Planning the next step in your career can be tricky when you aren't following a conventional path. When you work for yourself, you have to plan our own careers – there's no management programme or promotion pathway. In this episode, career wing woman Laurie Macpherson shares her advice for freelancers who are pondering the next step. We cover:
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Louise Shanahan is a freelance health and medical copywriter and a big fan of finding your freelance niche. She's on a mission to help others build a freelance business that feels easy and works for them – in weekly snack-sized bites.
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Welcome to 15 Minute Freelancer, your snack-sized guide to being your own boss and building a business and life you love. I'm your host Louise Shanahan. My LinkedIn bio says I'm a freelance health copywriter. But for the next 15 minutes, I'll be tickling your ears with practical strategies, behind-the-scenes stories, and nuggets of wisdom so you can create a freelance business that works for you. Whether you're just starting out or you've been self-employed for a while, I'll be right here with you to help you navigate the ups and downs of freelancing life. So grab a coffee relax and join me for 15 minutes of freelancing fun. Don't forget to hit subscribe.
Louise Shanahan: Hello, and welcome to the 15 Minute Freelancer podcast, Louise Shanahan here. Today I am joined by Laurie Macpherson, who is an expert in career development and career wing woman. She is here to help us do the work that we love and love the work we do. So hello, Laurie, welcome to 15 Minute Freelancer.
Laurie Macpherson: Thank you, Louise, thanks for having me.
LS: It's nice to have another Scottish voice on the podcast, I have to say. I'm really excited to have this conversation actually, because I think that career planning for freelancers isn't something that is always neatly laid out the way that it might be if we worked for a large organisation, or in a more traditional career where there might be training programmes or management schemes and all that sort of thing. We have to design our own careers, don't we? Which can be a lot of fun. But it's also tricky to know where to start too. So maybe we could start by going back to step one in the freelancing career. People find themselves on the path to self-employment for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it's a choice: maybe you decide you want to work for yourself, because you want more opportunities to do the kind of work that you love, more flexibility, more autonomy, more money. Sometimes it might be more of a necessity if a previous job didn't work out, or you're made redundant, or it didn't afford the work-life balance that you're looking for. And I know that the number of people who've turned to freelancing has soared during the pandemic as well. So whatever route that we've taken to get here, one thing that we probably all have in common is that when you're just starting out and starting your own business, it can be really daunting. So for any listeners who are just starting out on their freelancing journey, Laurie, what would you say are some steps that they can take to make the transition as easy as possible? And what are the main pitfalls to watch out for?
LM: The first thing I would say is have some financial back-up, if at all possible. It's highly unlikely you'll make a fortune straight away. The reality is it takes time and effort and a lot of people getting to know you and finding out about your business. You have to do much more marketing than you've ever envisaged. The ideal, which is what I was able to do, was to start while you're still working for an employer and start as a side hustle, or whatever you want to call it. Get a bit of traction. My route was that I was being made redundant, but it was a long and drawn out process. So we knew for a while. So I started networking, got my website up and going, got my business cards, started going out to events under the umbrella of my work. They knew exactly what I was doing – that I was going for them, but also might be meeting people I could talk to a bit my own gig as well. And my goal was to have a piece of work by the time I left my employed job. And I did. And that's how it started. So I had an easy transition if you like, in that I didn't need to make a fortune in the first year. So I think that's the first thing if you can get some cash behind you, if you're vaguely thinking about this, it's a really, really good idea just to take a bit of that horrible pressure off financially. Because, you know, the reality is, all these people talking about how wonderful it is to be self-employed. And it is! I'm coming up to three years, I absolutely love it, but the pressure is on financially.
LS: I did the same thing. I was lucky enough to be able to save up a little bit of a buffer and that took the pressure off. It also means that it puts you in a stronger position to say no to really low-priced projects that you wouldn't really want to do, so that you can be a bit choosy about who you work with. You can start to build up your portfolio with the kind of clients that you really want to be working with as well. And I think it probably also means that you can pay yourself a salary each month, if that makes it easier to get your head around switching from having a steady income to one that's maybe a bit more this month and a bit less next month and that kind of thing. What are the main pitfalls to watch out for?
LM: Is that thing about having to get the message out there, you know? I went to an event once and someone said to me "oh, I'm still in work so I'm scared to publish my website in case there's this you know flurry of inquiries", and I laughed loudly. Generally you wouldn't get loads of website inquiries, calls etc. straightaway. It depends on what you do. You will generally have to market like you mean it for quite a while until people get to know you. I look at where my clients come from every month and a huge amount of it now is from people I've met at networking, possibly three years ago. And we're so fortunate that we do have all of these free social media tools. But I think one of the pitfalls is it's not going to happen overnight. And people around you, with the best possible will in the world, you know, might ask "is no one buying? Has nothing happened? Have you made a sale?" All that sort of stuff, and you won't straightaway, you know, you'll be planting some seeds. And it can feel really, really relentless until it starts to work. I spoke to you before about how I had to pivot my business due to COVID. And it took me four months of cold posting on LinkedIn every single day, about my new direction, before I got a lead, and then it started to spiral. So know that overnight success is probably not a thing.
LS: I really like the way that you put it – market like you mean it – because I think it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking, "I'll just post something on LinkedIn and someone will buy." And then you get really disappointed when that doesn't happen. But actually, it is a long process. And you have to build these relationships over time. And then a lot of people once you start getting regular leads, a lot of that is through referrals from people who you know, they're your friends. And I think if you approach networking that way, it's not out of desperation to find clients. Although you might feel that way. In the beginning, you actually want to get to know people, these are your new colleagues, in a sense.
LM: Totally. And networking has been amazing for me. And you know, I put up a post yesterday for one of my clients, asking about some project work at one o'clock. And by three o'clock, someone had said to me, yeah, I think I need it, and they're having a call tomorrow. So never, ever underestimate the power of a solid network, not just for you, but for people around you. And what you can do with that when you're not, as you say, desperately seeking clients, you can go out and have some different conversations. So yeah, I think market like you mean it. I think that might be a Claire Mitchell of Girls Mean Business phrase. But yeah, it's about not being scared to get out there and show a bit of what you do. I'm going networking tonight and I always get the "oh you're everywhere, aren't you?" and yep, that means my marketing is working. It's not an option for me not to be if I want to have this sort of business.
LS: I just wanted to pick up on something that you mentioned there about the reactions of people in your life, and maybe your partner, your family or friends will be wondering, "why are you not making more progress faster?" And you might have these kinds of mindset challenges to get over yourself and these self-doubts, to think about internally. But have you got any tips for how people might think about that, or approach those conversations with people in their life and make sure that they've got the support that they need?
LM: Yeah, I think, honestly, I hate to say this, don't expect people who are not in it to get it. Yeah, they can be really supportive. And my friends and family absolutely are, and they're brilliant, but they won't get some of the mental challenges that you'll go through, unless they're doing it with you. So cultivate your business besties. As soon as you can, find a network. I've got a great one, a great few actually, that I can go and say, "I'm having a rotten day, tech is defeating me, this hasn't happened, I thought this would have been going quicker. And also things are going really, really well for me." And they're good with both. So just don't expect, lovely though your partner and mum friends are, they won't get it because they are fighting a slightly different battle or playing a slightly different game. And we have to do things a little bit differently. And the mindset is and has to be different if we're going to succeed. So you might have to just put a little bit of a barrier up around certain things, and take it to your business pals who will absolutely hear you and understand.
LS: Yeah, shout-out for the business pals! And the thing is with your family and friends and so on, it's coming from a good place, you know, maybe they don't understand and there is an element of being risk-averse. They just want to make sure that you're going to be okay.
LM: Totally, you know, they're all really supportive. They just don't get it.
LS: Yeah. So I'm obviously a huge advocate for starting your own business. And I probably do fall into the trap that you were mentioning of feeling like it could be for everyone, because I'm enjoying it. But it's not for everyone, is it? Some people might try freelancing and then realise that actually, this isn't for me, maybe employment is a better fit, or they might choose to switch between the two at different points in their life, depending on what's happening. And I don't think we hear so much about this perspective and the uncertainty that might come with leaving self-employment and going back or switching to working for someone else. So can you speak to some of the things that people might want to consider to ease the transition out of freelancing?
LM: Yeah, again, I think it's very much a mindset thing. And it's you know, for lots of people who I've worked with who've been doing a bit of freelancing or doing some self-employed stuff have gone back into work. They haven't been making money, Louise, and that's the reality. So you know, you can imagine all the "aw, but it's a really nice group" or "you were doing so well, and I saw your post and it looked lovely." "Yeah, but I'm not making money." And because money is such a taboo subject, we sometimes can't talk about it. I've had a few clients and I also had someone I once worked with, and she was doing really well. But she said to me, "100% honestly, Laurie, I want to buy a house. So I'm going under contract for someone for a couple of years, gonna learn some some good stuff, improve my skillset and be able to buy a house, that's my goal." And it's okay to go back to employment, if your goals change, or it's okay to go to self-employment, it's okay to say "I can't, as a human being, sleep at night with the uncertainty of the money. I can't afford to do it for my family." You know, it's okay. I totally understand that there's flexibility. But there's also no stability at all. So people have to be really able to be honest about that. And understand that there's no shame in saying "self-employment isn't for me, I prefer the stability of a wage." And I think as a society, and as business owners, we need to be a little bit more understanding. People will give it as long as they need to. And sometimes you might think, "oh, they've jumped a bit quickly", but we don't know what they've been going through either mentally or financially.
So first of all, if you are thinking, "I should really get a job", think about that amazing network you've built up from freelancing. That will be where your job more than likely comes from. Don't be scared to use that network that you've spent the time building. And don't be scared to use those relationships. And don't be scared to call a day. It's your life and you can't sit freezing in a garage, while people say "oh self-employment is the dream." It is if it works for you. It's like everything else.
LS: And none of these options are permanent, are they? You can always change your mind later on. So like you say, if there's something going on in your life where you feel like "actually, I need a bit more security and stability." It makes sense, doesn't it and you can always go back to freelancing later on. And vice versa.
You were just talking about growing pains there. And I really relate to that. I think people who are kind of a few years in and you've kind of got the ball rolling, you've got your steady clients, you've got you know, your processes are all in place. And things are actually going pretty well then you might think, "okay, what happens next?" Career planning is something that's maybe a bit less obvious for freelancers, compared to employees. So for people who may be at that growing pain stage and wondering, What should I do next? How should we think about planning our careers and figuring out what the next steps are?
LM: I think this is where being really open is great, Louise. And people are deeply uncomfortable with this. We want it kind of all sewn up and tidy. The Squiggly Careers podcast and Squiggly Careers team who are amazing, and I'd recommend everyone check them out, they talk about having curious conversations. So where you go and say to someone, "I absolutely love what I'm doing, here's all the bits that I'm really good at. But in time, I might want to do something like this." And it's been open to the mights and the maybes, rather than the shoulds. It's starting to have some gentle conversations around where you might want to go. It's not ever gonna finish, is the thing. You know, nobody really knows what they want to be when they grow up. We're all just winging it as best as we can. So it's being open to the fact that this isn't potentially forever. I wrestled with it hard for the first few years, that maybe I wouldn't have any clients in six months. But now I think I probably will. In our family we have a "this is what I'm doing now" attitude. And if that changes, we go with it, and we roll with it. But I know that it can feel deeply uncomfortable. So it's about sitting in that discomfort of this isn't the final edit, the final version and whatever. I may make a decision at a different point to do something different. And that's okay. And that's allowed but know that the transitional part is gonna feel clunky. And you know, I knew I would struggle to go back to an office and working with other folks right now. But I also know that if I had to do it, I would absolutely make it work. It's just about being open to the things that would make it most easy for you, knowing that you're going to find certain things tithing or difficult. But we can do hard things, right. So it's just the openness rather than closing off avenues and opportunities.
LS: I really like that I love the idea of the curious conversations. And I think that helps you figure out what you really want as well because there's another big trap with all of this and that's we can sometimes end up chasing other people's dreams and thinking "oh, this is what I should do next. This is what success looks like as a freelancer," and that's not always the case. It could be different things for different people. So having those curious conversations and considering all the different possibilities is a really good way to think of it to try and figure out what's going to be right for you.
LM: Yeah, all of that living the dream, six-figure income, all of that stuff – that doesn't suit everyone, you know, some people are happy to have a part-time business that they do and do other things or not do other things. And you know, the hustle hard mentality I absolutely hate. You must get up at five o'clock in the morning and do 25 things before... No, I'm sorry, I'm in bed then. In fact, I'm not sorry. I'm in bed then. And I'm also not sorry that I watched television. I'm not sorry that I socialise. You know, I'm not sorry that I see friends. I'm running my business so that I can have the life I want not to live someone else's idea of success. Yes. Take advice. Yes, I always have a coach and a mentor and a programme that I'm either end on, I'm looking at to get the business bet, right, because we're not trained in this in school or growing up. We don't know how to do that. So I get help with that. But ultimately, it's my decision. It's my business, and I pay the shortfall and my own actions, I suppose.
LS: Well, I think that is a really great place to wrap up. Laurie, thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you this morning and really appreciate your insights on all this because these are some quite meaty issues, aren't they? I'm sure this has been super helpful for people who are at these sticky transition points in their freelancing careers. So if people want to find out more, maybe follow up with you on some of these questions, where would be the best place to find you?
LM: So I live on LinkedIn. So you'll find me there as Laurie Macpherson. I'm an M-A-C. I'm also on Facebook as Laurie Macpherson Career Wing Woman and on Instagram, it's just underscore Laurie underscore Macpherson.
LS: That's brilliant. I'll put links to those in the show notes so people can find you. So thank you so much, and thanks to everybody for listening. And if you found this helpful, please do leave a review, that's always so appreciated. And until next time, happy freelancing.
You've been listening to 15 Minute Freelancer with me Louise Shanahan, freelance copywriter and content marketer at thecopyprescription.com. If you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe, leave a review or share it with a freelance friend. And if you've got a freelancing question you want to be answered on the podcast, find me and say hi on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram. Thanks, and until next time, happy freelancing.