Going Freelance

Kevin Bolton is an archives, heritage and libraries consultant specialising in evaluation, audience development, networks and collections management.

It has been two years since I left the ‘day job’ at Manchester City Council and moved into the world of freelancing. Recently a lot of people have asked me for advice on how I did it so I thought I would write about it. This is very much my personal experience – there are different ways to do things obviously – but I hope sharing this is useful.

Making the jump

Leaving a secure permanent job was a huge decision for me – it was perhaps the biggest decision I have ever had to make. I had been thinking about going freelance for about two years, but for a lot of that time I was too scared to do it. The following helped me make the decision.

  • Talk to your family. It is obviously really important to have the support of your family! My wife was very supportive and actually gave me a bit of a bollocking at one point saying ‘Stop talking about it and just go and b***** do it’. We made a deal – I would give it 12 months and if it did not work I’d have to go and get a ‘proper job’.
  • Build up a safety net. We saved up some money so we had about 12 months of our salary in the bank. This gave us some reassurances.
  • Try before you buy. I was lucky enough to do a bit of consultancy work in my own time with Tom Forrest whilst I was employed. This gave me a flavour of the consultancy world and also experience for my CV.
  • Understand the market. I kept an eye on freelance opportunities that were coming up. I also knew there were a couple of opportunities available locally which I had a half chance at winning. I spoke to other freelancers in the sector to understand what type of work they did. They all seemed quite busy – surely there must be work?
  • Understand your motivation. My motivation was to spend more time with my family (I have a daughter who was two at the time). I wanted to work fewer hours and spend more time with my daughter. I generally work four days a week and spend one day with our daughter. As my mum said, ‘what’s the worse that can happen? If you get no work you get to spend a year with your daughter?’. This also enabled my wife to increase her hours and get a new job.


Once you have decided to make the jump you need to sort out all the boring practicalities. There is lots of good guidance out there (including this Share East Guide), but here are some of the things I did.

  • Sole Trader or Ltd Company? To start with I traded as a sole trader (It seemed simple), but after a year I got an accountant and set up a Ltd company My accountant has provided me with some good advice about IR35 which is a huge issue for freelancers.
  • Insurance – I bought professional indemnity and public liability insurance.
  • CRB check – I used a commercial company to get a basic CRB disclosure.
  • Website – I felt obligated to create a website. However, in practice I have found LinkedIn more important – a lot of people have found me through this.
  • Equipment – laptop (obviously) and some software. I tried to make my ‘office’ (the back room) more attractive. My wife bought me a new coffee machine (absolutely essential!).
  • Pension and life insurance – my focus for the last two years has been on earning a living and I have not been paying into a pension, but in the last week I have set up a private pension and purchased life insurance / critical illness cover.

Getting business

Ok this is the really really scary bit. You have sorted out the practical stuff and set up your coffee machine. You wake up on day one – the house is empty. How do you get business? In my sector I have found work started coming to me in a variety of ways.

  • Bidding for tenders. I worked out where tender opportunities were published. I signed up to various website for notifications. I started bidding for them!
  • Build relationships with other consultants. I was lucky enough to build some strong relationships with other companies– Headland and Redquadrant. I knew one of the Directors at Headland through a local cricket club and had previously worked with Sue McKenzie from RedQuadrant. A quick coffee / chat and we working together! I have also done some work with local archive freelancers Jane Speller and Jane Donaldson who are both great.
  • Word of mouth. I also got some small pieces of work quite quickly through word of mouth when people knew I was available. Other freelancers told me it was important to show my face at conferences and events to remind people I was now a freelancer. To be honest I was pretty rubbish at doing that – I went to one training day in my first year. However, in my second year I got better at this.
  • Pick a day rate. To start with I lowered my day rate to try to win contracts and build experience. Looking back I am not sure how wise this was (other freelancers kept telling me not to undervalue myself), but you have to remember the fear I was feeling!
  • Understand your USP. I quickly realised that my USP was ‘archives’ (….pretty obvious?!). To start with I found it a lot harder to win work in other parts of the cultural sector. I have probably done more ‘archives’ work in the last year than I ever did as an employed Archivist!
  • Learn to take rejection. I lost some contracts I pitched for and to start with it hurt. I have found it easier to cope with over time – it is important to reflect on why I did not win and then bounce back.
  • Get a mentor. I have been lucky enough to have Tom Forrest as a mentor – he has over 20 years experience as a consultant. He gave me advice and moral support which was vital and has encouraged me and given me confidence. We have been worked together on a few projects. Ruth McKew from Headland, Sue McKenzie from RedQuadrant and Jane Speller (archives freelancer) have also been super helpful – always at the end of a phone to give advice.

Growing the business

You get through the first two years. You have earnt a living. You are still here! Well done! Then you realise you have to do it all over again!

  • Diversify. With a year of experience under my belt I found I did start to win work from outside the archives sector – in museums and libraries. I have also tried to reflect where I need to improve my skills and experience to win certain types of work. I have just started a distance learning MSC in Evaluation and Social Research with a view for doing more evaluation work.
  • Keep it varied. I have really enjoyed the variety of work I do as a freelancer. It keeps me motivated and challenged. I have particularly enjoyed work that involves real archive collections – research and surveying. I had forgotten how much I missed ‘real archives’!
  • Improve your pitch techniques – over time you get better at writing proposals and more importantly interviews. My technique for interviews is to say what I think (not what I think the client wants to hear). I find this is best for myself and the client. You win some and you lose some!
  • Learn to turn down work! As I get busier I remind myself that I went freelance to spend more time with the family. I hate turning down work, but it is important I don’t get too stretched and have a good work / life balance.
  • The fear factor does not disappear – even when I have plenty of work lined up I still have that fear factor. I’m not sure I want it to disappear – it is what keeps me motivated.
  • Use social media – some other freelancers told me to use social media to push yourself out here. Write blogs, post on twitter and LinkedIn. I am pretty bad at this. This is my first blog in over a year! Marketing myself is challenging as it’s not something I feel comes naturally to me. Definitely something to work on over the next year.

That’s it!  I hope I have not given all my secrets away! Do drop any comments below.  And thanks for reading!

More about my services

Current and past projects

Libraries Innovation Fund – an opportunity for local history and archives?

The Libraries Taskforce and Arts Council announced the new Libraries Opportunities for Everyone Innovation Fund last week. The aim of the fund is to enable library services to trial innovative projects that will benefit disadvantaged people and places in England.  To deliver this objective the fund has two aims:

1. To provide library users and communities with opportunities to remove or reduce their experience of disadvantage

 2. To enable library services to develop innovative practice that meets the needs of people and places experiencing disadvantage

These projects will be delivered within the frameworks offered by the Society of Chief Librarians’ five Universal Offers and the seven outcomes in Libraries Taskforce’s ‘Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016 to 2021.  There is a £4 million pot and more about the fund can be found here.

I went to the briefing session at Manchester Central Library last week. My first two weeks of freelance life since leaving Manchester Libraries had mainly been all archives and I wanted to stay ‘in the loop’ on libraries.

The briefing session was excellent – the aims and criteria for the fund seem very clear. The only challenge is the timescales (deadline is 6 January), but to be fair to the Arts Council they have turned the whole programme round quickly. For those who are working over Christmas it is probably a relatively good time to write a bid – when the phones and the emails get a bit quieter. I expect the fund will be very competitive.

I tried to go to briefing session with a ‘libraries hat’ but as usual the Archivist in me started to think about opportunities for archives and local history. Then somebody asked a question about whether project could be based around archives (not me – I promise!). I did not catch who asked the question., but the gist of the answer from the Arts Council was that the lead applicant has to be a local authority archive service and the project needs to delivered within the framework of the Universal Offers and the seven Libraries Taskforce outcomes. However, archives and local history could be part of a project – especially where they are integrated with the library service.

This got me thinking about what type of innovative archive and local history projects could apply for this fund or be part of a wider project. I do hope library authorities are thinking about this and we see some successful projects with a local history and archives angle. Especially given all the photographs in the publicity of the Innovation Fund feature a certain archive (in a library)! Perhaps more importantly what role do archives and local history have in delivering the seven outcomes outlined in Libraries Deliver?

Here are my potential ideas, but I am sure you can think of better and more innovative ones (tell me below). I have tried to link each idea to one of the Universal Offers and Libraries Taskforce outcomes

  • Increased digital access and literacy – using local history, archives & family history digital resources to run digital literacy sessions with older people or housebound customers. Or using archives for inspiration for creative digital activity with young people e.g. green screens portraits using old photographs, stop animation videos of stories from the archives.
  • Stronger, more resilient communities – working with residents or local groups to curate exhibitions, interpretation, digital interactives or an augmented reality experience in their local libraries about the history of their area or community. For me local history and archives are key to creating a shared sense of place in communities and libraries.
  • Greater prosperity – using the stories in business archives to inspire the businesses and entrepreneurs of today.