Visitors at Barnsley Experience

Things I know now that I wish I'd known then

May Redfern, 15.09.2014
May Redfern shares some key advice for anyone going freelance
I’ve worked for myself for the past 10 years. It might not work for you, but this is the advice I’d have given my 30-year-old-self.

1. No woman is an island

You may work for yourself but you’re not on your own. Find supporters and take care of the good ones. I have a financial adviser, accountant, mentor, solicitor, coach and friends with their own businesses who give me invaluable advice. My accountant costs me around £1,000 a year. It's worth it.

2. Calculate your true costs

People don’t like talking about money so how do you work out what to charge? How much do you think your time is worth? What does the marketplace think?

Do a cost analysis. List everything it costs you to provide your product or service and factor in your time. Keep time sheets so you can see how long it really takes to do something.

Apportion an additional percentage for the time it takes to sustain your business, such as writing proposals (including the unsuccessful ones); doing the books; writing a blog; networking; attending conferences; and so on. Include daily costs such as utilities and Wi-Fi.

Then take your total fee for a job and subtract all your expenses. Decide how much you can afford to either pay yourself or invest back in the business. Over time patterns emerge that show where best to invest your time.

3. Keep pricing variable

I have a standard day rate but this varies according to the basic laws of supply and demand and what the marketplace supports (or not) at any given time. Quality, reputation, lack of substitutes and competition also determine whether or not you’ll get the job.

4. Remember the one in four rule

A big heritage consultancy I know follows the one in four rule – it only needs to win 25% of bids to turnover £1m a year. Get used to being knocked back 75% of the time but get feedback as to why.

5. Love cashflow

I always plan out my cashflow in my diary, which runs two years ahead. I know what my expenses are annually, quarterly and monthly, both for the business and personally.

From this I can work out how much I need to earn and when, when I should be looking for new contracts and how much flexibility and risk I want to allow myself at any given time.

Add in projections versus actuals as you go along. So what you expect financially versus what actually happens and adjust accordingly.

Cash flow can also include intangible things like how many hours you want to work and when.   

6. Follow the Christmas in July principle

Freelancers are used to feast or famine, being so busy that they don’t have time to look for the next contract or having so little to do that they wonder if they’ll ever work again.

You have to plan ahead. The retail sector has Christmas in the bag by July. Follow the same principle. Plan holidays well in advance too, or you won’t get them. Plan for what you want: consistency, growth, or fewer working hours per week.

7. It’s all about who you know

Understand the differences between clique and entrepreneurial networks, and the value of both.

People in clique networks have few contacts from the same field. Their relationships are strong and long term. Entrepreneurial networks connect lots of different people from separate groups. Ties are weaker but you can add value between the networks.

Make friends with who you sit next to on a plane, or in a coffee shop. You get work that way. Keep expanding your networks within your industry and elsewhere. Build relationships, be yourself and keep showing up. Know which of your skills can cross over to other businesses if things are quiet in yours. Have a business card and carry it everywhere.

8. Marketing

Go with what suits your personality rather than what you think you should be doing. Think of your business as a brand. Be clear about what you do and the services you offer for others. Working with other freelancers and businesses is a good way to expand your reach.

Know your strengths and weaknesses. I know that self-promotion isn’t a strong point, so I invest in services to help: it is worth the cost as it frees up my time to concentrate on the things I’m better at.

9. Your business will change shape

As you develop, so will your business. I started as a sole trader and combined work with my Clore Leadership Fellowship, but now operate as a limited company.

My accountant advised me to switch to company status. I kept all my shares and called it something other than my own name in case I want to sell all or part of it, or its assets, in the future.

I'm insured for £5m for both public liability and professional indemnity with Hiscox. That’s only in the past couple of years though because of the needs of specific contracts.

The work I do has broadened out too. I’m starting a pop-up shop as a new creative venture to invest in and develop alongside my museum work.

So write a plan and set some goals. Share it with someone you trust as an incentive to make your ideas happen.

May Redfern works with museums on all aspects of audience development: learning, exhibitions, programming, evaluation, activity planning and fundraising. Email her on


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Peju Oshin
Young freelancer, London Transport Museum
26.10.2015, 18:38
Another great piece, thank you!
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
16.09.2014, 10:17
Excellent advice May, and refreshing that you will share.