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CALL YOUR OWN SHOTS.

TORRANCE MOHAMMED PLANNED TO USE HIS COMPUTER SYSTEM engineering and math degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to get a job in corporate America. A serious car accident in his sophomore year derailed his plans, however, forcing him to leave school and return home to New York City. He landed a job through a temporary employment agency as a software trainer.

A friend who worked at the United Nations as a contract computer consultant met Mohammed, 28, at one of his sessions, and was impressed with his teaching style and in-depth knowledge of software. The friend convinced his contractor to hire Mohammed as a computer consultant. Mohammed hasn't looked back since.

Since 1991, he has worked as an IT contractor. "I've worked for a variety of companies and learned something different from each one," says Mohammed, who charges clients $60,000 to $100,000 for contract work. Currently, he works through Manpower Professional, a new division of Manpower, the nation's largest temporary agency dedicated to high-end professionals.

Doing project work, learning new skills, being free to pick and choose jobs and clients, and determining one's own hours have made the free agent lifestyle the work style of choice for many professionals.

Daniel Pink, author of the upcoming book Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Lire, is an expert on the subject of independent professionals, and defines free agents as highly skilled workers who prefer working independently on projects for a variety of clients. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) categorizes free agents among the 12.2 million "alternative arrangement professionals"--8.2 million independent contractors; 2 million on-call workers; 1.2 million temporary workers; and 769,000 workers provided through various contract firms.

There is great demand for the skills and expertise of independent professionals. And you don't have to be a writer to get in on the action. Computer professionals, accountants, auditors, chief financial officers, paralegals, attorneys, sales, and marketing professionals--even middle and senior managers--can find a freelance gig.

But what would make someone want to leave a cushy, stable job with a regular paycheck and benefits to pursue this sometimes erratic lifestyle? "One of the great attractions about working solo is the notion that the business [e.g., projects and assignments] can reflect personal interests and needs," notes Terri Lonier, a solo entrepreneur expert and author of Working Solo: The Real Guide to Freedom and Financial Success With Your Own Business (John Wiley & Sons, $14.95).

There are many other perks that can come with a freelancer's schedule. One of the biggest, depending on your field of expertise, is money. According to American Staffing Association, wages paid to professional employees of staffing firms alone reached $2.8 billion in 1998.

The workload and other responsibilities that bear these wonderful rewards, however, are not for the less than super ambitious. Here's an inside look at what it takes to make this career path work, and tips from professionals who've successfully made the transition from permanent employee to free agent.

LETHARGICS NEED NOT APPLY

So what exactly does it take to make it as a freelancer? Patience, says Mohammed. You also "need to be a go-getter and a take-charge person," he indicates. Because consultants are sometimes viewed as the lowest faces on the totem pole in a company, a sense of humor also helps. You may get those "you're just a contractor" comments from people you'll be working with, and you "can't let that get to you," he advises. Just remember that "you are there to do a job, and if you are good [enough to be] hired and to get the job done, then you are worth the salary or fee you request."

Mohammed's latest assignment is as a contract MIS manager providing technical support at the University of Southern California Medical Center in Los Angeles. He also makes recommendations for purchases, handles training and networking, manages vendors, and performs budgeting tasks.

He especially likes going on assignment; he can focus on doing his job without having to deal with all of the company politics that a regular, full-time employee does. "My contract specifies what I am supposed to do. If I don't like the company, the agency can find me another job someplace else," he says.

As a contracted employee, you get the best of both worlds: a steady relationship with the company as well as a paycheck from it, and the flexibility to move on to something else when other opportunities arise. After working with Manpower for a certain amount of rime, Mohammed could also be eligible for health benefits, vacation, and other perks.

The most important trait needed to survive in the temping world, however, is preparedness. Michelle Matthews kissed corporate life goodbye after nearly 20 years of working in business management for such Fortune 500 companies as KPMG, Andersen Consulting, and IBM. By the rime she founded Atlanta-based Matthews Consulting Group L.L.C. in early 1999, she had a strong foundation of business management know-how to offer nonprofits, Internet start-ups, and Fortune 1,000 businesses.

"I have a high desire to give back to the community, and I wanted to work with a different client base," says Matthews, 40. Now, she helps organizations develop strategic plans, figure out their missions, and works with staff and volunteer boards to carry out the plans.

In addition to sharp skills and relevant experience, drive, determination, and confidence are key factors for free agent success, says Jacqueline K. Powers, a freelance consultant and author of How to Start a Freelance Consulting Business: Put Your Valuable Experience to Work for Yourself (Avon Books, $12.50). "To be successful, you have to believe in yourself, and believe unflinchingly that you can do it," she says.

One year prior to making the leap, Matthews, a Spelman graduate, worked with a career coach who helped her to develop the confidence to step out on her own. The coaching sessions helped Matthews to identify her strengths and weaknesses, and to get in touch with what was important to her. "That really helped me gain the confidence I needed [to] realize that I had the experience and temperament to make this leap," she says.

MIND OVER MONEY

The next thing you'll have to do is change your mind-set about money. One of the most difficult things for a full-time freelancer to get used to is the fluctuating pay.

Hard statistics on the frequency of payment for freelancers are difficult to come by. But sources in the temp life will say that it's at best irregular and at worst nonexistent. "One month, you can have $10,000 from projects coming in, and the next month, nothing," says one. A company's freelance pay schedule can range anywhere from one week to three months. Therefore, don't try to set your watch by a check that may or may not be in your mailbox every couple of weeks.

When you decide to become an independent professional, "you've pushed yourself out of the secure nest of a paycheck," say Paul and Sara Edwards, self-employment experts and authors of Secrets of Self-Employment: Surviving and Thriving on the Ups and Downs of Being Your Own Boss (J.P. Tarcher, $15.95). "You owe it to yourself to have a clear-cut source of income sufficient to survive on while you learn to fly. Such a cash cushion will make your inevitable learning curve less painful."

That means heeding the advice of many professional financial planners and always having three to nine months of liquid, livable income on tap. One of the best ways to accomplish this goal is by keeping your expenses down, says Henry Osborne, president of Silver Spring, Maryland-based Osborne Communications Inc.

In 1992, Osborne, 54, realized that he wasn't moving any further up the ladder at the Washington, D.C.-based NBC affiliate television station where he worked as a business development manager. He continued to work hard with the company while looking around for clients to pay him "real money" for his services. Ironically, the station turned out to be one of his first clients. Osborne left his position later that year.

The first thing he did before he left his job was reduce his debt. "I started saving as much money as possible," he says. He stopped using his credit cards, which saved him between $4,000 and $5,000 a year in interest. He took out a $40,000 home equity loan, and used it to pay off the credit card debt. He also relied on the savings from his NBC 401(k) plan, which included General Electric stock.

"The stock prices went up, and probably doubled and tripled from the rime I started at NBC until the rime I left," says Osborne, who invested in the plan for 13 years. "That [money] helped during the transition and the lean rimes after I left."

In addition, Osborne had funds from a General Electric-sponsored savings program to help him pay the bills while building his clientele. By the time he started his company, he had only his mortgage and utilities for major expenses. Now, he produces public affairs programs, such as Wednesday's Child USA--his most successful TV campaign--for nonprofit groups. The show profiles special needs and hard-to-place foster children who need homes. The show has grown and is featured in six cities.

Another issue that independents often grapple with is how to set prices for their services. Talking to public relations firms and advertising agencies to find out what they charge gave Osborne a good starting point for establishing his own fees for various projects. "If your services are really unique, pricing can be very complicated," indicates Osborne. "You have to [research] the marketplace and see what people are willing to pay."

Working solo also means that you'll have to supply your own benefits. Fortunately for the self-employed, there is a growing market geared toward serving them (for health plans and retirement vehicles for independent professionals, go to www.blackenterprise.com). In addition to paying taxes, Osborne regards payments to his health insurance plan and contributions to his retirement fund as top priorities. "Those expenses come right off the top," he says.

And when it comes to your tax and retirement needs, consider putting a financial advisor on your payroll. You may be running your career your way, but when it comes to wise money management, it never hurts to have a pro on your team to help handle those specialized needs.

YOU INC.

For any kind of business success, it's been said that it's important to "plan your work and work your plan." No less is true for independent careerists. Matthews didn't have to be convinced. "I developed a business vision and mission, and determined what was going to help me achieve them," she says. With her board of directors to aid in strategic planning, Matthews anticipated earning $100,000 last year--only her second year as an independent.

An advisory board of professional mentors, former colleagues, and trusted friends--even family members--is good for any professional, independent or otherwise, to have. It will help you maintain accountability for your professional goals. "I went with people that I knew were personally vested in Michelle Matthews," she says. Those include her mother and sister, as well as former co-workers from her corporate days.

Matthews taps the talents of other professionals to help her in areas that aren't her strong points, such as financial management and other administrative duties. She meets with her board quarterly to distribute reports and solicit input on her completed and upcoming projects, as well as her financial status. These meetings help keep her focused on her goals, objectives, and priorities--and keep her from getting overwhelmed, she says.

"There's a big mental part that's necessary to handle when you're out on your own," says Matthews. A home-based independent professional, Matthews also relies on her board as a support system. You don't have the automatic support and social structure that a 9 to 5 provides, she says, so you have to create your own.

ALL IN YOUR BUSINESS

One of the toughest things about being a free agent is the need to continuously self-market to get assignments and to keep the income coming. Taking out classified ads, posting profiles on independent gig Websites, and getting published are all major forms of advertising your services. But many solo practitioners find that the best marketing tool is the mouth.

"You don't have to invest in lots and lots of marketing dollars. You have to deliver quality work on a consistent basis," says Matthews. When you become known for the substance of your work, Word will travel. Matthews agrees that referrals are a great source for new projects--she gets several from her advisory board.

Other low-cost marketing techniques include public speaking and volunteering. Matthews conducts workshops for a local nonprofit center. She also makes a certain number of public relations calls each month and decides which conferences to attend throughout the year.

In addition to getting referrals, Osborne believes that treating your current customers well is the key to building your reputation. "You get 80% of your business from existing clients," he hypothesizes. "If you can find a client who shares your vision, that will go a long, long way." Even so, "there are a lot of people competing for those resources," he inserts. Thus, it helps to have someone inside the company or organization with which you contract your services who believes in you and serves as your personal champion, adds Osborne.

Lonier agrees that current clients are worth keeping happy. "Getting a new customer can cost up to eight times as much as selling to an existing one," she says. "You've done the hardest work--getting the customers. Now don't let them slip away."

THE NET BENEFITS

As you can see, going solo doesn't mean saying so long to extended hours. As your own boss, you'll probably have to work even harder than you did for someone else. What makes all of the effort worth it, however, is the control you gain over your life, and a genuine sense of pride from creating work that you truly love.

Osborne derives great satisfaction from choosing whom he will work with. "Real freedom is the ability to walk away" from an assignment, he says. Mohammed loves the variety of work freelancing delivers. Matthews likes the flexibility independent consulting offers. "I try to take Friday afternoons off. I like being able to visit family, and going to the mall when no one's there," she says.

She credits her spiritual faith with helping her to keep things in perspective. Maintain a strong work ethic, she says, and you'll see the fruits of your labor. "Believe that if you're doing good work, the paycheck will come."

For tips on resource Websites targeting the solo worker, visit www.blackenterprise.com

TIPS TO A START-UP SOLO GIG

The whole free agent community operates on the "golden rule," says Daniel Pink, an expert on independent consulting (www.freeagent.com). "Talk to a lot of people; be interested in people; even help other people find gigs." He offers some help right here:

Ready, set up, go! The initial hurdle often comes from not having "a portfolio or that robust set of connections." he asserts, Package your product (you) in an attractive portfolio or media kit or Website, then start spreading the word about yourself and your services.

To get work, network, TaRessa Stovall, a communications consultant, relies on a small network of fellow communicators when she needs additional work. "We throw each other work all the time," says Stovall, 46. "If one of us needs something, we mention it to the network."

Off to market you go. It's not enough "to love what you do and do amazing work" if others don't know what you have to offer, says Pink. Consider hiring a PR firm to help get you on TV, have articles written about you, and submit press releases on you to trade publications targeting your industry.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Author:BROTHERTON, PHAEDRA
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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