Should you go freelance immediately after university? It’s a question that splits most freelancers neatly down the middle.
In one corner is the ‘no’ camp, who feel you should pay your dues as an intern or junior, getting that all-important workplace experience. That way, you’ll make better contacts, get a better sense of how your chosen industry works in practice, and – crucially – have a regular income to cover your rent and bills.
Now freelance, illustrator Ollie Hirst followed this path himself after graduating. “I interned and gained an ad agency creative role in 2017, to make connections and, more importantly, finances,” he explains. “I think you’re asking a lot of yourself to fly straight out the gate without any of that.” It was only in 2019 that Ollie started freelancing alongside his day job, taking the leap to full-time freelance in December 2020.
Others, however, take a different view. Photographer Emilie Lashmar, for example, went freelance for six years after graduating. “I loved it,” she recalls. “You have less to lose at that age, less stress and responsibility. It taught me so many lessons that have led to success within employment, and how I’d do freelancing differently next time.”
Graphic novelist Kristina Gehrmann similarly went freelance straight out of the gate, and has no regrets. “I’d recommend it,” she says, “although only if you have financial support for a foreseeable time and no debt to pay off." Johanna Rupprecht, a freelance concept artist working in games and animation, feels similarly, and adds one further caveat: "Only if you enjoy the idea of freelancing. Not everyone likes the challenges coming with freelance: running a business, tax things, self promotion, self-organisation, etc. It's all very different from employment.”
In short, it’s a lot to do with personality. Some crave the security of a regular income, and seeing the same colleagues day in, day out. Others instinctively seek a more challenging environment, and the stimulation, excitement and, yes, peril of freelancing as a way to keep them motivated and drive them forward.
If you tend towards the latter view, then yes, it’s entirely possible to go freelance straight after university. But don’t think it’s going easy. Read on for some tips on how to survive as a new graduate working as a freelancer.
- Plan for the worst
Money is the biggest worry for any freelancer, let alone one who's just left uni laden with debts. That’s because when one freelance project ends you can’t always rely on finding more work immediately. So your cash flow is going to be volatile.
Plus, even if you get paid at a higher rate than in a normal job, your money may take several months to arrive. This might be down to bureaucracy or incompetence, or because an unscrupulous client sees a new graduate as someone who’s easy to stiff. (Ask around and you’ll find that this happens to a lot of freelancers in practice.)
Ideally, then, you’re going to need some savings to cover the lean times. Otherwise, you may have to do part-time work or odd jobs outside your chosen field in order to make up the difference. You might even have to cut costs by continuing to live with your parents, or take out another loan.
We know: none of this sounds fun, and it isn’t. Freelancing without savings is basically a financial minefield, and it’s vital you make a proper plan for sustaining yourself, should work dry up or promised payments fail to materialise. In short, prepare for the worst case scenario, not the best.
If all this frightens you unduly, maybe freelancing isn’t for you (yet). But if you’re really driven to strike out on your own, you’ll find a way to make it work.
- Manage your costs and pay your tax
Students everywhere complain about being poor, and imagine that when they graduate, they’ll have pots of money to spend on nice things. But even if they get a well-paid job, they’re often shocked that money no longer goes as far as it did.
Think about it: you’re no longer getting those cheap drinks at the student bar, or student discounts on everything from coach tickets to haircuts. Those pesky student loan payments cut into your earnings. And worse still, you’re stunned by how much of your pay packet is deducted for tax.
On that last point, though, freelancers are lulled into a false sense of security, because it’s up to you to organise your own tax affairs. That means registering as self-employed, keeping proper accounts, and rigorously putting aside much of the money you earn for future tax payments.
That takes organisation and discipline, which is again no fun at all. But the alternative is suddenly having to meet a huge tax bill that you hadn’t anticipated, and being stung with a serious fine. So you really need to get on top of this right from the get-go. If you’re a UK taxpayer, start by reading the government advice here.
- Look everywhere for clients
Finding your own clients is a tough business for anyone going freelance. But for someone fresh out of uni, without years of experience and workplace contacts to draw on, it can be especially brutal. Advertising yourself on social media and LinkedIn is a start, but it almost certainly won’t be enough. So you really will need to pull out all the stops.
That means, for example, drawing on all your contacts from university. Ask fellow graduates in employment whether there are opportunities at their company, and who to contact. Hit up your old tutors for potential referrals and advice on who to approach in your chosen field. Send speculative emails to anyone who came to speak at your uni, saying how much you liked their talk and ask if they can help you find work.
It also means drawing on any other contacts you have elsewhere, from family and friends to people you chat to on social media, to the local businesses you frequent. Offer your freelance services to all of these people, and you may be surprised by how many bites you get.
Youthful enthusiasm is often attractive to clients who are used to dealing with world-weary freelancers, who may take them for granted and often charge a lot more. So be confident (but not cocky), persistent (but not annoying), and there’s no reason you won’t find work eventually.
As frontend web developer Chuck Dowe says: “I went freelance after university, and if you’re someone who enjoys networking and always being in the hustle to find your next project, I’d recommend it. You run the risk of crashing if you don’t have multitasking skills, learning from not delivering, and self accountability. But if you do, you can learn so much, so fast.”