"I had to maintain a retail job alongside freelancing for eighteen months during my initial start up phase." - Phil Hutchins, Freelance Sound Designer

As part of a new series, we’re asking members of Crunch Crunch Chorus (our free-to-join micro-business community) to share their experiences of becoming self-employed.

First up is Brighton based freelance sound engineer Phil Hutchins.

Tell us about your business

I’m a freelance sound engineer. I specialise in mixing, recording, boom operation, foley, and sound designer for TV and film. One day I could be working on a television set mic’ing up actors to ensure that all dialogue is recorded to the highest standard, and the next day working in post-production creating sound effects and mixing audio.

This is either done in studios or at home in my home studio.

What prompted you to go self-employed?

I started studying sound at university, alongside my degree in music production. I initially wanted to gain experience in as many projects as possible to see what I liked, what I didn’t and where I could see myself working. Each production is unique – no two crews are ever the same. You meet so many different people and you can learn so much from the people being around you, even if it is not your department.

Being tied down to a specific company can limit your knowledge as you only know one type of work flow therefore potentially holding you back. There could be bad habits and techniques, lack of knowledge of your craft, and also potential to be complacent with your job rather than pushing forward.

Going self employed means that I push for knowledge to be the best I can be, to work with as many people as possible and I feel that I am learning at a faster rate than if I was tied to a company. As well as that, I like being my own boss!

What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome when starting out?

I had to make sure that the time was right. I needed to have enough knowledge of the industry and sharpen my skills before even thinking about going freelance.

I also had to make sure I had the right equipment for businesses to be able to hire me. Equipment in my industry is insanely expensive, so financing was one of the toughest areas of becoming a freelancer. I had to maintain a retail job alongside freelancing for eighteen months during my initial start up phase. Working part time in retail enabled me to pay bills and save for new equipment. However, once I had enough freelance work coming in, I was able to leave my retail job and become self-employed full time.

What do you like most about working for yourself? And what do you dislike?

The freedom of work and the fact that it is all off your own back. I like that when I work from home I can choose when I work. As long as I do get a full day in, I can alter my start and finish times to suit what goes on around me if I need to.

I am a bit of a control freak so being my own boss and in control of my work, my pay, how I do things, makes such a difference.

However, when working from home in the studio, it can get a tad lonely – especially if I’m working alone for a few weeks at a time. Cabin fever can set in, too. The job comes with long hours and lots of travel, and sometimes all I want is to be home in my own bed.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently when starting up?

I wish that I had spent more time during my university years building contacts and gaining experience, for example being a runner or an assistant. However, I didn’t realise that I wanted to be in the TV/film industry until my last semester so hindsight is a beautiful thing!

What would be your top tip to anyone thinking about going self-employed?

Make sure that you know how to find clients.

Join any unions and groups on social media that can help with advice, technical learning and support. I would also recommend having some form of financial buffer to help when work isn’t there – especially in the early stages – or make sure you have the work lined up first.

Financial knowledge (taxes, payments & invoicing), internet presence and a business plan of some sort also really help.

What’s your biggest success story from your time being self-employed?

One of my biggest success stories to date is having a short film commissioned by Channel 4 and the Arts Council. It’s currently on 4OD with a broadcast date set for later this year. Another is being involved in a brand new BBC3 drama pilot for a TV series.

Working for such a high establishment is a big achievement for me.

Do you have any pro tips on how to find new clients?

Networking evenings are extremely useful in getting clients. In my industry it’s about who you know and not necessarily what you know. Word of mouth recommendations are always great so make sure you impress everyone you come into contact with.

Working with a high number of people will increase the number of people you are linked to so doing anything and everything in the initial stages is very beneficial.

I have also tried cold emailing and calling to try and find work. Although it has been successful with some clients, it can be quite hard to obtain work that way. Businesses already have their go-to guys but it never hurts to be on their radar.

How do you find managing your cashflow?

It can be quite tough, especially in the beginning. But figuring out your own system and way of managing your finances makes such difference. Get your accounts sorted early on and staying on top of them really helps. Knowing what money is where is crucial.

I set aside 40% of each paycheque for tax, pension and equipment. That money goes into a business account that is separate from my personal account. The separation between personal and business finances is something I am very keen on as it means that I know which money is the businesses and which is mine.

What did you consider when calculating your rates?

I’m a member of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU). They provide rate cards for everyone in the industry, so I generally work in relation with that as much as possible. When thinking about my rates I also take into consideration travel expenses, disposable items and extra money for using your kit.

In my profession it’s good to know what the budget is for the client – smaller budgets in film mean smaller pay. However, small projects can be great for networking so this usually helps you out in the future.

Do you work from home or in a coworking space? How do you find that work environment?

I work on set for about 75% of the time and the rest I have an office / studio at home where I do my invoicing, accounts and data backup. When recording and mixing from home, I also use the studio rather than hiring out somewhere. This is mainly because working from home is cheaper than renting an office space. However, I’m open to the idea of renting in the future.

I enjoy working from home as it provides me with a comfortable space that I know I can work in. I know the room so sonically, I know what sounds good and what doesn’t.

There are also drawbacks from working from home. It’s easy to be distracted – you have your living room, kitchen etc right next to you. Taking a little longer on your lunch break than you should can be counter-productive, especially if the work is not something that you are enjoying too much at that point. It is harder to be disciplined but it does mean your commute is non-existent – always a bonus!

How did you find the transition to self-employment?

I haven’t worked for a company in my field before but I have worked in retail alongside my initial start up. I had to always give four weeks notice for any time off which made taking jobs quite difficult. Toward the end I viewed my retail work as more of a hobby that I got paid for and focussed a lot more effort into my freelance work.

I gradually reduced my hours in retail and increased them in my freelance work. Eventually, the hours balance out and I was able to leave my retail job. Maintaining both until absolutely necessary was key.

The transition was quite smooth but there was definitely a sudden point where you have to say enough is enough and you have to work for yourself otherwise you can’t progress. It is all about finding that line.

If you want to share your experiences of being self-employed, give us a shout at crunch-chorus@crunch.co.uk.

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Tom West
Community and Social Manager
Updated on
August 21, 2020

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