Going freelance offered me the opportunity for continued challenge, superior work life balance and compensation commensurate with my skills and abilities.
I was recently in an interesting conversation with a licenced engineer who wears a black belt in six sigma. He has courageously shifted careers from fulltime employment to an independent contractor and he couldn’t be more pleased with his decision. He is now consulting with some of the big companies in Canada and happy to share his thoughts and experience. He has some invaluable words of advice for people who are thinking about going freelance.
Q: What is your primary motivation to going freelance? What are the primary motivators that gave you that final push to go independent?
The original driver was around career development. I was in my role for over four years, the longest term I have ever held in a full time position. Full time business roles were limited and would have required me to make a sideways move into a Manager Role. This is something I was open to but only if the scope and challenge was a match. Staying in my current department then and pushing for a promotion was also an option, but I didn’t consider it that strongly because the department was in flux.
I was left to evaluate why I wanted to change positions. Generally, I want to move for a few reasons, but the main driver is challenge. Increased challenge typically comes with increased work volume, hours, and pay. Going freelance offered me the opportunity for continued challenge, superior work life balance and compensation commensurate with my skills and abilities. This was a gradual process. However, once I realized there was nothing internally, that was it. I wasn’t going to start over a second time and for me it would be even worse to stay in the same position for five plus years. I think that sends the wrong message.
Q: What were the fears that you had to overcome to be able to make this decision? How did you overcome them?
I managed those fears by meeting with contacts who were already independent and asked as many questions as I could. What makes me more qualified than the next person? Will I be able to get work? How much work can I get? What rate can I charge? Where is the work? Am I viable in that industry? Whether full time employed or independent, you have to get over the idea, that someone will save you. In a full time role, you get two weeks per year of service if you are laid off. On contract, it takes a year to build your float comparable to that of an employee with 15 plus years of service. That is being conservative – it takes less time. The point is most people do not have three months of expenses saved. Your float is your safety net, your float is your advantage for both selecting the right contract or full time position. That said, you need to have some money saved going into the change, but no more so if you were making a full time change.
THE PROS AND CONS
Q: You must have weighed the pros and cons to going independent as against being employed. What were the pros that tilted the balance towards being self-employed?
Cons: Generally, if you ever want to re-enter full time employment, you would have to start where you left off. This is the general thinking but I’m not sure if this was actually true. I have been recently getting more and more calls to consider more senior-level positions. Secondly, there are concerns around job security and creating a risk to your financial security.
Pros: Number one is work-life balance, but a big piece is leaving the office politics alone, including the company, the people, the industry, and the constant re-adjusting to a new direction driven by the employer company’s priorities. The 100% accountability is motivating. If it is not, then self-employment is not for you. Most importantly, there is increased compensation without the headaches of having a full time job, which means, less concern over people’s intentions, no direct reports, and no concerns over lay-offs. You don’t have to travel if you don’t want to because you’re in control. If you really enjoy being part of a team, you do not have to sacrifice this aspect of your job. Most contracts are part of a larger project, typically comprised of a number of smaller and larger project teams that work closely with one another. Most importantly, when you work freelance, your work is all that matters. Your work is all they know about you.
Q: From your perspective and coming from where you were two years ago, what are the benefits of self-employment or independent contracting?
Other than the fact that I gained work-life balance, my resume is much more compelling than a full time counterpart is. I get financial rewards without the required sacrifice to earn similar pay in a full time role by virtue of salary scaling. My network has grown exponentially. I have been considered for full time roles that I never would have been considered for if I had stayed in a full time role. Strange as it may seem, I feel more secure. Security was the big risk I thought of when considering my transition. So what is security? For me it is the length of time I can maintain my quality of life once my employment ends, combined with the likelihood that I will find gainful employment shortly thereafter. Based on my definition, I feel that contract work provides you with the potential for greater security if you manage your business properly. There is of course a presumption of steady work. That is inherent to all of this. My awareness of the market, through necessity, makes me more confident I can get a fulltime job if I need to. Full time roles, by their very nature are not secure nowadays.
SOME WORDS OF ADVICE
Q: Your personal experience in transitioning from fulltime employment to self-employment is valuable as a model to others who are considering doing the same. There is so much fear in crossing this line because of the obvious risks and uncertainty attached to going on your own. How should they prepare for it? What are the steps that they should take to increase their likelihood of success? What difficulties should they expect to encounter along the way and should they deal with them?
- Prepare by understanding your ability to take risk and what you consider are risks; and then plan for the risk so you become more comfortable with it.
- Engage in honest discussions about your background, marketability and likely rate. It is best if you can have that discussion with a number of different people who know the market as well as those who know you well.
- Bridge any gaps that exist between your current background and where you need to be in terms of skills and competencies as aggressively as possible.
- Leverage networking tools at your disposal.
- Select the right business structure for you but I recommend that you incorporate.
The main challenge is getting the first contract. Ideally, your past work history supports the change and it is not a big departure to transition as far as the nature of the work. Do not resign until you have a signed contract and make sure you have a float. Contracts can go south easily.
Q: What other advice can you give to people like you who want to make the shift?
- If you are concerned about titles and traditional thinking around career progress, this is not for you. You get hired for what you have done, not what you have the potential to do. You do not get paid to learn.
- The way you interact as a contractor is slightly different from full time and different with every client. Some may really value your perspective others not as much. The nature of the engagement can sometimes be a clue to how that dynamic will play out. More consultative work is generally conducive to a healthier relationship. Stay away from staff augmentation.
- The client is always right, but they are usually wrong. Remember, you are there because they need your help, usually badly. You need to learn how to help them without making them feel insecure about the situation.
- Start your search for your next contract two months in advance of the end of your current contract if you want to work immediately after one contract ends. It will take are few weeks to find something, a few weeks to get a response for interview and a few weeks to get signed if the stars align.
- Remember the rules for you are different. If you have a significant other, have the discussion that your job should be treated a little different. Unless it is a family emergency, kids stranded at day care, or an ailing loved one, you can’t miss work or be late. I have found that most clients understand but I personally prefer not to ask. You are not a fulltime employee, don’t act like one.
- Because you are viewed as an outsider to the company you work with, people feel comfortable telling you all sorts of crazy stories from the grapevine. Who is with who, who said what and so on. My advice: you can listen, you can laugh, but you don’t repeat or have an opinion. You want to be known for your work and character, not as someone who spreads rumours or someone who can’t be trusted. This seems like common sense but you would surprised.