Empowering the Freelance Economy

Disastrous December for Freelancers: what happened?

Chris Ramsbottom, director of the Coventry-based holistic therapy company, The Amethyst Centre, shares her recent trading dilemmas.
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For some freelancers and solopreneurs, the December 2021 trading period was a time when everything fell into place. For others, everything seemed to fall apart. What lessons can be shared? And should government widen its freelancer support system to more sectors?

If you are a freelancer or solopreneur, you must prepare for the unexpected. Granted that’s easier said than done. Kate Rouse, the Managing Director of Henley-in-Arden-based British Regional Hampers learned this the hard way over the latest Christmas trading period.

“Everything was going fine until our logistics partner DPD decided to not deliver 20% of our products. Their excuse at the time wasn’t Covid but, wait for it, Christmas, as it’s busy,” says Rouse.

In just one week, 20% of the company’s hampers, which average around £160 each, were left in the depot, which was detrimental given that hampers contain fresh produce leaving no option but for the hampers to be binned.

“We were told we could make a claim, so we resent all the hampers the following week, at great effort and cost,” recalls Rouse.

She continues: “Then we were told it’s a mistake, we can’t claim. We now face a legal battle with our reputation shattered with some big corporate clients. Our life and soul and all our savings have gone into this business for it to be potentially crushed at the first hurdle with a logistics partner who quite frankly couldn’t give a damn about us.”

After a decade running a leading catering company in the Algarve, with clients such as Marcus Wareing, Take That, Premier League footballers and Fortune 500 CEOs, Rouse’s obsession for food and drink led her to realise that whilst the UK is full of amazing produce, magazines littered with sumptuous photos, and social media inundated with picture after picture of food and travel experiences, the reality of finding it once back in the UK was actually quite difficult. And in her latest delivery woes, getting it to the customer has not been easy either. She is not alone in her disappointment.

Like Rouse, even with the best-laid plans, things can shift off course. Chris Ramsbottom, director of the Coventry-based holistic therapy company, The Amethyst Centre shares her experience:

“In the week before Christmas, zero customers out of the 10 booked turned up. In the week after Christmas, zero customers out of the five booked turned up. I can’t go on like this and hope my business is eligible for some of the money Rishi Sunak says is coming to small businesses this month. Otherwise, the future is bleak at best.”

The show must go on

For some, the show still went on. Mark Green of Harrogate-based DJ Mark Green recalls the build-up to Christmas and the New Year as being “extremely stressful”:

“With so much scaremongering flying around, events were on a constant knife edge as to whether they’d proceed or not. Thankfully they did. Demand for performers went through the roof, as DJs were dropping like flies following positive tests, leaving organisers scrapping to secure last minute acts.”

Rishi Sunak: will he extend the olive branch to more freelancers?

In late December, the UK government announced it would be providing funding via Arts Council England to provide an immediate £1.5 million to support freelancers affected by the pandemic, alongside a further £1.35 million contribution from the theatre sector.

The grants will consist of £650,000 each directly to the Theatre Artists Fund, Help Musicians, and £200,000 to a-n, the Artists Information Company, a charity for visual artists which will distribute cash to freelancers over the coming weeks.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said:

“Our arts, culture and heritage sectors bring joy and enrichment to our day-to-day lives, and rarely more so than at Christmas. So we understand how devastating the uncertainty caused by Omicron has been.

“This new funding, alongside the new grants of up to £6,000 we announced earlier this week, will support the sector as we together face this difficult time.”

The funding couldn’t come quick enough but won’t be able to reach all freelancers.

“The Omicron variant trashed the hospitality and event industry,” says Jo Ferreday, Director of Market Harborough-based events company, Sheer Edge after experiencing a disappointing holiday trading period.

“Over the past month, we have seen football matches postponed across the UK, resulting in our clients having to reschedule their hospitality plans. In Ireland, the Leopardstown Christmas Festival sadly had to take place behind closed doors at the last minute, resulting in us having to refund our clients. A clear roadmap and communication strategy are key to our survival, but both are worryingly absent.”

Jo Ferreday, Director of Market Harborough-based events company, Sheer Edge

Helen Skripek, founder of the Derby-based caterer, The Butlers Pantry also experienced a spree of cancellations:

“Rather than ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’, for hospitality, the festive period was more of a ‘Silent Night’. Events ran at reduced capacity and cancellations were rife due to mixed messages from the Government. Hopefully, there’ll be ‘Jingle Bells’ by Easter.”

Jess Brooks of Eternal Landscapes/Photo: Philippe Marcels

COVID restrictions and the subsequent uncertainty not to mention additional testing costs of travelling since the onset of the Omicron variant, doesn’t just have an economic impact on the travel sector, there’s a real human impact as well, according to Jess Brooks, founder of the Okehampton-based travel and tourism business, Eternal Landscapes

“International travel needs to be brought in line with all other parts of our economy and society,” says Brooks.

“For those of us working in international tourism, the Christmas trading period was non-existent,” says Brook.

“The travel and aviation sectors have been among the worst affected by the pandemic and yet just as we began a tentative recovery, in comes the re-introduction of significant Covid-19 restrictions, yet again damaging consumer and business confidence,” she says.

Read Brooks’ startup story here.

A video created by an Eternal Landscapes guest showcasing experiences created and arranged by the travel company.

Craig Bunting, owner of Midlands-based independent coffee shop brand, Bear, says there should be a call for greater support for freelancers and small business owners.

“For Boris to say that we are in a better position than last December is only half the story. Reduced sales, significant pressure on an isolating workforce and only minimal support are hidden behind a flashy headline.

“The Government should extend the reduction in VAT until the end of 2022 for hospitality, tourism and leisure, and reduce business rates to zero for those sectors until March 2022. It should also create more grants to support the great businesses investing in our high streets across the UK,” says Bunting.

Being flexible is necessary when the unexpected comes knocking on your door. Sophie de Taranto, owner at Shutter Jewellery, did just that.

Despite taking the hard decision to not book any pitches at Christmas Fayres this year, which accounts for the bulk of Shutter Jewellery’s November and December takings, De Taranto managed to get by on online sales.

“The only downside was the current stress on the postal system and the inevitable delays, so I decided to bring the cut-off date for orders forward this year and lost 4-5 days of sales. However, I felt this was the right thing to do to avoid any last-minute stress for me and disappointment for customers.”

Nathan Le-Moine, Director of children’s educational toys and resources company, Kiddiekin also experienced a shift in trading behaviour. She says the sudden explosion of Omicron shortly before Christmas resulted in many shoppers quickly reverting to shopping online for their last-minute Christmas gifts, with ‘express delivery’ orders up by 53% on December 2020.

Freelancers and solopreneurs could take what they have learned over this tumultuous trading period and use new tactics in the months to come.

Here are a few examples:

  • Rate yourself. Last minute client requests should be compensated and built into pricing. This doesn’t just have to be during the busy Christmas period but in times when demand has surged for any given reason (summer holidays, tax filing season, COVID restrictions, etc.).
  • Cut-off dates. By giving clients or customers are cut-off date for your services in any given week or month, you can better plan for a busy holiday period or your own personal plans (e.g., holiday, a booked-in surgery, etc.). It can also help bring invoicing forward.
  • Spread your risk. Don’t reply on one supplier, whether that is a goods or service provider. This can also be the case for collaborating freelancers who might fall ill or go on holiday while a project is still in progress.
  • Keep networking. Book prospective meetings every month with existing and new clients to pitch new work. You never know when a client may change their direction and you could lose work you had counted on. But on the plus side, by always networking you have a better chance of landing new projects and clients. And when a project needs more hans on deck, you can delegate or broker certain skill sets through your own company if you are happy to take on that responsibiloty and the risks.
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