To freelance is divine!

Up until now, I’ve been quite selfish with Aerospace Nation, doing virtually all the writing.

Time to fix that.

One avid reader kindly volunteered to share his experience of freelancing (also called contracting). What a brilliant idea.

Jon Mercer isn’t an aerospace hack. He’s spend most of his working life in IT. While nursing a passion for flying machines. Of course. Doesn’t everybody?

But the story he’s about to tell could very easily be that of an aerospace techie. (The one exception being: While you might be able to get into IT armed with only a history degree and a willingness to hack, you can’t get into aerospace like that. The aerospace world is rather backward that way, to its detriment.)

What’s cool about Jon’s story is how he sort of fell into freelancing, and then discovered how much happier he was that way. That’s a theme that resonates. I can count on one hand the number of freelance people I’ve met who regret the switch from permanent employment. The vast, vast, vast majority of freelancers are happier, richer, and wish they’d made the jump earlier.

With a few exceptions, the language below belongs to Jon. Where I have added anything, it is italicized, in brackets, and prefaced by DK.

Read on!

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It was one day in the late 1990’s.

There I was, sat at my desk, when suddenly the voices around me fell silent.

Something was being passed from desk to desk. You could follow its progress from the red faces and embarrassed expressions.

Someone had brought a freelancing magazine into the office . . .

Backtrack to the mid 1990’s. I was temping after finishing a History degree and wondering what to do with myself.

One of my friends, a philosopher, was going into IT. I couldn’t see what philosophy had to do with IT. (Nor history either.)

Well, if he could do it, so could I. IT had a future, and it was well paid.

So that was that. History was history, follow the money. A company making a mobile phone billing system was recruiting for an Oracle DBA and was prepared to train the right candidate. Oracle was a big thing in 1997, and it was a permanent job that I grasped with both hands.

After two years of Oracle DBA, spent between England and Portugal, I felt I was ready to take on the world. I went for a bigger role.

Now I was now working in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Walton-on-Thames (don’t ask) . . . . .

But always at the back of my mind was that freelancing magazine. The thought kept creeping to the forefront.

My next move, however, was not of my own own choosing. The Dotcom crash had taken the share price (of the US company I was working for) from $40 to $0.40. The last Friday every month suddenly gained a certain reputation, as more and more people exited the business, not of their own volition.

I was 28 when I was made redundant. Everywhere, IT people seemed to be leaving IT with no prospect of another IT job. Now I was one of them. With no disrespect to supermarket employees, stacking shelves has never been my ‘thing’. Since 2003 was meant to have been the year Linux got installed on every desktop (like every year, right?), the original freelance dream started to grow into a dream of becoming the Microsoft of the Linux desktop.

I was heading for a fall.

After a year living off my severance pay, without a single paying client in sight, I had a call from an ex-colleague, Steve. (The name has been changed to protect the guilty.)

“Hi Jon, would you like to work for Company X?”

Frankly, no.

But I was desperate.

“Why yes, of course I’d like to work for Company X, Steve. When do we start?”

Company X had a reputation for being populated by Office Psychopaths, and on reflection, the reputation was understated. Working for Company X made the Borgias look like Little House on the Prairie. It kept the wolf from the door, but it was like inviting the wolf in to feast on your own flesh, in the hope you’d get some scraps after.

It was a massive reality check. How was I going to get out and keep a grip on my sanity, no matter how tenuous?

What marketable skills, exactly, did I have? How was I going to make the thousands of pounds I’d spent setting up a company make me look like less of an arsehole than I’d actually been?

What was worse (and this might have been a bigger motivation), how was I going to pay for the bigger house my then-partner wanted to buy?

The answer, of course, was to tone down my expectations, and go freelance. Using the skills I already had.

Most freelancers will work through their own personal services company, which differs from any other company in absolutely no way whatsoever. So I already had the right vehicle. Even if I hadn’t, companies can be bought off the shelf in very little time (and you really don’t want to be a company director unless you’re getting something out of the company, otherwise it’s a drag on your time and your finances).

[DK: Personal service companies (which may be described differently in your country) have downsides. You pay a premium to an “umbrella company” to manage the legalese and bookkeeping for you. And there may be legal implications if you have any ambitions of someday turning your company into something bigger than just you. The upside is, or course, you can easily make much better money, after taxes, for doing exactly the same work.]

Finding an accountant was similarly easy. Get one. It’s so much easier than trying to keep all your accounts yourself. But find one that specializes in freelancers. [DK: I wholeheartedly concur!]

Be especially mindful of the taxman – ensure you’re compliant with IR35. [DK: IR35 is legislation specific to the UK. It was applied in the late 1990’s when the then-government became suspicious that too many people were going freelance in order to avoid paying taxes. Which they were, of course, that was the whole point! Duh! The essential message here is: Most countries have legislation to clearly delineate between employees and freelancers. They also have Taxmen eager to maximize the amount of tax you pay. Don’t let them do that. Make sure all deals you strike as a freelancer are worded to prevent you falling foul of the Taxman.]

Also, as director of a company, you must distinguish between your own finances and your company’s finances. Get them mixed up, and you can be hammered for tax. A good place for free information about going freelance is here[DK: A very useful site, with UK-specific information. Search online using keywords “contractor” (or “freelance”) and your own country’s name, and you should find your way to information specific to you.]

The rest was as simple as putting together a CV for the freelance/contract market and passing it out to agents. That works well in IT – find enough agents and the right contract will come along in time. Dealing with a reputable agent is a good thing, as they can find the contracts and handle paying the invoices to your company which eliminates the problem of slow paying clients.

I can honestly say, I’ve never looked back. I can stay above the politics, I get a decent rate for a decent day’s work and I feel in charge of my own future. Would I take a permanent job again? No way.

So the moral of the story is that going freelance isn’t difficult. It may not be right for everyone. If you have even a moderately-enterprising nature and you can accept that your own skills fit within the limits of a wider industry skill set, you can make a good living and still develop your skills as you need to.

Nor does it mean you cast aside your dream of building a world dominating business. (One day, I promise you.)

But be advised, it takes realism and discipline. As a freelancer you don’t need to have stellar skills in your chosen area, the trade-off is that you work for more money, but with much less security and almost no office politics.

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