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There’s a wide range of knowledge and expertise within the IPSE membership which deserves to be highlighted and shared. Whether it comes from working independently, or in collaboration with other self-employed professionals as in the case of Business Consultant Fran Varley.
Find out more about how working independently led to the creation of a boutique change and improvement consultancy which supports a range of clients and also collaborates with other small businesses and freelancers.
Read the interview
Can you introduce yourself and your business?
My name is Fran Varley, I’m a consultant, and my background is in test analysis and business analysis. My company is called Eximious Alliance, and we’re a boutique change and improvement consultancy.
We really pride ourselves on working in alliance with our clients to deliver mutual benefits, so we don’t believe in a one size fits all approach. We deliver service packages which are bespoke to our clients, and we try to work really flexibly with them to meet their needs. Rather than working with a big consultancy, we can work directly with their staff, and harness everybody’s voice and expertise.
What does a normal day look like for you?
I’m not sure there is a typical day anymore! It’s quite wide ranging now. Some work is on delivery for clients, of course. But also, a lot of it is about going out and finding new work.
How the business came about is actually a collaboration of a total of four of us for consultants. So, we share the work together. That’d be finding new clients, doing lots of networking with clients or other people that we can partner with, which are often freelancers of very small businesses as well. So yeah, there’s everything in a typical day.
And how long have you been freelancing?
Personally, I’ve been freelancing since 2013, and I’ve been a member of IPSE pretty much since the beginning. And I worked totally freelance by myself up until about 2018, and then started doing more collaborative work in a loose, not informal, way with other freelancers.
And it’s with those other freelancers that we’ve since built the business. So, we went to National Freelancers Day 2019, and there were a few talks about collaboration. Obviously, we were already collaborating, but it really sowed the seed that actually we could not just work alongside each other, but take on bigger work if we worked together. So ultimately, that’s where the Eximious Alliance came about.
The alliance thing was really important, not just about a collaboration between us as four freelancers. It’s very much about working in alliance with our clients. We want it to be something different. There’s a lot of massive consultancies out there. We’re not doing anything new from that perspective. But what I think sets us apart, and what has come from our own values of working as individuals, is being able to have that freedom to work with a client in a different way, in a more personalised way.
And the other side of the alliance is working with other freelancers. The photos for our website, the website itself, or other things. So Eximious Alliance in collaboration with other freelancers to help us deliver for clients. It’s taking that collaborative approach and building on it, and thinking how we can actually work together to deliver something that as individuals, or even as a micro business, we couldn’t do on our own.
Can you take us through the process of going into a collaboration?
We’d already encountered as individuals, that loneliness and fear factor, quite frankly, of working by yourself. That’s the kind of fear of when I get the next piece of work, have I gone in with the right rate? Do I really know what I’m doing? And then that loneliness when I’ve started this project, and actually, what I really need to do is talk to somebody else about it. That’s not something as an individual you feel able to do with a client. You kind of need somebody else who does a similar sort of thing to you to say “Yeah, you’re on the right track, that’s what I would do” to give you the confidence to keep going.
That was something when I went freelancing originally, I found it incredibly difficult. So, I think I learned quite early on that actually you’ve got to kind of build your own network. You’ve really got to build that community around yourself. So, I did a few other things before I started working really collaboratively.
I had a tribe, which was something I’d read about online. Dawn, who also works in the business with me, she also did a tribe as well. We’re both business analysts by trade. So, we created our own little tribe of other people that we’d worked with who did the same sort of role. And we’d meet on a regular basis, and have WhatsApp groups and things like that, just to run things by each other and go “I’ve done this or I’ve faced this problem, how would you approach it? Can you give me any advice?”
So that was really our first taste of collaborating. And then later on, and this is partly driven by IR35, and the need to be able to genuinely say we could substitute ourselves. As a business with one person, that’s really difficult to do, and I thought, I definitely want to work outside of IR35.
I’d already started doing a few collaborative projects, going in and doing a project with Dawn in particular. We already had these other things going on, so we decided to formalise it into a bit more of an association. So, we could not only formalise that kind of tribe culture we’d already created but to be able to say we’ve got people that we can genuinely call on. And we did do pieces of work for each other and substitute. It wasn’t just a façade; it was something we genuinely did. So, covering holiday or sickness, there were a few situations where that occurred, or just adding a bit more fuel to the fire if one of us was struggling the other would sort of back them up.
We started doing more work, we’re taking on projects which we wouldn’t have done by ourselves, and working groups, and pitching for things. And then at National Freelancers Day there was loads and loads of stuff about collaboration, and we thought hang on, we’re already doing this. But actually, can we grow outside of that?
So, we’d already started to take on bigger pieces of work, but they were still only as big as the two of us could do. And we’re still constrained by the number of bodies, for want of a better word. And we thought we could collaborate with other people, you know, there are wider people here. I think in order for us to do that, we actually felt we needed to come together, and really formalise it and become a micro business.
Has working with other people, especially in the alliance, changed the way you work as a self-employed person?
Massively. It’s really changed it. And I think it’s because there is a little bit more about running a business than perhaps as an individual that we’re having to do now. And I think that’s because we’re pitching for work.
So, we’ve learned all sorts of new skills or expanded them in terms of pitching. That was something I was okay at, but I only had to pitch myself and perhaps another person. Suddenly we’re doing things in a different way, as we’re pitching how we can support the businesses who perhaps need the help.
In terms of how we work, or what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis, that’s changed. In terms of work, we’re still doing delivery for clients, but that element of support is much, much bigger. And just the fact that it’s formalised for us has made quite a significant difference.
And the third thing is being able to collaborate with others. As I said, we used to collaborate with each other and it was a relatively small pool. But actually being able to widen our opportunities for working with others, whether it be freelancers or other micro businesses, that’s changed massively. So, we’ve got people I would have never dreamt of working with before, mental health coaches for example. So, lots of different aspects we can now offer as a collective.
Are there specific aspects of the business you’re particularly proud of?
It’s really fundamental to us, how we work with people. I’ve said “clients” a lot, but at the end of the day, you’re working with people.
I think it’s really important that we never just deliver something to a client that’s impossible. You’ve got to work with the people who work for that client. They’re the people who know their business, they know what they’re trying to achieve, all that sort of stuff. So, we bring our skill set, but it’s really important that we listen to them. And as I said earlier, that’s what we feel sets us apart from some of the big consultancies where, and having been on the other end of this, you feel ‘done to’, rather than being part of that change.
We’re a change and improvement consultancy, we’re all about change and change is really hard. And we’ve felt that ourselves, which has been an interesting thing to coach our own selves. But I think it’s really important you focus on those human relationships, and I think people is a real key thing.
And it’s not just the clients, it’s the other freelancers that we work with. From paying them as soon as we possibly can, because we’ve been on the receiving end of late payments, and all that kind of thing. And being really open and honest with them. Sure, lots of IPSE members will have worked with or been contacted by agencies. You don’t already get perhaps the most honest and open conversations with them. So, we try, from what we can offer somebody in terms of payment, to actually how it’s going to work, and how much work it will be.
This might be because we’re all women, we’re quite keen to support other women, particularly those who are starting out. It’s looking for ways we can give back by supporting other people.
What does self-employment mean to you?
I think the key word for me is freedom. So, it’s freedom to choose what work I do, when I work, how I do that work, and who I want to work with. And to try new things. It’s not always lovely work and being able to work only when I want, but more about running it in line with my personal values. So, the freedom to be able to pay somebody straight away when they send me a bill, or the freedom to say no to a piece of work, because actually, it doesn’t meet my values. I think freedom is the all-encompassing word there.
Do you feel the freedom of self-employment has changed now you’re collaborating?
It is different. I wouldn’t say your wings are clipped, because they’re not. You do need to learn to compromise in a way which I didn’t have to do before. But I now have four brains rather than mine.
I’m quite a risk taker, so I would have made lots of mistakes if I’d gone down the route we’re going down now, by myself. And the important thing for us is collaborating with like-minded people. So, we would have never come together, I would have never gone into business with anyone, who didn’t meet or share the same values. So that’s just kind of fundamental, but because of that, we have very similar views on who we want to work with, and how we want to work, and all that sort of thing – so that freedom still feels there.
But with that level of support, which as individuals, we didn’t entirely have before. And being able to put those minds together to create something better than we could all have done individually.
What advice would you give to other freelancers?
Learn to state your boundaries. And learn to state your boundaries!
One thing I did when I was working entirely on my own, and we have perhaps taken it to another level now, was creating a document. I didn’t want to have formal Ts and Cs, that’s why I called them Ways of Working. And I think just having something like that makes the conversation easier.
That was something that helps you stop and think about “how is it that I want to work with clients?”.
And I think the other thing is practising saying two things. One is no, which is sometimes odd. And the other is the big scary numbers. I think we’re all a bit in danger of underselling ourselves, thinking “it’ll only take me this long, maybe I should only say that much,” or “am I really good enough to do this”. I’ve spent quite a bit of time practising saying those big scary numbers, and all the hard conversations I might have to have.
So, I think practice doing that in front of a mirror, write yourself a little script if you have to, and sometimes that gives you the confidence to go “Okay, this is it. I’m going to put the big girl pants on and say this”.
Do you manage to keep a good work life balance?
I attempt to! This is something we talk about a lot, making sure no one person is overwhelmed and helping each other out. But the truth is, I think all freelancers will recognise this in themselves is that I don’t always have the perfect work life balance. Sometimes it’s too much home, sometimes it’s too much work.
One thing I’ve found helpful are time recording tools. There are all sorts of freebies out there – you don’t have to have an app or whatever. But measuring your time and thinking about what you’re really doing. Sometimes you think “I spent ages doing X, Y and Z”, and it’s like really? Or you think you only spent an hour doing something and really spent about four. And some of those might have been walking around with a dog, but you’ve been thinking about and creating something in your mind. So, I think time recording tools, and really thinking about how long you spent doing something.
And not just doing the do, but also in terms of actually bidding for work. Hat can take quite a lot of effort. Not everyone will put together a big bid or proposal, but they’re still emailing people back and forth, or meeting them for an hour, and then meeting them for another hour.
And all that takes time. So, if you learn to understand how much time and effort you're putting into that, you can think about it when you’re doing those big scary numbers. Thinking about actually, how do I build that into the prices that I charge? And I think that’s really important, or we do ourselves a disservice as freelancers.
How long have you been an IPSE member?
Okay, so I’ve been an IPSE member since December 2013. I actually started freelancing in March 2013, and I got called up for jury service in the summer. Which luckily for me, was relatively short-lived, but it did hit me in the pocket.
And somebody suggested to me after I was moaning about this a little bit, another freelancer that I was working with at the time, asked if I’d thought about joining IPSE as there’s some protection if you’re called up for jury service. I had a look at the website and thought it looked good and there’s lots of other things there. So, I joined in December of that year.
And what’s kept you a member for so long, and what have you found useful?
There’s quite a lot of resources, in terms of thinking about how you pitch your work, don’t get paid late or whatever it might be. So, there’s been all sorts of things that I’ve read and increased my knowledge.
The kind of work I was doing, IR35 was a concern, so getting special rates on having contracts checked was a big draw for me. I’ve been able to pick up the phone several times to say I’m not sure about something and they’ve helped to explain it. So, my knowledge has increased massively.
And the other thing I’ve really liked about IPSE is the pension and life assurance. You leave your day job, you start freelancing, the last thing on your mind is your pension. But it’s really important and perhaps even more for freelancers, because we don’t have that employer’s contribution going in. So that opportunity to have a scheme has been really good. And because I’ve had emails about it, it made me think, OK, now I need to do that. It’s easy for me to do, I can go onto the website and get those things, and at great rates. So that’s been a really important thing for me to feel that financially kind of secure as well.
Have you been actively supporting any particular IPSE campaigns?
In a way, IR35, I felt less concerned about because I’d had so much support. I felt confident that I was running my business, even thought it was just myself, outside of that. But I did support the campaign, writing to MPs, and all that kind of thing. I went to chat to my MP because I think there were a lot of unintended consequences of the IR35 changes.
Regardless of them saying there should not be blanket decisions, the reality is that there were. That was, we’re just not going to talk to any small businesses at all, you know, we’re just not going to work with them. Which whilst isn’t a blanket decision we’ve decided that you’re in or out, it was in effect. It impacted a lot of freelancing businesses.
And Covid. I was a keen supporter of that, in terms of making sure that the support for the self-employed was there. I felt that was kind of obvious that was missing when those first announcements were made. For me, Covid was a worry, but ultimately an opportunity. It means I’ve got clients I wouldn’t have considered because I think for the clients, they weren’t in that space where they were comfortable with remote work. But I was really conscious that for other people, including some members of my family, that was not the case at all.
I definitely used the templates for writing to MPs, although I added my own extras, obviously. And just having the encouragement, actually, to go talk to your MP rather than just writing a letter. I thought there was loads of support there.
The other thing I haven’t mentioned is that I’m a member of the IPS member forum. So, for me, membership is not just what you can get, it’s about what you can give as well. So that’s my way of giving back. I feel like I’ve had quite a lot from IPSE in terms of support. Yeah, you have to go and ask for it, or go and find it, but it’s all there.
It’s been quite good for me personally to be able to give feedback on improvements to the IPSE website.
Would you recommend IPSE membership to other freelancers?
I always recommend IPSE membership to other freelancers. I've been recommending it since December 2013!
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