Have you always been a writer?
Yes, I’ve always loved to write. I graduated with a degree in English from Cambridge, worked in the web team of an educational publisher, then became the first ever e-commerce editor for First Choice Holidays at Gatwick. So I’ve been working in web publishing since 1997 which really played to my strengths of being creative but organised.
A big switch in direction was applying to work in the public sector for the Lake District National Park. It was a surprise when they appointed me given my lack of conservation experience – they said it was because I was a fresh pair of eyes who could help challenge their thinking. I started with one website and by the time I left was running four, plus five social media accounts I’d set up and nurtured. A real test was training National Park rangers about Twitter in a barn with no internet connection – it’s a little like trying to teach someone to drive by showing them a picture of a dashboard.
What encouraged you to take the freelancing leap?
I’d applied to stay at La Muse Artists and Writers Retreat in France to help with my novel. I would have loved to have taken the three-week option but only had enough holiday left for one. During my time there, I realised how stressed I’d been at work and how disillusioned I’d become. When I left, I vowed to change my life so that I could return to the retreat for longer.
After considering freelancing, a restructure came along and I took voluntary redundancy in October 2014. At first I thought I would be a ‘sidepreneur’, freelancing on the side while completing my novel. However web editing work quickly came in from Northumberland National Park and the Yorkshire Dales National Park, so suddenly I was running a business.
How have you built up your client base?
My plan was to move back to North Yorkshire to be nearer family. However, apart from some school friends, I didn’t have any contacts so it’s all been built up through networking and meeting new people. Being part of the Hiscox Business Club has been ideal because you are in a permanent networking environment while doing your work. So you can have those five minute conversations over coffee or people drift by and say ‘can you help with this?’
At the start I tried to go to at least one networking event a week. The Local Enterprise Partnership’s pop-up business cafes were very good. The Scarborough and District Women in Rural Enterprise group has been pivotal because they know so many people and are so encouraging. I’ve also attended events at Business Ladies Around Harrogate. Their talk/lunch format means you get to meet other small business owners and learn more about issues like email marketing or pricing.
What are your networking tips?
It can be daunting walking into a room by yourself. Luckily after being a member of a Lake District walking group, where I walked for hours with people I didn’t know, small talk now holds no terror.
My networking tips include not approaching anyone until they’ve got their drink in their hand and then I just go up and say “Hi I’m Helen.” I’ll ask them if they’ve come far, or compliment them if they’re wearing a bright colour. It’s a good idea to wear something distinctive to stand out against the people wearing black. My wardrobe is now full of botanical prints and greens as a subtle nod to being ‘The Ink Gardener’.
It’s really important to be yourself. Some people get too formal and put on a ‘business-like’ act. However part of the fun of being self-employed is that you can be an individual. I remember someone also saying that you shouldn’t give your business card to someone unless they ask for it.
An experienced networker, now client, took me under her wing and explained that it’s not usually the people you meet at the event who will buy your services but their contacts. You’re not selling to them directly. Even if you think they don’t need your services, they might know someone who does. Sometimes it takes time to see a return in attending, but it is worth it. In fact, she commissioned me to write Google-friendly web copy almost two years after we first met.
If you’re really scared about networking it pays to go to skills training courses. People aren’t expected to be in ‘sell mode’ at these events so they’re more relaxed. It’s during the breaks over a cup of tea or queuing up for lunch that you can have some really valuable conversations. I have made some lovely connections with people that I might not have met otherwise.
What’s been your biggest challenge when going it alone?
I think it’s holding your nerve at the beginning and trusting that the work will come in. I also had to change how I thought about networking. Spending time getting my name out there – be that going to events or through social media – is just as important to my business as delivering great writing.
You are the salesperson for your company. No one else will do it. This was a big shift in my head. A sales trainer helped by saying not to think of it as selling, but rather as helping people and making their lives easier.
I now thrive on working with so many different businesses, from animal behaviourists to peat-free compost manufacturers. I’ve even finished my novel and am returning to France in August for three weeks to continue with the second in the series.
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