancing, I would say I learned two big things. The first - that it is OK to say no sometimes and it can lead to even greater opportunities. Clients value honesty. Far better to keep your reputation and integrity intact than to take on work you are not right for or will do a poor job on. Hold your nerve and trust that the next project is just around the corner.

The second thing; I learned to trust my instincts more. They are the most valuable tool I have in helping me navigate the ups and downs of freelancing. I can do all the due diligence in the world, but if it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. Sometimes it’s Ok to take a leap of faith and work on a project with a small budget just because you had a great chat over Zoom with a client. Or you love that they are trying to put a dent in the universe and you want to go along for the ride. Or that they have a crazy cool corporate font. OK, not the last reason. Never do it for that.

Flippancy aside, 2020 was a tough year for many reasons. I’m incredibly grateful just to be able to sit here and reflect on four years in business and to be looking forward to the year ahead. It's not something I take for granted. I’ll end this by saying a very big thank you to all the clients that have trusted me with their design projects and who have allowed me to carry on doing what I love most. All 49 of you according to my spreadsheet (I so wanted to get it to 50 before writing this but every good blog still needs a stat for credibility, right?).

And to client number 50, I can’t wait to meet you, I’ve got a great idea for your brand…


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