In October 2016 I left my job of 16 years and decided to turn freelance. Life-affirming joy or unmitigated disaster? I'll keep you posted!
The second half of 2016 was an eventful time for me. In September I did a 130-mile hike around the Chiltern Hills, raising £5000 for charity; in October, I turned 40 (an inevitable landmark I’ve decided to embrace rather than ignore); and in November, my second daughter, Tabitha, was born, thrusting me back into a world of broken sleep and endless nappies.
But the most seismic shift by far was leaving my job of 16 years and going freelance.
I worked for the corporate news distribution firm PR Newswire as Relationships Director. A fancy title. In truth, mine was a floating role of affiliate management, training and ambassadorial work. And it was good, in the main. I got to travel a fair bit, and meet lots of people. Without realising it was happening, I got a gold-star education in PR and corporate communications - and a pretty good one in how businesses are run in general.
I was someone that people referred to (affectionately, I hope) as a “lifer”. There was a small band of us. We were knowledgeable and loyal. A smidge unambitious. Cheerfully institutionalised, one might say. By the end, I personally confess to becoming a little cynical and jaded. When the company was acquired by communications giant Cision in the summer of last year, it was probably the right time to part ways.
And suddenly, that was that. No more alarm clocks. No more 90-minute commutes from rural Buckinghamshire. I joined PR Newswire in 2000. Professionally, I have known nothing different this century. When I started, it was all Britpop and Tony Blair. Nokias and internet start-ups.
The world has changed, of course. But then, that’s OK, because I’ve changed as well. Much as I love London, I'm happy I no longer live there. All that hullabaloo. I can do without the night buses, the pop-up juice bars and the filthy flat shares. And I’m done with the nine-to-five for the time-being, too.
I always had the vague hope that, whatever I did next, it would be for myself, not for a large, faceless organisation. So becoming a freelance was something of a no-brainer.
The timing is either perfect or hilariously disastrous, depending on whether your glass is half-full or half-empty. Because 2016 also saw my wife, Sarah, leave her full-time job and become a consultant in employee engagement. So here we are with a toddler and a newborn, and a guaranteed household income of precisely £0 per annum. Not exactly ideal, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tip that pesky work/life balance thing firmly in our favour.
I am currently seeing more of my children in their formative years than most fathers can dream of. Sarah and I split the chores and the childcare. We haven’t killed each other yet. It is a thoroughly modern family utopia (as long as I continue to do my share of the washing-up).
But it won’t last very long if we don’t have any clients.
For 16 years, of course, I’ve had clients on tap. Too many, really, to know what to do with. Salespeople delivered them to me neatly-wrapped, and I did my best to impart my wisdom. Add some clarity to PRN’s value proposition. Looking back, those "penny-drop" moments where clients were won or retained on the strength of my consultation have given me the greatest satisfaction of my career.
Now I am the business. I am sales. I am marketing. If I am to impart my wisdom to clients, I will have to win them first.
My biggest problem is that I’m NOT a natural salesperson. Not a hard-nosed one, anyway.
So it is a steep learning curve. I’ve had to start networking and calling in favours from ex-colleagues and affiliates. I’ve created this website, and a new social media presence. I’ve had to reinvent myself: Goodbye curmudgeonly knowledge-hoarder; Hello go-getting entrepreneur! It is energising and debilitating in equal measure.
But perhaps the biggest challenge has been the dreaded “elevator pitch”. I need people to understand what I can do to help them - and understand fast.
It is a necessary evil. If clients are to bite, they need to be fully on board within the first minute of conversation - otherwise their response is likely to be a big fat “So what?”
This is problematic for me. I am your classic waffler. But then you already knew that, because it has taken me 700 words to get this far...
In truth, it is something I have always struggled with. Throughout my 16 years at PRN there was a vagueness to people’s understanding of exactly what I did: “Still a journalist?”, a cherished childhood friend might ask. “Something about press releases,” was the gist of my mother’s in-depth understanding of her eldest son’s career despite my patient explanations.
Now every time somebody asks me “What do you do?” - I cannot afford to mumble and deflect. When you are a freelance, everyone is a potential client - even the drunken uncle making small talk at a wedding.
That was the thinking behind the strapline “Your story. Your way.” I wanted my message to be short and sharp. I wanted every small or medium-sized business out there to know that I could help them with their communications strategy.
To do this, I knew I had to demystify PR somewhat. Smash the old cliches about it being cliquey and expensive and put companies back in control of their own stories. So I designed the PR Audit report, which gives clients information about all elements of corporate communications in plain English, and offers advice and recommendations on how to drive their own strategies forward.
In January 2017, I completed my first report for the social mobility organisationGeneration Success. It gave me a feeling I hadn’t had before in my working life before. A kind of altruism, I suppose.
Perhaps it is because, for the first time in my career I can be truly independent. I have retired my company hat.
Commercial organisations and service providers are experts at being creative with their clients. Occasionally, they can be downright misleading. Anything to make a sale - even if it means trying to ram square pegs into round holes. Salespeople are naturally subjective. They defend their products. Over-inflate their products. Flagrantly mis-sell them, sometimes. It is the bedrock of a competitive market.
Everyone’s at it.
PR Agencies will tell you that they are indispensable and that no-one can replicate the service they provide. Every monitoring tool, media contacts database and SEO-enhancement is “state-of-the-art” or “optimised” or “essential”.
This is not a criticism. It’s just business the world over, and it would be naive to suggest otherwise. But if you are a small company with limited budget it can make you sceptical of the whole industry.
It’s my job to cut through the noise. Allow companies to make informed decisions about the services they need. Talk them through the free alternatives and DIY solutions. Save them money, hopefully, too. "Down-sell" with impunity!
I've spent most of my career consulting. Now I can finally do it objectively.
So if your business has a story to tell, but you're struggling to find your voice - or even if you're just a drunken uncle at a wedding and you fancy a chat - you know who to call...
"When you are a freelance, everyone is a potential client - even the drunken uncle making small talk at a wedding."