by Rachel Smith
11 November 2019
If you’re a member of the thriving Facebook group, Freelance Jungle, Rebekah Lambert needs no introduction. She’s the Big Cheese of the FJ, which offers a heckuva lot of support for freelancers across the board. She’s also been a long-time member of RL, so our paths have crossed (online at least) for years. I’ve been excited to profile Rebekah on the blog and find out more about her – and I’m sure many of you are too. Here, she shares her freelance journey, the story behind the Freelance Jungle, the lessons she’s learned since she started working for herself – and her advice for those starting out.
Can I get ‘sheer frustration’ for $500 thanks Eddie? I became a freelancer because I was working agency side and while we were doing some cool stuff, I increasingly found the focus on profit margins taking away from the work. Plus, I wanted to try something new. I always want to try something new. I figured if I invented my own job, I could maybe keep doing that on a more regular basis.
I’m a former product manager with a high focus on community management (in real life and online) turned content marketer. I am also a freelance advocate with the specific focus on stress reduction and mental health. Like most things in my life, I took the circuitous route. I wanted to sit on my arse and write for a living, so I positioned myself to be able to do that. In the early stages, I ran barter products to build up my work, used social media to bring together local communities and I continue to study a lot and run unwieldly side projects in subjects like freelance advocacy, death literacy and mental health de-stigmatisation. I also coach people on freelancing and product building with a specific focus on burn out recovery and redirecting their focus back to meaningful work.
There is no other field that allows you to either stagnate or grow as a person like freelancing. I think because we weather so many storms, we can take on damage or we can really grow a hard shell. I’ve done both. I am much better at saying no and having boundaries with clients. I’ve also had to work on myself as a person a lot. There’s an emotional labour attached to looking after our clients as well as our peers that a lot of us don’t recognise. It’s easy to get snookered by compassion fatigue, burn out and by the mythology of what it means to be successful. I haven’t always been what people expect and I’ve had to use a mix of self-reflection and growth as well as boundaries to decide what does and doesn’t work for me. And that’s hard to learn in a practical, boots-on-the-ground environment. Especially when people judge you based on what they see online.
I’m a huge nerd so I am always learning and training. I am a huge fan of Microcosm Publishing titles on things like Punk Rock Entrepreneur, Grow and the productivity book, From Chaos to Creativity. All freelancers should read Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work at least once. Austin Kleon is another favourite. But I think if you really want to grow your capability as a freelancer, you shouldn’t focus on studying only freelance-related things. I found the most useful course for my copy and communication was a TV short course at AFTRS. Dealing with clients has been so much easier since I’ve done training in crisis support and counselling. We often think that we need to continually upskill in solid, measurable stuff like SEO or specific tools, programs and design theory. In reality, most freelancers could do with learning how to negotiate better, how to tiger tame difficult clients, to connect with work in a meaningful way, and how to guide our clients to better outcomes. So, this is where I tend to play. Because to be honest, most of the stress isn’t from whether people know their way around Google Analytics or if they know how to use the latest reporting cube. It’s connected to “how did I get in this shitty situation and how do I get back out?”
Completely and utterly by accident. I’d love to tell you I had some wonderful vision of bringing people together so we could braid each other’s hair, conquer the world and drink while we do it. But the truth is my first year of freelancing felt harder than it needed to be. I felt like I was making all the mistakes. I reached out to various usual places to find out if there was research on freelancers that I could compare. I chased it for months until someone at the ABS said ‘we collected data on freelancers, but we don’t do anything with it’.
That kind of statement is not good enough to a curious cat like me. So, I used my product geek skills, designed a survey and found 166 people responded with all kinds of challenges. The main one was the same sense of isolation I was feeling. I did what anyone would do – I got people together at a pub for a beer in Sydney. And it grew from there. We now have face to face events every quarter in Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle, Central Coast, Brisbane, Cairns, Adelaide and Melbourne. And we also have a virtual stress down every second month. The virtual group was a natural extension of that. And we now have 5500+ members across Australia and New Zealand on Facebook and a further 2000+ on a mailing list. Our most recent run of the survey in 2019 had 565 responses and still has a focus on stress reduction as a primary need.
Unlike most business groups and platforms out there, we focus on ending the isolation, reminding people stress has a productivity cost, advocacy and raising the knowledge bar. This is a genuine need for an industry that internalizes the stigma handed to us to the point where we’re even too scared to refer to ourselves as freelancer, lest we look unprofessional.
We were named the Workplace Wellbeing Award Winner for 2019 in the WayAhead Mental Health Matters awards. As a grassroots organization, it was truly humbling to share a room with so many great groups working to improve the mental health of people right across the state. I met ministers, commissioners and a bunch of wonderful people that believe in building connection to help protect people.
We know freelancers are high risk from acquired mental health conditions and suicidality. We often have unstable working environments. We come across bullying- and unlike traditional workplaces don’t have recourse against that bullying most of the time. Our financial situations are often high stress due to late payment. There continues to be externalized pressures such as in-fighting, bullying, covert aggression and the like that often takes the form of Tall Poppy Syndrome. The work is often thankless and we often only hear from clients when there are problems, which can bring on compassion fatigue. Plus, we’re creative people- and often women- two groups that have got some issues with speaking up and self-doubt as well as self-promotion.
I jack the internet into my belly at 5am and don’t pull it out until 10pm. Community management of this scale and across these sorts of topics is not usually a light-load endeavor. The last few years have gotten much easier with my core team of Nicole, Hayley, Jinny and Tim as well as our designer, Jess. And we’re now happy to welcome Sarah and Suzi to the mix as they stand to represent the interests of LGBTQIA+ and person of colour freelancers. This is giving me the opportunity to focus more on building the things I have wanted to build. We currently offer the community group, coaching, events, a directory for listing and finding collaborators, a job’s group for our Patreon members, a merch shop and assets to help educate our Patreon members. I chose Patreon as I wanted people to pay what they could afford and to their specific need level with some flexibility. I’m currently building a lot of stuff to support people with burn out recovery, client management and general business hygiene.
As for what drives me a bit up the spout, there’s this tendency to yell at the Freelance Jungle for not being a high sales environment with a job board. It’s kind of like yelling at a pizza shop for not serving Thai. There are already amazing job boards and pitch ‘n’ play groups. There doesn’t need to be another one. Yelling at me or my team because we say ‘we focus on stress reduction, not sales’ when you want to sell seems like a problem with the end user as opposed to the product on offer.
The biggest thing that has changed since I started (2010) is the way people respond to and view freelancing. It’s become extremely popular. It’s also been made into some weird glamour career where everyone must be building all the products and scaling all the heights. The biggest surprise is how quickly go from having intrinsic motivators and wonderful personal goals (be there for my kids, manage my disability, study on the side, see the world, work on projects I like, have freedom) to feeling as though they need to be bigger, shinier, richer and covered in status-flavoured caramel. The people that are connected to purpose driven work seem far more grounded when the next freelance tsunami hits. It’s your race. You got into this because something BEFORE the fanfare mattered to you. Mature with that goal. But don’t replace it with someone else’s.
I want purpose in my work. I want a body of work I am proud of that supports the lifestyle I want to lead.
When there is a beautiful mix of challenge, learning and autonomy, that’s when I am my happiest. I have worked on some sensational campaigns in my time. I love building out product plans as much as I love writing a blogging series or working with people and groups to take their business higher. There’s always purpose in the work that is the most exciting. Notable projects are things like helping Pozible rebrand, helping Churchill Award Winning firefighter Bronnie Macintosh travel the world and collect stories of female firefighters across the globe to raise participation in our own fire services, helping wheelchair mapping and fitness app Briometrix with marketing, web copy and communication as they change how people with disabilities do things like attend the Sydney NYE fireworks or remain injury free, writing about health, veterinary health and mental health, improving death literacy and end of life planning for Australians. This is the kind of stuff that makes the trials of freelance worthwhile.
Like most freelancers, it’s word of mouth a lot of the time. I also tend to spend a bit of time creating an unusual profile to attract the clients I want. For example, my barter product and Redfern community Twitter were about helping others but got me massive amounts of word of mouth. I would say to anyone out there looking for a magic avenue for getting work, go rogue. If you stand out and do fun stuff, you get fun clients that are attracted to that.
When I blog, I get most of my social media leads from that. I also find running a group helps get me work to collaborate on as well as work for coaching. But again, I don’t believe there is a magic platform. I believe what you do is what counts.
My work ritual has been off due to two major surgeries in 12 months. I also have a disability and OCD and anxiety, therefore my work ritual reflects the 1 in 5 Australians who manage a form of disability in their working life. That means I usually start early and end early as my body gets fatigued. I have a sweet home office that is set up to be disability compliant (spoiler alert, I can’t work in cafes and coworking joints as they aren’t set up for people with disabilities most of the time) and I also have a mad work from bed setup that helps support me when the mind is nimble but the body is sore. My working life is designed to support my physical and mental wellness, and I work with clients that respect that.
That terrible ‘where to next?’ sensation that often bothers me. I am insatiably curious and completely disinterested in status, money and power, so at times, business and I spend a lot of time staring at each other from opposite shores. That is, until I realise I am indulging other people’s constructs and should get back into my own.
Ask yourself ‘What do I want written on my tombstone?’ and work back from there. The people that often make themselves feel very important Monday to Friday will not be at your funeral, taking soup to your widow or offering to be there for your kids. Remember that as it helps maintain perspective.
The two tips I’d pass on would be:
a) Know why you got into this in the first place and remind yourself of that focus as the adventure unfolds. If it was to be at the kid’s plays or to manage your depression better, don’t get distracted by the bells and whistles.
b) Get your shit sorted early. By this I mean most freelancers cannot even afford a sick day, let alone a flu, car accident or major life disruption. You must prepare for your boots to be hung up at some point as well as temporarily during life. You will get sick, get older, need time off, face heartbreak, have to consider grief, retirement and dry spells. Make it your responsibility to gather these nuts into your larder first because it makes it so much easier to deal with your business if you have savings, super, a contingency plan and aren’t driven by being in motion all day, every day to survive.
I can’t live without the Freelance Jungle. They keep my head on a lot more than they realise. Patreon is amazing for giving people the ability to create on their own terms. My desk tray for bed working. Seriously, if you have a disability, pregnancy or chronic health condition, a simple tea tray for your bed working days is a life saver.
I’ve loved finding out I have a great face for radio when it comes to freelance advocacy. I have also adored taking freelance and mental health challenges to the Vivid Ideas stage on a couple of occasions. I love speaking, so if anyone wants to have me at their event, get in touch!
TBH, it’s the Jungle.
Help more freelancers with stress and mental health. Complete my counselling diploma to do just that. Learn how to drive so I can raise a puppy for Assistance Dogs Australia (I volunteer in their relief care but it would be lovely to actually help a pup from whoa to go)
I’d really love if in Australia, we could stop looking for the opportunity to put other people down for trying. There’s such a sarcastic, unhappy outlook towards what others do. We’re better than that. If we want to remain the country of the Fair Go, we need to let ourselves take a chance and risk failure more. And that includes having people support us instead of laugh at us. Choose the people that look at your idea and like the baseline and want to add to the melody. Not the people who ask why you chose that arrangement and start by telling you why your song isn’t worthy.
Like to know more about Rebekah? Here you go…
Rebekah Lambert is a content marketing freelancer by trade and an accidental freelance advocate by design. As a woman living with cerebral palsy, OCD and a generalised anxiety disorder, she aims to normalise disability and mental health conditions as a part of self-employment experiences. Her content marketing business, Unashamedly Creative, has worked with large-scale organisations, start-ups, small businesses and sole traders on content, community engagement and communications since 2010. As the founder of The Freelance Jungle, she spread a message of community support, individual resilience and stress reduction through focusing on ending the isolation inherent in self-employment. Find her on her website, on Twitter or Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn.