Design Week: Why did you decide to set up as a freelancer?
Rebecca Shipham: In all honesty, it was a case of “sink or swim”. I was made redundant in the recession, while working in London, and so, I took a gamble of setting up alone and moving back home to Hull. I’d been missing my home city for a while anyway, so being made redundant gave me a chance to go home. Rather than returning with my tail between my legs I came back with a couple of clients from London and the start of a little business that would keep me busy and happy for the next five years and counting.
DW: What was the most challenging aspect of setting up?
RS: When I first set up I had no idea of how to run a business. As a freelancer you’re not just the designer, you’re the accountant, the marketing department, the sales team, all in one, and it took a good 18 months before I had settled in to each of these roles. I also found it challenging knowing just how much to charge for my work. It’s not something they really teach you at university. The other challenge was related to confidence in my own work. When I first started sending my designs off to new clients I always imagined they’d think it was rubbish, but one by one they all started coming back for more work, so I must have been doing something right! I’m so much more confident now in what I offer in terms of a design service, and in my style of work.
DW: What sort of support was available to you at the time?
RS: Very little really. I was lucky in that my boyfriend has run a business for 14 years, and he is always on hand to give advice. My old design director was also a great help in my first year as he’d worked with freelancers for a long time as part of his job. I think it’s important to seek advice when you set up alone from someone already in business.
DW: How did you initially win new clients?
RS: Initially it was a case of cold-calling – which I hated, but it’s a necessary evil! It actually worked out really well, it seems that companies are often looking for new freelancers to work with. Now that I’m more established I tend to get business from word-of-mouth. It’s quite a small industry really and a lot of people are connected within the trade.
DW: What are the advantages of being freelance in design?
RS: Probably the fact that it doesn’t feel like work. My friends think I’m mad when I tell them I can’t meet at the weekend because of a big deadline, but to me happiness is sitting here churning my way through a creative problem and getting to grips with a design. I do have a life, [honest!] but, as we all know, design can be all-consuming. Being able to crack open a bottle of red while working is a pretty good part of it too. And the pyjama days. Anyone self-employed who says they don’t have pyjama days is fibbing!
DW: And what are the disadvantages and challenges?
RS: Designers and solitude don’t mix! Having no one to bounce ideas off was a killer in the first 18 months. I felt like I was going mad! But the joys of Twitter, and slowly building my own contacts in the industry have settled that one, and I now feel like I have a network of four or five designers who I can call on when needed to talk through a creative problem or to just share a worry. It’s a bit like having a design studio but because it’s via the internet you don’t feel obliged to make everyone a cuppa. I think not knowing when to stop is another one, which really links to the “best thing about working alone”. Yes, it’s fun, and yes it doesn’t feel like work, but because I [and most designers] throw my all into a creative proposal, it can be hard to say when enough is enough.
DW: What advice would you give to someone thinking about setting up as a freelancer?
RS: Now that I have won this award I welcome the challenge of promoting freelancing and working for yourself. I particularly feel that we should encourage young people to see working for themselves as being a viable career path from an early age, and set them in good stead for a future in independent business. In the short term I intend to do this by reinvesting my knowledge and experience through offering creative workshops in schools and colleges, backed up with information on how freelancing or self employment can work in the real world. Freelancing in the UK is on the increase, and the stats show no signs of this growth slowing down. To anyone considering freelancing, my advice is to be clear about what services you are offering: don’t try to be all things for all people, do what you are a good at, be strict with clients and their expectations of what you can do within their deadlines, don’t sell yourself short, don’t let work run your life… and invest in some thermals.