By Deb Sharratt,
I’m about to celebrate my 8th anniversary as an independent PR practitioner. It’s not a role I chose. It was after redundancy, and the need for a flexible working environment, with two small children at home. However, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve worked with some amazing people and clients. I’ve grown and developed far more as a person and a professional than if I’d remained employed. And I’ve won three CIPR Gold Pride Awards for clients and myself as an independent. I am currently nominated as Best Independent PR Practitioner in the North East in this year’s Pride Awards (fingers crossed for next week). I’ve also been able to play an active role in the Chartered Institute of Public Relations during this time, and in January I’ll join CIPR Council.
However, it’s not always easy, and after 8 years working independently here are 9 challenges that I’ve found that independent practitioners face every day, yet need to overcome to be successful.
Essentially, how much you earn, and when. I like to give it a business term because that’s what it is. When you work for yourself, your mindset needs to change from being an employee, with a regular salary and benefits, to that of a business. Because that is what you are, a one-person business.
Whether you are a limited partnership or a sole-trader it doesn’t matter. When I began working independently, finding myself without all of the support functions around you, that I had been used to, I took a qualification in Business Finance and Project Management. My biggest piece of advice is to think about your work as a business, ensure you forecast and project cash flow, look at income over an entire accounting period rather than monthly and slowly you will start to be less stressed and anxious, as you start to see yourself as an independent practitioner, rather than a freelancer in between jobs.
Learn to say no
My most empowering moments as an independent practitioner has been when I’ve said no to contracts. Lucrative contracts too. Be it for ethical or logistical reasons it reminds you of one of the benefits of being independent. You are your own boss and you do not have the responsibility of having to pay other people’s salaries and that is really liberating. Yes it’s very hard, not knowing what may be around the corner, but that is where business planning really helps.
Just like a larger business may need to fire employees and resign accounts, independents are the same. I have a couple of clients I have now worked with for over seven years and we have grown together. However, some clients who were great to work with in the early days, are not the right fit for my business going forward and long-term. This is never an easy decision, and the choice between turning down guaranteed income for long term gain is a strategic decision that does need to be made. Weigh up all the benefits and really evaluate if you are still the right fit for their business too.
Putting all your eggs in one basket and taking on a freelance role that is really the equivalent of being an employee, just without the benefits is a risk to me. It can seem like a good idea, and does work for some people, but is risky. I’ve not been in the position of working for only one client at a time, to me that’s been a contract worker rather than an independent practitioner, however I had one client that accounted for the majority of my income. But following austerity cuts, all freelance contracts were cancelled, and this work went overnight. Thankfully, I had a contingency budget (see insurance) and I re-structured my business to include training, blogging, associate work and my own independent PR & Marketing services, so that in the future any external factors that were out of my control would not have such a big impact.
If you get ill or want to take maternity or paternity leave what would you do? If you lost a big contract overnight how would you cope financially? A well as business insurance and professional indemnity I also have insurance cover should I not be able to work for health reasons and also a savings account, cash in the business as it were, to see me through any downtime. It’s essential to plan for the unforeseen especially if you have family commitments and being part of a Professional Association can also help you access these policies.
Everyone needs a break from work but planning this can be difficult. It’s not so simple as putting in your holiday form and taking off. You have clients for whom you still need to provide a service. Simple measures to put in place are to forewarn clients ahead of the time, prepare them in advance for anything you know is going to happen, and robust procedures for dealing with the unexpected. It also helps to have a trusted practitioner on stand-by should the worst happen. I always give my clients the option of contacting me in an emergency, but making them aware of where I am. To date I’ve not had a call.
Having colleagues can be a blessing and a distraction, being independent, means you can have the best of both worlds. You can in the main keep out of a lot of office politics, and that is such a relief, but it can feel lonely for some. Having a role that involves talking to people helps but there are also many business and professional networks, workshops and training sessions where you can meet other people in person, bounce ideas around and have conversations. There are also online forums where you can brainstorm and check out ideas with other like-minded people. Working independently doesn’t have to mean working alone.
Being independent means not having senior colleagues to learn from, to mentor us, to coach and challenge us. But we can still learn every day from clients and colleagues within the sector. Having a personal commitment to professional development is a must for independent practitioners to continue to deliver the best possible service to their clients.
Managing your workload and not taking on too much can be a challenge. Some weeks you may not have that much to do – to be honest I long for these weeks. I’ve got a long list of planning and development activities that I want to undertake but just need to find the time. However, some weeks I’ve charged the equivalent of 9 days per week – working weekends and evenings as projects have coincided. It’s not sustainable but do-able in the short-term if you know when it is going to end. The plus side to this is being able to set your own hours. Unless I’m in a meeting or teaching I can do the school run morning and night, if necessary. I can attend school plays, sports days without having to take annual leave, and at least three mornings a week I go swimming when the local gym is quiet. It’s also easy to meet up with friends for lunch when you all manage your own time.
Anything I’ve missed?