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The Workplace

Why Now Is The Right Time To Go Freelance

How escaping the nine-to-five is the path to a successful career

Chances are, you had a couple of “what am I doing here?” moments in January. Coming back to the office after the festive break can be a shock to the system, with psychologists declaring the third Monday in January “Blue Monday” because of its link to seasonal depression. No doubt you spent a sleepless night contemplating the pros of quitting the rat race and going it alone.

If so, you have company. According to a recent report by software company Intuit, 33 per cent of US workers are now independent or freelance, a figure that is expected to rise to 40 per cent by 2020. Other reports forecast anything up to 50 per cent, but whatever way you cut the data, all arrows lead upwards. Technology has significantly lowered the barriers that once made freelance work a challenge and the corporate office structure has failed to adapt to today’s mobile and flexible workforce. So, if you are going to take the leap, how do you give yourself the best start?

Making the move

One of the hardest parts of going freelance is making the decision in the first place. While your nine-to-five may feel stifling at times, it also comes with routine, stability and financial security. How do you know when to go? Where will the work come from? Will you become a penniless hermit?

These are all valid questions, but dwelling on them will lead to endless procrastination. Instead of soul searching, start putting concrete plans in place while you’re still drawing a salary. Getting a couple of reliable clients is a good start and, although this may mean moonlighting in the evenings and at the weekend, it will give you a sense of how much work is out there and help gauge your market value. Have a play with one of the many online calculators that allow you to project annual earnings and day rates, before tallying your reliable monthly income (minus about 40 per cent for a tax buffer) versus your combined outgoings.

Most importantly, get organised in advance. Downloading a timekeeping app such as TopTracker, which allows you to log hours invested in different tasks, may help here, as will establishing a good list-keeping system, such as Evernote, if you don't already have one. Sorting some of the logistics in advance will help to dispel the doubts and allow you to pick the perfect moment to jump.

Choosing your workspace

Another challenge for new freelancers is finding the right environment in which to work. Being a café nomad might be fun for a day or two, but you’ll soon tire of the death stares that come from making a filter coffee last three hours. Setting up a home office has its advantages (not least the uniform of a robe and slippers), but it can be socially isolating. If you are going down the home office route, then read our workplace design column, where we consider everything from nutrition to exercise and greenery in boosting productivity.

Many freelancers plump for access to an external office space, which has led to the coworking revolution that has created $16bn behemoths such as WeWork. NeueHouse, Second Home and Soho Works offer a more boutique alternative, but they don’t come cheap.

The Future Laboratory has been looking at space squatting as the next step in the coworking revolution. Startups such as New York’s Spacious are tackling the inefficiencies of disused space in urban centres by offering cheap membership during off-peak hours. It’s estimated that 2,000 restaurants are closed during the day in Manhattan and Brooklyn alone, and a Spacious membership gives freelancers daytime access for less than $100 (£80) a month.

Creating your personal brand

Without your employer’s brand and business to shelter you, it’s important to establish an infrastructure and identity of your own. One of the most obvious first steps is to set up a website, which is now easy to do with template-based developers such as Squarespace or Wix, who also allow you to buy your domain through them.

Another simple way to add some professionalism to your operations is with business cards, provided by the likes of Moo. The US-based company updated the format last year with its Paper+ version, which carries a Near Field Communication (NFC) chip that can store personalised data ready for seamless upload to a new contact’s smartphone.

That’s the brand part taken care of, but what about your business infrastructure? The IT, HR and finance departments may be the bane of your life now, but you’ll miss them when they’re gone. As we explored in our mobile working column, there are numerous apps and services to help you here, such as finance software Invoicely. You can also download free timekeeping software such as TimeTracker to make sure projects stay on target.

Reaping the rewards

You’ve got the routine, workspace, brand and business set up. Now where’s the work coming from? It’s an outdated mindset to think that the freelance economy is about feeding off scraps. Business consultancy MBO Partners estimates that the number of freelancers earning more than $100,000 (£80,000) a year grew 45 per cent between 2011 and 2015, demonstrating that there’s a lot of high-quality work out there for those who succeed. The challenge is connecting talent with work, which is where the sharing economy comes in. Industries such as hospitality (Airbnb) and transport (Uber) have now been revolutionised, and now brands such as Upwork, TaskRabbit and Tispr are aiming to do the same for the workplace.

Even in the digital age, the most reliable way to secure your pipeline is still good old-fashioned networking and word of mouth. Recruitment specialist The Adler Group estimates that 85 per cent of all jobs are found through personal relationships. So work on your lift pitch, canvass for introductions and don’t be afraid to make a cold call or two. As with all things in life, keeping some balance is key. No one likes a salesman, so, although getting yourself out there is important, it’s best to let the quality of your work speak for itself.

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