Community Spotlight: Freelance Folk

Katy Carlisle from Freelance Folk talks about how she started her award-winning community for people who are self-employed.

Tell us a bit about about your community

Freelance Folk is a community for freelancers who want to be alone together, so we champion events, resources and other communities within the UK that help freelancers connect with each other, either face to face or online. It’s been going since 2015 and we won the IPSE Ambassador of the Year award last year for our work supporting the freelance community.

We run regular popup coworking sessions on Friday afternoons in Manchester, and generally have between 10 and 20 attendees from a range of industries including web design, photography, business coaching, social media and translation.

On our website you’ll find lots of useful information for freelancers including the 99 Problems (but a boss ain’t one) podcast plus interviews with other freelancers and upcoming events around the country.

We also have a Freelance Folk membership, so for £24 per year you can get a range of discounts plus other perks such as a featured listing on our directory and extra promotion with our “Meet the folk” interview series.

How and why did you start your community?

When I first went freelance, I was really looking forward to working from home. Initially it was quite exciting, but after a while I found myself missing the office environment. You take for granted how nice it is just having people to chat to or bounce ideas off, especially if you get a bit stuck in a rut. So I started working from coffee shops, thinking that perhaps I could connect with some other freelancers there, but everyone was very much focused on their work and it was hard to strike up a conversation.

I didn’t want to commit to a coworking space (and at the time, back in 2015, there weren’t that many) and so I decided to create an event where the aim was actually to work and chat with other freelancers or remote workers in the same situation. I’d been wondering where to host it when a friend told me about a new community space called Ziferblat that had opened up in Manchester, where you could pay per minute for your time and everything else was included. As soon as I walked in, I knew it would be a perfect spot for the popup coworking sessions.

Has your community changed since you first started it?

Freelance Folk actually started as Freelance Friday, and was very much focused on the Friday afternoon Manchester coworking sessions. But after a while, I wanted the option to run other events on different days of the week, so in 2017 it was rebranded to Freelance Folk and we introduced more content to the website along with a membership option.

In 2018, I decided to concentrate much more on the community element and now the website also includes events run by other people plus useful resources for freelancers such as podcasts and interviews with other people who are self-employed, and we’ve just launched a Freelancers Directory which is powered by Community Box!

Which products have helped you to grow and run your community?

When I first started out, I used Meetup which was really useful for getting the word out, and we got to almost 1,500 members in the group. However, this year I actually closed down my Meetup account. It was a super useful resource for me, but they don’t let you access people’s emails and that was a dealbreaker for me. You can even ask specific questions when people join your group, but if people leave their email then Meetup blanks it out. I don’t regret using it at the start because it did save me so much time and effort, but I do wish I’d moved away from it sooner.

Other products I use include MailChimp for sending out newsletters, Squarespace for the website, along with MemberSpace for the paid membership and Drift for the live chat. I’m just starting to use Buffer for scheduling social media posts, and I use Trello for my planning and strategy. We also have a WhatsApp group for regular attendees of our Manchester session, which I mainly use for sending out updates and checking who wants to come to our monthly social.

And of course I use Community Box for my directory, and I’m going to use it for events and venues soon too.

Are there any products that you wish existed to help you grow and run the community?

Ooh good question. I would like a better way to keep the conversations going in between coworking sessions. I kind of hate Facebook so am reluctant to set up a group on there, WhatsApp can get a bit much if there are lots of people in the chat, but it’s hard to get people to adopt new platforms. I tried a Slack channel for a bit but I think that’s something which is more common in the tech world, and people didn’t really get it.

What challenges did you face when growing your community?

There were two main challenges. The first one was just getting people to attend the coworking sessions regularly; there were times at the start when it was just me sitting in a corner on my own! It’s still a challenge even now; when we had the heatwave over the summer (with Wimbledon and the World Cup on at the same time) attendance was really low. It’s the same if it’s bad weather too!

The second challenge was finding the time to dedicate to running the community. My main job is working as a freelance web designer and so I’d always end up prioritising client work. This summer after a chat with my business coach, I decided to block out a few days to work specifically on Freelance Folk, with the aim of getting it to a point where I can just spend half a day per week managing it. Now I try to block off Friday mornings specifically, and use my VA to do the work that doesn’t require as much input from me.

How did/do you promote your community?

Now I’m not using Meetup any more, I rely much more on social media and word of mouth. I’ve made friends with other people who help freelancers like Steve from the Being Freelance podcast or the guys from Coconut who have made a great current account for people who are self-employed. Having these connections is useful as we can help each other out. It’s basically like a big group hug!

I try to also write guest blogs or do interviews like this one where I can, as they are a good way to spread the word. Ziferblat are great at promoting it too, so having a good relationship with the venue can be really beneficial.

How many people help to run the community?

For most of the past three years it’s only been me working on it very much as a side project (so sometimes it would get quite neglected) but now I spend between half a day and a day per week on it, and I’ve just hired a virtual assistant to help me with research and social media scheduling.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own community?

I’d say that being consistent is the most important thing. I’m not always great at this in terms of social media, but for the coworking sessions at the start, I was there every week come rain or shine. I even rearranged holidays to make sure I didn’t miss a date. I think that really helped, as people knew there would always be someone there to welcome them, and nowadays I can easily miss a couple of sessions as there are enough regulars to take care of any newcomers.

My other advice would be to start growing your mailing list from day one. I wish I’d been less reliant on Meetup and built up a list of subscribers from the beginning as I’m now playing catchup.

What’s next for your community?

I’ve just put together a venue partnership scheme where independent community spaces or coffee shops can host a Freelance Folk event with support from me in terms of resources or marketing, so I’m going to start promoting this more.

I’m also just about to launch an interview series called “Why should I bother with…” which will cover topics like insurance, contracts, websites, photography, graphic design, copywriting, social media and business banking.

I’ve had a few little bits of sponsorship in the past but I’d like to look into this more as that would enable me to put more time aside to focus on growing the community even more, and I also want to ramp up the membership side to make Freelance Folk more financially sustainable too.

If someone wants to join/contribute to your community having read this, what’s the best way for them to do so?

You can head over to the Freelance Folk website or follow us on social media. We’re @freelancefolk on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

InterviewsKaty Carlisle