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Our member stories are a chance to showcase the wealth of knowledge and insight within the IPSE community. You can find inspiration and advice on how to get started in self-employment, growing your business, building your network and more, all from people who have been there and done it for themselves.
As a specialist in market research and data analysis, we spoke to Susie Mullen about her move from senior roles in-house to working for herself, and how her business has developed.
Read the interview
Can you introduce yourself and your business?
I’m Susie Mullen, I run a very small market research and data analysis business. I’m a freelancer, really, and I work across a range of different sectors and companies.
What led you into becoming self-employed?
I used to work for a range of different marketing agencies. I worked for a company called Nielsen, and a company called Dunnhumby, and what they do is a range of data analysis, market research and marketing. So, I gained quite a lot of skills in that area.
Through a number of different career moves, I worked for quite a large charity. I was their Head of Data and Insight and I stayed there for about five years. I was really surprised at the similarities between the charity sector and the retail consumer goods sector that I’d previously been working in, that really interested me.
I’m really interested in market research and data analysis, and I’m even more interested in simplifying it. But I knew that to keep progressing my career path, I’d be going more and more into management. I would no longer be able to do the stuff that I really loved, which was the actual job.
So I set up on my own as a freelancer initially, to help charities do market research, analytics and to understand their actual supporter database. And as the business has grown and my life has changed, I’ve kind of moved into a range of different sectors. So, I still do stuff in the charity sector, but I also work for a number of different marketing agencies.
When they’re a bit stretched, I’ll go in, do a project, and jump back out. So it’s great – I’ve got my own clients, and then I jump in to help other agencies when they’re really struggling.
Was the freedom to choose your work the key reason for switching to freelancing?
Yes, it was to control the actual work I’m doing. I absolutely love my job. It’s the best thing I ever did, it gives me so much freedom, and I’m free to choose the work I do. What I really, really enjoy is saying “I want to take that project on, it interests me and excites me”.
And then the other side is that I get to choose the people that I work with as well. I didn’t always have that, so in the early days, I took anything I could do. But now that I’m a bit more established, I have so much more freedom.
How did you develop your business to allow you the freedom to turn down some projects?
When I first started, it’s terrifying, because you don’t know when the money’s going to come in. And at the beginning I didn’t say no and just took anything I had the skills to do. And I spent quite a lot of time in my first couple of years developing content, and trying to use social media, and it didn’t really stick.
The thing that’s really worked for me is establishing what my offer is. I know what I do, and I do the stuff that I really like doing. And so that sets a boundary straight away. There are things I can do, but I don’t enjoy, so I choose not to do that kind of thing. When you’re doing the work that you really enjoy, it’s probably the work you’re good at.
It means I deliver really good stuff for my clients. So, my clients then ask me to come back, and they refer me to other people. And my network just grows. That was really what changed, it was me thinking, this is what my offer is, these are the types of organisations I’m going to work for. And once I’d set that, it’s almost like I’d identified my purpose. And honestly, my business has really, really grown.
Now it’s hard for me. Sometimes I have to say no, because right now, I don’t have a lot of space to take new work on. Who’s to say that’s going to last forever, but right now I’m in a really fortunate position, in that I’ve got enough work coming in. But I have to say no, and boundary my time.
I’m really strict with my time, so I try really hard not to work on a Monday. And that means the rest of the week, sometimes I work really long days. But on Monday, I know I’m free to do the other things that I really want to do.
Would you say becoming more niche and specific helped take your business to the next level?
I’m quite a broad-spectrum market researcher in that I do survey research, or develop segmentations. I’ll do qual, and I’ll also do the data analytics. It’s quite a broad skill set.
But there are certain things I don’t do. So, I don’t do any data processing. I don’t do things that require a lot of managing data and pulling a whole lot of data together. I could do it, but I don’t.
And then I choose my clients very carefully as well. So, I often work for people that I’ve worked with before and that I’ve really enjoyed working with. If I’ve enjoyed working with somebody, whether I’ve been employed or self-employed, chances are I’m going to enjoy working with them again. So that’s a big role for me as well, to try and work with people who I get, and who get me, and that makes life a lot easier.
Was it hard to start setting boundaries on your work?
I’m not brilliant at it, still. As a freelancer, it’s really hard to say no, because of the financial security, and not knowing when the next job is going to come in. And if I had no pipeline, I’d probably say yes to something. But then I’d regret it.
Because the jobs where you initially have that gut feeling you should say no to, and that you think “should I be taking this on”, your gut feel is right. They’re not enjoyable jobs, and I’m doing this because I enjoy the work. So, it’s silly to take on work that I don’t enjoy.
How long have you been freelancing at this point?
I’ve been freelancing for five years. When the pandemic hit I was scrambling around for anything I could do, because like so many other people, I didn’t have any work. And it was during that time period, that I had a forced period of reflection.
Because I didn’t have any work, I needed to think about work differently. During that period, I reached out to a different set of clients. Then, I decided to broaden my offer. And I realised that there was a different type of work out there for me, and so I would say in the last year, I’ve been comfortable with the level of work coming in.
I think when I first started freelancing, someone I knew said ‘it’s feast or famine, and you have to learn to enjoy both periods’. And for me, it’s impossible to join the famine, because I’m terrified that the feast is never going to come. What I want to do is create a steady pipeline of work, and that’s more important for me than taking on everything.
What was it like to go through that period of self-reflection?
Honestly, everything just stopped. I had projects in field and we had to pull everything. I didn’t have any work on, and I really didn’t think I’d get any more work until that September. So, I thought I’d be out of work for six months. You know, that’s difficult. I didn’t qualify for any of the furlough support, or anything like that. By the time I started getting work back in, I was ready to do any other kind of key worker type work I could do at that point.
So, I cleaned a lot. It was a difficult period, but I did become very focused on what I like doing, who I want to work with, and the types of projects that I want to do. And then I was so lucky, because one of my established clients came to me and said “We don’t understand how our workforce is managing. They’re all at home and we need to understand if we’re providing them with what they need, how they’re coping, what they need and want”. And I ended up doing a staff survey for them, and we’ve repeated it every three months since May or June 2020.
Because I did that, there were other clients who wanted me to do something very similar. And then it just snowballed. I was so lucky.
Is there anything about your business that you’re particularly proud of, or any favourite projects you’ve worked on?
I’m proud that we’ve kept going for five years, I always think that’s an achievement. And my income has gone up each year. I think I’m at a plateau now, and that’s a great, great thing.
I guess the project I’m proudest of is that I went to a conference where somebody delivered a presentation, and I just thought if he’d been able to do this tiny little bit of extra analysis, which is specialist analysis, that the results could have been so much richer. And what he presented was great, I loved it. At the end I said to him that it really excited me, and if you’d been able to understand the groups within that audience, this is the kind of thing it could have told you.
We had a really good chat, and then he got in touch with me the next day. He said “I want you to come and do that”. And that was four and a half years ago. I still work with that company, and they don’t have any market researchers in-house – I do their market research.
They’re a provider of IT for the charity sector and I do lots of big reports for them. I’ll do a stats of UK fundraising report for them every year, where I’ll design the questionnaire, and then me and the client will work together and present a fabulous report that goes out to the charity sector. They’re a brilliant client to work with. I absolutely love working with them.
I did another thing, again during that period of lockdown. I got a business coach and that was fantastic. She’s amazing, and we talked about how we would develop the business. And as advice to freelancers, I would say it’s really important to invest in yourself.
Is that the main advice you’d give to anyone else who is self-employed or freelancing?
Investing in yourself is really important. And it’s investing in terms of coaching, self-development, and through building a community as well. Find people you can spark ideas off, who will support you and who cheer you on from the side-lines. And give back to other people generously as well. Because if you give to people, you get it all back, and it all balances out.
I pay my business coach quite a lot of money, relatively speaking. I only see her once every couple of months, but she’s brilliant for me. It’s like having a really good manager. She said to go through LinkedIn, look at everyone you’ve worked at, choose the people you really liked working with and get in touch with them. I’ve still got a list, so there’s a whole lot of people I’ve still got to get in touch with, but from doing that, I got three new clients.
I would also say, define your offer, be brave, and stick to it. Get your day rate right from the start – don’t go in low. Because from experience, it’s really, really hard to then build that day rate up to what it should be.
There’s something about boundary setting as well. I’m really lucky to have this little office. It’s a tiny room, but it’s my work office, and I only come in here to work. So, it means work isn’t everywhere. In my home, I have one dedicated workspace, and once I’m away from my desk, I only come back to it to work. And also, make sure you get outside every day.
What does self-employment ultimately mean for you?
On a good day, self-employment is freedom and fun. On a bad day, it can be the most stupid thing I’ve ever done. But fortunately, the balance is much more in the freedom and fun than “What have I done?”. I don’t think that so much anymore.
It’s having the grit and the staying power because when it’s tough, it’s really tough. And it can be really lonely. But it’s getting through those days. And I think if you’ve got a product that people want, and if you’re delivering a good job, just keep at it. Because it builds.
How long have you been an IPSE member and what prompted you to join?
It all goes back to the pandemic, and during that time of reflection I joined IPSE. And the level of advice is fantastic. There’s so much, particularly when I needed it during the pandemic, about furloughs, loans, and all that kind of stuff.
The IR35 stuff is really useful for me. There have been times where I’ve worried and I need to make sure I’m not caught by it. And that I’m genuinely a consultant rather than an employee and I find it to be really, really helpful for that. The level of advice that IPSE was able to provide people in my situation, I couldn’t find anything like that anywhere else.
What’s been most valuable to you as an IPSE member? Has it helped you in any specific circumstances?
You’re the first place I go when I need to get a late payment chaser out there. You’ve got fabulous templates, so contracts, late payments, and all of the advice.
I wish I’d known about IPSE when I first started as a freelancer because it would have really helped me make those difficult decisions. Am I a sole trader? Am I a limited company? What do I need to think about from an accounting perspective? How do I plan my income? What kind of insurance do I need? You guys do an absolutely brilliant job of answering those questions.
It’s really time consuming to properly chase late payers, and also there’s a legality around it. So, you need to do it in the right way. Whenever I have late payment issues, you’re the first place I go, because I know exactly what to say, what the rules are, how much I can get back. I know that I can do it in a nice way first, and then get tougher and tougher, and you have these fabulous templates I can use for that kind of thing.
If I had joined you earlier, you would have saved me a huge amount of money. Because originally, I was VAT registered – I didn’t need to be VAT registered. I’m a limited company – I don’t think I need to be a limited company. I needed to be an employee of my limited company, and I wasn’t, so I didn’t get any kind of furlough support. But had I known about IPSE at the beginning, I would have made all the right decisions.
Would you recommend IPSE membership to other freelancers?
Absolutely. Whenever I have anybody who talks to me about thinking about going freelance, you are the first people that spring to mind. I tell them you must join IPSE because of all the advice and the support that you offer.