Sheffield has undergone an astonishing transformation in the last 20 years: from a crumbling bastion of industry to a trendy metropolitan hub, with modern bars, cafés and co-working spaces springing out of the ground like daisies. Where once coal mining and steelworks were the order of the day, now the city is bustling with tech start-ups and creative freelancers.
So, what better place to talk to two freelancers whose careers are separated by 20 years about their very different perspectives on self-employment?
The first, Harvey Morton, IPSE’s Young Freelancer of the Year, who is only 20-years-old himself. He’s been running his own IT support business since he was 15.
The second is Michael White, 73, a freelance consultant electrical engineer, who set up his freelance business Michael White and Associates in 1998, the year Harvey was born.
To be or not to be a freelancer
So why did they both get into freelancing in the first place? Well, for Michael, it was really about his passion for engineering. He says: “Before I was consulting I was generally in employment. And one of the difficulties is that the only way to advance is to go up the management tree, and the further up the management tree you go, the further away you get from your core discipline.
“What I enjoy above anything else is design and engineering. Moving into self-employment – into consultancy – allowed me to go back to design and engineering.”
For Harvey, though, the story is quite different. “I set up my business originally doing on-call IT support through a school enterprise competition. I was 15, so after moving through that competition and winning it, I decided I wanted to give it a go alongside sixth form and as I moved into university. And it’s become my career, really.”
But as their careers progressed, both Michael and Harvey found it had taken them in directions they did not expect.
Harvey explains: “I moved from doing oncall IT support to web design, and from there I went on to social media management, which is now the biggest part of what I do. The business has grown and evolved as I have, really.”
For Michael too, following the strands of his career led him down some unexpected, but welcomed paths. “I first went freelance to get away from the management side of it and get back to design and engineering,” he tells me.
“At first, I expected the projects I’d get involved with would be quite small – not as complex as the projects I was working on in employment. But within a very short period, I was engaged in quite complex and large retail centre projects, then even bigger data centre projects, which was very enjoyable. Now it’s rather like having a hobby and being paid for it.”
Obstacles and opportunities
For most freelancers, starting out and getting their business off the ground is the most challenging phase of their career. How was it for Harvey and Michael, and how much have things changed in the last 20 years?
“The first challenge was getting the first job,” says Michael. “But oddly enough, my first job actually came from my last employment.
“Soon after I left, there was some follow-up work from a project I’d been on, and,” he chuckles, “I took great pleasure in giving them quite a high price for it.
“Then it was an exercise in writing round a lot of consultancies and seeing if they were interested. A lot of them were interested, but one particular catch was a young guy from a London consultancy who’d been tasked with expanding it into Manchester.
“I just happened to drop in at a time when he had lots of work and nobody to do it, so I stepped in.”
That was 20 years ago, however, and Michael was coming from a highly successful career in electrical engineering. For Harvey, then, things were a bit more difficult.
“Getting that first job was a challenge for me too,” the Sheffield Hallam University student adds.
“I remember how excited I was when I first set up my website and had everything ready: I kind of expected an influx of work straight away, but things didn’t start coming in for about a month. That initial period of getting started was quite difficult for me, and I was still having to do stuff for free six months down the line.
“I’m glad I did do that free work, because some of those people that I started out doing free work with now give me a lot of paid work. The challenge for me was building up my reputation, because I did not have any experience behind me.”
The times they are a-changin'
Free work isn’t something you would have seen as much of when Michael started out. But one of the reasons is that self-employment was far less prevalent back then. So, what else has changed? Are things easier for freelancers and other self-employed people now?
When Michael started his career, many people still had the view that you would be engaged with a company and would probably “stay there for life”.
“During my career, that changed completely,” Michael says as he smiles. “My first job move was when I found out what my boss was earning and I thought, ‘I’m not staying here 20 years for that!’
“As to whether it’s easier or not nowadays, I would think it’s considered more normal. When I started out, my career would be quite unusual. It would only be the professionals such as lawyers, doctors and others that would be self-employed – or market traders. Certainly, there’s been a complete sea change in the way people look at employment.”
Things seem to be changing even more quickly now, because Harvey has noticed differences even since he started freelancing.
He says: “Over the last year, I’ve seen more people start to respect freelancing as a viable career option. For me, in sixth form, when I said I wanted to carry on with my own business, the careers advisor got all scared about it, as if it was really out-of-the-ordinary.
“Things have changed a lot even since then – now I go into schools and they’re promoting self-employment.”
Finally, what do these two successful freelancers have to say to people just starting out in self-employment?
For Michael, there are couple of key points: “If you’re just getting going, make sure you build up your networking and social skills – they’re invaluable. Also, always deliver more than you promised: leave a good impression to get your clients to come back to you.”
For Harvey, the message is very simple: “I’d say to just give it a go. If I’d not tried it, I’d have always wondered what I could have achieved.”