The MA conference is a good networking and professional development opportunity

Professional and business development for freelancers

Rebecca Atkinson, 15.09.2014
Investing in yourself and your business is essential
Professional development

Professional development is just as important for freelancers as it is for employees. Most established freelancers say investing in professional development is why they are still working many years after starting out.

All of the Museums Association (MA) formal  professional development programmes are available to freelancers, including AMA, the FMA and Transformers (as long as participants are supported by an organisation they have a long-term relationship with).

The MA’s Conference and Exhibition and programme of MP workshops and seminars are designed to aid delegates’ professional development, and are also useful opportunities to network (see below).

But professional development isn’t just about training courses – it’s also about working developmentally.

Freelance consultant Gaby Porter recommends freelancers find the time to volunteer, perhaps for a local charity, or as a trustee or board member.

“This is massively developmental," Porter says. “For me, it meant strengthening my networks, getting a better understanding of the charitable sector and of course having the opportunity to be a good citizen. I would advise anyone who has got time to get out and do something that’s not museum related.”

Anne Murch, who has been a consultant for 21 years, specialises in professional development. “I believe you learn through doing, and that’s what you have to do as a consultant. The reason I continue to get interesting work at the edge of practice, which is where I like to be, is because I’m open to new ways of thinking and doing things. I’ve also paid for my own development as I became more conscious of what I could offer that people wanted.”

In some cases being freelance itself offers professional development skills.

“Being freelance has made me more robust in terms of dealing with uncertainty such as job losses and short-term contracts,” says consultant Laura Crossley.

And Sarah Briggs, who specialises in collections management but also works on exhibition and design projects, says: “I actually find professional development easier now I’m freelance because I’m not limited in what I do. I can get experience in different areas. For example, I’m focusing my AMA on exhibitions work, which isn’t where I see my career but has turned into a really positive experience.”

Business Development

Whether there’s too much work on the table or not enough, freelancers cannot afford to rest on their laurels. Being self-employed means constantly looking ahead at the next opportunity, developing your skills and services as you go.

Most consultants don’t have the time to develop a business plan. If they do, they don’t review and refresh it on a regular basis. But knowing what you stand for as is important for individuals (employed and self-employed) as it is for museums themselves.

Marketing your services is an important part of business development. It includes:

1. Advertising

This probably isn’t essential when you’re first starting out, but freelancers looking to develop their business could consider the advertising opportunities open to them. One example is the Museums Association’s Find a Supplier service.  

2. Website

“I’m shocked by how many freelancers don’t have website. It’s so important,” Crossley says.

Think about what information potential clients will want to find on your website and try to keep it up-to-date so they can see your latest work. “I have a regular diary reminder to update the projects page on my website,” says freelance interpretation specialist Lucy Harland.

Although you might choose to refer to your business in the third person, avoid pretending to be bigger than you are.

“Don’t forget to create an email footer,” says Alexandra Fitzsimmons, a content and storytelling consultant. This should include a one-sentence pitch describing what you do, contact details including Twitter and Skype and a link to your website.

3. Social media

Being on Twitter, LinkedIn and other appropriate social media websites is a good way to raise your profile and keep abreast of what’s going on in the sector for very little time and absolutely no financial cost. Email groups, such as the Group for Education in Museums or the Museums Computer Group, are a good way to network virtually.

4. Networking

Attending conferences is a good way to meet new and existing contacts, but the time commitment and attendance costs (including travel and accommodation) mean it’s not feasible to go to as many as you might like. Speaking at conferences is a good way to cut the cost and raise your profile at the same time.

There are also many free courses and seminars out there. “The exhibition at the MA’s conference is really useful and it’s free to attend as a visitor,” says freelance writer Rebecca Mileham.

Remember that professional development costs such as conferences and training are tax deductible.

Consider other opportunities outside of sector, especially local networks or those aimed at women in business.

Many consultants in the sector are sole traders (even if they are set up as a limited company). Developing your business doesn’t have to mean growing in size, and many established freelancers, such as Gaby Porter, have deliberately chosen to continue working on their own.

However, bigger consultancies sometimes have the upper hand when it comes to winning jobs, and growing a consultancy into a larger agency is a feasible option.

Barker Langham, a global cultural consultancy, started when its two founders, Darren Barker and Eric Langham, decided to join forces.

“I was doing a lot of work in the Middle East around interpretative planning and Darren was doing cultural and business planning in the UK, so it seemed natural for us to come together and match our skills,” Langham says.

The company they formed in 2006 has grown to employ a team of designers, consultants and researchers.

As well as running the business, Langham and Barker continue to work with clients.

“We’ve learnt that we have to ensure we have people working for us with a range of different skills that support other elements of what we do,” says Langham. “It depends on how you want to grow, but you can’t just keep employing people like you.”

Barker Langham’s growth is partly down to it looking outside of the UK to international markets, especially those where a smaller workforce means there is a need to bring in specialist skills.

Langham’s foray into the Middle East started by responding to a tender: “From there it snowballed. We’ve done some really exciting projects, some of which have been longer-term than you might expect to get in the UK.”

The firm has since got work in the US, Brazil, Russia and, most recently, Italy. “We’re now seeing Europe as a place to develop our business because it's a springboard to other markets,” Langham says. “Today’s world is very accessible thanks to technology and the fact that language is less of a barrier. We’ve also found that international projects make our UK work better.”

Whether you have ambitions to expand to become a larger consultancy or simply get to the point where you’re not just trying to keep your head above water, a business strategy is essential.

“The way we’ve always approached it is to look first at ourselves and then at the areas we want to pursue, develop and refine,” Langham says. “We identify the areas that we feel we could develop as a business and where there is a market.”


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Peju Oshin
Young freelancer, London Transport Museum
26.10.2015, 18:23
Really great to get an idea of what I should start to think about being in the early stages of my career.