The giant of local government social media at the coalface, Dan Slee, has gone freelance.

I’m not sure why I’ve not written up Dan as one of my digital heroes here before, because he certainly is one. He’s the kind of innovator it’s hard to dismiss – someone with deep journalism and government experience, Zen-like calm and kitten-like niceness. But there must be rat-like cunning in there too, or he wouldn’t have been able to get through half as much as he has in his eight years in the public sector.

Sometimes accompanied by the man himself, in training courses over the last three years I’ve been recounting his stories of Morgan and the newts, PC Rich and the fire rumour, Supt Scobbie at the cafe and Bob of the Brownhills. One thing you’ll definitely get from a session with Dan is some marvellous stories.

I hope that Dan gets to do a lot more storytelling, and much more, now he’s puttering his formidable narrowboat on the Canals of Freelancing. You should hire him while you can (I regularly do).

A few locks and weirs away, I’m enjoying the daily instalments of Ben Proctor’s guide to How to Fail at Freelancing. Ben is another regular collaborator, and another digital hero. His so-called failures at freelancing are purely quirks of his niche market and self-effacing approach to marketing: he is quite the guru when it comes to digital communication in crisis and emergency response (a sector sadly short on generous purchase orders). His guide on how to fail is amusing and insightful, and should – ironically – be a bestselling business book by Christmas, if publishers have any sense.

But it’s got me thinking – as has Dan’s announcement today – about what my own advice would be to people going freelance. I set off four years ago with little strategy and barely any paid work in the pipeline, and thanks to many kind friends and some interesting projects things turned out OK. Then I got a little too busy, worked a lot of hours, took one on of my digital heroes and now we’re about to become a team of five. It wouldn’t impress a Den of Dragons, but it’s mainly pretty enjoyable.

My tip to new freelancers would be to choose your work. People will flatter you with prestigious unpaid gigs, and unflattering paid ones, and the trick is to work out which ones to take because it’s very hard to tell. Here’s my rule of thumb for the unpaid ones:

  • Quality time: will this gig enable you to spend quality time with people who you can help? A breakfast session with an agency on social media led to the Simulator and employee #5, but lots of conference attending and talking led mainly to nice words and new followers on Twitter
  • Equity: does this gig represent equity I’m building up with a decent fellow freelancer or potential future client, or some genuinely valuable help I can offer to a good cause? Helping friends and acquaintances is good, especially when it’s two way
  • Development: can I use this opportunity to learn something new, create a new service or develop the business in a significant way? (raising awareness doesn’t count. Awareness never counts by itself, remember)

So good luck Dan, and better luck Ben. Be tough on yourselves, but don’t rule things out just because they don’t fit with your vision of what you ought to be doing. Rule them out because they don’t fit QED.

Photo credit: Paul Henderson 

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