There are many pitfalls to going freelance, but there's a reason why more and more people are shunning the rat race to go it alone.
With every hypothesis has a counter argument. While I proclaimed that freelance isn't exactly freeing, a lot of people are giving up the grind to sit at home, cafes or shared workspaces to go it alone.
Now, I work as a consultant on a day-rate contracted to a corporation for a set period, so my experience is different from those bonafide small enterprises that need to actively find clients.
If this is how you work, you probably won't recognise some of these benefits. However, there's a very good reason why I prefer this way of working to being permanent or per-hour freelancer.
1. Variety of work
I get bored easily. I can't stand the mundane drudgery of "append this legal statement here" and "update the product info there". As a contractor, I work on projects, delivering innovation or transformation from womb (sometimes concept) to nursery. When a product matures and it's a case of continuous improvement, I ship out.
This means I deliver big-ticket projects for some big players and there's never a chance for grass to grow under my feet. This keeps me sharp and my skills fully up-to-date - there's no time to get comfortable or institutionalised.
Plus, I get to build out incredibly sexy CV featuring FTSE 100 companies and the world's most valuable brands, like Vodafone, Apple, Spotify, Jaguar Land Rover and Netflix.
2. Professional development
Full-time employees (FTEs) have yearly reviews with their managers based around performance (I'll come back to that) and development. They're supposed to think about and agree objectives for the next year that will help them improve their work and with the next career step.
What's written here is completely arbitrary and it's largely up to the individual and training budgets whether these objectives are met. Generally, in a large, fast-paced organisation, you're put into your role and you keep doing it as shit needs to be delivered. If you're not proactive or rely on courses to give that silver bullet to a promotion, you'll be languishing in a low level job forever.
Working as a contractor meant I had to build up my skills fast and I've learnt more because I was forced into it. I learnt so much about business modelling, budget management, project delivery, digital and strategy, that an ex-boss wanted to mentor me into a director level position. Unfortunately, I value my free time too much to be a slave to Outlook and the City.
If you're being bought into a company for your expertise and being paid accordingly, there's no fucking around. You need to come in assert yourself pretty sharpish.
That doesn't mean be an arrogant dick and insult everyone who's been working on the project so far, but you need a solid understanding of your discipline and how business works. If you've been at exec level all your life and have no idea how procurement, Senior Leadership Teams (SLTs) or legal works, you're not going to last very long.
I'm not saying you need to be an expert in operations or development, but at least have a basic knowledge. Also as a consultant, you're accountable for everything you deliver and in the firing line (literally) if you fuck up. So you have to be confident in what you're doing and be able to justify it when you're up against an angry room of suits.
I've made this sound scary, but it does build your confidence. Don't get me wrong, sometimes I shy away from speaking up or don't assert myself as much as I should, but if you're good at your job then stand by your talent.
4. No office politics
This is one thing we all moan about but can't help to get sucked into. The "he said, she said" allure is what makes reality TV so compelling. However, it does create a really negative working environment, affects mental health and doesn't achieve very much.
Then there's business politics, where you're forced down a route that opposes your better instincts or detrimental to customer experience because the business wants it that way, and this will be because of a deal or promises made elsewhere.
As a contractor, you have to deal with business politics (after all, you're hired to deliver a business requirement) and you do have to play the game to a degree, but the whole, clique thing, trampling on other people to get ahead and manoeuvring into positions of power doesn't happen. I just need to conduct myself in a way that won't get me fired and not piss off my boss to the point where my personality outweighs my output. That's it.
This doesn't mean you have to always comply, you're bought in for your expertise and you're there to challenge and change, just don't be a difficult arsehole.
I could up sticks and leave a role if the environment was toxic, I'm mistreated or I simply don't believe in the project. I'm not tied to long notice periods or wedded to an organisation. While companies find comfort in the expendability of contractors, we enjoy the non-committal aspect to it.
And if you're clever with your finances, you can take as much time off as you need between contracts.
Imagine the experience I'd get working in a country that's in its digital infancy, like India compared to somewhere digitally mature, like San Francisco. Or somewhere consistently creative, like New York compared to somewhere having a renaissance, like Berlin.
As much as I do this for the love, that won't pay the bills. Recruiters and agencies take a huge bite out of the pie, but you're better off and can demand higher rates from contract to contract, so you're always getting your market value. Or can choose to take a lower level job at a lower rate, but you're still getting paid more than FTEs.
This does leave a bad taste in some people's mouths, but I'm not paid sick or holiday and I still have to pay tax and navigate myself around accounting.
7. Yearly appraisals
I can't tell you how much I don't miss yearly appraisals. These are designed to motivate you into going above and beyond your job description. It's basically the stick the carrot (bonus and pay rise) dangles from.
The truth is - and I shouldn't really be letting you through the velvet rope - what you get on these appraisals depends on how much money there is in the pot, how everyone else has performed and how much your manager champions you in calibration.
There's a thing called the bell curve based on the PIGEX scale (Poor, Improving, Good, Excellent and eXceeding). It dictates that only X amount of people can get an "excellent", most people get a "good" and some must get a "poor". So you could be going as much work to the same standard as a colleague, but if your colleague happens to more visible to the decision makers, he/she will get higher percentage pay rise and you could end up with a poor.
People get hung up on these grades. Everyone wants at least a "good", but "improving" basically means you're doing your job. From that point, it just depends on what you're working on and how much you go above and beyond your job description.
It breeds a culture of working for free. You could work all hours god sends, run around schmoozing managers and doing stuff that's above your pay grade for a measly 3% pay rise, if you're lucky or a bonus that's taxed at 40%. And if you don't do this stuff, you're made to feel like a failure.
As if this wasn't bad enough, the Performance Development Reviews (PDRs) put you on the spot, in front of your manager, to prove that you've met your objectives and justify your existence. It also gives them the opportunity to feedback on how you've been doing. Although feedback is a good thing, due to the bell curve, this can be unfair or unconstructive and never really about helping you do your job better. It'll be more around contributing in meetings, being late in the office or attitude.
As a contractor or freelancer, you don't have to worry about this bullshit.
8. Standard working practises are stale
The main difference between proper freelancers and contractors, is a freelancer can choose locations and working hours.
I have to adhere to 9 to 5 contracted hours and come into the office to make small talk with IT Mike in the kitchen. If you work as a freelancer, you have greater autonomy in where, when and how you work. No one to tell you otherwise. Of course, you have to fall in line with what the client wants and if you don't work, you don't get paid, but you are the master of your employment.
Personally, I think the way we work is outdated. The 9 to 5, five days a week concept is hangover from the Industrial Revolution. We're in the digital age and an era of commuting, we don't need to contort ourselves to fit this model - we should listen to our circadian rhythms so we're physically and mentally healthier.