Having a portfolio career

 “You’re doing so well now with such a diverse portfolio career…”

What is a portfolio career? I had to think hard when someone said this to me recently. I was thinking… do I? Well if I do it’s not that successful because I’m skint!

Joking aside, I may be earning less than I did when I was in full time employment but I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.

ruth in her home office

It made me think… if I have this cool portfolio career, can I take it to the next level? Could I thrive and succeed rather than just ‘getting by’?

A portfolio career means someone is earning from a combined stream of different incomes. This might include a mix of part-time and freelance employment; perhaps offering consultancy while you work on building your own business or service. It can be anything you want it to be! It can hard work, it can be frightening but it can also be the most liberating, fun and rewarding way of working.

This is exactly what I find myself doing now and it’s been great to have that flexibility, especially this year with so much uncertainty in the job market.

I’ve been working for myself in some way now for over ten years, with a stint doing both employed and freelance at the same time, which was intense. It’s definitely the best thing I did for my personal development and mental health. But it certainly wasn’t planned, and it hasn’t been easy, with ups and downs, successes and mistakes along the way.

What does my portfolio career look like?

I work for a number of very different businesses offering a sort of virtual marketing and administration service. I do all the marketing and event organisation for The Society for Location Analysis (www.thesla.org) who are my longest running client. I was involved with setting the SLA up when I was employed full-time at GeoBusiness Solutions back in 2002.

I also help Red Tiger Talent/Consulting/Coaching (www.redtigerconsulting.co.uk) responsible for driving their marketing strategy and execution.   I work closely with Meg, their new apprentice, to help train and guide her as she takes over some of the day-to-day marketing tasks and actions for the business. This is probably one of my most challenging roles because these guys are quite fast paced. They work hard and they are always looking forward, trying new things and pushing me to provide services I’m not always comfortable with at first. Like writing a new Marketing Strategy and plan for 2021, something I hadn’t done in a very long time. This has been a fun project to work on with Meg, exploring things like competitor analysis, analysing the business as it is now, doing a SWOT analysis and working out how marketing can help drive what we need to do as a business next year.

There are other clients like The Travellers Rest (https://www.thetravellers.rest  ), a pub in Cheshire who I help with simple social media activities and promotion, updating their website etc.  I’ve just picked up a new client through the Travs and am excited to help increase engagement and drive sales for this young and dynamic brewery Oaks Brewing company (https://www.theoaksbrewing.co/. Perhaps I’ll get paid in beer!

I also do copywriting for different businesses. This year has seen me write blogs about peanuts, cashews and nut butters – things that could kill me if I ate them myself, but that I actually found fascinating to research. I write blogs for different companies, sometimes skin, asthma and allergy related.

The positives

My favourite part of this kind of career is having the time to develop my own passions and dreams to write, blog and help improve the future for people with life threatening allergies, asthma and eczema.  Working as a patient expert with various pharmaceutical companies, charities and brands is both rewarding and challenging and adds some great variety to my days.

I’m also building on different revenue streams from my award winning blog, https://www.whatallergy.com which needs to earn its keep because it now costs me money to keep it hosted, secure and fresh. Some people pay for advertisements, advertorials, case studies, featured blog posts. I also have lots of affiliate links for products that I really believe in and love and these earn me a little bit of commission every time someone buys their product on my recommendation.

It has also allowed me the time to write my first book, “The Reluctant Allergy Expert: How to kill the fear that anaphylaxis could kill you”, which is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

I was also able to take a few months off work when I was going through Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW) back in April 2019. I was very ill at the beginning of 2019, but having flexible clients, scaling back so that I sometimes only did half day or a day’s work a week was really helpful.  I was able to work when I was awake, which was often between 2 and 6am in the morning, which allowed me to heal. It meant I could rest, really rest, and sleep when my body needed to. I would have really struggled having to go into an office or maintain normal daytime hours. I was also lucky to have some savings and family support financially during this time which I am very grateful for.

My second book of eczema poetry is at the first draft stage so I’m also very excited about that!

The mistakes I made

Taking on too much – I’ve made lots of mistakes. Haven’t we all?  It’s a necessary part of the learning journey.  The worst mistake I made, about five years ago was to start taking on too much. I took a part-time employed position (4 days a week) at a company which I loved; they had been a freelance client but wanted to make the role more permanent.  I ended up working very long hours and probably doing more than 5 days over the 4 days I worked. This was great at first as it offered me security, but I then decided I couldn’t part with some of my favourite clients and continued to do this work freelance in the evenings, weekends and holidays. This was not sustainable and didn’t help my mental health. It wasn’t much fun and so when I decided to go through TSW it made sense to cut my losses.  I left the employed job to rest, get better, write my book and return to freelance working. This way of life definitely suits me better.

Learning what works and what doesn’t – The other main mistake was not learning quicker when things weren’t going to plan. For instance, if a certain type of work isn’t fun or a client is really hard work. The beauty of working for yourself is that you can quite quickly and easily get out of working on projects and for people you find aren’t in your best interests. It takes a bit of planning and a deep breath when you tell them you need to plan your exit, but it feels amazing. Whey you tell someone you can’t take on any more business, you can use any reason or you don’t need to give a reason at all! It is empowering and freeing to have such control and is easier than leaving a ‘real job’.  Life is really too short to work for brands or people you don’t feel aligned to.

Ruth on a trail running holiday in Gower, Wales

Not ‘planning in’ down time and holidays – This was also something I didn’t learn to do at first. I kept thinking, ‘I’ll take time off when I run out of work or when I’m quiet’, which just never happened! I know I was fortunate. I was very lucky to pick up clients quite quickly and find that when one piece of work ended something else seems to come along to take its place. Now I’ve got better at seeing the opportunities to really take time out when it arises. So I now work short weeks, taking off the Monday and Friday, just because I can! I plan short breaks rather than long ones as this easier to plan around my clients. I also make sure I plan in my own down time every day, time to run, walk, meditate, practise yoga or just sit and read or listen to a podcast. All of these things help me feel more generally rested and happier in myself.

The Pro’s

  • Being your own boss is brilliant
  • It works for me as I work well on my own and in a team
  • Being very self-motivated also makes this career choice a good one for me
  • I get to choose who I work for, when I work and what I charge for my time.
  • I can take the day off when the sun is shining, and I don’t have to ask anyone for permission!
  • I am lucky to work with some fantastic clients who are great fun to work with, challenge me, respect me and teach me new skills
  • As long as you plan in time to meet humans, visits to client sites, work in a coffee shop for variety and some human contact (Works unless you are in a pandemic!)
  • You are in complete control of your destiny, what route your career takes and what you focus on
  • You don’t ever have to do an Annual Appraisal again! Although I recommend regularly reviewing the working status with all my clients. By doing this monthly we make sure we are all expecting realistic outcomes. I try to recap all meetings with actions shared and minutes.

The Cons

  • Work can be unreliable and can stop abruptly if businesses cut costs
  • You don’t get holiday or sick pay
  • No one maintains your laptop! So when things break you have to fix, replace and fathom out IT problems
  • People can be reluctant to pay a reasonable fee
  • Late paying clients can make paying the bills a worry and you have to regularly chase invoices
  • I hate doing invoices!
  • Doing the tax return every year!
  • You need to be able to see your skills and services and market yourself to ensure you maintain a reliable work pipeline
  • It can be lonely, especially in winter
  • I still feel naughty when I take time off in the day…
  • Sometimes people think you are having an easy time ‘working from home’ when in actual fact, you could be doing longer hours and working harder

Writing this blog has been quite fun. It’s made me feel really proud of what I’ve achieved in the last few years and also given me new motivation to get planning for 2021 and beyond. I’ve just finished the first draft of my second book, an as yet unnamed poetry book with poems about eczema, so watch this space.

Who knows what my portfolio will look like by the end of next year. But as we approach the end of this crazy year in lockdown and isolation, I realise that 2020 has taught me so much. Skills that you need as a freelancer, like working in isolation and using your time wisely, particularly daily physical activity when faced with this being rationed!

I’m looking forward to 2021, and in particular returning to my coffee shop days, seeing my clients in real life, conferences, exhibitions, speaking at events and days in London because that’s one thing I‘ve really missed. It’s the hardest part of working for yourself, too much time with yourself!

I’d love to hear from anyone who also has a portfolio career or who would love to have one. If I can do it, anyone can!


Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

Published by

Ruth Holroyd

Freelance marketing professional. Author of 'The Reluctant Allergy Expert; How to kill the fear that anaphylaxis could kill you'. Available as paperback or Kindle on Amazon. Ruth is a Writer, Blogger and Patient Expert in allergies, eczema and topical steroid withdrawal.

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2 thoughts on “Having a portfolio career”

  1. An interesting read. People often dream of being self employed and not having to answer to bosses however you still have to keep clients and customers happy. A big plus is having more control and the freedom to explore alternative options and gaining more income streams.

    1. Thanks Michael, yes it does sometimes sound like a dream and today it was, as I took time out to walk with friends and go out for a looong lunch. But it can be lonely and overwhelming at times. I don’t think the pandemic has helped as I’ve missed catching up IRL with clients. But next year hopefully at some point we can get back to normal. It does also mean I can work from anywhere, so enjoyed a week in the Lakes and was able to keep up with work at the same time. Bring on 2021!

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