"I was starting to feel like I was on a treadmill." Rosalind Gibbs' industry was changing, taking her away from the parts of her job she loved. So, she decided to use her skills in a new way. Now, with a few ups and downs, she's created a career where she chooses her own hours and the projects that interest her. This is her story.
What work were you doing previously?
I was a staff journalist for various weekly and daily newspapers, then group editor of community magazines in Edinburgh.
What are you doing now?
I run my own business, Rosalind Gibb Media.
I produce publications, exhibitions and audio, and do community project work such as writing case studies and oral histories.
Oral history is a rather dry term for work that involves collecting people's stories about a certain era or theme, recording and transcribing them. The stories are then preserved for this and future generations and teach us about social history in an evocative way.
I do most of this work as short-term freelance projects, but am also currently working on a year-long project for Saughton Park Restoration Project in Edinburgh.
How did you feel about your work before you decided to make a change?
I loved being a journalist for the first few years.
I started as a reporter but found my forté with feature writing. I got to meet and interview some wonderful people and the job was stimulating because I used to write about several different subjects every week. There was also quite a lot of creativity involved in writing a feature article.
But the industry started to change dramatically; falling sales and advertising revenue, and the increase in free-to-view websites, meant newspapers' profits plummeted. There were staff cuts and morale was very low. It was the same for people I knew at newspapers across the country.
Rather than getting out and about to interview people (which had been a joy of the job), my days were increasingly desk-bound. I was starting to feel stifled and like I was on a treadmill: producing words to fill pages and polishing press releases rather than getting the time to write quality feature articles.
Why did you change?
I wanted to be more in control of my destiny.
And to be able to choose my work hours, have the opportunity to get out and meet people, and pursue projects that really interest me.
When was the moment you decided to make the change?
When I was working in my final staff journalist job.
It took me a while to pluck up the courage to go it alone. I wondered if it was too risky; whether I should be 'sensible' and stay for the regular salary, pension, etc., but in the end I trusted my instinct.
Are you happy with the change?
As with journalism, I get to meet people of all ages and backgrounds who have fantastic stories to tell, but haven't always had the opportunity to tell them.
As well as writing and editing, I design publications and exhibition panels, so the work is varied. I've had the opportunity to try new things; recently I did a public talk to 55 people, something I don't think I'd have had the confidence to do a few years ago.
It is hard work but there is a real satisfaction to finishing a commission. I'm involved in the whole process and seeing the finished product is really pleasing.
What do you miss and what don't you miss?
I miss having colleagues.
They are great not just for help with work issues but for bringing a lighter side to life, having a laugh with during a tough week, or having a pint with on a Friday night. It was only really after I started freelancing I realised how precious good colleagues are.
I don't miss having to get up and out to an office for 9 a.m. on cold, dark January mornings or doing a long commute. I was never a 9–5 person; I'm not really one for strict routines and am more of a night owl. These days I'll often work on a project in the evening, sometimes with a glass of wine. That's another advantage of being your own boss – you can incorporate some pleasures into your working day (or night)!
I miss getting paid bank holidays, especially when almost everyone I know gets them, but then again I can take a break at quieter times of year, away from the rush.
How did you go about making the shift? And how specifically did you choose your new career?
I got a website designed using Wordpress.
This is really user-friendly software and I can update the website whenever I want. I got business cards printed up and bought myself a new laptop. These were the only outgoings at the beginning as I had limited finances.
I had a couple of good contacts at newspapers who gave me a fairly steady supply of copywriting work. This kept me going for the first few months. However, I knew I wanted to do writing that's more similar to feature writing, rather than commercial copywriting. I've always enjoyed telling people's stories and one of my skills is being able to strike up a rapport with interviewees, so that they chat easily, and give colourful memories and descriptions.
Because newspapers were tightening their freelance budgets I looked for a different avenue. An increasing number of charities are receiving funding for oral history projects, as the value and benefit of recording and archiving social histories is increasingly recognised.
When people talk about changing career it sounds like it has to be a dramatic change – going from being an actuary to teaching tango in Argentina, say. But in my case it was about wanting to continue to use my experience and skills I'd learned, in an area where there was the opportunity and remuneration to be able to do so.
The biggest change for me was the structure of my week: going from an office job to working from home and being my own boss.
What didn't go well? What 'wrong turns' did you take?
I was a bit naïve at the very beginning and undercharged for my first commission, partly because I thought it would take less time than it did.
It can be a difficult balance to strike; I didn't want to charge too much because I wanted the job and to have the work for my portfolio, but I know now to take into account my skills and experience. Also remember that freelancers don't get holiday pay, sick pay or benefits such as a company pension, so these have to be factored in when deciding pricing.
These days I've got more of a handle on pricing and that feeling of self-worth is important. Of course, some clients will always want the cheapest option – websites such as Fiverr offer jobs for a pittance – but the saying "You get what you pay for" is very true and I think most clients appreciate this.
How did you handle your finances to make your change possible?
I'd saved money from my previous job and knew I could get a basic income from copywriting.
I was working from home so didn't have many overheads or transport costs.
What was the most difficult thing about changing?
Having the self-belief to keep going during quiet periods.
You have to be very self-motivated and everything is down to you: you are your own boss, bookkeeper, counsel, deadline-setter, break-enforcer, pick-me-up… and so on!
Freelancing hours are not 9–5, so I found myself replying to emails on days off and on holidays. I often forgot to take breaks and would realise at about 3 p.m. I'd forgotten to have lunch! At busy times at the beginning my life–work balance was definitely out of kilter.
What help did you get?
I spoke to a couple of friends who were already freelancing and asked for their advice. I did co-working for a bit – where freelancers share office space – which was great.
I also discovered Meetup, which has some brilliant groups in Edinburgh, such as Freelance Friday. It's for freelancers who miss that Friday night pint to mark the end of the week – a simple yet brilliant concept!
What resources would you recommend to others?
Membership organisations, for example The Professional Copywriter's Network, can be useful for fee guidelines and advice.
There are co-working opportunities in most cities; renting a desk once a week for the first few months can help ease the transition of going it alone, and you'll meet other freelancers along the way.
There are all kinds of Meetup groups connecting self-employed people, either for networking or in a more social capacity. I've had great experiences at various groups and have even made a couple of good friends. And if you don't see the group for you, it's easy to start your own.
Other groups that attract freelancers and offer food for thought can be useful, for example Creative Mornings.
What have you learnt in the process?
To get out and about, and stay curious.
You never know what might lead to your next commission. When I first started freelancing, by chance I came across a small exhibition about a charity, the Living Memory Association, in an Edinburgh library. I loved the sound of their work and contacted them to ask about volunteering. It turned out they were looking to produce a quarterly magazine and have since commissioned me to do this and quite a bit of other work. These days they also put other organisations in touch with me, who are looking for editing and design work.
Keep in contact with people through the week. Even if the work is flowing and you're lost in a work project, it's beneficial to get out for some air and conversation! I make sure I take breaks. If I'm busy with a project I could work the whole day, but know I'll feel much better if I go for a walk at lunchtime or make it to my aerobics class.
And I try to take at least one full day off a week. It's tempting to do a couple of hours' work or reply to emails every day, but having a proper break is essential for recharging my batteries. I then have a lot more energy for the week ahead.
What do you wish you'd done differently?
I wish I'd sought the advice of more freelancers about the ups and downs.
I'm quite self-sufficient so thought it would be more straightforward to make the switch. In fact, it would have helped to have people tell me that yes, freelancing can feel isolating, but this is normal.
Other than that I've been glad for trial and error along the way – that's how you learn!
What would you advise others to do in the same situation?
Go for it!
One of my favourite quotes is by Mark Twain and it includes the line: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do..."
It might be that you end up following a path you didn't expect to go down, but I don't know anyone who left a job they weren't happy in and regretted taking that initial plunge.
Remember that it most likely won't be a walk in the park. It can take quite a few months to build up contacts and a portfolio, and jobs often arrive through word of mouth, so don't be disheartened if the work isn't flooding in straight away. If possible have some money saved as a buffer, and so that you don't panic and start applying for jobs similar to your old one straight away!
Get a website. This is your shop window, your opportunity to show people what you can offer. Make it attractive but choose a functional design that you can update. Blog posts can be time consuming but it's important to keep them fresh; when I see a website where the last blog post is from 2012, it doesn't really suggest a thriving business.
Be proactive; get out and meet people at networking and social events. These are so useful for getting inspiration and building confidence, and could even result in offers of work. Technology is wonderful in many ways but it can't replace meeting people in person.
To find our more about Rosalind's services, visit www.rosalindgibb.com.
What lessons could you take from Rosalind's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.