Considering Freelancing? What to Think About Before You Start Working for Yourself
For many corporate leaders, there’s considerable allure in the idea of becoming a self-employed consultant, freelancer, or independent contractor.
Maybe it’s the thought of setting your own hours and choosing what kind of work you’ll do — and what you won’t. Maybe it’s the chance to build something on your own. Or maybe it’s just the opportunity to get away from a workplace that can sometimes feel stuffy and oppressive.
Whatever the reason, you’re not alone. One of the fastest growing employment sectors in the 21st century is the gig economy — a catch-all term that encompasses everyone from graduate students and retirees driving for Lyft, to highly skilled and highly paid independent consultants and contractors.
Tax software maker Intuit estimates that as of 2017, about 34% of U.S. workers are participating in the gig economy to some extent, and the company expects that to grow to 43% by 2020.
Leaner corporations, the global connectivity made possible by the internet, and a growing desire by professionals for more autonomy is driving many off corporate payrolls and into the world of self-employment.
So if you’re considering making the leap into consulting or freelancing, what should you be thinking about? Here are 4 essential aspects of successful self-employment.
1. Your Value
Most importantly, you have to consider what value you can provide to others. What can you do that other people will pay for? As you consider launching your own business, ask yourself:
- What skills do I have?
- What kinds of projects or tasks have I been especially successful at?
In many cases, it’s not just a professional or technical skill — such as negotiating a benefits plan or developing new marketing materials — that’s important. Part of the package of skills that the successfully self-employed offer is the ability to understand a client’s problem and then deliver a solution.
For example, if a client tells you their company needs to increase its revenue, potential solutions could include new branding and advertising, sales training, or expanding into international markets. The solution you offer has to match the client’s problem as well as your skills.
A clear understanding of your value is also important to establishing a strong leadership brand. Whether you call yourself a freelancer, a consultant, a contractor, or something else, you need to present yourself in a compelling fashion to potential clients.
2. Your Competencies
Being a successful consultant or independent contractor requires more than just technical or professional skills. There are also a set of competencies related to dealing with people, understanding yourself, and adapting to change.
CCL’s Compass framework provides more than 40 leadership competencies that apply to individuals in a wide array of roles. For self-employed professionals, these 7 stand out:
- Flexibility. Though having a plan for your career as a freelancer is valuable, expecting that plan won’t change is unrealistic. Being flexible enough to adapt to your environment is critical.
- Learning agility. Learning agility is the ability to absorb new knowledge and develop new skills quickly, based on your experiences. Successful freelancers never stop learning.
- Relationship management. Being a free agent doesn’t mean you don’t work with others. Being able to work effectively with different kinds of people in different environments is one of the essential ingredients for self-employment success.
- Resiliency. The freelance life is full of ups and downs. Successful freelancers are resilient enough to push through the stress that can accompany both, but especially the anxiety that comes during challenging times.
- Risk-taking. If you’re not willing to take some risks, self-employment is probably not for you. A willingness to embrace risk (in a smart, calculated way) is essential.
- Self-awareness. To be successful as a consultant or independent contractor, you have to be able to sell yourself. Doing so requires confidence and authenticity, qualities that arise from a strong sense of self-awareness.
- Tolerating ambiguity. The life of a freelancer is inherently ambiguous. There is no clear path that someone else lays out for you, no gold watch at the end of your career. There will be many times when you don’t know what’s around the next corner until you reach it, so the ability to tolerate ambiguity is critical.
3. Your Community
Networking is one of the most common prescriptions for a freelancer’s perpetual challenge — winning new business. But networking can suggest an image of someone glad-handing strangers at business meetings and exchanging business cards over cocktails.
While some people, no doubt, can convert strangers into customers, for most freelancers that approach isn’t ideal. That kind of networking, as well as the follow-up sales efforts that go into it, can consume a lot of time and personal energy. And many people don’t want to approach their business that way.
Most successful freelancers end up cultivating a community of clients, peers, referral sources, and potential partners. This is a web of personal and professional relationships that can provide a steady source of new projects, opportunities for professional growth, mentorship, and informal advice.
In a large organization, many of these community functions are filled automatically by other employees. As a self-employed professional, however, it’s up to you to construct and maintain this community. Many of these relationships are built around a 2-way exchange of value — you give advice as often as you get it.
4. Your Career Path
As you consider launching a career as an independent professional, a final question to consider is what this means for your career path. There is no human resources department here to guide you — you are your own HR department.
Having a clear vision and goals can help, as can getting regular advice from other people. A handful of informal, trusted advisors that you meet with periodically can be very helpful. These people can offer you candid feedback and help you work through ideas or challenges you’re facing.
Before you launch a freelance career, think of 2 or 3 people who could serve as a sort of informal advisory panel for you. Maybe your first step is to meet with those individuals and discuss whether freelancing might be the right career move for you.
Interested in learning more about freelancing as a career choice? Check out our blog post series on the subject, starting with “Freelance Success: Defining Your Value to Stand Out.”