The double-edged sword

Being self-employed is fairly new to me. The idea of leaving a steady, salaried job once terrified me, but there are great potential benefits and I took the plunge after taking voluntary redundancy after fifteen years in the IT industry.

In recent weeks, I’ve not made a huge amount of money, but I’ve been pretty busy. Not everything I’ve been doing has been associated with my proofreading business, although I’ve had some interesting academic work to look at in between my other commitments. I’ve been doing some networking for myself, and considering ways to support other local businesses. In the New Year, I’ll be taking on some further professional development to increase my experience.

I find that, in some way or other, I’m always thinking about work. Every time I read, I find myself proofreading, although I must admit that doesn’t prevent me making mistakes in my own writing.

This isn’t unique to the self-employed. Almost everyone takes their work home with them, whether they like it or not. While working IT, the best method for me to code a tricky business requirement might come to me while mashing potatoes. That was fine, but I resented finding myself wide awake at 4 am thinking of the 17 performance appraisals I hadn’t had time to finish writing the previous evening due to a late customer meeting about an urgent production issue.

Now I find myself thinking about my work in different ways. When is the right time to chase up that outstanding invoice? Whether or not I can get to a networking event.

The biggest change for me since becoming self-employed is that the stress is now my own. I am not having stress placed upon me by management decisions passed down from behind closed doors without any understanding of the logic that led to them, with the expectation that I would then disseminate to my team and deal with the consequences. I no longer have management responsibility for other people and so I don’t have to resolve their issues. And, above all, I am no longer the buffer between senior management and the people who do the real work.

My stresses now are:

How to source my own clients to find interesting work in order to make money. Selling myself is alien to me – I am a typical British woman, underselling my abilities and displaying a self-deprecating humour as a defence to the world. Every new acquaintance could be a potential lead to a client. This is beneficial in many ways, as it forces me to present myself in a more positive light, but I don’t want to sound like I’m giving the hard sell when meeting the mum of a new friend of my daughter’s in the school yard.

Managing my own finances, while previously I received a salary for doing my job. Some of this is familiar, as I managed budgets for my team, but I now have to understand the laws regarding self-assessment, which can’t be any more complicated than trying to navigate the complex expenses framework in a large organisation. Having to chase unpaid invoices requires a delicate balance of persistence without harassment and impatience. I’ve not yet had issues of payments not being made, but the possibility is there with every new client.

Working out whether or not I am doing my job well enough. In the corporate environment we have objectives and annual performance appraisals, which can be incredibly useful but these sometimes feel like a tick-box exercise, depending on the manager. When you are self-employed you may or may not receive immediate feedback via reviews or email, which may be spontaneous or prompted, or you know that you must be doing something right as you get repeat business and referrals to demonstrate your positive impact.

Continuous professional development is vital for any career. A day without learning is a day wasted. In the corporate environment you have access to mentors, while formal training depends much on the strength of the business case and the budget. Now I am self-employed, this is in my own hands. A wide variety of training is available online and in person, notably from PTC and SfEP for proofreading and editing within different specialities, and SfEP also offers a mentoring scheme. The local North Shields Business Factory offers training for small businesses in the area, covering the basics of setting up a business to advanced social media marketing. Networking opportunities are available via SfEP local groups, and more generally through local business forums. Being naturally shy, it takes effort for me to put myself forward to attend these sessions, and they may not lead to work directly or immediately, but are always a source of support and inspiration.

Dealing with my clients’ requests, adhering to their deadlines, planning how to meet concurrent projects and managing other commitments are all familiar challenges that fifteen years in a corporate environment has left me confident in handling. As a freelancer in my home office, I can balance my working hours around my family. I don’t have a commute. I don’t have anyone walking me to my car, offloading issues for me to deal with the following morning when I am only concerned about making it to school on time.

A key difference is in my level of motivation. The key to motivation is the elusive blend of autonomy, mastery and purpose. At various times in my previous career this balance was achieved, but it didn’t last. The level of autonomy was eroded whenever I worked for managers who were keen on micromanaging their staff: poor communication swept away any feelings of mastery or purpose. I am more likely to achieve this combination while working for myself – I still have the uninspiring admin tasks to complete, but I see the point when this is for my own business. My purpose now is to ensure clarity and accuracy in the communications of my clients, which matters far more to me than making cells on a central spreadsheet go green for the satisfaction of an unknown manager.

Overall, there is a lot of uncertainty and I wouldn’t have been able to set out on this journey without the financial security that my VR payment gave me and the support of my family, but the possibilities for the future are exciting. I’m looking forward to a challenging 2018.



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