notes from a former-baby freelancer

Picture of Aksana looking out of the window at all her hopes and dreams.
Me in Istanbul in 2018, before life draaaagged me

So it’s been 3 years since registering as a sole trader and deciding that “yes, definitely, I do want to work in the arts.” I’m procrastinating a little by deciding to write this, but I hope it helps people who are starting out.

The impact of the “hustle”

You’ll become a professional job seeker. It’s hard to remember a time when you’ve never not hustled. So make sure you do things which look after you, your soul, and makes you happy outside of your work. Take your holidays and your breaks. And while it’s tempting when you’re broke to monetise your hobbies, resist it. Your wellbeing is a non-negotiable!

Open up your notes app/Google docs, and record your wins. Anything that brought you joy, made you smile, anything that’s positive. It’s fun to look back on and it’s self-validating.

As a 1st and 2nd gen, being self-employed is the closest to understanding your parents and grandparents better. I didn’t know I’d end up being self-employed, and that I’d also live up to the statistics that most Bangladeshis work for themselves. When you have your low days, you realise that that’s how your parents felt too, it’s something you end up talking about. 

Really think about the person you want to be, not your “brand”

“Values” – it’s a word that can seem corny/corporate-social-responsibility-y, but there’s a reason why it’s thrown around. Your compass is knowing what you value and what you don’t. Sometimes your values are things that are intrinsic to your character, sometimes what you value is something you have learned or unlearned due to your experience. Ultimately, once you know what your values are, it really helps make sense of the “mess.”

Follow your instincts and trust them because everything you were taught about “business” is very white-male-straight-guy-centric. Reevaluate what “professionalism” means to you.

There really is a lot of power in modelling the behaviour you’d like to see in others. We know there needs to be structural, bigger, societal change for the world to be a better place. And it does get really frustrating when you look at some people and realise that the ship has sailed because

So when things get overwhelming, look at your sphere of influence and start with yourself.

Thinking about racism

It sucks that since we live in a white supremacist, capitalist world, your ability to pay your bills does – to some extent – depend on enough white gatekeepers validating you. It impacts your emotional wellbeing. When you’re tied to organisations with moola – your headspace will be reactive, and in the space of being “anti.” I won’t deny it’s a bitter pill to swallow, you’ll still be figuring it out for a while.

It ties to also the realisation that even though BPOCs in your field are often unicorns, “not all skinfolk are kinfolk.” There’s a biting pain, and things that we haven’t yet talked about when we consider the “sideways” violence from someone who is BPOC who harms other BPOCs. 

So to help assert your boundaries, when prepping for interviews, don’t go above and beyond at most an hour or two if you can help it. You’ll save yourself emotional wringing when you don’t get the gig.

Looking at relationships

Look after your people. Your friends and loved ones will bring you joy, metaphorically slap that imposter syndrome out of you, and keep you going when things are difficult. (The Badasses Producer WhatsApp group continuously gives me life). Your beloveds are oftentimes the main reason why you stay in the sector, even when there’s plenty of reasons to leave.

It doesn’t cost anything to be kind, but you’ll be fined in ways you’ll never know about if you’re ever a dickhead.

You’ll be conscious of the power dynamics of institutions vs your individual reputation. If it gives you any solace, your freelancer friends will let you know which people are problematic and shady teams to avoid.

Get your house in order

Have a separate bank account to have all of your income in, and a savings account to hold your NI and tax.

Not everyone is online, so don’t believe the social media hype. 

Save the job descriptions of the briefs that you apply for and get. Why? When it comes to updating your CV, you just need to hit CTRL+A, C, V. Shabbash, you’re sorted.

Get familiar with HMRC and Google Sheets/Excel. You gotta keep a track on the invoices you send, your income, your earning potential, and how much to put aside for NI and Tax. Some folks use Quickbooks. It might seem surreal to track your money that much, but with anxiety, you’re only more anxious of what you don’t know, than what you do. Clare Seal’s Instagram account was a big part of me having a healthier attitude about it.

People say get “PLI” which means public liability insurance. Yes it’s a thing. And it’ll protect you. If you’re not sure where to start, check out a-n.

Dealing with imposter syndrome

Give the “imposter” in your imposter syndrome a name, so that you can tell them to shut the fuck up. I call my imposter Viv. Thank you to Paige Jackson and Diandra McCalla for this advice! 

Remember that there are structural barriers. You’ll be in spaces with a bunch of “consultants”. It might sound intimidating to the working-class ear, but freelancing is being on a series of glorified zero-hours contracts. And while their portfolios might sound impressive, millennial working-class POCs are freelancing by default, not by choice. So really, your paths are different. It’s very unfair to have metrics of success that you didn’t make and weren’t tailored to you. 

You’re more likely to learn sideways than you are from a senior manager/CEO/gIrLB0ss whose lived experiences are far removed from yours. The first few years of being self employed are challenging, so try not to beat yourself up when you have quiet periods.

At networking events, or any event really, you’ll come across the middle-class white women freelancers who decided to pack in their secure jobs (in London usually) because of childcare. It’s a very different existence. The real ones, are the ones who act as allies when no one’s looking and talk to you about freelancer day rates. There’s a big discrepancy between what POCs feel confident in asking for versus what white freelancers ask for. If POCs are going to be economically segregated into insecure contracts, then budget holders/those who’ve been around the block a while, ought to be transparent about pay.

Talking about money

Honestly, it’s really weird having to think about your relationship with money. When you grew up working class and are self-employed, you are hyper-conscious of cash flow. You’ll never not be aware of how you can only save money if you can afford to save money. 

So normalise talking about money around other freelancers. It’s one of the ways of making sure that you and your other freelancing buddies don’t get screwed over.

Gatekeepers will take the piss where they can

£72 day rate is unacceptable. I’m sorry baby girl that you were ever in a position where you had to accept it because no one was hiring at the time. The “adults” who signed off on that budget knew they were exploiting.

The most power you have is before a contract is signed. Be bolshy with your stipulations, IP rights, how many days, and how to have future conversations if you reckon the contracted work will take longer than expected. The beginning stage is the way to make your future time feel like jelly in your hands, instead of water escaping from your fingers.

Lmao, your picture will be forever used to show “diversity” at events/conferences. You’ll get better at swerving cameras.

Notes on 4 October 2021: If you’re starting out in the arts, I also wrote: (1) a starter pack on “Intro to Freelancing” – it talks about the admin and logistics of self employment; and (2) “Money and Wellbeing” which talks about saving, pensions, and where to go if you’re facing financial difficulties.

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