By Gwyneth Box
How many times have you thought that you’d like to give up the nine till five routine of work and ‘go freelance’?
Imagine having the freedom to come and go as you like, to choose when to work and to work only on projects that interest you. As a freelance you have no boss: you can set all your own rules and have to answer to no one. You don’t have to conform, or work a given number of hours, or put up with colleagues you don’t get along with. If you see a way to streamline your work, you can just go ahead and do so without forms signed in triplicate and approved at the annual board meeting six months later. There are far fewer delays in making changes and all systems are designed the way that suits you best. It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But before you take that decision, maybe you ought to consider the other side of the question. That same freedom brings with it a great deal of responsibility, and every positive aspect has a downside.
Who’s the boss?
As a freelance, you have no boss. True, but to a certain extent, every single client becomes your boss. Instead of one, whose idiosyncrasies and quirks you can learn to cope with, you have to learn a new set of customs and conventions for every new customer. Instead of obeying one person, you now need to do what any number of different people tell you.
You don’t have to work a set number of hours, but you will almost certainly find that you are working more than when you were employed, and receiving no extra payment for doing so.
If an employer demands longer hours, there’s usually a contract which can be consulted, and some kind of compensation is frequently made, either more money, or time off in lieu. On bigger projects, extra staff may be brought in to help out. When you are your own boss, however, if a client wants a project finished by a certain date, you are reliant on yourself and no-one else to meet the deadline. And even if you have to work all night and all weekend, there is no trade union to support your claim for compensation. You may say that you simply will not work those hours, but if the project is late you won’t be paid, and if you turn it down as impossible to complete in the given time, someone else will do it and you will have lost a customer.
And then what about holidays? Who will cover for you while you are away? What if a big job comes up just when you are about to leave? Will you risk turning it down, or will you change your plans? If a customer calls you on your mobile while you’re on holiday, will you drop everything to deal with him? What about if you’re ill?
You don’t have to put up with colleagues you don’t like when you work on your own, but nor is there anyone else around to help out or to chat to. Working alone can be a very lonely lifestyle, and it’s surprising how much one misses the office atmosphere when one is no longer a part of it.
Methods & Systems
As for the independence to implement whatever system you think is best without having to have it approved, well, the IRS are still going to demand that you keep to certain norms, whether you think they’re efficient or not.
Things which were taken care of by staff in other departments are now going to be all your responsibility and they are going to take up a lot of the time you expected to have available to dedicate to your main business activity. Have you ever thought about the time taken in buying stationery, keeping records of expenditure and client databases, progress chasing, typing letters, etc? Unless you are setting up a small business with a full company infrastructure, you are going to have to do all this yourself.
And all this costs money. There are costs of stationery and postage. Office services, such as photocopying and fax, which you took for granted, will become significant all of a sudden. Your phone bill will be astronomical, if you aren’t careful.
Then there are professional costs which need to be considered. You may need to pay an accountant to make sure your tax returns are completed correctly. And what about medical insurance? Maybe your house insurance covers your computer, but does it really provide enough cover? If your computer is stolen, it’s not just a question of replacing the hardware and software. If you lose all your work in progress and have to start again from scratch you will need some kind of protection for the loss of earnings while you redo everything. And maybe you need cover for that sensitive client data that you hold on your hard disk. If you make your home your work base, does it affect the terms of your mortgage or rental agreement?
Do you need to arrange an overdraft facility for the moments of cash-flow problems? Even assuming that you have no problems finding work (which is an ideal and probably unreal supposition) can you be sure that the clients will pay promptly? Do you realize that it’s quite normal for big companies to pay at 90 days? That means that you may complete a project and still not be paid for a full three months. What will you live on in the meantime?
It’s easy enough to see the positive side of freelancing, but all too often it’s seen through rose-tinted spectacles. As an employee, there are many things associated with the running of the company that you don’t need to consider: each aspect is handled by professionals and it works so smoothly that you aren’t even aware it’s happening. As a freelance you become responsible for all of it. You may find it better to start small, freelancing in your spare time to begin with. When you have the problems ironed out, a solid client base and a better understanding of the organization you need, then is the time to give up the day job.