Below is a transcript of our podcast episode 32, called Becoming a freelance Technical Author:
Welcome to the Cherryleaf Podcast.
In this episode, we’re going to look at becoming a freelance technical communicator.
Thank you for the questions you sent in on this topic we aim to answer them in this episode and we’re going to talk mostly about the situation in the UK because that’s the area that we’re familiar with. We have a specialist recruitment service at Cherryleaf and it mainly deals with placing candidates in the UK, some in continental Europe as well.
However, a lot of the advice should be relevant to those in countries like Canada or the United States or Australia.
We look at the economics of why companies use freelancers. We look at the benefits that you can get from becoming a freelance technical communicator and we’ll look at the downsides. We’ll look at some of the questions you raised about whether you can work from home, work abroad, portfolio working, how you can find work, some tax issues you may need to be aware of, setting up your own business, and dealing with the quiet periods, what to do in between contracts.
So let’s look at the economics of it. Why do companies use freelancers?
And there can be a number of reasons for this. One can be a short term requirement.
You have a need for a technical for a technical writer for a short period of time, and then it goes away. You have the need for somebody immediately and you can’t wait for the recruitment process, the interview process, to get somebody in and do that work. There may be a lack of in-house skills to stop somebody within the existing team, within an organization, to do the work.
There can be what are called “barriers to entry”, and often with an organization these relate to qualifications or knowledge of a particular tool. In the context of a Technical Author, it’s more towards knowledge of a tool and particular skills and abilities than having a certificate or a qualification that precludes anybody else from doing that work.
There might be other reasons.
It may be that they see it as an opportunity to reduce costs. Again, this can be related to a short-term requirement that you can, as it were, turn on the tap and turn it off. As and when you need it, that you can have short bursts of somebody coming in, working very efficiently, head down, doing it.
And you’re not paying for them to sit there when there isn’t work for them to do. And there may be a perception that you get better quality. That you may have somebody that has experience, has done the work before. They have a reputation for providing good quality work.
And another reason can be that they can provide an external view. They’ve got experience from other people, from other organizations. They can take that step back from the work and ask questions, and say why are you doing it in this particular way? Wouldn’t it be better to do it this way or another way? This is the way that company a does it, wouldn’t it be good for you to copy them and do it in that way?
What are the benefits for being freelancer?
We live in a society where there’s a dream or myth of the entrepreneur. That from small acorns we can grow into mighty oaks. We can start a small business, and it can be successful and growing to a very large very successful company with lots of staff.
That’s a great attraction, that opportunity for success for some people. And for others who don’t want that particular outcome, there’s the attraction of the lifestyle business. Move out of the corporate culture, to no longer be stuck on the supertanker – this organization that can take forever to change the way in which it does things.
It can be varied and interesting. You can go from one client to the next, from one project to the next. So rather than be with a company for a long time, or perhaps working on the same set of documentation for year after year, it may be that you spend six months working on one interesting product, and then move to something else. And discover how to work, and how to document another interesting product.
So that can be very rewarding. You can work around your lifestyle. If you have a particular illness that means that you can only work four days a week, then yes it can be possible to get jobs that suit that particular situation.
If you work in a particular location there are contract vacancies that enable you to work remotely. And it can also make things like managing childcare easier. Where you can work from home, you can stop at a certain time, pick up the kids, come back, and then work on from there.
And being your own boss can be empowering. It can give you abilities to make decisions and do things that aren’t possible as a salaried employee. Many people enjoy being a contractor, enjoy being a freelancer.
Let’s look at the potential downsides to being a freelancer
Unfortunately it’s not always like that.
It’s important to be aware of the downsides. of the potential downsides to be aware in some situations. Those benefits are not available.
Having painted the optimistic rosy picture, let’s take the counter-argument. Let’s look at the potential downsides to being a freelancer.
It’s like leaving home. You may have this idea that by moving out from mum and dad that you can go out disco dancing every night or have a maid that comes into your beck-and-call to clean your house, and do your cooking, do your washing. But in reality often it’s you that has to deal with the mess that you leave behind.
There’s no one else to do it. No one else to clean the dishes, no one else to make the beds. And that in many ways is the reality of being a freelancer you are responsible for a great deal more than you were within a large corporation.
For large companies, there may also be the push towards having a very efficient supply chain. This is something that Geoffrey Moore has written a great deal about. There is this push within large organizations to compete against other companies by being cheaper than them, being more efficient. That is, being better and being faster. For example, Amazon is very much about having the most efficient supply chain in the way in which it gets products and processes those products, and gets them delivered to the doorstep.
And this can have an effect of trying to keep costs down for the suppliers. A constant push for them to be cheaper, a constant push for them to be more efficient, to get more done within the available time, to get more done within the cost that are provided.
So what this means is, if you are a freelance Technical Author, that the nature of economics is that you may find if you’re looking to get work from large organizations, multinationals, is that they ask you for quotations for work. Maybe asking for quotations for each individual piece of work that you do. And that they keep pushing to keep the costs lower and lower.
Well probably the most important thing to be aware of is cash flow. Generally the way that you work is you will invoice at the end of the month for the work you’ve done. If you started work on the first of the month, you’ll do thirty days work. You will invoice at the end of the month, and then you’ll get paid based on the payment terms either of the company, if you’re working direct, or of the recruitment company that’s acting as the intermediary.
And companies have different payment terms. Most agencies will try and match the payment terms that the company has, with the payment terms they arrange with you. So these could be fifteen days, it could be thirty days, it could be forty five days, they could be sixty days. If they were to be sixty days, you would have worked for thirty days you just sent your invoice in, and then you’d wait another sixty days until you actually get paid.
So when you start off as a contractor, there can be quite a gap between when you start and your first cheque, your first payment. The other side of that, of course is when you stop working, there’s another cheque after you’ve stopped working that will arrive perhaps when you started on to your next contract.
Now if you are a freelancer then you won’t get the benefits that you would normally get working as a salaried employee. It’s up to you to manage your budget, so that you are covering for paying yourself when you’re sick, paying yourself for holidays, paying your own pension, and, in the UK, paying Employer’s National Insurance. And you will also need to find money to keep your equipment, your laptop and the software that you’re using, the authoring software that you’re using, up to date.
Each year there may be a cost to buy the latest version of the software. Every so many years on top of that, your laptop. There may be a cost for maintenance. Now for these often you can pay for these monthly rather than have to pay upfront, a large upfront fee, and that can help in spreading the cash flow.
And another thing to be aware of is that you may not go from one job directly to the next. It may be that you have fallow times. That you do a project for a period of months, and then it stops and then there’s a gap until you find the next one. Though that may suit you; the ability to do a piece of work, and then have a long break off, where you can decorate your house or go on holiday.
But of course, you need to budget your cash so that you’re able to pay your bills in those times. And it can be scary when you have to pay the rent each month, or pay the mortgage each month.
So this means that you may have to be looking for your next project as it comes to the end of your existing project. And it can put pressure on you when you are in these times. When you’re not earning money, you may feel that you’re not able to take a break because of uncertainty of what will come next.
So cash available, working capital, available capital, is a really important thing.
And research why companies don’t succeed and a good chunk of companies that are founded do fail after a short period of time. It’s often because they were underfinanced. They didn’t have the capital to sustain them. They’ve started by buying second-hand equipment rather than the latest, best, top-level, equipment. They’ve priced themselves too cheap. So they don’t have the money available to invest in themselves and invest in equipment in the future.
They may want you to work all week, and work hard, and work quickly to get the work done. That’s why they needed you in the first place.
If you’re working from home, it can be lonely. You don’t have that work environment – those people sitting opposite you to talk to. It may be hard for you to separate to work from home and play. You might need to work away from home, to get work done. Some contractors work away Monday to Friday, and they go home at the weekends.
And it can mean that you have the worst boss in the world, in that your boss is yourself. And there’s a book that goes into this in greater detail called The E-myth Revisited.
Often, people starts as a freelancer as a result of circumstances. They’ve been made redundant or they’ve moved to a new location. And that can be a warning sign. It could be a sign that there’s actually a declining market, that there isn’t the demand so much. That’s why you’ve been made redundant. So you need to pay that some attention as well.
And in your role as a freelancer you need to have a clear vision. You need to have goals. And sometimes in doing that, it can be tricky to find that direction to see the wood for the trees, or feel overwhelmed. That you have too many things on your to-do lists to get done. And there can be a habit of procrastination. If you’re in one of these periods when you haven’t got a contract, to sit around and wait for the phone to ring, to not do anything.
Is it possible to work from home
One of the common questions we get asked is, is it possible to work from home? And it is possible in some situations to work from home. However, many companies prefer their contractors to be on site. They like to see people doing work for them. They don’t want to get into a position whereby somebody is doing a contract for Company A and doing a contract for Company B, and you’re paying for time when they’re not actually spent working for you.
Is it possible to go and work in continental Europe
Another question that comes up is, is it possible to go and work in continental Europe? Is it an opportunity to go and work in Paris or the South of France for a period of time? To expand your horizons in that way? And that is possible. There are opportunities in France, in Belgium, in Germany as well. However, in the future that may be limited if you don’t have an EU passport to go with your British passport. So it’s good opportunity to see if you do have that Irish granny.
What about your workspace? It may often be at the clients. They’ll provide a desk. They may provide a computer as well.
Or you may be working from home, particularly if you’ve gone out and you found your own clients. You’ve got a collection or portfolio clients. You may be working from home. So that means that you need to have an environment, a place where you can work. It might be a spare bedroom. It might be the living room. It might be an office at the end of the garden.
And you need to be able to deal with all the other things that happen at home – children, spouses etc. These days, there’s also the opportunity to work elsewhere. You can go to coffee shops, and there’s Wi-Fi there, and you can sit down and work for an hour or two. The library is another place where there’s Wi-Fi, and where it can be quiet and you can concentrate.
If you work near London, there’s another place where you can work on that is some of the institutions and private member’s clubs. So, for example, there’s the Institution of Electronics and Technology, which is by Waterloo Bridge. And that has a very nice building. At the networking hub, there are desks available, sofas available, where you can sit down and work meet people there. There’s the Royal Academy of Arts in Pall Mall, in Mayfair. There’s The Institution of Mechanical Engineers. So if you have a connection, a qualification with mechanical engineering, there’s a potential to go and join them and use their building opposite the Treasury in Whitehall.
There’s a Danish Club in London with its own building and if you have a connection with Denmark then you can apply to join. Unfortunately liking Danish pastries isn’t sufficient grounds to join. You need to have a closer connection to Denmark than that. There are also hubworking spaces, particularly around Shoreditch and Old Street.
And there’s more than one way to be a freelancer. You can do what’s called portfolio working. And this can be that, on Monday, you work for client A, on Tuesday for client B, on Wednesday client C, and so on. Now you’re unlikely to get that sort of arrangement from a recruitment agency. You would need to go out and find those companies and establish that type of arrangement with them directly if you wanted to work in that way. But some freelancers do work on that basis.
Work with a recruitment agency
How do you find the work? The most common way is probably to work with a recruitment agency. And it can be a mainstream IT recruitment agency, or it can be a specialist technical writing agency such as Cherryleaf. The specialists agencies have a good understanding of the nature of the role that technical communicators do. The IT agencies might have more jobs, but the way in which they filter and find people may be based on keywords rather than an understanding of the skill set that’s required. So they may say that the job requires somebody with DITA and XMetaL abilities, when you have DITA abilities and perhaps oXygen-XML abilities. And it be very easy to use your skills with a different tool. But there is a trap with some of the mainstream agencies: they’re just looking at keywords. They might filter without appreciating that the skills you have would be applicable in that certain situation.
From an agency perspective, what we’re looking for and what clients are looking for is somebody who is reliable that can do the job.
You also need to be aware of the tax implications of being a freelancer. And in the UK, we have something called IR35, which is to do with disguised employees. Whereby the tax people don’t want people to be contractors when actually they are employees.
And there are various tests the Inland Revenue do to tell whether somebody is actually an employee rather than a freelancer. And this can relate to whether you have control of the work that you do, whether you’re using your own tools or whether you’re using the company’s tools, whether you control the time that you’re working.
Now most recruitment companies will give you a contract that is compliant with IR35 so that there isn’t that particular risk. The consequences of tax is that, if somebody is self-employed and they don’t pay their tax, then the recruitment company or the employer is liable for their unpaid tax. So to protect themselves, what recruitment companies and companies do is, they expect to work with the contractor via a limited company. So that may mean that you have to have your own limited company for your freelance work. And that may mean that you then need to do the filings for Annual Returns. You may need an accountant or tax advisor to do that work for you .
Another aspect with having a limited company is you need to have the relevant insurances of Employers Liability, Public Liability, and often professional indemnity insurance. These can be cheaper if you join associations such as IPSE, which is a professional body for freelancers, and that can be a route to get those insurances a little bit cheaper.
If you don’t want to do that or if you are only paying to freelance for a short period of time, then there is a way of doing that without having to set up your own company. And that is to use something called a managed service company, or what was called an umbrella company. And you work via one of those companies and then to the recruitment agency, and then on to the final company. And they will manage the tax requirements issues and protect you and protect the company from the consequences of getting the tax wrong.
So you can work with recruitment agencies and get work through that way. You can go to clients directly and build up a portfolio. Another option is to be more than a freelancer to look to create a business. To be the next Cherryleaf, to be the next Scriptorium or ProSpring, or Kothes in Germany.
if you do find yourself in quiet periods of what should you do well it’s an ideal opportunity to keep up your skills. And by keeping up your skills, you can teach yourself. You can also go on training courses. You can take online courses. You can watch free webinars. You can go to conferences, physical conferences, and that’s a great way to make contacts and meet people. And you can go to Meetups, meetings of different groups of people. And if you’re a member of the ISTC, the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, or the STC in the States the Society for Technical Communication, there are local chapters, local groups. These groups have meetings where issues around technical communication are discussed. Going to software Meetups is a good way of meeting up with software companies.
If at any stage you do want to become a freelancer and you want to pick our brains you’re more than welcome. You can call us on our main number, or email us firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll give you some advice and our thoughts. And, as you can see from this podcast, it will be the unvarnished truth, the pros and the cons of taking this type of decision.
Finally I’d like to mention another way in which we can help you become a better technical and business communicator. And that’s by being a subscriber to our free monthly newsletter. It’s full of links to information on the latest trends and developments tips and techniques for becoming a better technical communicator. Thank you for listening.