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Lessons from 2015 – 1 – Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.

I want to end the year with a short series of posts detailing the main lessons I’ve learnt in 2015.  It’s been quite an interesting year really – astronomically busy for the first half, then wildly patchy towards the end.  I’ve made a lot of headway saying no to work I don’t want, along with pushing my own work forwards, but it’s by no means been plain sailing.

I’ll post one of these every week in the run up to Christmas.  As always, hopefully you can learn from my lessons without having to go through some of the tough stuff yourselves!

Lesson 1 – Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.

Or to put it another way – don’t assume that because you’re getting regular work now, that this state will continue indefinitely!

A lesson I’d already learnt the hard way, several times in the past, but which became even more prominent this year.  Sometimes things just stack up that way. I remember many years ago, not long after I’d set out on my own after assisting, how keenly I would plan things based on promises made by clients.  I’d be plotting out my diary with great excitement, even planning exactly how much my turnover would be that month.  Now, of course, a promise of work isn’t necessarily confirmed work, and it certainly isn’t money in the bank.  I couldn’t tell you how many times my projected income fell short because I’d been foolish enough to “bank” that certain shoots were actually, definitely, certainly going to happen, rather than simply being something a client was talking about.

The unreliable nature of work hasn’t changed one bit, I still get many jobs that are cancelled, postponed, or double-booked, and what looks like a very lucrative month on the 1st, can be pretty bleak by the 15th.  What has changed however, is my response to it – I genuinely don’t consider a job to be happening until I’m actually shooting it.  I also don’t count the money until it’s actually in my account, which is of course a whole different kettle of fish!  If you’re just starting out it can be very counter-intuitive not keeping calm when work starts coming in, and start mentally spending money before you’ve even got it.  Take it from me, this can lead to some serious disappointment and disillusionment.

The other fundamental error is to assume that the future will always be like the past.  That, because I’ve been getting a steady amount of work each month from client X, that I will always get a steady amount of work from them.  This, of course, is a fallacy.  Most of my relationships with clients are quite personal – when a certain person changes jobs, or leaves the company, my work can dry up.  Sometimes the opposite happens – a new person takes their place and carries on using me, and the old person is able to employ me at their new position as well.  Often though, someone’s departure can spell the end of my work with that particular client.

Turnovers - Don't count your chickens before they've hatched
My monthly turnovers Jan-Nov 2015. No, I’m not telling you exactly how much, I just want to show you how much it varies from month to month!

This year has been a particularly bad year for people moving on, and clients changing needs, and priorities.  I’m not about to go into specifics (sorry if you were looking for gory details) but several very regular clients have either disappeared altogether this year, or have downsized significantly.  I’ve had some quiet months when I don’t want them, but perhaps more fundamentally, certain enjoyable regular jobs have dwindled away to nothing.

I am, of course, still here, and still shooting.  That’s because:

  • I don’t keep all my eggs in one basket.  Never have done – see my previous post about job security for my thoughts on this.  Even if I were to lose 2 or 3 big clients, it would still only amount to 1/3 to 1/2 of my work.  A big dent in my turnover to be sure, but not enough to put me out of business.
  • For many years I’ve been building up savings to fall back on.  Thankfully this year I haven’t had to dip into them, as although things have been a bit quieter, that’s in comparison to previous years when I’ve been doing around 150 shoots a year.  Being that busy allows me to build up this safety cushion.  I don’t think it will ever come to it, but I could survive about 6 months without any income at all.
  • Related to that, I still live well within my means.  I’ll admit I spent quite a bit of money this year on new Profoto kit, and I’m very glad I did, but I don’t have an extravagant or expensive lifestyle.  Keeping my monthly costs down removes a lot of pressure and anxiety from the mix when things go quiet.
  • Generally speaking, having learnt my lesson, I don’t just have contact with one person at a company these days.  I try and establish relationships with lots of others – usually this happens anyway as a natural side-effect to working for someone regularly, but it helps to minimise the damage done when a key person moves on or changes jobs.

So nothing really new in 2015 on this front, just a more acute version of something I’ve got used to since arriving in London in 1998.  If you’re finding it hard and you’re just getting started in self employment and freelance life, take some heart from the fact that even tired old dogs like me still have years that don’t quite go according to plan!

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