When you start a business, you inevitably find yourself answering people’s curious questions. It’s humbling, but you can often feel like you need to give helpful, aweinspring or profound answers. But it’s not often that I can.
‘How did you get started?’ ‘Where do you find your clients?’ ‘How do you decide a day rate?’ ‘Do freelancers really wake up at 10am covered in popcorn?’ Almost all of my answers aren’t particularly conventional, as my journey here was unusual, and long, long overdue.
So here it is.
I did my first freelance job in October 2004. If you’re not quick at maths, that’s 17 years ago. It was a photoshoot for a goth band in a wet Farnborough underpass. And that miserable experience very quickly opened the door to hundreds more photoshoots over the next decade, including a plethora of moody bands with weird logos, marketing events with fancy snacks, weddings in pretty places, and even products like wine bottles and hair extensions (I got some free wine out of it but my hair is all my own).
Alongside photography, I started to pull in design work too. After seven years of balancing all of this on the side of various warehouse and retail day jobs, I started a more formal career in marketing for one of Apple’s premium reseller partners. They made me wear a shirt and pick up the phone a lot, neither of which I enjoyed. What I did enjoy is my exposure to big brands like Adobe, Wacom and Microsoft, and more importantly, some great colleagues who taught me valuable lessons in InDesign, Flash and HTML.
This job gave me enough confidence to leap to the next one, a FTSE 100 marketing agency where I stayed for five years. After working my way up through the team that I joined, I built a new department of creative specialists and we delivered some huge campaigns for businesses like Sky, Estee Lauder, Barclays and Emirates. During this time, the freelance work still ticked away nicely on the side, but I also had another hustle growing faster than I could really manage; a Twitter account which eventually amassed 17,000 followers.
I had found a sweet spot of spoof news articles, piss-take headlines and truly awful jokes that seemed to resonate with other bored office workers killing time on the platform. My laborious satire also worked its way into places like The Poke, BuzzFeed and The Telegraph’s ‘Top 30 Funniest People to Follow on Twitter’. Alas, like all hedonists, it got on top of me and ‘those days are over’. I deleted my account, retreating to my backup account with a humble 1,100 followers. For the most part, I look back on my time on Twitter as a massive waste of time, but it was fun, I got sent some free stuff before influencers were a thing, met some lifelong friends, and also picked up some great freelance contacts, including London’s most awarded PR agency, Taylor Herring.
They became my biggest freelance client and gave me a real boost at a time when I found myself the sole homeowner on my mortgage. But I still couldn’t even entertain the thought of going ‘full freelance’. I thrived on agency culture, enjoyed the constant connection with colleagues, and the fulfillment of managing teams large and small. I got to travel a lot too, with one agency sending me to Hong Kong, Switzerland and Germany on various creative jaunts.
By 2018, I had worked for a nice variety of agencies, from boutique out-of-town affairs to global powerhouses with brand guideline docs as long as a bible. By 2020, I still hadn’t really given much thought to doing my own thing, but had started to feel like I’d reached a crossroads in my career. Moving away from design and photography and more towards marketing, content and brand, I worked in an agency with a flat structure. So I was no longer responsible for any staff other than myself, and I quite liked it that way.
Then lockdown hit
My dining room desk has always been a beloved part of my home, and regular followers on Instagram will have seen my setup change and evolve over the years. But in March 2020, it was no longer used for evening and weekend freelance work, suddenly becoming my weekday workplace. During this time, I was one of those downers who told everyone that we’ll have multiple lockdowns and this won’t go away for a very long time. I’m sorry to say that I was right.
Keen to get comfy, I put a bit more love into my desk space, and whilst my day job became a little quieter, I pulled in some additional freelance work to fill my headspace. I already had some great freelance campaigns and brands under my belt, including easyJet, Smirnoff, Samsung, Siemens and others, but when a new job for Sky came in, something changed. I felt humbled and actually quite smug that an agency trusted me with what was to become a huge, national thing. I worked solely with the agency’s Account Director to create Sky’s ‘National General Knowledge Test’, which ultimately received over a quarter of a million platform engagements, and nationwide coverage and participation.
So there I was, buzzing from this campaign, and surprised at my sheer enjoyment of working from home day after day, just me, my wife, our cats, and the mice in the flowerbeds. Full-time work started to get busy again, and my boss and I kind of ‘met in the middle’ with a chat about my role. This was a pivotal moment which I won’t forget and I think back on it as the little nudge that I needed. Their agency was changing and I had perhaps too much freelance work to sensibly manage alongside my role as their Marketing Manager. So we agreed that I’d go from full-time employee to contractor – from five days to two.
Holy shit. It’s happening.
After a couple of days of wondering how to ‘set up my stall’ (I heard someone say that the other day and really like it), I sent emails to everyone with whom I’d freelanced within the last five years. They all replied. They all had work for me. On top of this, some kind people referred clients to me and I took that on too.
Is that a banana on your stall or are you just pleased to have customers?
The stall was full of some lovely produce and I had great customers. I had no issues with pricing, as I’d done this all before, as a freelancer and as someone hiring freelancers. But when it came to my awning and my handwritten chalkboard, what do I write? Who am I? What am I?
I’d been ‘Ben Horsley dot com’ for years and I found it quite boring. When you work in brand, you can easily slip into the rabbit hole of branding, sub-branding and rebranding yourself. So that’s what I did, and BMHS Digital was born. BMHS, my initials, but also a nod to those ridiculous American radio station call signs, already pertinent in my mind but made all the more famous by GTA’s in-game radio stations. And ‘digital’, a word I’d taken the piss out of for years, only to realise that it’s actually a great signpost for what I do.
And then by accident, whilst looking for some suitable project management software, I found a podcast by software developer, RJ McCollam. His honest and open tales of freelance life appealed to me and he didn’t skirt around the ‘sensitive’ stuff like earnings and finance. I already knew that I wanted to build long-term relationships with great clients rather than jumping between short-term freelance projects, so his episode on ‘Retainers’ resonated like a wet towel falling from the rafters of an empty church.
A year later, I’m so glad I found RJ’s podcast. Retainers have been the perfect structure for me. It makes it very easy for me to forecast, it makes it simple to make income tax estimations long before it’s due, and it gives me strong and stable income from clients who I’ve come to call friends thanks to the long-term relationships we’ve been able to build.
There are different flavours of retainer (I sound like an orthodontist), and there are numerous contractual details that may differ one from the other. But I approach them in the most simple way possible – some being a fixed term agreement with the option for renewal at the end, and others being more of a month-on-month rolling affair.
Retainers are also quite a neat way to slide into self-employment or starting your own company if you’ve been used to full-time work for so long. In fact, this is a big deal to me. After nearly twenty years in the safe bosom of the salary, I have the 9-5 work pattern ingrained in me. Whilst this is great for structure and discipline, it has left me with a residual guilt if I choose to have a lie-in or a late start. This was particularly prevalent at the start of 2021, where I’d find myself checking my work emails or Slack notifications at times when I should be switching off.
I quickly got better at this, initially by giving myself a big slap around the face, but also removing Slack from my phone and turning off email notifications after a certain time. I think it’s also important to set boundaries with your clients. Particularly if you have retainers in place. I work my retainers in a way that I not only do a fixed set of days per month, but a particular set of 4 or 8 hour slots in any given week, so half days or full days.
That’s not to say I won’t help or work with a client outside of their ‘window’, but it’s something I don’t want to make a habit of as I think it’s better for both of us. I don’t enjoy jumping between multiple tasks just for the sake of keeping everyone 110% happy, and I know that I produce my best work when I can focus on that work for a prolonged period of time.
With clear boundaries and good communication, you can find a firm balance of availability and privacy. I even developed an internal mantra of “I am a freelancer, not a fireman.” I’m not on-call, and my clients get the best of me when we have a clear structure in place.
Another line in the sand came when I leased some dedicated office space. My wife and I adore our small 1850s terraced house, but it’s certainly no Chequers. With us both working from home Monday to Friday, we were getting on top of each other, and I found myself in the monotonous triangle of bed/desk/sofa. Sometimes the bath too if I was feeling frivolous. So I signed on the line for some beautiful office space at what turned out to be the perfect time to do so. It’s local, one of my clients is next door, it’s inexpensive, and has been immeasurably brilliant for my motivation and productivity.
So when are you starting your own agency?
I’m not. I’ve been asked this a lot and in all honesty, I am so happy being a lone wolf. I am treated very much like an ‘extended member’ of the agencies I work with and that fills my heart with the pops and bangs that you hear from a BMW M4 with a full titanium exhaust. I love to meet agencies, help agencies, support agencies. But that’s all I need. If anything, my future may take me further down the consultancy route, but the absolute most I would do in terms of building a team is perhaps hiring a virtual assistant to help me do the bits I never get to do, like putting out more of my own content, or the niggly back of house finance or project management tasks.
I’m running out of things to cover and we are approaching 2,200 words, so I’ll wrap it up with some thank yous – like a gushing actor clutching their fingerprint-laden Oscar close to their sternum.
To my old clients – the ones who put up with me answering briefs on weekends, in the evenings, on my lunch breaks, I salute you.
To my OG clients – who jumped on-board on day and are still here now, you’re great too.
To my new clients – the ones who have helped me grow into my second year and build a vision for what’s beyond, you’re awesome.
Family, friends, wife, cats, thank you too.
And most of all, Tony the Postman, who brought me SO MUCH STUFF throughout lockdown, from calculators to cables, toilet paper and technology.