Things I have learned in a year of running a business

Red moleskine notebook

Picture: Sean McGrath, flickr

I’m a member the South African Freelancer’s Association, and the current acting chair of the Western Cape committee. In that capacity, I was asked to talk to a group of film-making interns at Reel Partners about freelancing and entrepreneurship.
I duly sat down and made a list of my five top tips for freelancers – you can read them here.
The talk went down well, I hope, and it got me thinking about what I have learned on a more personal level. It turned out there was quite a lot to excavate from the past year. Here then are the “deeper” learnings:


When I first set out as a freelancer at the end of 2016, I came to it from a long career in journalism, with a depth of experience and a modest reputation in the South African industry. I did do some thinking about what the market might want, and where there might be opportunities for me – but I realise now that I did assume that my reputation alone would mean I could secure work.
Instead, it was a personal connection with someone who I used to work with that landed me my first big contract – working on news at
I have concluded that marketing is much more important than I thought it was – I have to work to make myself known to potential customers. I am on a steep learning curve there, kick-started by buying Louise Harnby’s book on marketing.


My initial idea was to pitch my services as a trainer of journalists, and as an editor and proofreader. The training side of things was based on my knowledge that I am a good trainer, and my passion for journalism – this is the thing I love, and it made sense to me to pursue it. Editing and proofreading is another strength of mine and I thought that together these two skills would lead to my two main revenue streams.
I deliberately did not put myself into the market as a writer (even though I can write) as I knew there were many, many good writers already in the mix, and fair number of new ones entering the market in the same batch of retrenchees that I was part of.
Those thoughts still make sense to me. But in reality, training work was hard to secure: my assumption that media houses would want to hire me foundered on the fact of shrinking budgets in the industry. And editing and proofreading proved harder to break into than I thought. In both cases it has taken a year to start making some headway.
And in the meanwhile, I have actually been making money out of my news production skills, even though I had not thought of that as a direction to take.
Life is what happens when you are making other plans, said John Lennon (or maybe The Reader’s Digest, says Wikipedia). And so it has proved. I’ve learned that its important to keep my eye on the ball no matter what my plans may have been, to stay flexible and to be aware of trends in the market.


I did not make any formal plans at the beginning of 2017, though I did have some things I knew I needed to do. So I had an informal mental list – maintain a website, beef up my social media profiles, contact people who might have work for me and so on.
I now see that what that meant was that a lot of the time I was not necessarily using my time well – not having a strict focus meant that I opened the door to procrastination and confusion. I went back to the drawing board late in 2017, and am starting 2018 with a yearly goal, which I will break down into monthly targets.
I also have a business plan (forged in a barter deal with a former colleague Quentin Wray: he helped my think through my plan in exchange for a WordPress site).
This means – I hope – that I will make better use of my time this year. And if I don’t, I will have clearer idea of what worked and what didn’t because I will be able to track what I have achieved and what not.


I am universally acknowledged as an organised and disciplined person, one who gets things done and is reliable and work-driven.
So why are there days when I have no idea what I am supposed to be doing, or days when I simply can’t spend another moment at my computer, or days when I persuade myself that grocery shopping is a much better use of my time than writing a post for my website?
This one took me a long time to process: it turns out a lot of my discipline when I was in full-time employment was created by the boundaries of my job, the expectations of my colleagues and sheer habit.
Take that all away and things fall apart – even if just a little.
So, I made the above-mentioned plan with goals, and have mapped out a working week with slots where I am expected to be at a desk. I have time management software in which I must log 40 hours a week. In other words, I have changed my mindset: I am running a business to which I am accountable, rather than personally deploying some skills for clients.


When you work full-time, you get up and go the office, no matter what is happening in your personal life. There is a built-in containment in that. But when you are freelancing, there are no such comforting rituals.
There have been some derailing family events in the last year and I have been taken aback about how easy it is for three or four days to go by with nothing happening on the work front, while other fires are being fought. And by how much time it takes to get back on track.
I’ve learned that it is important to have one or two things that must get done every day, no matter what (even if is just checking and answering emails). That way you have your own in-built safety rituals.


This is always with me. What if I can’t find enough clients, make enough money? What if I fall ill and can’t work? What if I can’t pay the school fees? What if all my computers die at once? What if there is a once-in-a-lifetime fulltime job out there and I should take it and I miss it (that fantasy dies hard!)?
Then I remember that my fulltime job disappeared from under me, and that I had no control over that either.
And I take a deep breath, do a 10-minute Headspace meditation and make another list.
It will be alright. I will make this work.
And that is the key thing I have learned: I can and will make this work.

Five tips for starting your own freelancing business

Business plan notebook

Picture: StockSnap, Pixabay

After a festive season break and a period of organising, planning and reflection, Safe Hands is ready to start a new year!

First off is this bullet-point list of my learning over the last year, written originally for a presentation I gave to a group of interns. It’s a “mind dump” of sorts, listing all the accumulated knowledge I have acquired with an eye to trying to help young people who are just starting freelancing in the creative/media world.

  • So do some planning – what do you offer, who do your offer it to, how will you find those people, how will you market yourself? What can only you offer? What is the name of your business? Decide what name you are going to use across all your branding at the very beginning.
  • Have business-like documentation – invoices, letterheads, an email signature, business cards.
  • Get a proper email address.
  • Figure out a way to keep track of the money – even it is just a notebook where you write what you have spent and what you have earned.
  • Set yourself some goals.
  • Work out what you need to get things started – make a list of all expenses you think you might have.

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A tip for writing better captions

Captions are everywhere. And so many of them could do with more thought.

For example, I saw this on Twitter:

camel caption

A screenshot from Twitter, with author deliberately hidden.









The fundamental thing about a caption is that it goes together with a picture! So the caption only needs to contain details that the reader cannot see, or infer. No need then to say that so-and-so laughs as she meets her friends. If she is visibly laughing, the picture is doing its job. In the case of the camel, the offending word is “seen”. It’s just not needed. My suggestion for a better caption (and note – you don’t need to repeat Dubai):

A camel is readied for foot surgery at the Dubai Camel Hospital.

Journalism “legals”: when is something in the public interest?

keys on keyboard

Picture: Pixabay

A Mediaonline article published this week does an excellent job of laying out some of the legal considerations governing the publication of sensitive material in South Africa.
The article carries interviews with the people involved in looking at the legal ramifications of Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keeper, (one of whom is my sister Gill Moodie) and notes that while something may ordinarily be dangerous to publish, the factor of “public interest” can come into play and make publication justifiable:

The next step is to ensure that what the journalist/author intends to publish is of public interest. This is vital because it can be used as a defence in a number of instances. De Klerk explains, “The law protects privacy for example, but privacy can be overridden if there is an overriding public interest present”.

In other words, you could argue that you published something defamatory or illegal because you believed it was in the public interest.

But what is “public interest”? Continue reading

Things I learned at Media Indaba Africa 2017

view from media indaba

Media Indaba organisers added their own twist to the view.

Earlier this year, I attended a South African Freelancers’ Association event addressed by Chris Roper from Code for Africa, where he mentioned the upcoming Media Indaba Africa conference (called Media Party Africa in 2016). I duly filled in the online form for the event and forgot about it.
When an email alerted me to the fact that the indaba was to be held in Cape Town in late November, and that it would be free, I leapt at the opportunity.
I spent the best part of two days at Media Indaba, chatting to people, attending interesting talks and taking in the beauty of Cape Town from the 28th floor of the Portside building.

Here are my impressions: Continue reading

Twitter’s 280-characters just too many? Here’s a way to cope…

Twitter logo

Twitter logo: Picture: Pixabay

I am in two minds about Twitter’s decision to allow 280-character tweets.
One the one hand, when only 140 characters were allowed, I often felt that I could do with just an extra few characters to get in an extra hashtag, or a telling phrase.

And I think that the imposed brevity meant people often substituted a short hashtag for actual meaning, as seen here:

Looking for inspiration during #NaNoWriMo2017? These classic authors have you covered.

What is #NaNoWriMo2017 anyway? Turns out it is National Novel Writing Month. That tweet would be better like this:

Looking for inspiration during National Novel Writing Month? These classic authors have you covered. #NaNoWriMo2017

The extra characters which Twitter now allows mean that it is now possible to put in just a little extra background, where needed, without resorting to mysterious and irritating hashtags.

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