How to build your freelance support system

OK, so here’s a question.

What is a freelance support system?

Do you have one?

You’ll know only too well, lovely reader, how flying solo is a tough gig. Many of us freelancers are sole traders or working in small partnerships. And we like it that way: part of the reason we left the security of employment is precisely because we want to control our business life.

We want to be able to say what, who, where, when and how.

The thing is, solo flight can be challenging if we don’t have a solid support system. I’ve talked before about networking and how to make connections that bring us into the fold, stave off isolation and help us generate new business.

But what about the practical support we need to sustain our operation and make it flourish?

A taxing effort
The very first thing I did when I went freelance 20 years ago (I can’t believe it’s been that long!) was to find an accountant.

But what I also can’t believe is the number of people out there whose businesses are of a similar vintage, yet who still tear their hair out every year at tax return time.

Look at it this way. Every company has a CFO responsible for making sure its coffers stay peachy, and its records accurate and up-to-date. The luxury of having someone to take this burden off your shoulders can’t be underestimated.

The point is, it isn’t actually an indulgence, not even for us indie sorts – it’s a necessity.

Get an accountant

If your operation is small and beautiful (as many of ours are!), you can easily do your own books. These days, with software such as QuickBooks, Xero and ReceiptBank, it’s a breeze – even a basic Excel spreadsheet will do – but you don’t need to break the bank to have someone do your tax return.

There are loads of independent chartered or certified number wizards out there, as are firms dedicated specially to serving sole traders and small businesses. They really do understand what it’s like for us, and can be a great source of help and advice.

Accountancy is an important tool to keep a business healthy. It helps you to be tax efficient, makes savings by claiming all the allowances you’re entitled to, and encourages you to budget, plan ahead and grow.

If you’re across your balance sheet, you can avoid screaming into a pillow come January, when everyone has to cut what can be a frighteningly large amount to the revenue service.

True story: an accountant once told me that she had had to sit down with one of her clients and tell him that his tax bill would be in the order of £20,000.

He burst into tears in her office.

Why? He hadn’t put anything aside for it, even though he’d generated enough of an income to garner that kind of liability. Not a bean.

And now he had to find it all from somewhere – fast.

If you want to avoid nasty financial surprises, do consider getting yourself a numbers wizard to help. (The excellent news is that accountancy is a tax-deductible expense. And every businessperson loves the words tax deductible, no?)

A (computer) port in a storm
Another service department we take for granted in employment is IT. To feel secure in your day-to-day, I cannot impress upon you enough the importance of cultivating reliable tech support.

Picture this: you’re on deadline and need to send files to your client.

You switch on your computer and get the blue screen of death.

Nightmare.

Your normally trusty case of microchips has lapsed into a coma from which you simply cannot revive it.

There are two things here.

1) Never operate your entire business from one computer (and definitely not from a single laptop, not unless you’re a digital nomad or need to travel extensively for work). If you work mainly from home, it’s a good idea to sort a proper workstation and desktop unit – and to factor a laptop into your expenditure for mobile working and as a back-up, should your desktop ever need to be rushed into intensive care.

(Also, invest in a substantial hard drive to back up your work and system – which goes without saying!)

2) Find a reputable local firm which doesn’t exploit IT predicaments by charging the earth, and is known for excellent service.

Local is key: you want somewhere you can get your kit to swiftly and easily, should something go horribly wrong. If you use a Mac, it’ll probably be the genius bar at the nearest Apple store; if PC, it could be a computer store or a specialist with a workshop.

A crash, even persistent, niggling problems slowing down your system, can pose a genuine threat to your ability to function: lost time, lost work – even lost clients. Don’t risk it.

Legal eagles
If you have ever had to consult a solicitor, you’ll know just how much it costs to make an appointment at a law firm, sit down and sigh at the billable meter silently ticking away while you get the advice you need.

There are times in every independent operator’s working life when asking colleagues about their experiences isn’t enough; proper professional input tailored to your specific situation is the only thing that will do.

For freelancers, more often than not the kinds of issues we need help with are contract negotiation, indemnity, late/non-payment, and so forth. Having access to qualified counsel can be crucial, especially in contentious client–supplier situations.

Thankfully, you don’t have to book an expensive legal consult every time you have a thorny question or debacle to sort out. Access to advice often comes with professional membership packages (and is usually available in industry via the respective sector’s union).

Access legal advice

The Federation of Small Businesses has a substantial suite of advice services as part of its membership; other business-related organisations have similar too. The Citizens’ Advice Bureau used to be a handy place to access pro bono assistance, and remains fine for basic legal advice, but now tends to refer people to law firms offering free or fixed-fee advice instead.

Insurance companies also provide legal advice helplines as part of their policies. If you aren’t a member of a professional organisation or union, it’s worth paying a little extra just to have that option at your fingertips – because you never know when you might need it, whether for business or personal matters.

Working it out
Sadly, one of the consequences of the UK leaving the EU is the funding for business support and advice that will cease for small businesses. BusinessLink – a brilliant, free government initiative – also fell prey to cuts a few years ago, and is now relegated to a scaled-down online resource.

Still, centres such as Allia Future Business offer free workshops to sole traders and small businesses – personally I have benefited a lot from this kind of resource. I’ve even received free creative coaching via external funding from other sources.

Normally, if you contract with a business consultant or coach – especially at the executive or leadership level – it will drain your denari. If you’re at the bootstrapping stage (or simply watching the pennies), free or paid workshops, advice and accelerator programmes are available out there.

Find them by looking through Eventbrite, Meetup.com and organisations such as your local Chambers of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses. If a local business centre or coworking space is available, do check it out. There are collectives dedicated to business support and development, and you may well find a low-cost workshop or course to help you there. (They’re often staffed by lovely freelance people, so it’s a great way of making new connections too.)

Starter for ten
Mastermind groups are another great way of finding and offering support. They operate as small, closed, regular meetings of professionals brought together by similar interests, industry or even gender.

Find a safe environment

What they offer is a safe, confidential environment in which to discuss topics, work through issues, ask questions or brainstorm a situation. They pool individuals’ wisdom collectively to problem solve, motivate and inspire. They can be used also for accountability and buddying, if you have something particular that you’d like to achieve.

Mastermind groups exist for all kinds of work. If you want to find one, again you can try Meetup.com, or simply ask around your tribe. If nothing is available in your local area, why not set one up? Invite the people whom you feel would be a good mix, and get going!

Don’t let geography hold you back either – it’s easy to set up international mastermind groups now, and for free, using Skype, Zoom or other online communication platforms.

Keeping well
A substantial part of functioning successfully as a freelance is self-care. Working alone, it’s all too easy to find ourselves doing long hours and overlooking our well-being.

Your self-care protocol may be entirely different from another person’s, depending on your lifestyle, health and personal situation. And that’s perfectly fine – there is no one size fits all. It could be gym membership or a personal trainer, physical therapy such as massage or bodywork, a nutritionist, counselling, or even just a bit of pampering such as visiting a day spa.

My own self-care system comprises superb well-being professionals. For example, I consult a registered dietitian, collaborating with her in a holistic yet science-based setting. She’s wonderfully supportive and guides me in working on my health goals.

The thing is to find what works for you, and commit to it.

Ace your productivity
You’ll notice two things running through all the above.

The first is that building a support system gives you access to expert knowledge that not only assists your business, but relieves you of worry.

The second is that it boosts your productivity, liberating you to concentrate on what really matters. The time you spend troubleshooting problems, flailing in the dark or ploughing through tedious detail that you can really do without is time that could be used to better effect.

Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re uninspired by certain aspects essential to running your business. It’s perfectly OK not to be transported by IR35 or the law of contract! What is important is to make sure they aren’t neglected, and to have good experts in place to cover them.

Your job as a freelance is to focus on what you do best – and get paid for it. You’re simply delegating the stuff you love a little less to someone else whose boat it does float, and who really knows it inside out.

If you don’t currently have a support team in place, start thinking about how you can build one. Depending on your business, it might involve others too, such as social media or digital marketing, virtual assistance or web design.

Find the right people to give you wings, and that solo flight won’t be quite so lonely after all.

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