Six years ago, Talented Ladies Club co-founder Hannah Martin was a single mum with a large mortgage, au pair and son to provide for. So her friends and family thought she was crazy to quit her secure, well paid permanent job in advertising and go freelance. She tells us why it was one of the best things she ever did.
What was life like for you six years ago?
In many ways it was very comfortable. I had a great job as a copywriter for a big advertising agency in Soho. I was paid well, loved my colleagues and enjoyed the work. And while it was a long commute from my home on the south coast (2.5 hours each way) I was quite used to the travelling, and liked working in the buzz of London.
The downside was that I hardly saw my son. He had just started school and was often still asleep when I left in the morning, and already in bed by the time I got home at night. I had a very lovely French au pair who looked after him, but I did miss seeing him.
What made you decide to go freelance?
As much as I enjoyed my work, I was becoming frustrated with being a small cog in a big machine – or at least that was what it felt like. You didn’t get much of a say as to what briefs were given to you, and I wanted to work on a wider scope of projects. I wanted more input in what I was doing day-today; to be more independent.
Around that time the internet was really taking off in a big way in advertising too, and many agencies were realising the value of building an in-house digital creative department. I wanted to learn more about that side of the business and build my skills in that area.
I also hoped that going freelance would give me more time with my son. Freelance copywriters generally earn more per day than full time writers, but they also don’t expect to work every single day. I thought that by going freelance I could potentially earn a similar salary, but have some days at home with my son.
How did you plan your move into freelance?
I didn’t really! I’d got to the point where I’d become so frustrated that I needed to do something drastic. I also knew that if I tried to plan my move too carefully, I’d never get to the point where I felt financially comfortable enough to make it. So I just did it – I just walked into my creative director’s office one day and quit!
Did it feel scary?
No, I felt invigorated. I’d been at my agency for over three years and had got very comfortable there – things were quite predictable. I felt excited at the leap into the unknown, even though that meant not knowing how I’d pay the mortgage and au pair, or feed my son!
How did you first find work?
That sense of danger – not knowing where the next pay cheque was coming from – really drove me to be proactive. As soon as I’d resigned I called up all the freelance recruitment agents I knew and made appointments to see them. I asked around for recommendations from past and present colleagues, too.
I also asked a digital designer at my agency to design and build a website for me, to showcase my work and skills. At that time it wasn’t expected for a freelance copywriter to have a website, but I felt it was a wise investment – and it was. Having a professional site to show recruitment agents and clients helped me to win quite a few projects.
How long did it take to find work?
No time at all. The first week after I’d left my full time job I was back freelancing in London. I was very proactive about finding work. If I didn’t have anything lined up towards the end of a project, I’d phone a couple of agents to see what they had coming in. You have to remember that agents have lots of freelancers on their books, so it doesn’t hurt to remind them that you exist every so often.
I also made sure I was always professional, reliable and pleasant to work with, which I hope I am anyway! Not only did this mean that I enjoyed my time in the different agencies I worked for, but they were much more likely to ask me to come back next time they needed a freelancer. And they did – even today most of my work comes from longstanding relationships with agencies, and contacts from those agencies who have moved on and taken my details with them.
How has freelance work changed for you now?
Five years ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I decided to stop commuting to London, and today I only take on projects I can work on from home. It’s changed the nature of what I do – I used to do a lot of conceptual advertising work like press ads and media campaigns when working in London, but now my work is mostly writing websites.
It also took quite a while to change my client base. I couldn’t rely on freelance London agents any more and had to learn where to advertise my services myself. But I’ve enjoyed making the transition and am really passionate about what I do. I love writing and helping companies – big and small – solve their business problems.
What’s the downside to freelance copywriting?
I hate turning down work. Not only do you lose the project you say no to, but you either let down a regular client or potentially miss an opportunity to build a long term relationship with a new one. Freelance can also be feast and famine. There will be times you feel like you’re drowning in work, and other occasions you can panic, wondering when, or even if, another project will ever come along.
As a result, I always try to say yes to work, and often end up working late nights/early mornings and weekends to complete jobs for clients. I even wrote an entire website in the first week of my daughter’s life!
Freelance can also be lonely at times, especially if you work from home. But over the years I’ve built a lovely network of supportive friends locally, many of whom are either freelancers or own their own businesses. So I make sure I always have time in the week to catch up with a friend for lunch, coffee or dinner and share work joys and woes.
And the upside?
I love it! I’m passionate about writing, and I love that I can fit my freelance work around my family, giving me the best of all worlds. I do the school run every day, attend parent meetings and school plays, spend time with my kids in the holidays, and can even take a day off for shopping without asking anyone for permission. My work gives me the intellectual and creative outlet I need, and gives me a vital income. I don’t think I’d never want to return to working for someone else again!
What advice would you give to an aspiring freelancer?
Just do it! If you have the nerve to make the leap, the chances are that you’ve got the personality and passion to make a go of it. You just need to make sure first that there is indeed a market for your skills, and that you’re confident you can tap into it.
You can find out more about Hannah Martin’s freelance copywriting work here.