Tips for those thinking about going freelance in training or consulting
So you want to go independent? Do your own thing?
How do you go about starting out in freelance training?
This document is not meant to be a complete how to guide for those wishing to start a consultancy business. It’s purpose is to ask some of the questions and show some information that many other sources fail to do.
What does it take to be successful?
Early in the new year is traditionally the time when we start thinking of our career options. Some of us start looking for new jobs – others for new challenges like going freelance. In the current climate of course some of us may not have a choice.
This short piece collates my experiences and those of other freelance providers. The list of dos and don’ts below is presented in a (near) logical order, however the order presented is indicative and not a prescription. Not all elements will be necessary for your business or business model so use this as an ideas base.
Many trainers, developers, coaches and facilitators occasionally get the urge to jump ship and do their own thing. So what is the difference between those that ‘make it’ and those that don’t?
Lets first look at why you want to leave a place of safety, because it is. Salaried roles provide a predictable structure and a predictable income. But often with politics that we believe we can do without. We want the freedom to make our own choices.
The reality of independence
When starting out while on paper you may be your own boss – it is your clients and the tax man that pull the strings. While we like to think that we are own boss (and to some extent we do make decisions), it is often our clients that make demands on us that dictate what we do and how we do it. It is a brave and rare freelancer that ‘manages the client’. The risk of losing the potential income for many is too great – especially in the early days.
Setting a daily rate
How much do you want to earn? Well while this might be “how long is a piece of string?” we must have a plan of some kind. In order that you have time for marketing, preparation and filling in all the finance paperwork that you have to you probably only have 100 working days available to you. And as your business expenses, tax etc are additional you will want to aim for:
So if you wish to earn £40,000
40000/100 + 8000/100= 400 + 80 = £480 per day
Where do you get your work?
When first starting out you will probably get 80% of your work from one client (or associate group). This is fine for a time – however statistics from companies house and the banks suggest that most business fail in their first 2 years of business because of their client base or cash flow.
You should aim for no more than 30% of your turnover from one client or associate group. Difficult in the short term – but essential in the long term. I have recently been contacted by a very able trainer looking for associate work – why? Because the associate group he was with work was drying up. We all know there are cycles in the training world – and it is about having a wide client base to help us to weather these storms.
What makes great freelancer?
Well in my experience there are 3 main types of successful freelancer:
1. The jobbing trainer
2. The ‘expert’
3. The Interim
All can succeed.
The Jobbing trainer – this works well if the day rates expected are low. The understanding here is that most of the marketing is done for you therefore you will be expected to deliver more. Day rates are typically 20-40% lower when working in this mode – but hey a level of security
The ‘Expert’ – Over the years I have see a lot of consultants and trainers. The very best, (those that stay around) often have one or two models that they apply relentlessly to their clients needs. They understand these models and can adapt them to suite.
The Interim – many organisations need a temporary specialist during a phase of a change project, to cover an increase of work or to cover maternity leave. These roles can be contracted on a day rate or on a PAYE basis.
Where freelancers often fall down
There are three main areas where individuals embarking on a solo career come unstuck:
Sales & Marketing – it takes time and if this is not your thing or you find it very difficult. Build a strategy of alliances that will undertake this for you. Please do not place an advert on a forum and expect the work to come flooding in because you are good. It just does not work that way. Be very careful of everyone trying to get you to spend with their type of advertising – they want your money – they are not usually interested in your success. If they say they are offer to pay on results and see how they react.
Finance – Yes you must do this – budgeting, VAT etc and it always takes longer than you expect! Do not just hire an accountant and expect it all to be done for you. Keep immaculate records.
Focus – When working on your own there is often a feeling of ‘desperation’ when the work dose not come flying in. The temptation is to go for anything and everything. This may include basic consultancy, facilitation, training and research & evaluation projects. A ‘Jobbing trainer’ of the dangerous kind. No USP (Unique Selling Proposition), the danger here is that the person gets to be known as being a ‘project fodder’ and unfortunately rarely gets invited to do the type of work that they enjoy or are really god at – as the reputation they have built is too generalist. These things often lead to freelancers only being in the market for 2-3 years and then going back into the corporate world.
Continued Professional Development – CPD – Keeping up to date
One of the challenges of being freelance is the challenge of keeping up to date. When in a corporate role you bight not think twice of attending a course costing £1000 upwards – but when you are paying the fees yourself this is a different matter. Attending accreditation courses can add to your portfolio and in time add to your income generating ability – but you have to select the right ones. If your are going to invest in yourself how long are you expecting it to take to get a return on your investment?
Look out for innovative ways of developing yourself. These include institute regional meetings, sales pitches by suppliers etc. You can even barter with your existing clients to attend programmes they are running in house, in exchange for a discounted delivery rate.
CPD training offered by providers – if the offer of training in association with a flow of work appears too good to be true it probably is. Remember it is a commercial world out there.
Keep an eye out for products and tools that you can use that not only meet an immediate need but can act as a catalyst for follow-on work. Examples include Investors in People (IiP). For many freelancers this started as a needs analysis exercise and led in time to a long term relationship. Unfortunately the cost of becoming accredited has increased making the is a significant barrier to entry, especially when considered in the context of there being a lot of IiP advisors out there and the market now declining. What will be the new IiP? What other diagnostic tools solve an immediate need and can lead to follow on work?
The Business Improvement Review (BIR) is such a tool. It provides a holistic and strategic overview of an organisation along with the ability to identify a prioritised action plan. This provides the freelancer with the opportunity to:
- Provide coaching & mentoring throughout the implementation phase
Identify second order needs
- Carryout a further review 12 months on and the cycle can start again!
The SDI is great for developing relationship skills & for teams – it also provides a common language within an organisation.
The Creatrix can be used with individuals to look at their propensity for innovation, creativity & risk as well as at team & organisational culture level. Start at one and slowly migrate to the others over time.
The EESS is a ready to run staff survey tool with benchmarking and the ability to add custom questions quickly and easily.
When selecting an instrument to be accredited in ensure that if you are a generalist that the tool can flex with you. Also check that the supplier will help and support you in its use. there are many other excellent instruments on the market check out the training forums and journals for details.
Is this freelance life really for you?
If you are they type of person who is a real extravert (MBTI) and gets your energy from others, then think carefully about this – how will you get your energy? Networking etc? It is easy to sit at your desk typing, surfing, blogging etc BUT not generating income.
There are several business models available to you, you should chose the model which best suits your skills. For example if sales is not your thing then direct contact with a client, persuading that you are the right provider, writing proposals etc may not be your thing, so consider the temp or associate market – where others do the selling and you do the delivery – however be aware that the money is made in the selling and account management phases so do not expect high day rates (although you may be lucky).
1. Decide on a trading name – this is important and needs to reflect your proposition and values – doing something too ‘samy’ or quirky will go against you unless you are in a particular niche
2. Decide on a specialism – subject or sector – the more you specialise the easier the sell – people buy solutions not opportunities
3. Hire an accountant – getting the books right from the off is vital – they can also save you more than they cost
4. Get a logo/ brand developed – essential if you are going to have a web presence
5. Decide a day rate – stick to it – develop your business model and ensure that your business is sustainable – at £100 per day you will be earning less than national min wage by the time tax etc is taken away.
6. Develop terms & conditions and stick to them. Always charge for cancelled dates – it is critical to have a business policy – something that is clear and understood by your customers and potential customers
7. Get a web site – increasingly people are buying trainers from the web – get seen
8. Set up a blog for content – part of your web strategy – this helps purchasers know you exist and more importantly what your believe and your approach
9. Decide your business model % associate work, direct etc
10. Get bus cards etc developed
11. Network with people you know – let them know what you are doing and that you are available
12. Ask your network who they know who would benefit from your offer – referrals will mean the difference between long term success and failure.
13. Use forums and other community sites to raise your profile – TZ, TrainerBase etc, but don’t spam them – identify and comment only on topics in your specialist area. – build a reputation
14. Develop standard documents- proposal , invoice etc – saves time
15. Start a contact database and write quarterly/ monthly newsletters that add value, not just to advertise (again a form of spam if you are not careful)
16. Develop yourself – go on courses, exhibitions, read books (write each one up in your blog)
17. Get all travel (air) & accommodation booked & paid for in advanced – its cheaper for the client and saves you hassle
18. If a member of a professional institution attend local events irrespective of the topic or relevance – its about networking & relationship building
19. Involve other people – spouse, accountant etc – you have many strengths – and weaknesses – it’s a team effort not a solo act – identify what it takes to provide a rounded offer.
20. Understand what it is that you offer and others cannot/ do not. How can you articulate this -
21. Learn to say NO to clients – if you are not the best person or you are uncomfortable ethically.
22. If not ‘qualified’ get some recognition of what you can do – TrainerBase’s CLP, TAP, IITT’s TPMA – the best ones require you to be re-assessed every couple of years – purchasers like badges – it shows that external recognition is important
23. Always explore the ‘value add’ what can you bring to the party – web 2.0 solutions, workbooks, experience, certificates,
Don’ts In consulting and freelance
1. Get involved in a joint venture unless all parties put in the same time & exposure
2. Put all your eggs in one basket – max 25% of turnover from one client
3. Discount unless it is conditional on volume (delivered not promised)
4. Wait for an associate to be paid – you should accept and expect payment 30 days from invoice or less – always enter into informal agreements
5. Spent hours a day on social notworking sites and forums – be strategic
6. Try to deliver every course under the sun – specialise
Remember – this is not personal – its business, but people buy people
Clients & that tax man are the real boss of your company
Only 100 working days
Have not more than 30% of your turnover from one client
Jobbing Trainers work more days at a lower day rate
High performing consultants have one basic model that they ‘do to death’ but are very good at it.
CPD is important
The market is challenging and those best prepared and connected will be the ones that will survive. Good luck if this is the journey for you.
Mike Morrison is director of RapidBI Ltd, a consulting and training company specialising in organisational development and the development of high performing teams and individuals. Mike was a business adviser for six years and has run his own consultancy company. For more information go to RapidBI.com
Reviewed & updated January 2014