4 minute read

Are you sure you want to go freelance?

Freelancing is no panacea to employment problems.

I love being self-employed, but it’s a career and lifestyle choice I’ve made. It works for me, but it wouldn’t work for everyone.

Recently, lots of courses have appeared that encourage people to quit their full-time jobs and go it alone. These courses portray freelancing as a panacea to all sorts of employment issues.

Hate the 9–5? Go freelance.

Want more flexible hours? Go freelance.

Hate your boss? Go freelance.

Want a job that will fit around your family life? Go freelance.

Bonus points if you can voice these like Peter Serafinowicz.

I believe that people should do work that’s fulfilling and it’s absolutely possible to retrain into a new career that works for you. I believe that because I did it.

I know that many courses are created because freelancing has worked for the course founder. They want to spread the word, pass on their craft and help others to follow in their footsteps.

This is a good thing, but I also believe course founders have a responsibility to contextualise their portrayal of freelance life. 

Changing lanes

Finding sustainable work as a freelancer takes a while. This is true when their employed work easily translates to self-employment, and even truer if it doesn’t.

Though I didn’t move to be a freelance web designer from an employed position, it still took me 3–4 years before I could safely cut ties with my teaching work.

As I’ve written before, Mark Boulton’s chapter on moving to self-employment is well worth reading for anyone considering going freelance. It’s from a book on web design, but the principles are the same whatever career you’re moving to or from.

Self-employment has a lot of moving parts. First, you have to source clients: even if you already have one or two lined up, how is the pipeline going to fill up after that?

Second, how competitive is your field? Is it an expanding market or has it reached saturation?

Then you have to consider things like:

  • Pricing your work
  • Contracts
  • How you will advertise your services
  • Admin
  • Saving for quiet months
  • Self-development

Some of these tasks are simple, but others take a long time to figure out.

It took me three years to get everything in place. Despite the wealth of information available online, it’s still difficult to work all of these things out.

Courses provide skills, templates, workflows and all manner of genuinely useful advice. But the idea that students can walk out of a course into some sort of ready-made and reliable freelance career is optimistic at best.

Get real

Freelancing is tough. Even if you have all of your processes sorted out, there’ll be ups and downs…especially at the beginning.

I think courses have a responsibility to caveat their marketing with some of the realities of self-employment. Freelancing is all-too-often dressed up as some sort of magic pill to solve work issues.

Freelancers share the responsibility not to oversell the benefits of working for yourself, too. When we’re spreading the good word about self-employment, it’s easy to ‘forget’ the months when overdrafts have been maxed out or you’ve been worried sick about the impact of a late payment, especially when the times are good.

There are all sorts of ‘gotchas’ that won’t be obvious to people switching from full-time employment. For instance:

Employee benefits

Say goodbye to sick pay and holiday pay: these need to be factored into the freelancer’s rate.

That’s not all, freelancers aren’t properly compensated for jury service and self-employed dads don’t receive any paternity leave at all. 

Freelance mums are subject to strict and discriminatory Maternity Allowance rules that mean they either need to return to work very early or risk losing their business.

Then there are the employer-matched pension contributions. There’s some relief from the government but only around 14% of freelancers save for one.

Insurance

Business equipment (laptops, phones, etc) need insuring. But did you know your home contents insurance probably doesn’t cover that if it’s being used for business?

Then there’s Public Liability Insurance, needed if you work in-person with clients, and Professional Indemnity Insurance (which is expensive when working with clients in the US).

Tax and other fun things

Everyone’s favourite subject. Yes, tax may be relatively straightforward for sole traders, but there are plenty of things to consider here, too.

For a start, there are payments on account. This catches a great number of freelancers out in their first year, though it shouldn’t (if it does, it means you’re way behind on your tax saving).

Then there are things like EU Digital VAT laws which apply to selling online courses and other digital stuff. A complicated rule at best and not something to be taken lightly. 

And then there’s GDPR… 

The grass is always greener

I don’t want to discourage anyone from going freelance. Self-employment is a great option for lots of people, but it needs careful consideration.

If you’re in any doubt about how tough it is, bear in mind that the average earnings for the self-employed in the UK is around £17,000.

Freelancing can be an extremely rewarding choice, especially if you end up with a better work-life balance than you had before. But it takes time for freelancing to become a primary source of income.

It’s also worth remembering that freelancing is only a choice. An employed position can be just as rewarding if you’re working for and with the right people. 

If you’ve made the switch to freelancing recently, or are considering it, get involved in some online freelance communities. Take a look at Independent Work, Freelance Heroes, Being Freelance and Doing It For The Kids (for freelancers with children).

I put these off for too long, but joining them was one of the best decisions I made in my freelance career.