Thursday, 12 April 2007

Becoming a freelancer

We filed into the large conference room apprehensively, about 200 of us, in order to hear the announcement about the future of the business that employed us, which had been put up for sale several months previously.

As soon as the boss walked in and faced us from the stage, we knew it was bad news. 'Despite all our efforts, we have been unable to find a buyer...Accordingly Corporate have decided to close the business'. A few more words filtered through into my stunned consciousness '..consultation period..three months notice... redundancy terms...pension scheme....'

We filed out again, disbelieving, twenty years of employment dissolved in about ten minutes flat.

I had sensed some time before that my own job was at risk, and that I should think through how to handle redundancy - after all a new owner would probably want to install their own management - but it was a huge shock to hear that the site was to be closed and the whole staff laid off. It was a small comfort that this included everyone, the boss too, so that we could all support each other, and no-one could feel more aggrieved than anyone else.

My forward thinking had been quite simple. I knew I was unlikely to get another career-type job in the same line, and certainly not without moving house, with all the expense and family disruption involved. Even then I would have no real job security, and no further compensation package until I had built up several years of service. For me then, the future had to be freelance / self-employment / contracting. I would do whatever would enable me to earn a living without having my professional future bound up with any particular firm. Surely I could exploit my own skills, knowledge, and experience better than anyone else, and if that meant travelling, then I would travel.

This logic was backed up, on the day, and for weeks afterwards, with an instinctive determination that I would never again put myself on someone else's payroll.

Three months later I feel I have successfully made the transition from employee to freelance, and although I have the simplest possible business model (no staff, no stock, no premises) I am actually quite impressed at the number of different things that I needed to do, and have done. More than that, I have enjoyed tacking many of the business issues that I was sheltered from as an employee, even as a departmental manager. So I have drawn up a profit & loss account, and filled in my own VAT and PAYE returns after studying the guidance documents.

Have I become a real freelance yet ? Maybe so, but maybe also it's true that a freelance is only a freelance as long as there is work booked ahead. I get more highs than I did as an employee - for example I love posting out my invoices and I am thrilled when I check my bank account and find another payment has arrived. There are also more lows - such as when I am not awarded the business I pitch for, or when the very occasional industry contact from my past treats me like someone to avoid. However, these are easily offset by the employees who have said 'I envy you, I wish I could leave and start again, but with the mortgage, pension, etc, I can't'. There are also the freelancers who, having established that I'm quite determined to live this way, tell me that after a year or so I will never regret my redundancy.

I have thought for some years that while being an employee was a fairly straightforward way to make a living from technical skills, it wasn't necessarily a good deal for everyone, and carried a significant risk that individual talents would be wasted by the employing organisation. However, bearing in mind my career, pensions, and in the last few years the possibility of a redundancy pay-off, I had not taken action.

Now, of course the action has been taken for me, for better or worse. I genuinely believe that whatever I want - money, leisure time, travel, security - is more easily available outside employment than inside. The most liberating fact of my new situation is that, if I am dissatisfied about anything in my professional life, there is only one person I depend on for a solution - me.

© steve_roberts 2007

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