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, Chris Holmes, better known internationally as “Mr Cake”, gives us his insight into the wonderful world of freelancing and shares his thoughts on the good, the bad and the unexpected power of social media. Mr Cake famously left his full time job as a civil servant by writing his resignation letter on top of a cake and this went viral through Twitter… an exciting year has proceeded this online excitement!
So, first of all, give us a mini bio and tell us something we won’t know about you!
I was born in London and grew up in the Essex countryside. By the time I started my A-Levels in Cambridge I wanted to be a doctor, but two years on I’d had a complete change of mind and signed up for a degree in philosophy! My first proper job was as a kitchen porter, which is where I discovered my love of food. After working my way up to chef de partie level and gaining experience at a number of different restaurants including Petrus and Midsummer House, I realised that it would be impossible for me to balance working in a high end restaurant and having a life outside that, so I turned my back on the industry for a while. I found a job in the civil service but it wasn’t what I was passionate about – that’s when I decided that the best way to work with food whilst retaining control of my social life was to become self-employed.
I made the decision to set up the business in July 2010 while my wife and I were on our honeymoon! Getting married made me really reassess my priorities and helped me focus a lot more on my own happiness and the impact that had on those close to me.
Are you freelancing full time or part time? Do you have a second or even third means of income to keep you moving forward?
I carried on working for the civil service for two and a half years, gradually building my business and at the same time reducing the number of hours I worked at my old job. In April 2013 I quit my civil service job and have been fully self-employed since then.
Did you launch straight into your business idea or did you spend time planning, training or even worrying before you got kicking?
It was a very simple, traditional business model: the idea was simply to make bespoke wedding and celebration cakes for a local clientele and my only USP (if I had one at all) would be to try to offer the best quality available locally, both in terms of flavour and design/decoration. So there wasn’t really much planning required – I read one book about starting up in business, did some online research to find out the latest rules on things like planning permission, food hygiene, insurance, tax, VAT and self-assessment, then I went out and bought some basic equipment and started baking! I already had a fair bit of ‘training’ from the years I’d worked as a chef previously, and in terms of worrying – that only really started after I’d set up in business! The most stressful moment was last April when I decided it was time to quit my ‘safety net’ job.
Tell us about your typical working day – Are you an early bird or do you tend to work throughout the night?
There’s no such thing as a typical working day for me. I am an early bird, but not by choice – our 15 month old tends to wake up shortly after 6am. From Monday to Wednesday I mostly look after him and try to keep work to a minimum. He goes to a childminder on Thursdays and then my wife (who works four days a week) takes over the childcare from Friday – Sunday, so my working week really starts on Thursdays. Most weddings fall at the weekend so I try to take one or two wedding orders per week or up to five birthday cakes, or a combination. That means I spend Thursday baking, Friday decorating and Saturday delivering and setting up. With any luck I get a bit of free time on Sunday to spend with the family. Occasionally when things are very busy (especially during the summer) I have been known to work through the night – but thankfully this was more common when I was working the two jobs. Now I’m my own boss, I’m able to plan and structure my week more easily. The only essential elements to my daily routine are a cup of proper coffee at the start and BBC6Music on the radio. Without those, I wouldn’t be able to cope!
What’s your biggest challenge as a freelancer?
Switching off. It’s really tempting sometimes when you’re sat having dinner, or on a night out somewhere, to just quickly go online on your phone and place an order for those cake boards you’ve just remembered you need! But mostly these things aren’t urgent, and you have to be really disciplined and draw a line at the end of the working day to give your brain and body rest. This is even more tricky since smartphones have put our inbox in the palm of our hand, and when you work from home, as my office is just at the end of the garden.
And what’s the best element of being your own boss?
Being able to make the big decisions (like which direction to take the business) and the small decisions (like whether you can afford to take the afternoon off to go on a family picnic). It’s extremely liberating, and great for building self confidence. When you work in an organisation or company with a big hierarchy of grades or ranks, it easy to subscribe to the myth that you are in that role because that’s all you can do. Being forced to take responsibility for every decision shows you really quickly that you are probably capable of much more than you think, and when things work out well, you get to give yourself a giant pat on the back (rather than your manager taking all the glory!)
How do you manage a good work/life balance (or do you struggle with this at all)?
I do struggle from time to time but just recently I’ve started including this in my business plan. It may sound unnecessary to some, and like a ‘no brainer’ to others – but I think when you’re self-employed you have to set yourself goals and targets for your personal life and your free time, just like you have to have a plan for where the business is going. If you’re more organised on one front than the other, that side will dominate and you’ll lose track of everything else in your life.
I bake and decorate all my cakes myself in our kitchen at home, and this year we’ve built an office space and store at the bottom of our garden in an attempt to reclaim our second bedroom! The business model was never designed to allow for extra staff, commercial premises, etc. I’ve worked in cafes and shops before and I know that if I went down that route, it’d mean taking out a huge business loan and working long hours away from home – neither of which suits me at the moment.
Do you allow yourself a regular break for coffee, exercise or lunch?
I try to eat a healthy lunch, stop for a tea break (timed to coincide with Radcliffe & Maconie’s ‘Tea Time Theme Time’) and I go for a walk every day. Occasionally I miss one or all of the above but it’s a false economy in the long term. You need to rest and feed yourself, even more so when you’re very busy.
Are there any apps/tools/gadgets/people that you just couldn’t work without?
My iPhone, which I use for everything from taking enquiries by phone and email, through to researching ideas and designs, to ordering materials and equipment, to online banking, right through to using it as a SatNav when I deliver my orders. I also use it for 90% of my social media activity, which is my main way of advertising/publicising my business. In the kitchen, I couldn’t cope without my espresso machine and DAB radio, and I rely very heavily on my KitchenAid and Kenwood mixers (one of each, in case one breaks down!) In terms of people, I couldn’t do without my wife, who has been really supportive and encouraging through all the moments of doubt you experience when you’re trying to get a business off the ground.
Is there anything you really don’t enjoy as a freelancer? Perhaps something would persuade you to go back to a “regular” job?…
I’m not a huge fan of doing the accounts and the tax returns – it’s not the most interesting part of the job, but at least it gives you a bit of satisfaction when it’s done to see how you’ve performed in comparison to last year. However it’s certainly not enough of a chore to make me want to return to a regular job just yet!
We would love to hear your thoughts on “networking” – do you go to any regular events or meet ups to meet other freelancers?
I tend to meet other freelancers whilst setting up on location at weddings and events, and occasionally I’ll have a stall at a wedding fair where you meet other people in the industry. It’s good to talk to other small business owners and compare notes occasionally – it’s reassuring to hear that other people have experienced and understand the things you are going through, especially so if you are a sole trader work alone most of the time.
What essential advice would you give to anyone thinking of becoming a freelancer?
Examine your reasons for doing so very carefully. Decide if the anticipated benefits outweigh the near certainty that by becoming self-employed you will for a time be working much longer hours, taking a significant pay cut, and undergoing a lot more stress. That said, don’t be put off too easily! If you can make it through the tough times it can be massively rewarding, and enjoying what you do for a living makes a huge difference to every aspect of your life and your family’s life. I wouldn’t advocate taking the plunge without any kind of long term plan or financial safety net in place, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start working on that plan today, now even! If not now, then when?
How can we find you online (and off?):
All images courtesy of www.mrcake.co.uk
Thanks so much Chris 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!
Images – Courtesy of Mr Cake