Interview with Matt Dowling, founder of The Freelancer Club

Find out how losing £11,000 inspired Matt Dowling to launch The Freelancer Club – now with over 16,000 members – and launch the #NOFREEWORK campaign.

What’s your career background?

Well, I set up my first business while I was at university studying Contemporary Art. It was a very small agency that helped my creative friends find some extra work. I had no clue what I was doing or any business experience but somehow managed to make it work for a while.

After that, I struggled to find a full-time job in media, which is where I wanted to work. I ran out of money pretty quickly and couldn’t pay rent so I picked up my camera and asked if anyone needed a photographer. A sympathetic friend offered me some work and my photography career grew from there.

I don’t think I’d ever heard the term ‘freelancing’ at this stage and the early stages were very challenging. After a few years of trials and tribulations I figured it out for the most part and developed a career in the industry.

Whilst shooting for a fashion house I was introduced to a web developer and we went about setting up small business designing websites for the creative industry. We grew steadily and set up digital media agency called Green Leaf with a brand focus on the environment.

The work was great but it didn’t fulfil me creatively. I decided to launch another venture that was a production company for freelancers. The idea was we enabled inspiring freelancers the opportunity to work with top-end talent in affluent venues to produce high level of work for their portfolio. We would consult them after the shoot and it became evident that most of the freelancers we spoke with had little to no business understanding. This realisation led to the launch of The Freelancer Club.

Where did the idea for The Freelancer Club come from?

It was a combination of events. When I was a photographer a corporate company took advantage of my naivety to the tune of £11,000. I had to borrow a lot of money and practically move out of my house. That was an incredibly tough time.

They were my sole client and I had been working for them for more than six months when they pulled the rug from under me. Heavily in debt, no income, and barely enough to eat very much sharpened my focus.

Looking back, this experience certainly sowed the seeds for what would become The Freelancer Club. The other major factor was speaking with so many freelancers over the years about their journey. It reaffirmed the need to provide the creative community with the right type of support.

What’s your USP?

We provide members with everything they need to succeed. I’ve yet to come across another company that offers the same level of support. We provide our members with:

  • Business advice.
  • Legal advice.
  • Downloadable documents.
  • Relevant articles.
  • Videos.
  • Guides.
  • Online business courses.
  • Access to paid jobs.
  • A platform to promote work.
  • Networking event.
  • Workshops.
  • Opportunities to meet like-minded freelancers.

We’ve grown to more than 16,000 members in the UK and facilitated over 200,000 paid jobs since we launched.

Who’s your target audience?

There isn’t a collective noun to describe the type of creative freelancer we accommodate, however, we are largely made up of photographers, videographers, make-up artist, hair stylists, models, designers, fashion stylists, and some illustrators, dancers and graphic designers.

Over 62% of our members are women and that number is growing. Currently, we service the UK market, however, we plan to roll out in New York very shortly.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

A weekly newsletter, ad campaigns, various social media channels, events, talks at universities or private institutions and press. However, it’s recommendations from our members that is the most effective method of promotion.

Ironically, as an ex-founder of a digital media agency, mouth of mouth does most of the marketing for us. Our community is incredible. We’ve gotten to know them as freelancers online and as people offline at events.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

When we first launched the company we made a decision not to post any unpaid work on the website. Unpaid work is when a company asks a freelancer to work for experience, exposure, or prestige. This ethos resulted in a campaign called #NOFREEWORK that we launched a few years ago to raise awareness and stop the exploitation of creative freelancers.

Aside from the challenge of convincing government and large corporations to agree to our Code of Conduct, the decision not to work with companies who do not believe in our campaign, restricted us from doing business with a number of key players.

And your proudest moment so far?

There are two moment that spring to mind. The first was meeting one of our members at an event who came to London from Spain as a photographer. He didn’t speak much English or know anybody in London. He felt incredibly lost and was filled with anxiety. H

e told us that he found The Freelancer Club online and through our site met another freelancer who helped him settle in. He was incredibly grateful that we help give him the life that he has now in London filled with job satisfaction and a very healthy freelance career.

The other moment that stands out happened quite recently when we hosted a roundtable chaired by The Guardian with some of the creative industries most influential companies to discuss the matter of unpaid work. Looking around the room at politicians, journalists, and industry leaders filled me with pride. To think that we these people were all talking about a subject matter that started as a hashtag three years ago.

Why is work so important to you?

It’s personal. I know how freelancers feel and what they are going through. We started this company to help people not as a means to make money. In fact, we reinvest call of the membership fees back into the company to help support our community and we hope that we’re making a difference.

Who inspires you?

It’s a pretty cheesy answer but it’s the members who keep me going during the difficult moments. Hearing their success stories or their struggles motivates me everyday.

Learning that a member has landed their first job or that they can know pay the bills, feed the kids or just do what it is that they love for a living keeps me going back for more. I also have an incredible team who continue to inspire me with their dedication to our mission.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

1) Get a mentor

Get a mentor as soon as you can. Having somebody who has been there and done that offers so much value. It seems counter-productive when you first start out to spend money on something intangible that doesn’t provide an immediate return on investment, however, the amount of money, time and energy you save by having somebody guide you is unquantifiable.

2) Know your brand

Understand your brand inside out before launching. Implicitly knowing your brand values and having the confidence to sell yourself in a handful of words makes it so much easier to plan a solid marketing strategy. A good tip to finding your brand is to know who your audience is and work backwards.

3) Do something that you love

If you’re just getting into business for the money it can be incredibly difficult to motivate yourself unless you entirely money driven. It is easy to be enthusiastic when you first start a new business but when the going gets tough it helps to think about why you started your company in the first place and if that reason is an admirable one, it’s a lot easier to leap out of bed.

You can find out more about The Freelance Club on their website and join the #NOFREEWORK campaign here.