My Freelance Story: Writer and Marketer Dan Thornton

Want to know what self-employment and freelancing is really like? In our My Freelance Story series, you can read the personal experiences from people working across a wide range of careers, and at different stages of their freelance journey.

We spoke to Freelance Corner contributor Dan Thornton about his switch to freelancing after working in publishing and broadcasting, the reason he’s stayed self-employed for more than a decade, and why his home office is a bit unusual.

How long have you been self-employed? What were you doing before?

I started working for myself full-time in 2010, having dabbled a bit in client work whilst employed as a journalist. I’d actually become a parent just a couple of years earlier, and it’s similar in the way it seems to distort time. Somehow it feels like an eternity ago, but it’s also passed so quickly.

Before freelancing, I was lucky enough to work in two of my dream jobs. I started out as an Editorial Assistant, working on the Motorcycle News website during the first internet boom, which was amazing for someone who grew up obsessed with engines and technology. One of my other passions is music, and after working my way up through editorial and marketing positions, I then joined Absolute Radio, shortly after it had been acquired by Times of India and rebranded from Virgin Radio.

Both times I was incredibly fortunate to work with small teams of people supported by great managers. So, while both involved a lot of hard work, we also had the chance to launch new projects and technology, some of which are still very successful.

I’d always thought about building my own business, and had some websites and side projects ticking along. But when some restricting took place, I half-jumped and half-fell into freelancing as a way to spend more time with my son and see what I could achieve by myself. Ironically, I’ve freelanced for both of my former employers since then, but I’ve stayed self-employed for 12 years now.

Why offer both writing and marketing as a freelancer?

My childhood dream was to either race cars and motorcycles, or be a professional musician. But as I got older, I realised a lack of money and talent was going to be a problem. And while I read a lot of books, I also obsessively devoured magazines about music and motoring. So, it seemed like the next best thing.

One of the things I loved most was that words on a page or screen could have an effect on people hundreds, or thousands, of miles away. That led me into reading about copywriting techniques and basic psychology.

And at the same time, I’d started writing just as blogging and social media were taking off. It just seemed natural that as a writer, I wanted to reach the biggest audience. So, learning about search engine optimisation (SEO) just seemed to make sense.

Back then it was fairly unusual for a writer and journalist to be interested in SEO, or want to chat with web designers and developers. But it led to me being the first social media specialist at Bauer Media, and the first Digital Marketing Manager at Absolute Radio, and it’s still paying off now.

There’s no shortage of freelance writers offering their services these days, and the same is true of SEOs. But there are relatively few people who have the combined experience of both that I have. And that seems to be a useful USP, as I’m often referred writing projects from other SEOs, and SEO work from other writers!

What does your typical day look like?

It really depends how you look at it. Most days I’m at the computer in my home office by about 9am, and I’ll often still be there at some point in the late evening. Which can sound a bit dull, even to me. Prior to the pandemic, I’d typically schedule time on site with clients around meetings as a chance to get extra insight along with a change of scenery.

But the brilliant thing about freelancing is that no two days are alike. I work with clients ranging from solo entrepreneurs to global corporations, so there’s enormous variety in the work required, and how it’s delivered. And being a writer and SEO specialist means I’m often switching between creative tasks and more technical projects.

Like most people, I’ll start the day by checking my email and social media. Over the years, I’ve tried to become a bit more disciplined about constantly scrolling through Twitter and Facebook (some of the other good advice I’ve collected on managing procrastination are in this article), so it’s normally just a quick glance at work-related accounts and groups while I’m responding to client or business emails.

Then it’s onto client work for the day. Where possible, I try to alternate between creative and analytical tasks, so I might be researching and writing a 2,500-word article for most of the day, but I’ll then switch to analysing the structured data on a site or look at ways to improve the loading times for problem pages.

My hours tend to vary depending on my workload, and how tasks naturally fall throughout the day. I’m more of a night owl, so a big benefit of freelancing is taking a longer lunch if I want to spend time with my partner (she’s also self-employed and works from home as well, so I have my office downstairs, and hers is upstairs), or having it later if I’m spending time with my son after school, and being able to make up the time in the evening.

Many of the freelancers I know love to work on their own side projects, and I’m no exception, but I’ve realised over the years that to make real progress, I need to schedule time for them just as I would for any client. That change has made a big difference to how much I’m achieving with them, including some useful extra income. Normally they’ll be the final jobs of the day, whatever time that might be!

How do you tend to find clients? Has that changed over time?

I’ve been really fortunate to have had a fairly steady stream of work from referrals, including former employers and colleagues, or by my clients. It’s a massive confidence boost, and a source of pride, if someone recommends me.

When I started freelancing, it felt like I had to say yes to every project that was referred my way. Declining felt like an insult to the person recommending me, and I’ve always hated letting people down. It was also easy to compare myself to freelancers who seemed to go from nothing to running small and ever-larger agencies in the space of months.

So, the biggest change has been understanding that it’s better to take on the right amount of work that I can deliver effectively, and to pass on clients to other freelancers I trust, rather than attempting to do it all and falling short.

When I started freelancing, the only networking events in my area were very business focused, which wasn’t really what I was looking for. So, I ended up co-founding a more social monthly meetup for anyone in the digital space, and despite my original intentions, that’s also led to a large amount of client leads over the years.

I do get some enquiries through my website, and via social media. The most successful for me tend to be Twitter, where I’m fairly active, or Facebook groups like Creative Freelancers UK, or other communities focused on SEO or writing. But I tend to use these more as a social way to interact with other freelancers than purely for client leads.

What are your favourite freelancing tools and equipment? Is there anything special or unusual about your workspace?

Until a few years ago I mainly used a laptop on the smallest office desk I could find, in the belief it would force me to keep clutter away from my workspace. But a few years ago, I finally invested in a fairly powered custom-built desktop PC for work. Some of my side projects and work for clients involves video games, so it had to handle the latest titles well along with more intensive SEO tasks.

Most of my home office set-up is fairly typical, and I’ve realised the value in investing in a good quality office chair, along with monitor stands and footrests (this article shares some of the best budget  home office improvements). But the thing that most people would notice is that one monitor has a steering wheel, pedals and a separate chair in front of it. One of my hobbies and side projects is racing simulators, which go a bit beyond standard racing games in trying to replicate motorsport on a computer.

That led to starting a website, and founding my own team, which has enabled me to compete against professional racing drivers (including Formula 1 world champions Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso) without leaving my home office!

Where do you prefer to work? Home office, coffee shop, co-working space or somewhere else? With music or background noise, or in silence?

I enjoy the occasional day with clients, but I’ll always prefer my home office for getting work done. I tend to have music in the background all day, and I’d rather spend time with my family or get chores out of the way than commuting.

It’s not the same for everyone, and I know plenty of people who love coffee shops or co-working spaces. But co-founding a monthly meetup scratched that itch for me.

My Freelance story - Writer and Marketer

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start freelancing?

There is some great career-specific advice in the guides on how to become a freelance writer and how to become a freelance SEO consultant. But in general, I’d suggest absorbing as much of the great work done by others in the past as you can, and either taking on a part-time client in your spare time, or starting your own website to get some practical experience before jumping in with both feet.

There’s a lot of good support available online, including on Freelance Corner, and the IPSE website. And I’d definitely recommend planning ahead, saving a cushion for when work might be scarce, and speaking to an accountant before you start.

But above all, don’t feel like everything has to be perfect before you start, or that you can’t risk trying something and failing. It can sometimes be embarrassing or expensive to learn by making mistakes, but the lessons will stay with you. And they make for good conversation with other freelancers. Even the most successful will admit they could have done things better or differently in hindsight.

You’ll never be completely prepared for everything freelancing can throw at you, which is one of the reasons it stays interesting and fun.

I could have prepared much more before I began freelancing, and it would have saved me some mistakes and heartache along the way. But going back into employment was always an option (and one that I’ve turned down a few times over the years). And if I hadn’t taken the leap when I did, it might never have happened.

How can you see freelancing changing in the future for writers and marketers?

I can’t see many of the existing challenges and frustrations going away anytime soon, although the more freelancers can come together and get their voices heard through an organisation like IPSE, the more likely it is that things may change.

The big change in the near future will be the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI). There’s been a lot of hype about how it can augment human creativity, and possibly one day even replace it. We’re not there yet, but given how widespread it’s already becoming, and the level of support and funding going into future work, it’s inevitably going to have a big impact on a lot of freelance occupations.

If I’m being optimistic, AI will mean human freelancers can focus on the more interesting tasks which are best suited to them, and less on repetitive labour. On the other hand, I can remember people underestimating how far and wide the impact of the internet, Google and Facebook would be.

The key lesson for me, based on my previous experience, is that it’s far better to get involved and experiment with new ideas and technology, whether it’s AI, NFTs or the metaverse, rather than to simply dismiss it out of hand. And in my experience, freelancers tend to be more enthusiastic first adopters than most.

What’s the best thing about being freelance or self-employed?

It’s really tricky to answer with just one thing. I think ultimately, freelancing is all about taking control of your own decisions.

Being self-employed can be really hard at times. And there’s always an element of luck needed for any business to thrive and survive. I’ve certainly been incredibly fortunate that people have supported me when I needed it, and had some strange turns of fate over the years.

But while none of us can totally control our destiny, working for yourself at least means you’re able to set the direction. Whether that’s building a business empire, creating a sustainable career, or deciding to do something completely different starting tomorrow. And you can change it at any time, which is wonderfully reassuring.