Opinion: It’s time to redefine freelance success and failure

Self-employment has seen enormous changes over the last two decades. Whether it’s the growth in people choosing to work for themselves, the rise of technology, or the recent Covid-driven experience of remote working. But now it’s time to redefine freelance success and failure, and what that looks like for many of us.

Throughout human history, we’ve relied on stories to share advice and knowledge. As children, we’re told cautionary tales to prevent us crying wolf, or wandering off in the woods to a house built from confectionery. And as adults, we still love to pick up inspiration and lessons from rags-to-riches business successes, or the schadenfreude of someone falling from a great height.

And if you’ve ever read or googled anything relating to freelancing, you’ll have encountered endless pages and adverts promising you a six-figure income working on a beach. Or the easy steps to transform your small business into a completely automated multi-million-pound operation. If only you sign up for this one course holding all the secrets, for a small monthly fee.

Being fortunate enough to know people who have sold businesses for huge sums, or achieved a fully nomadic digital lifestyle, I know that their successes are pretty much entirely based on a combination of solid traditional business knowledge you can find for free online or in a library, an enormous amount of hard work and dedication, and a little bit of luck. 

But reality doesn’t make for a good story, and history is written by the victors. We notice the unusual, and celebrate the outliers. 

Which is helpful if you’re writing a novel or film script. But it can actually be harmful if you’re trying to learn how to run a business, or find yourself depressed when your freelance career doesn’t also achieve record highs in a short space of time.

Redefine freelance success and failure

What does a successful freelancer actually look like? 

Most successful freelancers are not 25-year-old models laying on a beach with the latest Macbook Air on a recliner next to them. Or flying to a meeting on their private jet. 

After more than 10 years working for myself, and having chatted with, and interviewed, a big number of fellow freelancers through a meetup I co-founded, and now Freelance Corner and IPSE, I think we need to redefine what it means to be successful.

A successful self-employed business is one that provides a sustainable income, and which allows those involved to set their own priorities for work and life.

For some freelancers, that will mean clients, revenue, expansion and wealth. For others, it can mean earning enough to live reasonably well and have more time for family, worthy causes or hobbies. Or the satisfaction of knowing you’ve been able to pay the bills entirely through the fruits of your own labour, without relying on an employer.

My own perspective has certainly changed over the last decade. It was easy to start with ambitions of building a business empire, and comparing myself to leading examples in my industry. But if I had to pick some of the highlights from my freelance career, spending time with my son after school and during holidays always comes first (despite working with some brilliant clients and having some amazing experiences throughout the years).

And I’m not alone in that – in our ‘My Freelance Story’ series, we ask interviewees to pick their favourite aspect of freelancing:

“I can see the results and difference our input makes, and how this supports the growth of our client’s businesses. There’s no price you can put on that, and it gives you more motivation to keep going.” – Louise Richman.

“Other things I like about being freelance include: avoiding office politics, being able to choose what type of work you do and what type of clients you work with, and being about to fit your workload around your optimum hours.” – Steve Morgan

If you’re able to support yourself through freelancing, then you should celebrate it as a success to build from. You might not be as wealthy as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos yet, but in the context of 11% of UK businesses closing each year, and roughly 20% small firms shutting in the first 12 months of existence, you should take pride in your achievement.

Redefine freelance success and failure

Does freelance failure even exist?

Given the belief required to start your own business, I’m not sure we should even use the term failure in reference to freelancing.

That doesn’t mean you should keep bashing your head against a wall if things aren’t working, building up unsustainable debts trying to offer a product or service that people just aren’t buying.

But the Silicon Valley philosophy of ‘fail fast’ has some merit, because just by trying freelancing, you’ll learn a lot about yourself and business in a short space of time. And whether it’s a side-hustle or a full-time career move, being self-employed allows you to quickly change your tactics, or even your whole business, to see if a different approach or industry might lead to more success.

In some cases, you might need to return to employment in the short term. Or even decide that freelancing just isn’t the right fit for you. But why see discovering something important about yourself and your happiness as a failure, rather than useful self-knowledge and discovery? The lessons you will have learned from managing every aspect of a self-employed business can make you more valuable to employers, or at least give you a better understanding of other functions in a company.

Redefine freelance success and failure

Let’s celebrate real freelance success together

It’s great to see or hear about inspirational stories of freelancers who have achieved enormous results. But let’s all agree to put a bigger focus on celebrating real freelance success stories.

At Freelance Corner, we’ll continue to highlight real stories of freelancers at all stages of their journeys, with all kinds of ambitions, challenges and levels of success.

And you can help by sharing your achievements in creating a sustainable freelance business, no matter how modest you might be. It not only helps other people build a more realistic picture of self-employment, but even small wins can also help you secure more clients.

Or lend your voice to support other freelancers overcoming their own challenges. There are lots of examples shared online, including in our own Creative Freelancers UK community.

Read more of Dan’s previous opinion columns on freelancing here, including bad briefs, living with another freelancer, and why everyone should be self-employed at least once in their careers.