Making the Move to Contracting
Gemma Church is ‘the freelance writer who gets tech’. A web development contractor and journalist, blogger and writer for the science and technology sectors. www.gemmakatechurch.com
Contracting never felt like a plausible option when I was a permanent employee.
I’d heard whispers of high rates of pay and a better work/life balance during my time as a technology journalist and then web developer, but shrugged off these benefits as simply being "too good to be true”.
How very wrong I was.
I dabbled with freelance work for a few years, but decided to leave permanent employment and set up as a contractor some months ago.
This was not an easy decision. Lack of security was a primary concern. I have a young family and a long-term mortgage. The idea that I would not receive a monthly pay cheque, or any of the employee benefits from working a 9-5 job, was quite frankly terrifying. I am also a stickler for forward planning and the inability to forecast my income and future career path was particularly unsettling.
Then there’s the confusion about taxes, setting up a business and running my day-to-day life as a contractor - is it really worth the hassle?
Yes, it is.
For every concern, there was a far weightier benefit. A lack of security is matched by incredible flexibility and high rates of pay. Quiet periods give you time to re-educate yourself and re-evaluate your career. And the transition from permanent employee to contractor wasn’t as confusing as I expected.
There are many reasons to move to contracting and it’s a personal choice based on your circumstances.
For me, the decision was based around two factors. Firstly, I began to feel frustrated with the structure of permanent employment. I loved my role as a web developer and the company I worked for - but as a contractor I can choose to work on topics that really interest me. I can structure my working day and completely control my environment. Being my own boss is sometimes daunting - but it is also what inspires me to work so hard on projects that inspire me.
Secondly, I have a young family so the flexibility and better work/life balance of contracting are huge benefits. There’s no commute so I can now drop off and pick up my sons from school. I can take some time off during the usual office hours - and make up my hours at a more convenient time. I can work to my family’s timetable - instead of my work dictating to everyone else’s timetables.
Advice from the other side
If you do decide to take the plunge and make the move to contracting, then there is plenty of excellent advice out there. This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are five bits of advice I would pass on based on my experiences:
Get a specialist accountant
Yes, I know I am writing this on an accountancy blog so you may accuse me of a slight bias, but anyone making the move the contracting needs a specialist accountant.
There are many benefits to hiring an accountant, from having someone to fill out those pesky HMRC forms or giving advice on the nuances of IR35, but the emphasis here is to find a specialist accountant
It is vital to find an accountant who understands the industry that you work in and the wider contractor market. Those with such specialist knowledge can advise on the implications of working as a contractor and offer industry-specific insights.
Don’t be fooled by seemingly low rates. Try to find an accountant that offers a fixed rate package, personal advice and is upfront about the services on offer - otherwise you could waste a lot of money and get little back in return.
The contractor life can be challenging. I have weeks where my feet do not touch the ground, and others when I have some spare time. A little downtime is great to clear your head, but make sure you stay motivated in quieter periods.
There are many ways to achieve this. Training is an obvious choice to boost your CV and many organisers will offer discounts to last minute applicants to fill spaces on a course. You should also pitch for work on a regular basis and update your CV at the end of each contract. Write a blog, getting involved on LinkedIn or contact old clients.
Get your own benefits
Hello contracting, bye bye annual leave, sick pay and a raft of other benefits of permanent employment.
However, contractor rates are higher than permanent pay rates so make sure you invest some of that extra cash in yourself. Sign up to private healthcare, take a one-month sabbatical or join the gym (you’ll also be able to go in off peak times) - make the most of the flexibility of freelancing by choosing the benefits that mean the most to you.
The contractor community is a great space to network and alleviate the solitude of working alone. Find out about local freelance and small business events in your area. These are also a great resource to find additional work as word of mouth is often your most powerful marketing tool.
Get a life
Working as a contractor can be a little addictive. Once you become your own boss, the more you put into your work, the more you will get out of it.
This can mean that you end up burning the midnight oil to make a deadline or take on too much work because it’s tempting (particularly in the early days) to say yes to everything. After all, more work now means more money. But try to be selective - pick jobs that build your skill set, enhance your expertise in the market and pay well.
It’s also important to make time for yourself. Schedule in holidays. You may even make the conscious decision to just work for six months of the year and then take the next six months off.
And that’s the beauty of contracting - you set the pace and reap all the rewards. Contracting is not just a plausible option - it’s a brilliant way of working.
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