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If you want to freelance then come on in. But make sure you’re good enough first.

If you want to freelance then come on in. But make sure you’re good enough first.

I got involved in a fairly interesting little debate recently: when is it a good idea to encourage people to compete for your own market? This is not quite as silly a question as it sounds. The government has already stated that it sees a flexible workforce as a key driver to our economic growth and is looking at encouraging people to build their own businesses if they want to do so.

OK, so the latest jobless figures, the rather depressing statistic that most newly created jobs aren’t going to UK residents and growth is still something of a twinkle in Osborne’s eye might seem to indicate that we have bigger problems to solve. Nevertheless, it’s always good to know that The Powers That Be think that what you do is of value.

But this leaves something of a dilemma. Especially for the PCG who are, as we all know, the only real voice speaking up for the freelance workforce. Quite rightly, they are aiming to ensure that if someone wants to take up the freelance banner, they have all the information they need to make a success of it.

Sadly, that also means pointing out the downsides. Which are considerable.

Firstly we still have IR35 and, inherent in that particular stupidity, the feeling that HMRC and, to a lesser but still significant extent the Treasury, still think that we are doing what we do to step around paying taxes. Which we aren’t, of course, but let’s not go over that again. That attitude manifests itself in many ways: the AWR would be a lot less of an issue if it had been drafted specifically to exclude incorporated workers, for example. To any logical mind, career freelancers are not in scope of the AWR and never should be, but still there is that “genuinely in business” caveat, as I may have mentioned in the past, so clearly HMRC still don’t really understand why we do what we do.

Anyway, leaving that well-trodden path to one side, it should be obvious, but often isn’t, that the other thing a freelancer needs is something to sell. After all, you are selling your skills and expertise, whether you’re building websites for local businesses, doing safety audits for nuclear power plants or running hundred million pound projects. That means that you need to have a fair bit of experience and expertise to sell on the open market. And that means that freelancing might be a valid career choice but, like boxing, you have to put in the roadwork first.

Of course there are always exceptions: I know of people who have never held down a “real” job and went straight from college to freelance, either by being very clever or very lucky. Or both.

So freelancing is a career step, but it has to be one that comes a little later in life, when you have learned enough, not only about your own subject but about business in general. It’s like skydiving, where stepping out of a perfectly serviceable airplane is a hopelessly stupid thing to do – until you do it and immediately want to do it again and again…

So, going back to the original point, perhaps the line should be not to encourage people to turn freelance, but to make sure they know that they need three things first – expertise, experience, and understanding. The first two are up to you but PCG are there with the third, in spades.

So the real message is if you want to freelance then come on in and we’ll do what we can to help out. But make sure you’re good enough first.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Image: “Just use an open standard that already exists!” by Todd Barnard

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