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Diary of a new contractor

A man escaping to freedom

Becoming a contractor can be a daunting experience for anyone, I am currently going through the early stages of it so I am going to document my successes and failures here in the hope that I can help other people take the plunge and guide them on their own journey to freedom.

On the 19th of April I left a lucrative Front-end position at a very prestigious digital agency. On that Friday I went to the pub with my now former colleagues and the inevitable question was asked: “So... where are you moving on to then?”

As a brand-new contractor, that was the worst question I could have been asked and it was one I was semi-dreading. I did not know where I was going, the only thing which was certain about the next few weeks of my life was that there was no certainty about it at all.

A month later and I’ve already had two contracts and I am getting offers all of the place for other ones. Whilst it’s still new enough to feel fairly scary. I am no longer worried about a lack of work. It’s true that I have no idea where I will be in a few weeks but that is all part of the excitement.

Why did I do it?

Simply put, I was getting stuck in a rut in my old job. I have worked in the web industry since 1998 and over the years had developed a formidable set of skills, including front-end and backend development, print and web design, 3D modelling and copywriting. However whilst at my last permanent position, I was only a front-end developer. I never got the chance to use any of my other skills, at first it was fine, I loved (and still love) the company I was working for so I honestly didn’t mind my scope being limited. In fact it was kind of nice to only be responsible for one area.

I stayed with the company for three years. During that time, my front-end skills were solidified and honed but it was at the expense of my other skills. I tried to write a PHP application a few months ago and even though I managed to do it, it took me longer than it would have done a few years ago and it took a great deal of googling in order to re-learn some of the things which I had forgotten over the years.

As a contractor, I will have the opportunity to keep all of my skills fresh, I can choose roles based on which skills I want to work on at the time.

There are other, more obvious benefits to contracting of course, in two weeks at my current day rate, I have earned more than I would have earned in a month at my old salary, I get to meet new people all the time and best of all. I am my own boss. My current contract ends this friday and it’s entirely up to me if I take another one starting the following week. I don’t have to book holidays or worry about availability. I just decide not to accept any contracts for the period I wish to be off.

How have I found work?

Generally speaking, I’m very much a ‘measure twice, cut once’ sort of person. I will plan something to the nth degree before I will actually move forward. So, several years ago when I started working in my previous role. I decided that eventually, I would become a contractor. This is where my preparation process began. I signed up for LinkedIn and added anyone I worked with who I felt may be a useful person to stay in contact with in the future. I made sure that people in the digital industry knew who I was and over the course of three years. I gave myself a concrete network of people in the Leeds digital industry.

When I became available for contracting it was simply a case of getting my website online, getting myself registered with a few key agencies (I’ll speak more about those in my next post) and then making the announcement that I was available on social media sites.

All of this planning paid off as so far I have had three contract offers based on recommendation alone. Even though I am registered through the agencies, I have yet to use them, as my contract offers have all been direct. In fact, so far (although it is early days) I have not received a solid offer from an agency at all. Whilst I know a lot of contractors swear by agencies, so far all I’ve seen is a lot of posturing. I’m hoping that changes soon though as I suspect recommendations will only take me so far.

There are upsides and downsides to this of course. Getting ‘in’ with an agency will make it much easier to find work during quiet periods, plus many agencies pay weekly so you don’t have to worry so much about managing your cashflow or chasing clients.

The upside to going direct is purely a matter of money. I can command a higher day-rate if I go direct, in fact I would lose around 20% of my day-rate through an agent. Although I would say that given the option, I would still prefer to get work through a reputable agency as it feels more secure, somehow.

Do I have any advice to give?

I think it’s too early in my contracting career to start acting like an old salt and giving out advice. However I will say this, contracting is a great option for anyone with a valuable set of skills and the experience to back them up.

However I wouldn’t recommend quitting a well-paying and/or enjoyable job without putting some serious preparation time into it. Spend some time researching the market rates and availability for your skill-set, speak to other contractors, talk with an accountant and a solicitor so you understand exactly what you are getting yourself into and make sure people in your industry are familiar with your face. Go to networking events and industry social events. The more people who know your name and what you are capable of, the higher the chances that you will manage to keep the work flowing.

And above all else... Good luck!

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