Britain’s self-employed population has broken through the 5 million barrier for the first time. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows there were 5,001,000 people in self-employment during the three months to the end of November last year – a 1.4% increase on the previous quarter.
Should you join their ranks? Well, surveys suggest that while more people are interested in working for themselves, they’re also nervous about making the leap. They worry about whether they’ll get sufficient work, whether they can make ends meet, and how they’ll adjust to a new way of working.
Still, while no-one is saying self-employment is easy or perfect, the reality is that if you’ve held down a job or pursued a career, you will be able to transfer your skills to the freelance world. The key is to be prepared. Here are a dozen tips for going freelance in 2020.
1. Plan your move. If you’re thinking about quitting work why not set yourself a three-month timescale for doing so? When combined with a notice period, that should give you enough time to formulate plans properly and to identify clients before you jump ship.
2. Think about your brand. Unless you are already well-known or have an unusual and instantly memorable name, you should create a brand or identity. The possibilities are limitless.
3. Set up a website. Whether you are a builder or a banker, there are few sole traders who do not have an internet presence. You probably already have a computer and internet connection so that’s already paid for. You can teach yourself how to set up a website but it’s not too expensive to get one designed.
4. Identify your market. You may already have a few clients in mind so that will give you a start, but try to think more broadly about who might be interested in your work and look at the competition in your specialist area. Once you’re established you can also look to branch out into new disciplines.
5. Always market yourself. At times when work comes in it is easy to say that you can hardly keep up with the demand for current clients. But order books can fall away suddenly and it is easier to market yourself from a position of strength than weakness.
6. Never turn down work. Or at least think very long and hard before doing so. A client who is turned down may not come back with a second offer down the road. Think why you are rejecting it: is it the fee? Then negotiate. Is it the nature of the work? Well, not everything fits exactly in your skills area but it might open the door to new areas of interest.
7. Down tools on occasion. You will have times when there seems to be little work around: Christmas, August, global economic depression. Use quiet times productively – and that doesn’t just mean work. See a film, go to a gallery – you won’t get anything done staring at a computer screen or waiting for the telephone to ring.
8. Get the price right. This is probably the hardest challenge: price a job too low and you feel you are working for nothing; set it too high and watch your inbox dry up. With new clients, always state your rate, and if they bridle immediately take that as a warning. Equally, once you have won the contract make sure you get paid – don’t let late payments spiral out of control.
9. Get expert support. There are some things better done by professionals. Pay an accountant to compile your tax return and accounts (unless you are a freelance accountant). Keep your union membership if you had one at work as they may still act for you as a freelancer if you pay your dues. That can be handy when it comes to disputes over payments. See if there is a professional association or society for your sector. Once you have gone freelance you will find others out there like you.
10. Work out if you can work on your own. After a number of years in an office or factory, working in a room at home or out of your car will feel very different. Some people relish it, but it can drive others mad. If you are in the latter category there are options such as sharing office space with fellow self-employees or using work hubs. Even cafes and libraries are a possibility.
11. Embrace the work/life balance. Take advantage of your new flexibility: you don’t have to work 9am-5pm any more. You can work the hours you want, fitting in around your responsibilities and interests, so take advantage. If you used to commute, you have probably already saved up to two hours, so start work at 8.30am, finish at 3.30pm, and you will do the same amount of work you would have done in the office.
12. Look after your financial (and mental) health. It’s boring but once cut adrift from any employee pension and healthcare plan, you need to put some money aside for retirement and ill-health. Equally, assuming you will be working from home, or using your home as a base, carve out space for your work separate from your life.