2021 marked my first full year as a business owner. I began the year as my own boss - launching my company in the wake of the UK's first lockdown - and I’ve seen this surreal year out still at the helm of the same firm, Second Mountain Comms.
Given the year that’s passed, on both a professional and personal level, I’ll gladly take that.
Over the past 12 months, I've learnt a heck of a lot - about myself, about what it takes to run a business, and about what's important in life. Going freelance is far from a smooth journey, and some of the bumps and curves along the way so far have caught me by surprise.
As eyes now turn to the New Year with excitement and anticipation, it feels like the perfect moment to look back, reflect on the highs and lows and share some learnings from year one as a small business owner. My hope is that my experiences so far can help anyone that's thinking of taking the plunge and going solo in 2022: ride out the storm, and I can guarantee it's a decision that you won't regret.
Lesson #1. Predict the unpredictable
The media's always filled with predictions for the year ahead in the run-up to the festive season: business experts and commentators alike gaze into their crystal balls to forecast the influential trends that'll shape the landscape in the year to come. Yet what 2021 showed us all is that nothing in life is predictable or certain. The novelty and feel-good buzz of going freelance well and truly dropped off a cliff in January 2021 after the UK was plunged into yet another enforced, and lengthy, period of lockdown; as the nation battled with anxiety and feelings of doom and gloom in the face of even more upheaval, I, like so many other self-employed creatives, had to learn how to fit work in around family life once again - rather than trying to battle against an un-win-able situation. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is embrace the unpredictable and go with it.
Lesson #2. Feast or famine is fine
Starting out on your own, without the safety net of a monthly pay check, is bloody terrifying. It really is. The first few months are especially unsettling, as you'll be focused on getting your name and brand 'out there' while trying to bring in essential income in time for the end of the month. Without question, I've discovered that freelance life, especially in the early days, is often "feast or famine" - sometimes you'll have very little work on, other times you'll be full to the brim with conflicting deadlines. My advice? Embrace the work when it's there, if you can - and when it's not, go easy on yourself and enjoy some self-care time. If you do a good job for your clients, your services will be in demand again soon enough.
Lesson #3. Keep your commute
If you're just starting out, it's likely you'll begin by working from home. Pandemic aside, it's a much cheaper option and remote working gives you the chance to truly understand your own working patterns and when you're at your most productive. Yet don't let the lack of a commute become an excuse not to start the day off with a transition between your home to work life. I got into a great routine during the early days of going solo which has paid dividends even since, dropping my boys off at school and then spending 30-45 minutes stomping across the countryside before settling down to begin my working day. I very rarely begin work before 10am these days, and this 'transition' period that's been intentionally carved out between the two sides of my life has proved to be invaluable so far.
#4. Find your creative 'soundtrack'
Leaving a bustling working environment behind to work for yourself can be an isolating experience - but it can also be an opportunity to work in a way that fuels your personal creativity. For me, as a life-long introvert, I find music to be a massive motivator and adore being 100% in charge of my personal 'soundtrack'. Artists like Stacey Kent, Cara Dillon, Jamie Callum and, of course, Bruce 'The Boss' Springsteen have been the secret sauce that's powered many an eBook or thought leadership article this year.
Lesson #5. Blow your own trumpet
I was reticent about putting my business forward for awards at the beginning - but I then realised that I was actually very proud of the clients that I'd work with, what we've achieved together so far, and the story behind my 'lockdown business'.
So I overcame my reluctance, crafted an entry and it paid dividends; I was over the moon to win my first ever Gold CIPR PRide Award and to also be named a finalist in the Bath Life, Creative Bath and South West Charity & Business Awards, all in year one. Don't ever be shy about shouting about your success as a freelancer.
Lesson #6. Have faith in yourself
I was recently introduced by my fabulous friend Grace Farrimond to a great quote by American writer and poet Suzy Kassem: "Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will". This is so, so true. Self-confidence is the lifeblood of freelance life, even during difficult times. If you ever find yourself in a bit of a 'work drought' or feeling creatively uninspired (and trust me, you will), remind yourself of the skills that you bring to the table and what you've achieved in the past. Have a little faith and be patient.
Lesson #7. Surround yourself with positive people
It's not always been possible to meet with others face-to-face in recent times - yet it's never been easier to speak virtually with great people around the world and build genuine connections. My freelance work took me from the US to France to India in 2021, and each experience was an opportunity to learn from professionals with different uplifting perspectives and world-views. Take each and every chance you can to collaborate, interact and learn from positive people - and also be attuned to, and avoid, negativity wherever possible.
Freelance life can be lonely and unsettling: the amount of decisions you have to make when first starting out can feel overwhelming if you're going it completely alone. Yet reach out to your network and you'll find you're not the only one going through it.
I was introduced to fellow comms freelancer Adam Driver by All Things IC's Rachel Miller when first starting out. My story, background and life stage uncannily mirrors Adam's and ever since we've had each other's backs, sharing ideas, experiences and, a couple of months back, finally getting the chance to break bread and meet in person together too. I wish Adam every success with his freelance adventures at Authentic Comms - and I know that the feeling is mutual; he's my 'start-up wingman' and a genuinely good egg.
Lesson #8. Know your own strengths - and where to draw the line
It's all too easy to fall into a trap of accepting any opportunity that comes your way, regardless of whether it's the right fit for you. While doing so might bolster your business bank balance in the short term, it will also take your focus off of the bigger picture. Success in freelancing lies in understanding your personal strengths, what you enjoy and where you thrive - and then being willing to say 'no' to work that isn't a good fit for you. That's where having a team of like-minded partners comes in: I work closely alongside a great bunch of brand consultants, photographers, social media experts and website designers, all of whom are experts in their fields and share the same work ethos as I do.
Lesson #9. Pay it forward
Linked closely to the above, I'm always more than happy to refer work on and pay opportunities forward if they don't feel right to me: there's more than enough work to go around in this world. While I pride myself on being a very versatile comms professional that's worked across many different sectors in my time, I'll also be the first to admit when I'm not the right person for the job - and to pass it on to another trusted contact who I know will be only too willing to knock it out of the park.
Lesson #10. Find your work pattern
"Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living," famously belted out Dolly Parton once upon a time. Yet that's no longer strictly true, is it? Making the decision to leave behind traditional working patterns can feel pretty daunting at first - especially if, like me, that's all you've ever really known. When you first embark on your freelance journey, it's likely that you'll look to mirror those same patterns that you've been so accustomed to for so long, feeling that unless you complete a 8-9 hour day glued to your desk, you haven't completed a full days' work. Yet what will happen, hopefully sooner rather than later, is that you'll realise that by choosing to go freelance, you have just given yourself the greatest gift imaginable in life: time. Use it wisely, and find a working pattern that's right for you and you alone.
Lesson #11. Don't undersell yourself
Imposter syndrome is unavoidable. All of us, at some point in our careers, will experience self-doubt and question whether we're as good as our peers - and these feelings are doubly hard to avoid when working solo. The danger of not challenging this self-doubt is that you run the risk of underselling yourself and working for less than you're worth. I've been very blessed, over the past year, to have had both mentors and clients who have reiterated to me the value of my 15 years' accumulated experience - and that this value should be reflected in the fees I charge. Do your research, understand what you're worth in the marketplace and stick firmly to your guns: never undersell your value.
Lesson #12. No payment? No thanks.
A big lesson that I learnt very quickly: the very best clients are the ones that pay invoices, on time, with no follow-up needed. It sounds so simple, being paid by an agreed date for a job well done, yet you rapidly discover as a freelancer that not everyone places the same stock in settling invoices as you might be hoping for. Alongside other freelancers, I contributed to a Creative Boom feature on the tricky topic of invoice disputes and said in this piece that being open and clear from the outset about how you work and your expectations is always the best approach. One year on, I stand by this firmly, setting short payment terms for my work and, if there's a big-time investment required from day one, not being shy about asking for 50 per cent upfront. And above all else, if more than a couple of invoices pass by the payment deadline unpaid, that's a sure-sign to me that it's time to take my services elsewhere.
Lesson #12 ½. Family first, work a (very) close second.
It would be unrealistic to declare that family always comes first. It can’t, not when you are a business owner that is wholly responsible for delivering work, billing for it, securing new clients and growing a brand. But the biggest lesson I've learnt, and am still learning, is to put my family's priorities to the top of the pile wherever possible - life/work balance, not the other way round.
2021 was an extremely tough year for many families, especially those trying to work with very young children at home once again during the winter lockdown of discontent. The first six months of the year were some of the roughest that we've ever experienced as a family - and much of the blame for that lies squarely on my shoulders.
I had lost my way. I was completely overwhelmed by life. I was so single-mindedly focused on building a new business, I was finding it impossible to turn down project work and opportunities when they came my way, even though I knew my family would suffer as a result. Anxiety and self-doubt meant that I was only half-present most of the time - and after years working in always-on PR agency environments, that was something I'd promised I would never be once I finally became my own boss.
Now, as I embrace 2022 with feelings of great excitement and hope, I do so side-by-side with my family. I'm in tune with their needs, their schedules, and I'm fully aware that without them, everything I do and everything I achieve professionally is meaningless. My family are my tribe, my anchor and my guide, both personally and professionally. By intentionally putting them first wherever possible, I am now able to truly climb my 'second mountain', leading a business that is sustainable, driven by purpose and that, I hope, has a very bright future ahead of it.
Ben Veal MCIPR is the founder & director of Second Mountain Comms, a boutique consultancy that helps purpose-driven and ethical businesses to reach new heights through meaningful communications: compelling content, proactive PR and sound strategy for a brave new world. www.secondmountaincomms.co.uk