It suddenly dawned on me that this year I’ve been working freelance for 15 years. I still remember how it started. So brace yourself for a very personal freelancer survival story:
I was working as a senior copywriter at a B2B ad agency, one of the top ones if not the top one, in Helsinki, Finland.
The year was 1996, a time when Finland had barely come out of the early-nineties recession, which had profoundly changed the marketing and advertising landscape. Specialised B2B agencies had, out of necessity, become more generalised, and B2C agencies had expanded into the traditional B2B realm with varying success. Staff had been reduced in most agencies, and the financial outlook for most everybody was far from rosy.
The agency I was working for didn’t have it any better than anyone else. At times, they were really hard up, and not a week went by without discussion about the financial future. I made it a habit to inquire my bosses about the future every now and then, and when I did it that particular day, I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary. Which it wasn’t: “Yeah, it’s been rough but everything seems to be OK now.”
The next day I was walking down the corridor to take some photocopies (those were the days) when the account exec I had just talked with about money the day before stuck his head out of the door of one of the conference rooms and hollered to me: “Hey, can you pop in here for a second?”
Entering the room I saw him and the CEO of the company. Without greeting or looking up, the CEO pushed a paper across the table. “We need you to sign this.”
Sign what? Alarm bells ringing and red warning lights flashing in my mind – not once in my then 16-year working life had I ever had to sign anything seconds after being yanked into a room and not having a clue what was going on – I sat down and looked at the document. Termination of employment contract, it said.
“Err… What the heck is this?” I asked.
“Just sign it, OK?”
“No, not OK. Why?”
“The company is being merged with the parent company and this is standard procedure.”
“For me it sure isn’t standard procedure to be kicked out without a warning.”
“Yeah, well… Anyway, this is how we have to do it.”
“Just sign it, will you?”
They weren’t giving me any guarantees about being included in the new setup, and I had seen and heard quite enough sad stories during the recession. How could I know mine wasn’t to be the next one? During the next five seconds, I made the quickest career development decision in my life.
I scribbled my name on the dotted line and walked out. Back at my desk I picked up the phone.
Client 1 whom I rang up had for some time been dissatisfied with the way our account execs had handled their projects. “I was axed two minutes ago, so now I’m free to ask this question. If I start a business of my own, would you trust me to continue your project?”
The silence wasn’t probably longer than ten seconds, but it felt like an eternity.
“Yeah, sure, why not.”
Client 2. Same situation, same question, and finally the same answer.
So there I was. A heavy mortgage, a family of five to keep up, and within minutes no income, no cell phone, no car, no workplace, no tools, no plan. But I had something. Two clients, my knowledge of the copywriting business and an increasing anger welling up inside me, combined with a determination to show the world I wouldn’t go under.
It’s amazing how facing a catastrophe you find powers within yourself you haven’t been aware of. The first months went in a haze of rearranging my life while at the same time producing the absolute best I could for the clients.
Little by little, new networking opportunities emerged. New clients appeared in the horizon. Computer, cell phone, car got bought. We didn’t starve and weren’t threatened with foreclosure.
The years after that drastic moment are something I wouldn’t trade for anything. Money has sometimes been good, other times not so good. But one thing I’m proud of, perhaps best summarised by Frank Sinatra:
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way.
Pity I don’t have any champagne in the house. I would raise my glass to all freelancers whose careers have begun in the flash of a moment and who have survived. Here’s to you!
And a big, emotional, warm and heartfelt Thank You to all my clients who have found value in what I’ve done for them. It’s been a wonderful 15 years with you.