Sixty nine.

Retainers: WTF.

This week Frankie Tortora and Steve Folland have a chat in response to a question from sportswear designer Lily Pawley. She says:

“Retainers. The holy freelance grail. But WTF?? I’ve got one with a client I’ve worked with a fair bit before, it’s new and shiny but now I’m in a weird relationship with the client — Am I freelance? Am I an employee?

From working out how to allocate my time (them, other clients, life, smalls) to which email account I need to use (the one they set up for me — which I keep forgetting to check and isn’t linked to my phone grrr? Or mine — which has my freelance signature on so it’s confusing?) 

What are the top tips for retainers, managing them successfully and basically retaining some semblance of life?! It feels like I really wanted this annoying toy that I kept seeing advertised and now I’ve got it, I’m not sure how it works or what it does and I think I just need to take the batteries out. I own a retainer furby! Help!”

• • • • •

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Take note dear listener! We might swear a bit. This one’s for the parents. To be enjoyed at your desk or once the kiddos are in bed.

Here’s what was said in this episode:

Comments on the previous episode:

[00:01:38] – Frankie
Hello, you’re listening to the Doing It For The Kids podcast, where we swear a bit too much and talk a bit too fast about freelance life with kids in the mix. I’m Frankie and this is Steve.

[00:01:49] – Steve
Hello. Yes, each… *Steve laughs*

My kids for Father’s Day brought me a print to go in my new office and it just says ‘helloooo’.

[00:02:04] – Frankie
Does it really? Nice!

[00:02:06] – Steve
Anyway, hellooo! Yes, welcome to another one.

So, each episode we take a question from the Doing It For Kids Community and do our best to answer it. And we will in a moment. But first, some unfinished business from the last episode. And that was a throwaway comment at the end where we said — “have you got that on your Doing It For The Kids bingo card”? As in, regular phrases, that we say. Anyway, hats off to you, Frankie. Frankie went and made those cards!

[00:02:35] – Frankie
Thanks very much. Yeah.

[00:02:37] – Steve
Be honest, did you have something you were actually meant to do for a client and you put it off by spending far too long designing those cards?

[00:02:43] – Frankie
No comment, because they might be listening.

[00:02:45] – Steve
Yeah, I knew it. So how can people get the Doing It For The Kids bingo cards and get involved?

[00:02:50] – Frankie
There are ten bingo cards that I’ve designed suitable for Instagram stories. You can get them in my highlights on my Instagram page, @doingitforthekids_. I’m also going to share them this week in the community.

And if you’d like to do the interactive online version that the amazing Ross Wintle from the community and all-round nice man has built for us, you need to go to That defaults to the child-friendly version which doesn’t have any swears in it, so if you’re listening to podcasts and you’re doing the bingo, they won’t be able to read naughties on your screen. But if you’d like to have it with the fucks, you can go to

[00:03:33] – Steve
Honestly, Ross, thank you so much. Above and beyond.

[00:03:36] – Frankie
So good.

[00:03:37] – Steve
Right, have fun. Eyes down for a full house.

Our answer to this week's question:

[00:07:28] – Frankie
Our question for this episode comes from Lily Pawley, who is a sportswear designer. Her website is

Lily says:

“Retainers — the Holy Freelance Grail. But what the fuck? I’ve got one with a client I’ve worked with a fair bit before. It’s new and shiny, but now I’m in a weird relationship with the client. Am I freelance? Am I an employee?

From working out how to allocate my time, them, other clients, life, the smalls, to which email account I need to use — the one they set up for me (which I keep forgetting to check and isn’t linked to my phone, grr) or mine which has my freelance signature on… it so it’s confusing.

What are the top tips for retainers? Managing them successfully and basically retaining some semblance of life?

It feels like I really wanted this annoying toy that I kept seeing advertised, and now that I’ve got it, I’m not sure how it works, what it does, and I think I just need to take the batteries out.

I own a retainer Furby! Help.”

[00:08:28] – Steve
Retainer Furby!!

Good question, Lily.

[00:08:30] – Frankie
Great question.

[00:08:49] – Frankie
I’ve never had a retainer, a formal one.

[00:09:00] – Steve
Me neither.

[00:09:00] – Frankie
Oh, good. Should we just end here?

[00:09:04] – Steve
Let us know your comments.

Yes, it’s funny because I have worked continuously with one particular company for about seven years and I do have, like Lily has just mentioned, an email address.

But, yeah, we don’t have an actual retainer agreement. If they come to me next week and say, can you do this video and I’m too busy, I’d just say, no. I haven’t set aside time for them every week, every month.

[00:09:29] – Frankie
Well, I’m just going to say, should I pull it back here? Because if people don’t know what a retainer is, should we be explaining what a retainer is or what our understanding of one is?

[00:09:39] – Steve
So a retainer is effectively a contract, which means that you agree to do a certain something for a client on a certain timely scale. So for a copywriter, it might be — “I will provide you with two blog posts a month”. For a VA (Virtual Assistant) it might be more time specific — “I might give you 10 hours a week”.

The client gets a regular service from you, but it’s great for the freelancer because you get a regular income, basically.

You don’t have to do that whole thing of chasing clients, getting a contract signed, getting to know their business. Yadda, yada, yadda. This is where sometimes freelancers come unstuck. There’s certain things that should be in your contract and one of them is “what happens if you don’t use up my services for that month?” i.e. Can I roll them over to the next month? I think, use it or lose it. Right? Because as a freelancer, you will have set aside time to work with that client, maybe turned down other work because you’re expecting to be working for that client.

[00:10:43] – Frankie
Retainers are often put forward as the Holy Grail, as like THE way to run a sustainable freelance business is to get at least one retainer. So, A — for the record, I’ve been doing this, I think it’s nine years now? I’ve checked my LinkedIn. I’ve never had one and I’ve survived so far. But I have had, similar to you, I’ve had ones that look a lot like a retainer but aren’t officially one.

So I used to do a quarterly magazine, for example, and I was tied in to do that every quarter. I think I did five issues. During that time, I had like fixed days where I was on Skype with the company and I was like, you know, talking to them constantly all day, nine to five. And we were working together in quite a formal way that felt like I was part of their business.

She talks about losing her freelance independence or whatever and feeling a bit tied to them. And I had that same feeling from that project, even though it wasn’t formally that kind of arrangement. And that is the payoff, right? With the retainer, with the holy grail of retaining. Like, you do lose a sense of autonomy in a way, or you can be at risk of losing a sense of autonomy.

People react to that in different ways. Some people like that, some people don’t. I guess you don’t know how you’re going to feel about it until you give it a go.

[00:12:00] – Steve
At the moment, every other Monday, I edit a podcast for a particular client. Part of me likes the fact that I know I’ve got that job, right? Part of me also doesn’t like being tied down. The fact that, sorry, I can’t do this other thing on a Monday because I already have a commitment on a Monday. Oh, we are such tortured souls…

[00:12:17] – Frankie
But this is it! This is actually what Lily saying. Like, I want to retain a semblance of life, but I’ve got this bloody Furby that is a lot of fun and makes me happy. But also I hate it, because it’s driving me mad.

I totally relate to that!

[00:12:31] – Steve
The key to a good retainer, in my mind anyway, are expectations and boundaries. So you really need to lay out right at the beginning of working together, expectations on your availability, their access to you, what you’re going to deliver, like, so many things. And then obviously communicating that. But even how will you communicate? When will they be able to get hold of you? There’s like a premium to be paid for Lily to be able to respond all the time, like she’s working for somebody. That’s so valuable to them and they should be paying for that.

So, yes, expectations, boundaries. Set them out at the beginning, actually, as in written down. Discuss them with them.

[00:13:15] – Frankie

[00:13:15] – Steve
Is everybody clear? Have you actually read this thing that you’re signing? Also, you talk about having an email account. I’ve got an email account for a client because sometimes I deal with their end clients. Maybe that’s why you’ve got one, but is that why you’ve got one? Because if it’s not…

[00:13:31] – Frankie
Do you need one?

[00:13:32] – Steve
They should be contacting you on your email. You could perhaps set up on their work email. You could set it up so they get forwarded to you, if that’s a real issue. I must admit, though, I used to have this company’s email on my phone. And then one summer went off on holiday and I removed their email from my phone. I set up an out of office on their system. Oh my God, it was so good. I never put it back on. So now their work email is only on my laptop. Now I know that if I’m going to be doing something for them, then I’m deliberately looking at that email.

[00:14:11] – Frankie
When we talk about boundaries, you can get a watertight agreement, contract in place with the person that’s brought you on for the job and they can understand it, great. But if it’s like a big company and you’re working with people within that company that aren’t that person, there must be a risk… There might be people in the company that don’t even know that you’re freelance because you’ve got an internal email address.

There’s such opportunity for people to abuse the time that you are committed to if people don’t know what the arrangement is. So I guess what I’m saying is — yes, do that agreement. Yes, sort it out with the person that’s brought you on, but also make sure that they are transparent about who you are, why you’re part of the project, what your role is, so that everybody is across that and doesn’t start expecting things of you on days that you’re not supposed to be working for them or whatever.

[00:14:59] – Steve
You know, you say “am I freelancer, am I employee?” And there is actually a real issue with that. You’ve probably heard of IR35, which is something… it’s like tax legislation in the UK specifically designed so that people can’t be an employee and be freelance. And at the moment I think it’s just aimed at limited company freelancers.

The best place to go and find out more about IR35, if you think it relates to you, is IPSE. IPSE here in the UK. They have a whole IR35 hub full of information. Don’t bury your head in the sand about it because it does actually matter.

Some other things — a cancel clause, I guess. How can you get out of it and how can they get out of it? Also, what exactly is the scope and therefore what will they pay if they go beyond that? And then how are you going to be paid? One of the things that we’ve mentioned before, which is great for retainers, is GoCardless. So it’s like a direct debit…

[00:16:05] – Frankie
That’s right, it just takes their money automatically, basically.

[00:16:08] – Steve
And another thing, because I remember mentioning this when I did the course… Like I said, I’ve been working with a particular company for seven years, right? What if my rate now was the same as it was seven years ago?

[00:16:18] – Frankie
Oh man.

[00:16:19] – Steve
And that’s another potential problem with retainers. So you need to be able to say, “look, every X amount of time my prices do go up, or every X amount of time this contract will be reviewed by both parties”. Yeah. Just don’t want you getting tied into doing what you’re doing right now for a price that you end up resenting or regretting later on, because you obviously like the client, they obviously like you, so we want to keep it that way. You’ve got to make this what you want it to be. You’re not an employee.

[00:16:51] – Frankie
And particularly when you’ve got children, that’s another layer of stress. I think that’s partly why that magazine job for me was quite stressful. Flexibility, man. That’s why we’re doing it right? So you’ve got to build that flexibility into your retainers.

I do think it’s also worth saying that there are different types of retainers. This sounds like a situation where she’s tied in to, like, a set day or days a month. I don’t know, it sounds like she’s feeling quite restricted, whereas there are some retainers where it’s super flexible and, like you were saying, it’s project-based. So it’s like you will get X done in the next 30 days.

If Lily is not feeling this retainer with this client, that doesn’t mean that retainers aren’t for her. If this one isn’t working, that doesn’t mean you can’t find another one that does.

[00:17:33] – Steve
I would say you want to leave a bit of wiggle room.

[00:17:35] – Frankie
Ding ding. Bingo!

[00:17:39] – Steve
Having a number of retainers for some people is the way they run their business. That works for them. Like, they have five retainers on the go. They know exactly what’s going on month after month after month.

Personally, I like to leave wiggle room so that I can be surprised by what I’m doing a month from now. I don’t know what it is and I quite like that. I like the fact that somebody will come along and ask me to do something that I have no idea about right now. But also, on the back burner, I have some work that regularly comes my way.

That, for me, is quite a nice balance, but whatever works for you.

[00:18:10] – Frankie
That’s it.

And if you need to take the batteries out, take the batteries out. Throw that thing out the window in front of a passing car.

What would your advice be?

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