Working for yourself can have great rewards – but also great risks. You’re the PR department as well as the workforce and managing director, and independence sometimes means isolation.

Thinking of going it alone? You’re certainly not the only one. In the past, many construction professionals were forced down that road by redundancy. Today, though, a growing number are choosing to leave the employment nest because they want the advantages that a freelance’s life offers: a change, a better balance between work and leisure, to be their own boss, to see a direct return from their endeavours, to make more money, to test their business acumen or to pursue a broader portfolio of activities than conventional employment allows.
If you’re tempted to enter the self-employed sector, you should get to know the territory as well as possible. Some issues to examine are continuing professional development, networking, administration and financial management. A short article like this can be no substitute for the research that you will need to do, but it will point you in the direction of the right information and pass on advice from people who have been there and done it – and are still in business.
You might start with the RIBA’s very readable booklet A Guide to Starting a Practice. In common with many of the RIBA’s publications, it is not just for architects – all construction professionals will find it useful. Also, most banks have advice packs on starting a business. They want your account, after all, and successful business for you will mean good business for them.
When you have done your reading, ask the views of people in your line of work. Other professionals are often generous with advice and can help you focus before you sit down with a solicitor and an accountant. Most people will need the latter – even more so now that the tax laws are changing.
Probably the most important thing is to have no illusions about the financial side of working independently. It is not necessarily going to yield instant wealth, however good you are and however much your expertise is in demand. Were you to start from scratch, it could take two years to reach a reasonable income. For that reason, some recommend building up a base of work before taking the plunge.
Working independently can lead to feeling isolated and to difficulty in achieving personal development. Five years ago, a number of self-employed professionals who work in development and training for construction professionals formed a group called 5SG to overcome these problems. The group meets three times a year to compare notes on their professional lives. Diverse in terms of age, location, nationality, gender, background and experience, the group comprises an enormous richness of experience. Importantly, they trust each other, enjoy similar values, and give one another moral support. Their meetings provide professional development and can cover topics from market intelligence to the best computer to buy. Some members of the group now collaborate in a business venture and others co-operate on occasional projects, but mutual support rather than joint working was the driving force in setting up 5SG.
Another technique I have used to avoid isolation is to find a friend in a similar situation and “mentor” or “coach” each other. Reciprocal listening and asking pertinent questions is helpful and provides a sounding board for your ideas. Being answerable to your coach provides a supportive discipline to get things done and serves to remind you of your original objectives.
The potential qualitative rewards of independent working are great. Jane Wernick,the structural engineer who produced the structural concept for the London Eye, has since started her own engineering business. “I am enjoying the variety of the projects I’m involved in, which range from major institutional projects to giving structural engineering advice on furniture. My work as a freelance includes teaching, writing and anything I choose. Learning about the mechanics of setting up a business has been really good.”
Finally, remember to keep a balance between work and leisure. If working from home, ensure you have a social life that takes you out of that environment. My own solution is golf!

Start-up advice for going it alone

  • Travel light: avoid unnecessary initial expenses such as an office
  • Be selective about IT. Don’t over-invest in machines but do have up-to-date software. E-mail is a must
  • Set up a good filing system
  • Be accessible and responsive. Install a phone messaging system
  • Get out and sell yourself; let people know what you are doing, but you don’t have to buy everyone lunch!
  • Don’t use a business name that limits the scope of services you can offer
  • Always deliver work on time and remember presentation is important
  • Someone in your client’s organisation will be held responsible for your performance. Don’t let them down
  • Never rely on just one client.
  • Don’t enter into a partnership without enormous care: know the person/people well and establish from the start how you would withdraw or dissolve it.
  • Professional indemnity insurance is necessary for some activities, but not all. What risks are you incurring through the advice you are giving?
  • Monitor and record everything you do: for time management, for invoicing and for checking profitability