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Freelancing in 2020: Freelancers consistently overwork and undercharge

Being a freelancer is great. We know that. You know that. But sometimes it’s worth digging a little deeper, worth finding out what makes you – and your fellow freelancers – tick.

For that reason, Dinghy recently embarked upon the inaugural ‘Freelancing in 2020: State of the Industry’ survey.

After all, what better time is there to find out what you makes freelancers happy, or worried, or annoyed, than the beginning of a new decade?

Freelancing in 2020: headline findings

  • Well over half of UK freelancers over-serve their clients. 61% of our respondents over-served at least half of their client base
  • Almost 1/3rd of freelancers (30%) have, at some point, not received payment for the work they’ve done
  • 40% of those who never received payment were ‘ghosted’ by the company they’d done the work for) –
  • 91% of freelancers said that making the leap into freelancing had improved their quality of life
  • 75% of all respondents said they felt secure in their self-employment
  • 98% of freelancers felt more secure with insurance cover in place
  • Freelancers are more concerned about IR35 and government policy (33%) than they are about Brexit (5%)
  • Freelancers have their fingers in many pies. Most have between 3-6 clients at any one time (47.8%). But for many 1-2 is just enough, with 42% of freelancers citing that as their best

Dinghy sent their ‘Freelancing in 2020: State of the Industry’ survey out through many channels – to their customers, across social media, and to freelancers all over the UK.

The results were intriguing – from questions on work and business through to lifestyle and the pressing matter of exactly which streaming platform freelancers prefer.

So, what did the survey find out?

To get a proper picture of what’s going on across freelancing today, it makes sense to break the answers we received into a few categories: Work, Business, Lifestyle and Insurance.

Freelance Work

The most popular profession for freelancers? Marketing, with a whopping 32.1% of the figure. Tech followed in second, with 14.8% of respondents working in that field, followed by Art and Design (14.5%) and Business Consulting (11.3%).

Bringing up the rear, with 0.6%, were Engineering and Manufacturing, joined by the likes of Travel (0.9%), Healthcare (1.3%), Education (1.6%) and Finance (3.8%).

When it comes to money, most people keep their cards close to their chest. For that reason, it was interesting to find out that freelancer pay per annum most often fell into two distinct brackets: either £0 – £18,999 a year (almost 1 in 3 freelancers), or over £50,000 a year (1 in 4 freelancers).

Whilst that differential suggests a disparity in experience levels (as well as the earning potential freelancers can expect once they establish a foothold and a reputation), it could also be surmised that many freelancers embarking on their career are starting out with work experience before finding their feet.

This is highlighted by the correlation between the above pay brackets and the time many of our respondents have been freelancing. Over half of our surveyed freelancers (51.9%) only started freelancing in the last two years, while only 26.1% are industry veterans with 6 years or more under their belts.

Concluding the work part of the survey, it found that freelancers – – are adept at keeping many plates spinning at once.

47.8% of respondents operated with somewhere between 3 and 6 clients on the go at any one time. For 42%, 1 or 2 at once was enough.

The Freelance Business

Whilst ‘Work’ category deals with the more humdrum statistics surrounding pay, client numbers, and industries, ‘Business’ provides a deeper insight into how exactly freelancers go about their jobs – their day-to-day worries, the problems they face, and so on.

For many freelancers (38%), the greatest challenge they faced was getting work and finding new clients.

15% of freelancers faced issues with getting paid on time, making it unsurprising that managing finances was also an issue for 10% of those surveyed.

A very honest 14% admitted to having trouble sticking to a work schedule – one of the toughest challenges to get used to when you’re starting out as a freelancer.

In a world where anything and everything is available at the touch of button online, 60% of freelancers said that word of mouth was still their best way of finding work – ahead of social media, job boards, and freelancing websites.

Whilst that word of mouth figure would have been even higher a decade or so ago, it does go to show that digital freelance job outlets haven’t quite made the inroads many of us might assume. The recommendation of someone we trust means more than anything else.

As we touched on at the beginning, close to a third (30%) of freelancers have not received payment for a piece of work they’ve done. Of those 30%, 40% were ignored or ‘ghosted’ by the company they’d done the work for, whilst 30% said the company they were working with had gone insolvent.

14% of respondents said they never received payment due to a dispute over the work – a particularly stressful and disheartening experience for anyone.

Freelancers often find themselves under pressure and in competition with others, which goes some way to explaining why the vast majority of freelancers felt the need to, in some way, overserve their clients. 32% of freelancers overserved all their clients, while a further 29% overserved at least half of their clients.

Only a hardy 14% said they did not overserve any of the companies they worked for.

On a similar note, almost all freelancers (98.3%) admitted to checking in on emails and projects in their time off – when you’re in charge of everything, it seems, it’s much harder to leave your work behind you when you close the office door.

Pride in your work also comes into it but, as one respondent noted, the perception is that “you are only as good as your last job.” Many felt they had to work above and beyond what was called for to make a good impression. Coupled with the above finding on companies who disappeared when payment was due, it is clear that better and firmer legislation needs to be implemented to make sure that freelancers get paid.

Many freelancers also indicated that finding work was a concern, with close to half saying this was the issue which bothered them most. Tax-related issues and the spectre of IR35 legislation were also common bugbears, with 27% of respondents citing them as particular areas of concern.

As one respondent noted when asked about their biggest worry: “IR35 and understanding the impact of this on how I can work with my clients.” On that note, for those worried about IR35 we’d recommend reading this blog post on IR35.

A summary: it’s nowhere near as bad as you think, especially if you’re a freelancer in control of your working – and working with several clients. (IR35 rules do not apply to those trading as a sole-trader). As mentioned earlier, a low 5% were concerned about the impact of Brexit (although, like us, they couldn’t bear to talk about it anymore).

Freelance Lifestyle

The fun bit. Lifestyle change is the reason many freelancers choose the path they do. One respondent quoted Nelson Mandela when asked why they had chosen to become a freelancer:


“To become the master of my own destiny!”

Whilst the motivation of others may not have been quite so driven, it came as little surprise that flexibility and freedom (with 45% and 25% ) were cited as the main reason for going freelance in the first place (and were also, by a clear margin, the two best things about freelance life once the leap had been made).

The chance to work where and when you want was a huge boon for many, with one working mum noting that she chose freelancing “because my job didn’t give me the flexibility I needed as a mother.” As another respondent said, their choice allowed them:

“The life of a poet plus the income of a banker.”

Despite some difficulties – as alluded to in the ‘Business’ section – the majority of the freelancers we surveyed did feel secure in both their decision and their career choice.

43% rated themselves as 3 out of 5 on a ‘not secure’ to ‘secure’ scale, whilst another 32% rated themselves at 4 out of 5 (or ‘very secure’). Many of our respondents were critical of the lack of opportunity for professional growth, poor learning opportunities, and a generally negative work environment in ‘traditional’ employment, all factors which pushed them into freelance work.

Generally speaking, freelancers love their work. 32% were excited about the work they could be doing in the future, whilst a further 22% were looking forward to watching their business and reputation grow.

Many (14%) were also eager to search for new clients, whilst 25% were already anticipating the future flexibility and freedom they were likely to have.

The overwhelming majority of respondents (a mighty 91%) stated that going freelance had improved the quality of their life. Isn’t that what any of us want the most? Money is great (and necessary). A good roster of clients helps. But none of that is important if we’re not happy.

It’s also worth noting that many big companies could learn something from that 91% – about the importance of adapting company culture to favour a better work-life balance, by offering flexible working arrangements, or nurturing employees and encouraging their professional development.

Whether that’s working from home for a certain number of days per week or encouraging attendance at (or hosting) workshops, there is much that could be done.

Freelancing and Insurance

73% of freelancers said that having insurance made them feel secure whilst they were working, with a sizeable 25% saying they felt “ secure” (the full 5 out of 5).

On a similar note, 5% of freelancers noted that they had had a laptop or other work item stolen whilst working remotely.

For 72% of those people the item in question cost up to £100 to replace, whilst 9% had to pay an eye-popping £2,000 or higher.

Additional freelance insights

Participants who’d completed the initial question set got access to a supplementary survey with a few more light-hearted questions.

Whether it was your choice of pet or preferred method of streaming procrastination, we’ve got the answers. Read on below for a run through.

  • When it comes to streaming TV and film, we all have our preferred platform. For freelancers, the overwhelming favourite was Netflix (with almost 70%), followed by Amazon Prime and BBC iPlayer. Apple TV and Facebook Watch – you’ve got some work to do
  • It’s fair to assume that the greater public bracket freelancers in with the juice-cleansing, avocado-toast-eating community. Our research said otherwise.
  • A full three quarters of freelancers put themselves down as ‘full-blooded carnivores’, with Vegan, Vegetarian and Pescatarian splitting the rest between them
  • When it comes to pet of choice, a wholesome 47% vouched for man’s best friend – the dog. 21% confessed to being cat owners, and close to 30% vowed “No pets. Ever.”
  • Getting up for work in the morning: never much fun. But what time do freelancers like to rise? It was an almost even 50/50 split between ‘before 7am’ and ‘before 9am’ – so well done to all you (unless you were too ashamed to admit to the truth, of course).
  • Procrastination – an underrated art form if ever there was one. Most freelancers (63% in fact) spent most of their time avoiding work by scrolling through social media, whilst another 30% whittled away at their valuable time through watching TV or playing computer games.
  • To the 7% of freelancers who ticked the ‘I never procrastinate – I am a beacon of hard work, focus, and concentration’ box? Still not focused enough to avoid completing this survey, were you?
  • Social media is a huge tool for getting your work known and connecting with other freelancers, as well as potential clients. So which platform do freelancers most prefer? Instagram was a narrow first with 37% of the vote, followed by Facebook with 29%.
  • Twitter and LinkedIn caught most of the rest, whilst Snapchat received resounding condemnation in the form of no votes whatsoever
  • Freelancers – all left-leaning liberals, right? Well, not quite. 42% turn to the neutral BBC for the majority of their daily news, whilst 21% disavowed news in its entirety because “it’s too depressing.” 28% do read the Guardian though – by far the most read of the traditional newspapers

Conclusion

What have we learnt (other than that people love answering questions about themselves)?

Freelancing can be tough, especially when you’re starting out. But it’s also a particularly rewarding career choice, with a freedom and flexibility that cannot be found in ‘regular’ employment.

Freelancers in 2020

Ben Matthews

Ben is a freelance digital marketing and social media consultant. He is a Director at Empower, a marketing agency for people who change the world for good. He also helps people learn to love freelancing with FreeTrain, a community with online courses and resources for freelancers.

https://empower.agency/

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