If you’ve often wondered how other people structure their freelancing lives and what on earth got them into running their own business in the first place, you’re in the right place for a good old snoop around.
This Friday, Les Howard gives us his insight into the world of freelancing, offering advice on his 20 years as a freelancer, how he transitioned working within a garage to having his own office and he advises on his networking experiences, which are not platforms to sell, but to develop relationships. Read on for a nosey into the life of a well established freelancer this Friday, it’s full of superb advice for every business or creative.
So, first of all, give us a mini bio and tell us something we won’t know about you!
My name is Les Howard. I work as a VAT Consultant, ‘game-keeper turned poacher,’ providing VAT support for SMEs and charities. I also operate a VAT helpline for Accountants; I deliver VAT training, and also sit on the Tax Tribunals.
I am married to Alison, a nurse. We have two grown-up sons, Sam and Jonny. We have spent some time in rural Africa. I do recall having a narrow escape from a bush fire on the Malawi/Mozambique border. It was pretty close (and very hot) at the time, but we were probably not in great danger at any point.
How long have you been running your business and what got you started?
I have been freelance for more than 20 years. Before that, I started work in H M Customs & Excise (as it was then), and worked for a Management Consultancy for 7 years, where I established a VAT product for their clients. I enjoyed my time in the Consultancy business, but wanted a greater variety of work than they were able to offer.
Did you launch straight into your business idea or did you spend time planning, training or even worrying before you got kicking?
My freelance career started with something of a ‘soft landing,’ since I carried on doing what I had been doing for 7 years in the Consultancy practice. My technical VAT knowledge was good, but I did need to learn how to market effectively. But I gained a customer on Day 2, and hit my income target in Month 3.
Tell us about your typical working day – Are you an early bird or do you tend to work throughout the night?
If I am in my office, I am usually there soon after 8am, but rarely work beyond 6pm. I am often meeting with clients at their premises, but I like to have 2 or 3 office days each week if possible. Most communication with clients is by email, so it is great that I can deal with emails on the move.
What’s your biggest challenge as a freelancer?
I have typically 50-60 on-going clients at any one time. Although I use a CRM system, I do find it a challenge to keep all the significant issues fresh in my mind. Probably a bigger challenge is to keep on top of non-income correspondence, such as insurance, accounts, buying stationery, and all the rest
And what’s the best element of being your own boss?
I enjoy the flexibility of working for myself. I can choose days off, start late, leave early, when I want to. I work some Saturday mornings, when the phone doesn’t go.
How do you manage a good work/life balance (or do you struggle with this at all)?
Having been a freelancer for a long time, I have learned to enjoy a good work/life balance. That has not always been the case, and I have had times when I worked late into the night where I should have been with the family.
Where do you work from and do you co-work at all?
I started working from home, and then in a converted garage. I now rent an office. This does make it easier to ‘switch off’ at the end of the day. I often work with other professionals, such as Accountants and Solicitors. When my work involves property development, then I will work with a range of property professionals. It is always interesting to learn from the different approaches that other professionals have. I have bookkeeping and marketing support, which makes a big difference day-to-day.
Do you allow yourself a regular break for coffee, exercise or lunch?
I am pretty regular with lunch breaks and my kettle is not far away, so I can have a tea or coffee. An M&S has sprung up around the corner, so that’s convenient if I fancy a choc ice, or other treat!
Are there any apps/tools/gadgets/people that you just couldn’t work without?
My iPhone is a great tool, allowing me to deal with emails and it holds music which I can play in the car. I still have a pen and paper close by to scribble comments, flow diagrams, etc. Sometimes a visual representation helps the brain grasp what is happening in a particular situation.
We would love to hear your thoughts on “networking” – do you go to any regular events or meet ups to meet other freelancers?
Networking is not selling. It is much broader than that. It is genuinely an opportunity to get to know others, as well as develop business contacts. It is interesting that, in our online world, face-to-face networking is so popular and powerful.
I joined the Cambridgeshire Chamber and attend a number of local networking meetings (Cambourne Network, St Neots Business Coffee Morning, A14 Coffee Morning, Link4Growth). I try to attend one event every week and I continue to go because I enjoy them!
I have generated business through networking. I do have an advantage, though, as my specialism is pretty rare. As the saying goes; “no-one meets two VAT Consultants!”
What essential advice would you give to anyone thinking of becoming a freelancer?
Talk to lots of people, especially those who do what you do. Ask them about their journey into freelancing. And surround yourself with capable people, who will help you develop what you want to achieve.
Anything else you would like to add or share?
I enjoy high job-satisfaction. My work with charities has resulted in millions of pounds being re-invested to benefit the lives of others. I have raised far more money than I will ever be able to give away. I am pleased to have genuinely made a difference for many.
Where I work with commercial organisations, I seek to provide some certainty, to enable them to plan, as many businesses are uncertain about VAT. I have coined the phrase ‘beneficial certainty’ to describe what I am seeking to achieve in any particular client situation.
How can we find you online (and off!)?
Thanks so much Les for taking part in our Freelancer Friday series, if you would like to put yourself (or somebody else worthy of being featured) forward, let’s talk!