How Ben got his zest for his career by going freelance, at just 19
At just 19, Ben already has more on his CV than many people twice his age thanks to internships and initiatives like Fundfox, a charity fundraiser he founded in 2015.
On the day he turned 18, Ben moved down from Hull to London to start a full-time job as Community Manager for Beautystack. Then, at the end of 2019, after quitting his job, Ben decided to go back up north so he could have the time and security of living at home for a while to kickstart his freelance career as a copywriter and social media marketer.
Jade: What made you decide to leave your job and try freelancing?
Well, I’d been working as a Community Manager and, through that, I saw a lot of different aspects of marketing. We’d get all sorts of influencers coming in and people looking for partnerships, and it was exciting to think that I could try and launch on my own too.
At the same time, Ben had also been finding it tough managing in London on a starter salary.
The long days, long-ish commute, and lack of money at the end of the month made it really hard to do anything outside of work.
I didn’t have the time I wanted to change things because I was always working – or trying to cram sleep before the next day at work. And then I didn’t have the money to do more because there’s a ceiling on your salary. Whatever I did, I couldn’t really earn more.
Feeling frustrated and constrained by the limits of the job, he decided to move back north so he could afford to have a re-think – and look at how he could get more out of work, both in terms of salary and career development.
Jade: So, have you been able to focus more on marketing as you’d hoped?
Yes, I focus now on copywriting and social media marketing. Those are the two key skills I pull from and I’m comfortable with both B2B and B2C; I’m quite a generalist. Refining my skills and offloading parts of my old job – that I didn’t like – means I’ve been able to highlight and accelerate at the bits that I’m most excited by. So now I’m getting to live the exciting part of my old role full-time!
Jade: What’s your end goal?
Well, it kind of happened by accident in that there weren’t many marketing opportunities back in Hull; or rather the ones that did exist were very traditional.
So, for a cap of about £25k a year you’d be having to manage all the social media accounts, manage the website, publish blogs, etc. Each of these skillsets is so valuable to a company – ideally, you need a person for each of them! It just felt to me that the skills they wanted were way too general and the salaries were too low, given all that they were asking for.
He also thinks there were fewer opportunities in the technology scene than there’d been in London. So, he decided to set up on his own.
I just wasn’t excited by what I was being offered – and thought I’d rather be my own boss.
Jade: Where did you go for advice at the beginning?
One of my clients is an agency called Growth Rocket Apps. It’s a small, remote team – they grow and develop certain apps, do App Store optimization, and make sure that app store listings convert really well.
Firstly, they have a brilliant team and secondly, everyone in the team is older than me. We have regular check-ins and the founder, Ben Howard, has been really helpful.
So, Ben’s been able to learn and get support from one of his main clients – which is great and really shows how the world of freelance is changing. It’s not all one-man/woman bands and revolving doors – but can be much more inclusive than that, even for someone as young as Ben.
In fact, Ben now actively looks for clients who – in return for his hard work and buckets of enthusiasm – can help his career.
I think I’m looking for clients who will help nurture me, sort of! Both of my key clients at the moment are very happy to give me the freedom and flexibility that I need – but are also there whenever I need some help myself.
I think there can still be that stigma about the idea of freelancing – that you’ll be put in the corner and made to work and no one will talk to you – but I’ve found that’s not the case.
Jade: What impact did Covid-19 have on you – given it happened just a couple of months after you’d started freelancing?
It was really worrying at the beginning. Everyone on LinkedIn and Twitter seemed to be panicking, particularly as we went into lockdown. People were being made redundant or facing losing clients, or invoices weren’t being paid because clients just couldn’t pay them. I had projects that were scrapped and everyone’s priorities were changing really rapidly.
So, the big impact for me was to have all that uncertainty, just as I was starting out freelancing; a horrible cocktail.
I mean there’s uncertainty around freelance anyway and then to throw yourself into that just as the whole world is uncertain about everything.. It was scary.
Jade: So, what helped stabilise you in those early months of the pandemic?
Well, I was really fortunate to be trapped in the house with a wonderful family, to be honest.
I was keen to start my business, but at the same time, I think we were all just thrown into a situation with the pandemic that meant that for a while work wasn’t the priority anymore. All the personal stuff (like having family, friends around, my amazing girlfriend), just became very important.
I mean, I was only 19 so I was lucky to be at home and able to get started slowly on the business. In a way, I knew that no one would be expecting too much of me so in that sense the pandemic was a double-edged sword.
There was less pressure on me – having that room to breathe and feel you can fail is really important.
Jade: What makes you stand out as a freelancer? Is there anything that you do differently?
I’m not jaded by the world of work yet!
He’s joking but it’s true too in that at only just 19 he stands out as a freelance writer. He’s got bags of drive and enthusiasm and it’s how he’s grabbed his gigs so far.
I got my foot in the door at John Lewis because I worked at Waitrose throughout college. I managed to find the details of the Head of Social Media at John Lewis, and then in February 2018 (I think I was 17 at the time), I went down to the head office and ended up doing some of their social media work.
So, Ben grabs opportunities but he’s also “still young and still growing” into his role and reckons he’ll have a better idea of what makes him stand out later down the line.
In the meantime, I try to be ethical about who I work for. I also struggle with some aspects of marketing so try to make sure I stay on the right side in terms of what we’re selling and who we’re selling it to.
Jade: what was your life like before you started working for yourself?
I felt restricted by always knowing how much I was going to earn each month and knowing that was my ceiling, my roof. I couldn’t do anything about it. And I didn’t have the time to do any work on the side so that set salary felt like a full stop to me.
He also found it really expensive living in London.
I probably spend about £50 a month on transport now I’m back in Hull, but it was about £250 when I was in London. Then you’ve got the 40-minute commute in the morning, 40-minutes in the evening and that’s an hour and a half of your day gone. I didn’t have the energy to do much or to do much with my weekends.
Jade: What’s your life like now?
I’m working the exact same amount of time that I did before but I’m earning much more, so that’s good! There’s no ceiling to what I can earn so I can take on more – or not – I love having that flexibility. So, money-wise and time-wise, it’s a lot better.
However, I’ve learned that when you have clients (and they can be quite big corporations), you do still effectively have managers.
I guess I maybe naively thought that if you stop working “for the man”, you can “be the man’, but that’s not quite how it works. I’ve ended up with about triple the amount of managers!
So, being self-employed can mean you still have people to answer to at times.
However, he’s also loving it; especially working remotely and having the flexibility to work his own schedule – so has time to meet with friends in the day, but to work late into the evenings and at weekends too. Also, being able to work where he likes (Covid permitting), say at a coffee shop as a break from being at home.
Jade: What have been your biggest challenges so far?
Getting the right amount of clients at one time. You need a diverse range of clients who have different backgrounds and have lived different lives. I think it’s important to not put all your eggs in one basket.
But while he knows this is what he’d like to achieve, it can be easier said than done.
It’s tricky because right now I’ve got one client on three days and one on two and a half days, so I’ve said yes to everything and got five and a half days work! It’s great, but it means I’m only working for two clients at the moment, so that’s not good.
He also finds chasing late invoices difficult – and knowing when to get tough.
Sometimes it can be hard to chase invoices if you don’t want to erode your relationship with them. So, if there’s a client that’s huge, and I’m really proud to have them on my CV, they’ll hopefully open a lot of doors, but if they’ve not paid me yet. What do I do?
It’s really hard, particularly for people who are just starting out but if a client’s taken you on and you’ve done the job, then they need to pay you on time. If it’s an on-going issue, you can withhold work until they’ve caught up – but it can be a tricky relationship to negotiate.
The other thing that was a challenge initially was managing finance. Doing his first tax return was a bit of a disaster, but one of his main clients gave him the nudge to get Coconut and that’s really helped.
I really struggled with my first tax return, but I’m much more organised and competent this year and will be next year, certainly – because I’ve been using Coconut.
Then, there’s learning how to say no and create a proper separation between your work life and your personal life. It’s something Ben’s struggled with at times but he’s learning how important it is to create boundaries, even in the early stages of building up a business when you can easily get completely wrapped up in it.
So many people think they’re going to have a better work/life balance when they’re self-employed but I think you need to work at that and set boundaries.
Sometimes it’s really hard when you look at your calendar and you’ve got, say, five calls scheduled throughout the day but you can’t work when you’re on those calls.
You learn. The world’s not going to end if you don’t answer that Slack in a minute. If someone has to call you twice, they’re not going to drop you.
I think it’s really important to close the laptop, turn your phone off, have that lunch, have that walk in the morning. Burning out is a real thing. And you’re going to end up doing a worse job. But if you’re motivated to do great work, then you should be motivated to take care of yourself. Because the two come hand in hand.
It’s been so interesting talking to Ben and hearing his take on what’s been a huge year for him. It’s early days but what really comes over is his drive for career development, and how being his own boss has liberated him from some of the constraints he found were holding him back in a salaried job. It’s having the agency to change things – whether that’s being able to hustle for work, taking on more to earn more, or choosing to focus on clients and jobs that can advance his skills.
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