Finding coaches or mentors if you’re self-employed

By Jon Fellowes

No matter the line of business, working in a career where you're self-employed is indisputably tough. If you're currently freelancing, you'll know that while 'being your own boss' brings a great degree of freedom, you also get all the responsibility. And finding coaches or mentors if you’re self-employed can make things a lot easier.

This is particularly true at the beginning of your career. When you're just setting out, you're probably the bookkeeper, your own HR department, caterer, and office manager, to name but a few.

These responsibilities can add up and, if left unchecked, can start to take their toll. Significant demands on your time can bring stress, burnout and (at its worst) even illness.

Self-employment is currently growing in the UK, but many still lack access to the relevant training to help build their business and develop good working practices.

Whether you are new to self-employment or have been freelancing for years, if you're looking to manage your time effectively and avoid the adverse effects of stress, one of the best things you can do is actually the simplest – ask for help.

A coach or business mentor will help you devise strategies, offer advice, and point you in the direction of resources that will help you navigate your journey of self-employment.

They will also act as a 'critical friend' offering both accountability and encouragement.

Why you might need a coach or mentor if you're self-employed

Whether you are considering going self-employed, have recently done so, or are an experienced freelancer - there are several good reasons why you might get in touch with a coach or mentor.

If you are planning to transition to being self-employed, a coach or mentor can help you avoid some of the pitfalls ahead of you and get a great workflow in place for your business from day one.

If you are newly self-employed, you could either be struggling with some aspects of your self-employment or looking to head off any potential problems at the pass by improving your workflow. A mentor or coach can advise you on many different aspects of being self-employed, from tax and legal matters to time management and organisation.

If you are an experienced freelancer that isn't part of a larger team, a coach or mentor can prove invaluable at providing the outside perspective that you might be missing by working on your own.

If you're planning on expanding into a new line of business that you haven't had any formal training in, there may be some gaps in your knowledge that an experienced mentor or coach can help fill.

Why you might need a coach or mentor if you're self-employed

What's the difference between a freelance mentor and a coach? 

Mentoring and coaching are often confused and can frequently be used as synonyms for each other.

Both are philosophically similar, with the end goal being for the mentor/coach to impart knowledge for the betterment of their mentee or client.

However, they are technically different, and it is important to understand what you are looking for in the context of growing your business experience.

Historically, a mentor is more likely to be experience-based in delivering their support and more likely to have worked in the specific sector that the mentee is looking to achieve success in. Mentors can be a professional relationship (IE paid for their time), or it can be someone you already have in your life who is willing to donate their time (IE a relationship grown organically).

A coach is less likely to provide industry-specific advice and will usually focus more on general business practice and guidance. Coaches are more likely to be professionals (paid for advice) and to offer formal assessments.

Realistically, while both relationships can be short or long term, a general rule would say that a mentor is more likely to offer long-term advice and a coach provides a shorter-term service.

How a mentor or coach can help your freelance career

Sadly, you're bound to encounter problems in your freelance career that aren't solvable by Google search.

Coaching and mentoring give you additional assistance to help solve problems that might not have straightforward yes/no answers. Subjects such as decision making and corporate philosophy are essential in business but can also be highly personal.

Mentors and coaches can principally help you with areas like these, as well as in other parts of your work, such as avoiding/ correcting mistakes, increasing efficiency and maximising opportunity.

Mentors and coaches can also help show you the bigger picture when you are often caught up in the minutia of solving everyday problems.

In times of indecision, they can also use the benefit of their experience to help you clarify your feelings and plot a course forward, whether you are looking to expand or to keep your head above water.

At their simplest, coaches and mentors can help boost your confidence and inspire you to achieve new things.

A mentor or coach can also help you set boundaries that protect your work/life balance and ensure you remain productive.

How a mentor or coach can help your freelance career

How to find a freelance mentor or coach

A mentor does not always have to be a stranger or a paid professional. You do not always have to go on a long quest to find the perfect person – they may already be in your life.

Consider the following questions:

  • Do I have someone in my life who has achieved things I admire in business?

  • Do I get on well with that person?

  • Do I trust them to give me honest, impartial advice?

If the answer to all those questions is yes, you may already have a good candidate.

That said, make sure that they are prepared to commit to regular meetings, and you keep a structure to your sessions so they don't just devolve into two friends catching up.

There are apparent benefits to finding a mentor from within your circle. However, choosing someone who is already a close personal friend can also have disadvantages, as they may be more reluctant to offer you critical comments or express a negative opinion about something you're working on.

If you are looking to step out of your existing circle of contacts, finding and engaging a professional coach or mentor can be an excellent way to gain a fresh perspective from an expert.

There are several dedicated professional services that you can use to find a mentor, like The Mentoring Club or Meet-A-Mentor, though some sites might charge a modest amount for their services.

There are also services that help encourage the exchanging of expertise in specific areas like STEM or the creative industries. Industry bodies (such as unions) can help provide advice on industry-specific mentorship or coaching programmes that might be in place.

There are also charitable organisations that help provide funding for mentorships or coaching. Internet research or reading trade materials can help put these options in front of you.

Does my mentor or coach need to have experience that's specific to my industry?

While it is excellent if your mentor or coach has specific experience in the industry you are working in, it should not be a deal-breaker.

Industry-specific advice is beneficial, but many issues regularly arise in a self-employed career that will form part of a shared experience, regardless of sector. Sometimes stepping out of your specific industry when looking for a mentor can be a great way to gain a new perspective that can give you an edge over competitors.

Alternatives to freelancing coaches or mentors

If you feel like a one-to-one mentorship or coaching relationship isn't for you, there are other ways for you to get the business support that you need.

IPSE's Incubator Programme is designed for anyone within the early stages of their self-employed career or those seriously considering moving into self-employment. The 12-month programme provides you with materials and resources to help and support lines and contact with IPSE staff for advice.

Additionally, if you live in a town or city, there may well be other local people area that work in a similar field to you. Based on their trade, they may have set up their own professional groups to network and share advice.

Wider community groups may also exist to help support local businesses that work across different sectors, and you may well be able to find experience and expertise by attending these.

Co-working groups are also an excellent option for support. Some communities have dedicated co-working spaces (usually in vacant shops or community spaces) where you can rent a desk to work at for the day.

Buddying up with someone who also works there as 'accountability partners' can be a brilliant way to help keep yourself on track without the time commitment of a mentorship.

If you don't have a co-working space in your local area, why not look to set one up? From pubs to art galleries, village halls to vacant offices, you can think outside of the box when setting up a coworking space, and you might be surprised by who is interested in the idea.

Social media can be an excellent tool for locating both business and community support groups.

Finally, if you are daunted about starting your self-employment journey yourself, you might want to consider starting a partnership instead. This will make the project collaborative and help to bring the broadest possible skill set to the endeavour.

Group of people sitting around a boardroom table

How to set out a working relationship with your coach or mentor

At its simplest, your relationship with your mentor should be that of a 'critical friend'. While they should absolutely offer advice and encouragement, they should also be free to provide constructive criticism and comment.

This is all part of the process of improving your workflow and productivity. As such, you should have a good working relationship with your coach or mentor that is both professional and enjoyable.

Your first step when approaching a new prospective mentor or coach should be for both professionals to set out their expectations for how the relationship will work.

In the first instance, this will include working out a schedule for how and when you will meet and where. Some coaches will have formal offices to meet in, while others might prefer to visit your place of business. If you select a less formal setting, a coffee shop or café (with good WIFI) can also work.

If your mentor or coach is not local, Zoom or Skype meetings are also a good option. They are preferable to a phone call, as they allow you to present work materials visually.

The frequency of meetings will be different for everyone. Some self-employed professionals will prefer weekly meetings that allow both parties to focus on accountability. Others will choose sessions once a month to focus more on long-term strategy and career trajectory.

Once that is decided, you can then move on to the substance of your meetings. Most professional coaches or mentors will already know how they would like the sessions to go.

They will sometimes ask you to fill out a form in advance, so they can help get a sense of where your business is at and where you like it to be in the short, medium, and long term.

If you are developing a new structure for your sessions collaboratively, having a plan in place for what you would like to discuss with your mentor will help make the time you spend with them more productive. Even if it’s quite a loose idea or outline to start with.

For example, suppose your meeting is hour-long. In that case, you could agree that you would like to cover areas like SMART (Specific Measurable Achievable Relevant and Time-bound) Goals for both accountability and future planning, followed by long term strategy/ decision making, with another portion of your meeting being spent on general advice and improving skills (like communication).

It is always good to reserve a little time at the end of every session for a Q and A to focus on any of the subjects covered. 

You can also decide in advance how feedback should be delivered. Most mentors or coaches will give at least some verbal feedback during the face-to-face meeting. However, you can also ask for some written feedback or send them documents that you think are relevant in advance.

What to do if your coach or mentor isn't the right fit?

Your mentor should not only be an experienced voice but a trusted advisor – a 'critical friend' to both you and your business.

If you have engaged a professional coach or mentor, it is generally rare for you to be fundamentally incompatible. However, sometimes the relationship just doesn't work out - for whatever reason.

If you are unsure if your coach or mentor is right for you, then your first port of call should be an honest conversation where you raise any concerns with them. You might find that this solves the problem.

However, if you are entirely sure that the partnership isn't going to be productive, there is nothing wrong with finding a different coach or mentor that's a better fit.

Honesty is always the key to a successful relationship with your mentor or coach.

More resources to find freelance coaching or mentors

If you are looking to find more information on finding a coach or mentor, you can visit the following links:

If you have the right business experience and personality traits, you might even consider becoming a coach yourself.

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