Free Time Is Elusive For Many Free Agents

Despite the corporate layoff announcements piling up, the overall employment picture is still quite healthy. What better time to go into business for yourself? If you’ve yearned for the freedom of being your own boss, be warned: Experienced independent professionals will tell you that there’s little that’s “free” about being a free agent.

“People forget that it’s a business as well as a passion,” says Mary Ellen Bates, principal of Bates Information Services, a research and consulting business based in Washington, D.C. On her own for nearly 10 years and a volunteer mentor for the Association of Independent Information Professionals, she’s seen herself and other independent practitioners through many business challenges. Ms. Bates says that some free-lancers fail because of an inability to perform tasks outside their own skill set.

“You have to do well at whatever it is people pay you for, plus be able to do strategic planning, client relationship management, marketing, accounting, collections, sales, competitive intelligence and an unblinking assessment of your own job performance over the past year,” she says.

Consider Jane Garner, a journalist and copywriter in Shropshire, England. When she switched to free-lancing, she had little idea of how diverse her workload would become.

“Free-lancers have many more balls to keep in the air,” she says. Her responsibilities include “issuing and chasing up invoices, keeping up to speed with several clients at once who all know the meaning of the word ‘now,’ keeping on top of your workload, meeting deadlines, and making sure you’re always lined up for new business, because inevitably some commissions fall by the wayside.” She describes her work life as “walking a tightrope eating cream cakes,” a balancing act that takes focus and discipline.

Even if you’re successful, working for yourself is usually more demanding than working for someone else. Before you shuck those corporate shackles, consider whether you’re prepared to carry this freedom’s necessary burdens. Following are several roles you’ll need to fill, in addition to providing your core product or service, when you’re in business for yourself.

Financial Manager

Sandra Kincaid, a contract recruiter in Chicago, urges professionals contemplating free-lance careers to consider the financial implications first. “The only thing that’s ‘free’ is the time between engagements when you aren’t earning anything,” she says.

Managing accounts receivables and the constant flux of projects is a consistent concern of independent contractors. Calculate all the costs of being on your own, including legal fees to review or prepare contracts, accountant fees to make sure you’re filing your tax forms correctly and the extra charges of a COBRA health-insurance plan. Ms. Kincaid also advises would-be independents to factor in counseling or career coaching as part of their expenses.

Plus, be prepared for a roller-coaster ride as projects come in on a feast-or-famine basis. “Going solo, with all the stress and emotional ups and downs, is the equivalent of riding a psychotic horse towards a burning building,” said Diana Elaine Sorrentino, a management consultant in New York City. “It’s as frightening as it is exciting.” Ms. Sorrentino went independent as “a matter of survival,” when her former employer shut down in 1997, she says. Most employers found her overqualified with a master’s degree in business administration, a Ph.D. and 22 years’ experience as a management consultant. “Corporate America had no interest in me.” But she was unprepared for the emotional and financial seesaw and is only now beginning to see her business pick up momentum and build back financial reserves that were depleted during her start-up phase.

Bill Collector

Free-lancers often report being shocked by the time gap between project completion and getting paid. And, collecting on those fees sometimes is another story altogether. Says Houston writer Roxane Richter, “Sometimes it takes a cunning businesswoman to know when it’s necessary to take off the nice-girl gloves and start to get ugly in order to collect an overdue sum.”

Bob Cannell, who runs a free-lance creative ad agency part time while teaching at Roosevelt University in Chicago, says his biggest surprise was finding that some clients aren’t as financially stable as they appear. A law firm he thought to be successful hired his agency to promote a grand opening for a new venture, a national golf-retailer and sports-bar franchise. He delivered a press kit, media coverage on the evening news, newspaper ads, promotion materials — and an invoice for $37,000. “They paid the bills for a while, then hit the wall,” he says. He sued, but two years, one court trial and several thousand dollars later, lost the case. “When companies go under, you’re just one more creditor in line with the others waiting to be paid,” he says.

Marketer

When Jackie Sloane set up shop as a business coach 13 years ago, she didn’t realize she’d also be starting another line of work: in marketing.

“I knew nothing about selling,” she says. “I thought the way to win business was to bombard people with all the millions of ideas I had for their businesses.” But clients’ eyes would glaze over at some point in her meetings with them. “It was too much,” she says. “I overwhelmed people.” Fortunately, some clients could hear her interest in them and she won their accounts, she says, “in spite of myself.” Becoming skilled at marketing her business took time, but eventually she learned the importance of relaxing, making a connection and establishing a rhythm for a new-business call.

Self-marketing is often the toughest role for many free-lance professionals. Kathi Simonsen of Sierra Madre, Calif., had built a successful career as a sales professional, but she struggled initially in marketing her own sales and marketing business. Her breakthrough came after building a reputation, but this took time. “Seeds that I planted often took several years to turn into business. But when the timing is right for the customer, the business is outstanding,” she says.

Her experience in sales helped “a tremendous amount,” she says. Her advice: “Listen to a client’s needs and repeat them back with the benefits to [your] services addressing those needs. Clients appreciate that client-centered approach. As I developed my programs and fine-tuned them more and more to clients’ needs, it got easier.”

Networker

Surprisingly, the biggest challenge for some free-lancers isn’t the money. Former corporate denizens who “go solo” often become dismayed at just how solo they really are. Isolation plagues free-lancers who once enjoyed jocular discussions around the water-cooler.

Sally Kuzernchak, a former staff writer for Self magazine, who’s now a free-lancer in the Chicago area, says she longs for the social aspects of her former workplace. “I miss going to lunch with co-workers, shooting the breeze in the hallway… I even miss those boring staff meetings,” she says. “Some days, the only people I see are the mailman and the UPS guy.” She makes a point of taking one excursion every day, even if it’s just to the post office or library. “You need a little fresh air,” she says, “to avoid that pasty computer-glow complexion.”

Teddi Olson, a self-employed certified public accountant in Chicago, combats isolation by meeting with clients in their homes and e-mailing clients and friends. She also participates in Rotary International, a once-a-week commitment that ensures she’ll be out, meeting people. In addition to being a social outlet, it’s a good source of referrals. “If you work out of your home, make sure you have enough interaction with clients and other people,” she says. “It can get really depressing to not have human contact all day.” She also volunteers and makes standing commitments with friends, such as going to the symphony. “I do things that require that I pay ahead,” she says, laughing. “That way, I’m sure to go, or I lose my money.”

Student

Free-lancers also have to work harder to stay current in their fields. Many independent consultants build their businesses based on old competencies. If they serve smaller clients, or “later adopters,” they may not realize their services have become obsolete. “As good as you might be, you constantly have to work at not being obsolete. Otherwise you risk slipping down the food chain at an increasing rate,” says Walton Henderson, a management consultant and business-strategy adviser in Wheaton, Ill.

His solution is to emulate management guru Peter Drucker and learn a new skill every year. He also reads business books and journals from a variety of disciplines such as technology, psychology, systems and training. He seeks out friendships with consultants from other fields with whom he can discuss the latest issues and research. “I try to choose an area without immediate apparent relevancy to my practice competencies, learn as much as I can, then see how I can apply the new learning,” he says.

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