Going Solo: The Highs and Lows of Freelancing – by Di Clark MCIEEM

Ten things to consider if you’re thinking of making the leap

It’s almost twenty years since I first joined the world of ecological consultancy, and what a road it’s been.  Many bumps along the way, I’m but still here, still loving it and still not bored.  Really importantly for me, I’m also now my own boss, having taken the plunge in 2016 to set up as a sole trader at the same time as taking a part-time job.  More recently, I made another leap and created Koru Ecology Associates Limited, thus formalising further all the hard work I’ve put in as a freelancer over the last six years.

So, for those of you who have ever wondered what all the fuss is about and how on earth you would go about making it happen if you ever wanted to, here are a few words of wisdom from someone who has gone before you, and learnt from many mistakes in the process.  Pick and choose what is useful to you – everyone’s situation is different – but keep in mind that some of these points are pretty fundamental.

1. Think about why you want to make the leap.

You may very well know the answer to this already, it’s been burning in the back of your brain for the last three years and you’re desperate to make the change.  Or you may just be vaguely thinking about it – or even never really thought much about it at all but are just feeling curious.  Perhaps where you work at the moment doesn’t remunerate you appropriately for the work you put in, and you fancy setting your own rates and having more control over your income.  Or maybe you are sick of the long and unsociable hours your current company is making you work, which prevent you from spending time with friends and family, other commitments and hobbies you enjoy, or allowing you to properly manage health issues.  You’d like more flexibility to manage this juggling act, more energy left to spend in your free time, and no-one to control your time other than yourself.  Maybe you’ve had a career break, you’ve spent some time at home with kids, had other caring responsibilities, had a long-term illness or just come back from travelling, and now it’s time to get back into working again.  Or you may even have got to the top of the ladder at your organisation and found you spend weeks at a time stuck in an office, tied to a desk and endless Zoom meetings, when really you’d like to be out first thing every morning doing bird surveys, tramping through the woods looking for dormice or looking down a microscope at fungi/mosses/invertebrates (delete as appropriate).  Whatever your reasons, make sure they are genuine, and that going freelance really is the answer to addressing those reasons.  The grass can always be greener, and it may be that staying put for a while and making changes where you are at the moment through existing channels will fix at least some of those burning issues.

2. What might you miss?

There are many positive reasons why you might decide to go solo, but it is also important to consider what you might miss.  There is certainly something about being part of a big team of other ecologists who share office space, long car journeys and overnight stays.  How important is this comradery to you, is it something you have taken for granted until now, and if it wasn’t there, would you miss it?  How about technical support from colleagues with more and better skills than you have, how will you cope without this?  What about paid holiday, sick leave, parental leave, pension contributions etc?  Do you have access to a pool car or van that you’d need to find an alternative for if you went it alone, and insure it at your own expense?  Does the place you work for have a good training budget allocated to each member of staff, which wouldn’t be there if you started up on your own?  A decent technical library that you don’t have at home?  Would you miss having an office-space ready set up, with heating, lighting, tea/coffee/biscuits already paid for?   If you are working outside of the private sector at the moment, how would you feel about working in the private sector, and all the baggage that comes with it?  Would avoiding an hour long commute on the train each day mean you miss out on that transition time, when you can switch off from work with a good book, podcast or gawp out the window and forget for a moment that you’ve had a long day and you’re heading home to chaotic family life?  Would working from home in a small back bedroom with no-one else around to talk to whilst making coffee make you feel lonely?  Some of those things might feel quite surprising, and may affect you in ways you’d never thought of before, but you need to make sure the balance of good stuff vs challenging stuff tips in the right direction.  It’s also worth thinking about how you would deal with/replace any of the above that you think might really affect you.  For example, using a co-working space, like another freelancer’s house where you can work in the same room, the local library or hire a desk in a co-working office set up for that purpose.  Or ways to maintain connections with existing colleagues and other sole trading ecologists who can help you when you just need a brain check on something technical.

3. Think about what sort of freelancer you want to be, and what sort of work you are interested in.

This might sound basic, but can really impact lots of other choices you make when setting up.  Do you want to be full-time, part-time, work in the summer months only, work as a sub-contractor for other companies/freelancers, work solely on your own projects and deal directly with clients?  Do you want to go nocturnal, crepuscular – or does the thought of more early morning/late night bat/newt/bird surveys fill you with dread?  Do you want to focus primarily on field work and leave the reporting to others?  Do enjoy ECoW roles on big construction projects that might go on for months at the same site?  Do you want the simplicity of operating as a sole trader, or do you want the security of being a Limited Company from the off?  Do you want to stay local and reduce the carbon footprint of your work mileage, or do you want to jet about the country and kip in your campervan/hotels every night?  Do you want to work part-time in another permanent role and freelance the other few days of the week, so you have more financial stability?  Lots of these considerations go hand in hand with people’s reasons for thinking of going freelance in the first place, so make sure whatever model you choose matches up with the things you want/need in a job.

4. Get your finances in order.

One of the biggest stopping points for people thinking about going self-employed is the thought that you’d no longer have a guaranteed income coming in every month.  That can be a huge worry, overshadowing everything else and creating a source of stress that is absent when you are in a permanent role for a successful company.  Loans, rent, the mortgage, childcare arrangements/costs and other care costs, household bills and car insurance do not pay for themselves by magic and are basic essential costs that must be met in many households.  The worry can be magnified if it’s not just you that you need to think about, it’s your partner, kids, wider family members and even the animals you look after that will be affected by your choices.  Getting your finances in order before you start, getting buy-in from those around you who you share financial responsibility with, paying off that credit card/loan, replacing that banger of a car with something more reliable; doing all these things before you effect change can reduce the burden of worry – and indeed your monthly outgoings – when it comes to your finances.  This in turn will give you more freedom and flexibility to make decisions in relation to your business.

5. Decide what kit to buy.

Depending on what sort of work you intend to do, and indeed how much of it you want to be doing, this will affect what sort of kit you need to get before you start.  Absolute essentials will include a computer and a phone – obvious, again, but choices are still there to think about.  Will you need a laptop, so you can work flexibly in different locations and take up less space in a small back room you intend to use as an office, or will a desktop computer be okay?  Do you have these items already and are they fit for this new purpose, or do you need to fork out on something new and shiny?  Do you want to use your personal phone for work calls, or do you wish to clearly separate work/play and keep one phone for each?  Are you planning to do lots of botanical work (in which case ID books and a decent hand lense/microscope need to be prioritised), or are you into bats – in which case what detectors/cameras do you need, will you need to provide additional ones for assistants or will you ask that they provide them themselves?  You may have some of this stuff already, but additional kit will need careful budgeting and a bit of cash set aside at the start to help get you ready to roll.

6. When to start.

A classic time for people to think ‘right, that’s it, I’m going freelance’ is at the end of a busy survey season, when you are washed up, fed up and completely exhausted.  Totally understandable, but not necessarily the best time to bail from the security of a permanent role.  If you are already not working, then starting at any time can turn out just fine – you may have the luxury of spare time to prepare (think: your youngest child has just started going to school full time, so between 9:30 and 2:30 your time is finally your own), or you may have totally run out of leave, so if you resign now you’ll need to work right to the end of your notice period with no nice chunk of thinking/prep time in between.  One rule of thumb to bear in mind though, is that ecological consultancy work is very seasonal.  Another obvious thing to say, but apply that to the question of when to start and that might help you answer.  Generally, work tends to pick up around March/April time and drop off again in September/October, unless of course you are very focussed on species like birds and badgers which need surveying in the winter months too.  Bigger consultancies will also start thinking about employing sub-contractors in the first few months of the year, especially if they have large projects on the books that they already know need significant manpower.

7. Marketing and networking.

One of the questions so many people ask me about going freelance is ‘how do you get work’?  The short answer is by many different routes, but by far the biggest is via word-of-mouth, which only increases with the length of time you operate.  Repeat clients/agents are also a big source of work for me, again something that has developed significantly over the years.  The best thing you can do though, at the start, is to tell as many people as possible that you are planning on going freelance.  Tell friends, tell colleagues, tell local planning ecologists, tell people you meet at training courses, conferences and field trips, tell anyone, in fact, who will listen, be interested and might point you in the direction of work, even very tenuously.  If you leave your current organisation on friendly terms, they might even employ you again in the future as a sub-contractor.  My first project as a freelancer came from my previous boss and was offered to me during the conversation we had when I resigned my post.  Councils often have lists of ecologists that operate in the local area, find out if there is one in each county you are happy to work in and get yourself on it.  Consider becoming a CIEEM Registered Practice, these are publicly listed on their website and some councils refer potential clients directly to the CIEEM website.  Make sure your contact details are up to date on the CIEEM directory – this is accessible by all members of CIEEM, and a useful resource for larger companies to find potential freelancers, and for you to find them.  If you feel like it, put a simple website together, sort out some business cards and get a company-specific email address, so people can easily find you.  Shout about your new role on social media – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – in particular groups like Nomad Ecologists, British Ecologists and Bat Workers UK can be a useful source of work and contacts.  You could also consider contacting local planning consultants and architects who often act as agents to their clients, helping them source a wider project team (which can include ecologists).  Keep up the networking in the sector, get involved with things, speak to new people (even if that feels outside your comfort zone) and make connections wherever you can.

8. Time and financial management.

Lots of people also ask me about financial management, worrying that the money side of things might be tricky to manage.  It is true that it is an extra burden in terms of time, but it really is straightforward.  If you can add up, subtract, keep an eye on your bank account and remember to hold some cash back to pay your tax bill at the end of the year, you will be fine.  It does of course help if other people can assist you with some of these tasks.  The first year I operated, I completed my own tax return and it seemed to go okay although took me absolutely ages.  The second year I freaked out and got an accountant to help me, and check over my tax return from the previous year.  Turns out I had paid too much tax in that first year and they were able to claim several hundred pounds back for me – well worth the outlay of less than £200 per year to get this sorted and have peace of mind.  My accountant has also assisted me with the process of setting up as a Limited Company, too, which is so helpful when there are a million questions whizzing around your brain.  Keep on top of your invoices – you won’t get paid if you don’t send them – and keep a meticulous diary of work, so you don’t overstretch yourself in busier times.  Remember, one job can lead to another..  A PRA of several rubbish looking buildings can suddenly lead to an epic emergence survey request where you need eight people on site at the same time for three visits – and you only did the PRA in late July.  A simple PEA can lead on to the need for surveys for reptiles, badgers, birds, bats, newts, inverts and so on.  Keep this in mind when you quote for work, and caveat if you need to, up-front.

9. Keep it simple.

It’s perfectly possible to start up on your own with just a laptop, a phone, a new email address, a handful of chats with people you already know, a couple of spreadsheets and a few bits of basic kit.  It’s easy to want to go in ‘all singing, all dancing’, spend a fortune on the latest bat detector, commission someone to write a website, drop some coin on a stash of shiny new business cards and fork out on those £200 neoprene wellies you’ve been hankering after for years.  Unless this stuff is really important to you from the outset and you have the financial backing to support it, think hard before you do so.  You may not get much income for the first few months, as there is a time lag between work being commissioned, carried out, invoiced and paid, which can come as a shock to some.  Fiscal responsibility isn’t just something for politicians, it’s for everyone.  The more responsible, considered and thoughtful you are about these things, the less likely you will run into financial issues – and the more likely your business will be successful.

10. Leap and the net will appear.

So many things to consider and so many things to do.  But you are still with me at the end of this ridiculously long article, and at the end of the day there is a point when you just have to go for it.  Procrastination can only get you so far, now it’s time for action!  It’s a big step to take, but many people have done it, successfully, and you are no different.  The old saying ‘leap and the net will appear’ is so true.  You’ll find so much support out there you never previously knew existed, and so much empowerment and satisfaction in being your own boss.  It’s not for everyone, but as long as you have taken the time to consider many of the things discussed in this article, you’ve put appropriate things into place to ensure you start out well and you still feel it’s the way forward for you, you’ll be fine.

So go on then, bite the bullet and just do it!  I wish you the best of luck.

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