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After more than 18 years in self-employment, Enterprise Consultant Adrian Ashton has a wealth of knowledge and useful insights for anyone looking to build a sustainable, long-term career.
Read the interview
Can you introduce yourself and your business?
I’m Adrian Ashton. And I work in a freelance self-employed capacity as an Enterprise Consultant. That means I work with universities, developing curriculum materials. I work with local businesses, I work with national sector bodies and charities, and social enterprises and government support programs.
How do you define what you offer as a business?
Part of the accepted wisdom of being self-employed is that you have a clear niche. You say, I’m Adrian, I help people grow pot plants. OK, that’s maybe your thing, that’s what you become known as, and that’s fine.
But I never meant to be self-employed, I fell into it by accident. And one of the things I was brought up by my parents remembering was that, if people asked you nicely, try and say yes. And if people enjoy what you’re doing, try and do more of it.
So, over the last 18 years, I’ve been approached by different bodies, different industries, to get involved in all sorts of weird work – from policy development, to feasibility studies, to training courses, to data analysis, and all sorts of things. And that makes it messy.
But actually, it’s worked to my benefit, because not having a niche means I’ve been more adaptable, more flexible. When one industry hits a slowdown, I can pick up work elsewhere. And it helps me form connections in really creative ways. Because I’m being exposed to different industries, sectors and people, it means I’m seeing patterns and coming up with new ideas and creative approaches.
Without focusing on a specific niche, how does your business differentiate itself to clients?
In terms of what I offer, there’s a million and one other people who offer similar stuff. What those people don’t offer is this face, this ego, this personality of how I approach it. And that’s a very deliberate choice.
When I first started out, I had an idea that people would buy me on the basis of my experience and qualifications. And after the first year, I thought I’ve made some assumptions, I need to make sure that it’s holding true. So after year one, I went back to all my clients and said “What is it you enjoyed about working with me, what made you pick me and keep coming back?”
And not one of them said your qualifications, the letters after your name or your experience with that sector. They all said it’s something about you, and how you build relationships with us and how you make us feel. And that got me thinking.
So, every couple of years I say to LinkedIn, pick a random 10% sample of my contacts. And I’m going to ask you one question. And in previous years, that question has been “What’s my superpower?”, “What’s the image you think of when you think I’m the person you need?”, “How would you introduce me to other people?”, and this year it’s been “If there was a statue of me, what would I be holding in my hand?”
I’m trying to get a sense of what it is people really like. In the past, people have said “You’re a Babel fish, we love the way that you help us understand things. It’s as if you’re doing magic tricks. All of a sudden, we can understand the balance sheet. We never thought we could do that”. So that’s what makes me stand out.
You’ve mentioned CPD as something you do differently
CPD traditionally stands for continuing professional development. For me, it stands for convivial procrastinated drinking. Because that’s actually one of my CPD models. There’s three or four people, and every couple of years, we try and get down the pub together. And we just swap stories over beer.
But it’s actually also one of my models of business support, which is beer mentoring. People who say, I’ve got half an idea for a business or a new charity, but I’ve not really got any money. And I go, OK, let’s do pro bono. Let’s go down the pub, you buy the drinks, and we’ll chat it through. After the third pint, it gets a bit ropey, but up to that point, people enjoy it.
Alcohol is a bit taboo for some cultures and communities that I work with, so I also offer bacon buttie sandwich mentoring. But if bacon’s culturally not appropriate, cake mentoring. I’m very partial to cake as well.
Working across different industries and projects, do you have a set framework for how you work with clients?
I use a lot of enterprise development approaches, with a wide range of different groups, sectors and industries. And people seem to get me in because they say “We’ve got a problem”. We need to understand this market opportunity. We need to pivot. We need to develop our governance. We need some training for our people.
They don’t know who else to turn to, and I come in with an enterprise-based approach. That’s not enterprise to say “Let’s help you make more money from this”. But the traditional route of enterprise which is “What if?” and “Why not?”
Let’s look at creating change in a way that people feel is exciting, and helps them enjoy working and doing things more.
How long have you been self-employed, and has it changed over that time?
I officially became self-employed in January of 2005. So, at the time of this recording, that’s nearly 20 years now. To put that into context, that’s a time before iPhones existed. Before LinkedIn was born, we had to go out and do our networking by scratching messages on walls with stones and chalk.
From my perspective, freelancing seems to have become more acceptable as a legitimate profession. People are more open to identifying it as such. People are saying “actually, let’s get a freelancer”. And it’s more of the norm. People recognise, we’re everywhere now. That’s been the biggest change, I think.
We’ve seen changes in technology, so things are faster. People expect communication to be quicker, but we can manage that, we can mitigate it.
What hasn’t changed, are people. People are still people. And my approach over the 20 years has always remained. I’m working with you as a person. My support to you should be making your life easier. Not more complicated, not creating more problems or hassle. It if does, then I’m not doing it right.
And that approach has always been valued and consistent over time. The only time I’ve worn a suit and tie, including when I’ve done stuff with government and all the rest, is weddings and funerals.
The only time it’s caused a problem is when I was invited to a formal dinner, and I didn’t have a necktie so they wouldn’t let me in. I had to arrange something with someone I knew who was there, so we figured out that the toilets had an outside facing window. He went in ahead of me, I jumped over the fence, and he passed me his necktie. I ran around, got let in, gave him his tie back and then sat in the darkest corner that I could find so I wouldn’t get spotted and kicked out.
You mentioned you fell into self-employment by accident, so how did you get started?
The stories that I hear from other freelancers, these people say they become a freelancer with one of a usual range of freelancer stories. “I wanted to take a break”, or “I’d been made redundant and had some savings”. People tend to say, I was in a circumstance and a position where I felt confident, and able to take the risk financially and emotionally.
I just moved to the other end of the country. So, I knew no-one. I had a young family, and I was the sole income earner for our family as well. And it remained that way for quite a number of years. I had no savings to speak of, so it was pure necessity. I needed the work because we had a mortgage to pay, I had food to buy for the baby, and it was all on me. So, I had to take whatever work I could find.
That pressure was there, and this whole thing about ‘it’s important to take time out as a freelancer to recharge yourself’. Nope, because I needed to be finding the next chunk of money. And being there to support my family, and the kids as they were growing up.
It’s always felt I’ve gone against the usual models of doing it. But shown there is no typical model. You can still make it this long, you can still make it work. And you don’t have to follow what seems to be the playbook we hear so much.
How have you overcome the challenges you faced?
Part of my challenge, working professionally as a freelancer, has been the wider world, frankly. So, my father has almost died twice since I’ve been at the other end of the country after moving away. And that’s been tough. It was really hard for me to go and be with him and my mom during those periods, because in theory, you’re freelance so just take the time off you need. But I couldn’t because I was the sole income earner for my family. So that was a difficult balance.
As a family, we were made homeless twice by flooding. We were living, at the time, in the Calder Valley, which has a history of very dramatic floods. So you’ve still got to keep working. Clients are saying “We offer you some sympathy, but we still need you to do the job. Can you do it or not?”
Also, my wife at the time launched her own business, and so I was cash flowing that as well as earning enough money to pay my own freelance business, and enough to cover the household bills. It’s quite a big ask to put on one freelancer, but I managed to get through that. Family illnesses, kids growing up, school sports days, all that other stuff that you want to kind of work in and get through.
Oh, and also along the way, I’ve had investigations by HMRC into me as well, for suspected tax fraud. They’ve all gone away, just to reassure people. Clean bill of health every time – it was always a computer error. But those things have a big knock to your confidence, they’re a huge distraction to your ability to focus on work with clients.
So, there’s been a lot of stuff that I’ve had thrown at me that I think is probably not unique in itself. But you put it all together, and I’ve not come across any other freelancer who’s been willing to admit ‘I had all that as well, in the span of it’. And I don’t think it’s a case of ‘I overcame it’ – I survived it.
And I think it comes back to managing my own expectations about myself as a freelancer. And part of my mental resilience and wellbeing is to say, how do I keep the elastic in my brain stretching and not snapping?
There’s a sign that used to be in an office I worked in sometimes that said, ‘aim low, achieve your goals, avoid disappointment’. Very tongue in cheek, but actually there was some truth in it. Don’t set yourself up to fail, do the best you can, and recognise that sometimes, despite your best efforts, it’s not going to work. You’ve not failed. That’s just called life. And it’s very hard.
If you’ve set this expectation up in yourself and you don’t achieve it, it’s very easy then to berate yourself, and pull yourself down. So, I’ve always said I’ll try and be modest in terms of my personal goals and aspirations. That’s meant when all these things hit, my goal was to get the house back to a point we can live it in again, and make sure the mortgage or the rent is paid next month.
Those are my goals. Quite modest, maybe. But they’ve helped me keep that balance and perspective on it. And it’s made me more responsive, more resilient, more open to change perhaps as well, because I’ve not had big goals that I’m pursuing. You know, I must become a world-famous speaker, I must become known as this, I’m going to get a specialist niche. Now I’m just happy to bumble along in this life.
If someone opens a door, I’m peeking my head around it and see what’s behind it. If someone says maybe you could do this, OK, I’ll give it a go. I’m with Oscar Wilde on this. Try everything once apart from murder, incest and Morris dancing. Because ultimately, none of us are getting out of this life alive, so let’s get to the end of it with as few regrets as possible, as to what we didn’t do.
There’s something about the resilience that we create is based on how we see the bigger picture, and the context. I’ve worked with domestic violence charities and refugees, I’ve worked with parents forums of families who have been let down by the care system. And those perspectives actually make me think it could be worse. The whole cliché about being richer, never mind, it could be worse.
Building resilience as a freelancer for myself, has been part of my focus. Very often we’re faced with a challenge of adversity, my focus has always been that I know at some point, I will be through the other side of this. Somehow it will happen, whatever works, I will be through this. And I will look back and go ‘what was I worried about? It was always going to work out OK’. The frustration is that I don’t know when that point is going to come. I don’t even know where the halfway mark is. So, my resilience is just based on grit. Knuckle down, bear with it. You’ve just got to get through to the end of this day, and deal with tomorrow when it comes.
With the challenges you’ve faced, how have you built up your resilience?
There are lots of ways we can build our resilience to shocks professionally, and personally, because they’re both mashed up together in the way that we work. What works for me won’t work for everyone else in the same way because our brains are different, and we have grown up in different ways. Some of it may be useful, though.
What I focus on is trying to be modest in my own aspirations. All I need to do is make sure the bills are paid. That’s my number one goal. Are my bills paid, and my kids supported and cared for, to the best of my abilities.
There’s also a sense of that resilience of the playfulness as well. None of us are getting out of this life alive. So ultimately it doesn’t matter if we get it right or wrong. It doesn’t matter if we lose a contract. It doesn’t matter if we looked silly to that person at that time. I got divorced a while ago and I remember at the time, someone sharing with me something I found really encouraging. What they said was “In 50 years from now, no one will be talking about it or care about it. Because in 50 years from now, no one will even know who you were or what your name was”. So that was incredibly liberating. So actually, just do it.
In terms of resilience, being honest and open with people. If you think something is going to go wrong, be honest and say “I think this could be a concern” before it all goes bad. So in January 2020, when this thing called Covid was starting to appear in the news, I talked to all of my clients and said what can we do? How can we think about how we’re working on these pieces of work together, to mitigate the impact it’s going to have. And they all said the same thing, which is very British, it’ll blow over, don’t worry about it.
And then March 23rd happened, and in the week that followed 95% of all my client work was cancelled. But the week after that, nearly everyone came back to me and said, we remember you were asking about how we could change what we deliver and work together. So you seem to have some ideas we could look at in terms of really restarting work. And I’ve built my business back, because I’ve laid this foundation.
I used to joke that in my head I have a paranoia chip, that sense if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. But I do something with it. Because I’m always thinking what’s the contingency for this? If the laptop blows up, is there a spare? Where’s the escape route?
Those are the sorts of things that for me have worked well. Having a breadth of clients, as well. Those perspectives from different industries are brilliant.
And then it turns out that I can grow plants really well. Give me some seeds from the leftover stuff you’ve bought from the supermarket, and I’ll probably be able to get you something to harvest from them later in the year. If I can just water some plants, plant some seeds or stroke a leaf somewhere, that seems to help me stay happy.
How can you learn to adapt when situations change suddenly?
I think one of the key strengths about building resilience is being able to improvise. But in a way that is professional without spooking your client, making it up by the seat of your pants.
That improvisation skill comes back to the idea of being a stand-up comedian. Stand-ups, when you see them perform, sometimes get heckled. They weren’t expecting to be heckled, it comes out of nowhere. It breaks their flow. But a good stand-up will instantly come back with a rebuttal, with a way to work with that heckle into the script. So actually, the audience get a better result that they enjoy even more. Maybe as freelancers what we all need at some point is training in how to do good stand-up comedy.
Someone did a cartoon of me years ago, before smartphones became a thing. I was delivering a business start-up bootcamp to a bunch of undergraduates and someone caricaturing all of the speakers got me looking very dour and saying it’s OK, I have my backup plan in my pocket. What I meant was I had a USB stick with all the files that I’d emailed across to be loaded up, so I could easily just plug it in if we needed it.
Are there any projects or work that you’re particularly proud of?
After nearly 20 years, I’ve been involved in an awful lot of stuff. For me, it’s really hard to pin down the outstanding moment that it’s worked.
There have been things that I’ve been involved in that I’mpleased that they’re there now. So, for example, there are new physical buildings for workspaces and incubators, for businesses, for people who otherwise would have missed out massively in life. They are there because I was involved in a piece of work that created the model for them, that allowed legislation and policy to be influenced to allow them to be built. There’s no room named after me, but that’s OK. Because I have an idea that if you don’t mind your name not being on something, you can achieve a lot more in this world, you can have more impact.
Also I know that I’ve been personally involved in changing a piece of company law, to make it more equitable for social businesses, cooperatives and such like. At the time, nobody seemed to want to talk about it. And when I challenged it, it became quite controversial. But subsequently, the regulators all said you were spot on, you had a really good point here, and we’ve changed it as a result.
Ultimately, I think in terms of big achievements is that I’m still here, 18-20 years on, despite everything that I’ve had thrown at me personally and professionally, despite how the world keeps changing around us. I’m still helping make sure the rent’s paid, there’s food in the fridge, and I can spend time with my family. That’s been my ultimate aspiration for what I want to get out of this.
What are the best and worst things about being self-employed?
Being freelance is a game of two halves, really, a bit yin and yang. On the one hand, there is massive freedom to get involved in all sorts of weird, wonderful and wacky adventures. To work how you want to work. To say today’s the day for the Elton John glasses, and I’m going to wear these all day. And that’s fine. And no-one seems to have a problem, either, when I’m doing that.
It’s an opportunity to claim expenses. I can travel around to a conference; get a train ticket and I don’t have to pay for that myself. It’s coming out of my business costs.
On the downside, it’s frustration of a lack of recognition. As self-employed, there’s about 5 million of us. We’re recognised in all the research documents as driving forward the growth in the economy, massive contributions to the Government tax take in terms of supporting public services, helping create new jobs, taking innovation out into the world. And yet, we’re always ignored in Government policy and legislation.
We struggle to get the support we need. We don’t get sick pay, we don’t get holiday pay, we don’t get someone paying into a pension pot for us. It’s all on us.
And there’s an image that many people have, who are not freelancers. Which is you get to wake up when you want, maybe do a couple of hours on your laptop, and that’s it. You take as much as you want. For some people, that’s their freelance model, but for most of us, it’s having to gently re-educate your family, your friends, your neighbours. To say, actually, it’s a lot more bloody hard work than you might think.
But the Yin Yang side, if we harness it, if we embellish it, if we jump into it enough with our arms open, there’s a lot more fun to be had that makes up for that.
What do you find most useful about being an IPSE member?
I’ve been asked to be part of think tank groups in the past, as well as policy development groups, with Government bodies and others, and I tend to turn them down. One of the challenges of being freelancer is if we’re not actively delivering for a client, we’re not getting paid. So, I get invitations from time-to-time and it’s very glamourous, it’s very exciting, but no-one’s going to pay me to be there.
Because in the past, it goes round in circles a few times. And it gets to people, and they say let’s come back and reconvene to take this further. I ask for a show of hands around the table for who is salaried and getting paid for today. Everyone puts their hand up apart from me. And I say on that basis, I’m out, because today has been the equivalent of x pounds of lost earnings. And I always quote the IPSE figure because it’s a really good benchmark figure for day rates for freelancers. And people don’t realise what it means to be a freelancer because they’re in their employment bubble.
So, I think the work of IPSE to try and challenge some of that is really important.
I’ve been aware of IPSE for more years than I can remember now, and it always seems to be talked about in different freelance communities. And they set up National Freelance Day as well. I’ve really enjoyed the research, the benchmarking about Freelance Confidence surveys, the day rate that we use – I found that really useful for benchmarking my own performance bidding for work and such like.
I’ve always known they do good stuff. I’ve always appreciated and valued what they do for the freelance and self-employed community as a whole. And I became a member a few weeks ago. I’ve always looked at IPSE in the past and they seem, this sounds bad, but they seem a bit too professional for me. And I became a member because someone rang me up and said, you subscribe to our mailing list, you’ve come to the conference we put on, but you’re not a member, can we ask why not? That’s probably because no-one actually asked me.
What are you looking forward to about your fairly new IPSE membership?
One of a few things, is the opportunity to spend more time sharing stories with other freelancers and self-employed people. Having a safe space to say “Is it just me who’s thinking this stuff?” “Has anyone else ever had this?” “How did you deal with that?” Because it’s quite hard to have some of those conversations about the challenges we face on open Facebook posts or Twitter feeds without it risking damaging our professional reputations.
There’s a balance to be had about being honest with what we’re struggling with, and our identity as human beings. But at the same time, not undermining the confidence that our clients can have in us. So that space to explore some of those themes, I’m really looking forward to.
In the past, knowing that IPSE is there before I became a member, I’m glad they’re there because somehow through osmosis, there’s some benefit I get. And eventually I have to cross the threshold and support them. Because if I say they’ve a good thing, and I see the benefit they create for other people, and I don’t actually put some money into the hat, then I’m a bit of a hypocrite, really.
The benchmarking rates have been massively helpful in helping me set my own rates and review them. And when I work out how much pro bono I should be offering, it gives me a way to put a monetary value on that to say, am I doing too much or too little. When I offer to discount work to clients, I’ve got something more robust I can hang it off. It makes it so much easier to talk about money, because in Britain, we’re rubbish at talking about money. So the fact IPSE has this research, and it’s so good and robust, gives me that confidence over the years to be able to voice it better.
Over the years, I’ve appreciated and recognised the value of what IPSE do for free in the freelance community as a whole. And there have been bits of the research that I’ve drawn on and used in my practice. So as a freelancer myself, a large part of the reason I became a member is to show solidarity, that as freelancers we stand together. We have to, it’s the old way we’re going to be heard.
So, we need a body like IPSE. If we’re serious about being a freelancer, if we’re serious about being part of a freelance community, then we should actually stand together, we should be part of these bodies like IPSE.
What is the main advice you’d offer to anyone self-employed?
A few years ago, I was at a freelancer networking event and one of the main speakers made a throwaway comment about imposter syndrome. And something about it at the time didn’t seem to sit quite right. So I went off, started doing some research, spoke to some other people. And in the course of that I amassed lots of stuff. And what I came to discover from the evidence and the research that’s been done and published, is that imposter syndrome, everything we think we know and understand about it, is actually wrong. So, it’s not a real thing in the way that it’s presented. And it's not something that is actually a weakness we should be getting rid of – it could actually be a superpower to be harnessed.
And everyone I was speaking with about these ideas, or when I showed them the workings out, said this is brilliant, you should publish this as a book. So, I did.
It’s called Loving Your Doubts. You find it online, all the usual main book shops, but it’s priced at the equivalent of buying me a drink. Because I wrote the book, I had the conversations with people, to share the ideas. But I want to put them in a way that helps you reflect on this from another set of perspectives and help you figure this out for yourself in a different way.
I did all this academic research, but for most people it’s quite dull and dry. I wanted to make it a bit easier to engage with, so I peppered it with anecdotes and illustrations from my own life as a freelancer. And that approach I found, not cathartic, but really useful as a reflective framework to think about as part of my own professional development.
So, I would recommend to any other freelance or self-employed type, write a book. Even if you don’t publish it. Even if it’s about something bonkers, like The Secret Life of the Office Stapler. Just write it and use it as an opportunity to reflect on your own experiences in a very different but structured perspective. And that’s hugely enjoyable and beneficial.
The one thing I always say to any client that I’m working with, or any fellow freelancer who’s starting out. And it’s the pinned tweet on my Twitter feed and one of my core videos on my YouTube channel is don’t trust me.
In fact, don’t trust anyone who isn’t your customer, or your investor, or your co-founder, because it’s only you who has to live with the decisions you make and the choices you make.
We get offered loads of advice and inspirational wisdom from all sorts of people. None of them have to live with it, you do. So, question everything. Don’t be afraid to push back and say to public people, what’s the basis for that?
What’s the evidence and research?
The key message is no-one else in this world is you. All you have to do is be the best you, you can be. And that may mean doing it differently. So do it differently. That’s the only way anything good ever happened in this world. Because somebody dared to do something a bit differently to everyone else.
I started thinking I had to be professional, on the basis of how I saw other people doing it. But the feedback I got from clients said actually, screw that. We like knowing you, we’d like working with you. We like the stories you tell, we like the fact you dress up in costume sometimes. We like the fact that if you’re leading a workshop with us, you give us sweets, and on the desks we have little bendy people to play with and make diagrams with. And that feedback from clients has given me the encouragement to be more human.
And what I’ve learned is, as long as you’re polite and respectful, you can get a lot further and push a lot more than you think. A couple of years ago, NASA landed their latest rover on Mars, named Perseverance. My name is physically engraved on the chassis of that piece of kit from NASA. Not because I paid for it, but because I had an opportunity to have a conversation with someone at NASA. And I asked nicely, just like my mom brought me up. They said great, so on Mars, there are freelancers and the self-employed. Because we push the boundaries.
It's OK to be imperfect. As soon as I realised, I didn’t have to be perfect, that was so liberating and allowed me to be human. It’s OK to make mistakes. The important thing is how you recover from the mistakes with clients. That’s the learning point. That’s the growth point. That’s the sweet spot that says it’s now enjoyable to be self-employed.
If you’d like more personal insights into freelancing and self-employment, why not take a look at our previous interviews:
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