February 18, 2020

‘Freelancing in 2020: State of the Industry’ – A Dinghy Survey

Written by Ross Pounds

Content Creator

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, we recently embarked upon the inaugural Dinghy ‘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?

The survey closed at the end of January, and Dinghy’s team of expert number crunchers have now completed their calculations and drawn their conclusions. The results are in. For the more visually inclined / time poor among you, those results are pleasingly arranged in the more aesthetically beguiling form of an infographic – which you can see right here. For those of you who like a bit more meat on the bone, so to speak, we’ll be running through our findings in a little more detail below.

Download the infographic:

But first, a few 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 (and 40% of those who never received payment were simply ‘ghosted’ by the company they’d done the work for) – Dinghy can help chase late payment.
  • 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 significantly 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 optimum

The Detail

We sent our ‘Freelancing in 2020: State of the Industry’ survey out through numerous channels – to our customers, across social media, and to freelancers all over the UK. The results we got back were intriguing – from questions on work and business through to lifestyle and the pressing matter of exactly which streaming platform freelancers prefer (sorry, Apple TV, it wasn’t you).

So, what did we find out? In order 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 (we do provide on-demand insurance cover for freelancers, after all). Let’s get started.

Work

The most popular profession for freelancers? Marketing, with a whopping 32.1% of the overall figure. I.T. and Tech followed in second, with 14.8% of respondents working in that field, closely followed by Art and Design (14.5%) and Business Consulting (11.3%). Bringing up the rear, with a miserly 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 quite clearly 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 perhaps starting out with work experience before truly 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 portion of the survey, we found that freelancers – unsurprisingly – are impressively adept at keeping multiple plates spinning at once. 47.8% of respondents routinely operated with somewhere between 3 and 6 clients on the go at any one time. For 42%, however, just 1 or 2 at once was enough.

Business

We could have grouped the ‘Work’ and ‘Business’ findings under one section, but it made more sense to break it out into two. Whilst our ‘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 just starting out as a freelancer.

Somewhat surprisingly, 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 – substantially ahead of social media, job boards, and freelancing websites. Whilst that word of mouth figure would undoubtedly 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. Ultimately, 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 simply 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 in order to make a good impression. Coupled with the above finding on companies who simply disappeared when payment was due, it is clear that better and firmer legislation needs to be implemented in order 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 strongly recommend reading this blog post. 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 multiple clients. (Equally, IR35 rules do not apply to those trading as a sole-trader). As mentioned earlier, a surprisingly low 5% were concerned about the impact of Brexit (although, perhaps, like us they simply couldn’t bear to talk about it anymore).

Lifestyle

The fun bit. Lifestyle change is the reason many freelancers choose the path they do. One respondent rather poetically paraphrased a certain 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 spiritually driven, it came as little surprise that flexibility and freedom (with 45% and 25% respectively) 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 memorably said, their choice allowed them:

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

That’s an arrangement this writer suspects many would be quite happy with.

Despite some difficulties – as alluded to in the ‘Business’ section – ultimately 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 ‘extremely 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, the freelancers we spoke to love their work. In terms of looking forward, 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.

Perhaps most importantly, the overwhelming majority of respondents (a mighty 91%) stated that going freelance had improved the quality of their life. And ultimately, isn’t that what any of us want the most? Money is great (and necessary). A good roster of clients certainly 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.

Insurance

Home territory. As an insurance provider for the freelance masses, it would’ve been remiss of us not to include a few questions related to what we know best. We were delighted to hear that 73% of freelancers said that having insurance made them feel secure whilst they were working, with a sizeable 25% of that number going as far as to say they felt “extremely secure” (the full 5 out of 5).

On a similar note, 5% of freelancers sadly 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.

As a freelancer, the equipment you use is often an essential part of your job. Without it, you aren’t able to work. For that reason we’d always recommend taking out Business Equipment insurance – a relatively inexpensive way to ensure that, should the worst happen, you’ll be covered.

The Extras

Participants who’d completed the initial question set got access to a supplementary survey with a few more light-hearted questions. Why? After drilling into your very raison d’être (from a business point of view at least), we thought it’d be nice to lighten the load. And it gave us a good idea of what makes freelancers, well, freelancers.

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 distantly by Amazon Prime and BBC iPlayer. Apple TV and Facebook Watch – you’ve got some work to do
  • It’s probably fair to assume that the greater public bracket freelancers in with the juice-cleansing, avocado-toast-eating community. Our research, however, said otherwise. A full three quarters of freelancers put themselves down as ‘full-blooded carnivores’ (our words, not theirs), with Vegan, Vegetarian and Pescatarian splitting the remainder fairly evenly between them
  • If you’re working from home a lot of the time, it’s nice to have company. And no, we don’t mean Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. 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% firmly avowed “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 of you (unless you were too ashamed to admit to the truth, of course). Side note: slight admiration for the one respondent who admitted to getting up at ‘around lunchtime’ each day
  • 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. And 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 closely 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 contentiously 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 religiously though – by far the most read of the traditional newspapers

Wrapping Up

What have we learnt (other than that people love answering questions about themselves, obviously)? Quite a lot, as it turns out. There were some answers we were expecting, and some that we weren’t. 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.

A huge thank you to everyone who responded and responded so honestly. We’re very proud to see the freelancing community flourishing more than ever, and we’re very much looking forward to seeing its continued growth. The camaraderie among freelancers of all stripes is something to be cherished, and we hope the results of this survey – as open and revealing as they are – will add something to the conversation.

And if you didn’t have time to complete the questions this year? We’ll see you in 2021!

About Ross Pounds

Before joining the good ship Dinghy, Ross spent five years creating content across the Kingsbridge Group. Prior to that he was a freelance writer for hire in film, music, fashion, and literature. Ross doesn't have any spare time because he has a small child, but he does enjoy reading, food, and tattoos when he gets a minute.

Read more blog posts by Ross Pounds


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