March 10, 2020

Self-isolating as a freelancer

COVID-19 Coronavirus could mean self-isolating. As a freelancer, how can you manage an enforced downtime positively?

Over the last four weeks, I have had an enforced lay-off from being able to work. An accident whilst taking photographs for a forthcoming book left me with a broken ankle and six weeks being unable to work. With the onset of COVID-19 Coronavirus, many freelancers are going to be faced with a period of being unable to work. Freelancers don’t receive any Statutory Sick Pay in the UK so we are left incomeless when not working. I’m going to share some tips I have garnered over the last few weeks to try and use this time positively.

Communicate to customers

The first thing you have to remember is that your customers don’t know what has happened to you. As soon as you know that you are going to be unable to work get in touch with them. The most important thing is to be absolutely honest.

  • Let them know why you are going to be unable to work with them.
  • Tell them you are gutted that you can’t do the job.
  • Give an indication when you are expecting to become available again.
  • If you had been paid a deposit or a fee already, offer a refund or re-booking for another date.

I had to cancel around 20 appointments due to the broken ankle. All but one of the customers agreed to reschedule. That’s not always going to be the case but I am sure that the open and honest approach meant clients would work with you.

Think about the customer journey

This leads directly from communicating to customers and is a great way of making sure you look in control. I have a fantastic booking system for photography workshops that is provided by FareHarbor. One of the features they provide is text and e-mail reminders so that customers don’t forget when they have booked their workshops. They also help me send out post-workshop surveys so I can make the customer experience even better in the future.

By working with FareHarbor I was able to establish those automatic triggers that could have sent messages to customers whilst they were deciding when to reschedule to. They already had a process built into the system so I could stop the messages for a period of time until I was returning back to work. As a small business, your reputation is probably one of the biggest assets you have. It would be silly to have it take a knock by not thinking about what your customer will feel.

Personal Development

Freelancers know their customers are really important. Without them, they don’t get paid and without getting paid they won’t be freelancing for much longer. As a result of this, the photographers (and other freelancers) I know are trying to work as much as they can. The issue with this is that they don’t develop themselves.

A few weeks of self-isolating is a perfect opportunity to do some personal development. Think about the skills you have been meaning to learn then head online. There are thousands of videos on YouTube and Vimeo with free content. There are blogs (like this one!) to read and expand your knowledge. You can also sign-up to educators such as, Creative Live or LinkedIn Learning. At least two of those services have free trials available from a week to a month. The last two don’t just cover photography – they also have training in web development, business skills and marketing.

With a little bit of self-development, you may be getting skills that will not only help you get back some lost income but actually be an additional source of income for the future!

Update your social media and website

Every freelancer knows the importance of social media. It’s a great way to build engagement. With increased engagement, you are more likely to make more sales. The problem is that social media is so time-consuming! Now you’ve got a bit of time given to you whilst self-isolating you can spend some of it beefing up your social media game.

Create a whole suite of social media posts that you can use. Not just for the two weeks (or in my case six weeks!) of self-isolating but for the next few months. Freelance photographers should have quite a lot of content they have lying around – think how you can use this to create visually stimulating posts that will attract and retain business.

Just because, you are stuck inside doesn’t mean that you can’t create posts as well. My first four blog posts after self-isolating have looked at different ways to use simple lighting set-ups to create fine art and contemporary flower photographs. I’ve had feedback from customers that these posts have been really popular. Not only that they have also given me material that can be offered as limited-edition framed prints as well!

Bring cash forward

Short-term enforced absences are going to cause problems with cash-flow. Hopefully, you’ll have savings that can tide you through. Even if you do, there’s still activity you can undertake that will bring cash in, even when you aren’t working.

As part of the photography workshop element of my business, I offer gift vouchers on my website. These allow people to buy workshops in advance. The payment is made up-front so it helps my cash-flow. Change your advertising efforts from promoting the usual things that self-isolating means you can’t do. Instead advertise the activities that you can still do whilst inactive that brings money in.

Get on top of finances

Quite often in the creative industries (and often in other jobs) the ‘boring’ stuff is left behind and forgotten. One of the easy jobs to put off is financial administration. At some time of the year, a freelancer is going to have to submit year-end accounts. I know some people (not me!) who use the old-fashioned shoebox filing system. They have a nightmare couple of days in January as they try and get together all their receipts. If you’ve got a couple of weeks being stuck inside then use this time to get yourself organised.

There are off the shelf systems such as FreeAgent which allow you to store invoices, receipts and submit your accounts at the end of your year to the Inland Revenue. Alternatively, if you want to use an accountant then scanning your receipts to Cloud storage is a good way of tidying up that shoe-box. As a freelance photographer, I use this second approach and record all my accounting in Light Blue Software. It’s been a great approach for me and I usually have my year-end accounts signed off 3 months after the year-end. This means no last-minute rush in January when you’ll be really busy with clients!

Another financial task that you can slip in is to look at your outgoings. Has your mobile phone contract come to an end which means you could find a cheaper contract? Are you paying too much for your broadband? Just a few hours of searching on a price-comparison website can give you some big savings.

Get ready to return

The final thing you really need to think about is switching back on. If you are self-isolating due to COVID-19 you have a good idea when you’ll be back to work. If like me, with a broken ankle the return date is a little less definitive then it will be a little harder. However, in both cases, you want to be back earning as quickly as possible.

The best way to do this is unsurprisingly doing the same things as stopping but in reverse.

  • Reach out to customers and let them know when you’ll be back.

If you aren’t 100% sure let them know what your concerns are and let them decide. I already have three jobs lined up where I have spoken to clients who know that I could have limited mobility but still want to have me taking photographs for them.

  • Phase a return (if you need to)

I know my strength is going to need building up. Most of my workshops have a 2 or 3-mile walk with all my gear. I’m not going to be able to do that seven days a week from day one. Instead, I am taking a little time to build up so I’ll be working for the long-term and not re-injuring myself again

  • Reconsider the customer journey

Remember, all those messages I switched off when the injury happened? The really easy thing to do is to forget to switch them back on. Use the last few days of self-isolating to plan what needs to be switched back on and when.

You’ll get through it!

Hopefully, you can see that if you are self-isolating through COVID-19 or through some other injury or illness there are lots you can do to use this time well. One of the things I read at the start of the Coronavirus outbreak is that the Japanese word for Crisis is made up of two kanjis (or symbols). The first is 危 which means “danger” and the second is 機 which means ”opportunity”. There’s no reason why this time of self-isolating can’t be an opportunity for you!

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