Should I Go Freelancing as a Project Manager?

Should I go freelancing as a Project Manager? It’s a popular question and to those who ask it I recommend they give it a serious thought, ensuring they weigh up the pros and cons before making a decision. Often the reasons we think we’d like to do something like this turn out to be red herrings. We tend to think the grass is greener; more money, more freedom or more choice. The reality can be very different.

Here are just a few things that can happen when you decide to leave permanent employment behind:

1. Plan like a PM

Consider yourself a decent project manager? Now’s the time to find out if you can project manage your own transition to freelancing. Research and plan until you’re feeling more confident about what you’re doing. Build up a nest egg, this is your project budget, before you jack in the permanent job. This is the biggest concern most permanent to freelance project managers have so deal with the concern in a practical way. There’s a rule about freelancing for the first time. You have to be available now. No matter how much planning and research you do whilst still working permanently there has to be a day when you hand in your notice and go for it. There is no easy way to have your cake and eat it. In fact this first lesson is probably a good one. If you’ve done the planning, handing in your notice will feel positive, exciting, euphoric not full of doubts and anxiety. You’re going need that positive mindset in your freelancing years.

2. Holidays

You might think that freelancing will give you more freedom, give you more control over your work life balance. The problem is you can find yourself getting concerned about taking breaks between contracts. The recession showed us that if you take extended time out, it can be difficult to get back into the swing of things later. You might plan for a 2 month gap between contracts but when you find yourself without a new contract 4 months later that experience tends to stick in your memory for a long time. It’s human nature to think “well I don’t want that to happen again” and you’ll carry on working the contracts with minimal time for breaks in between. The other side of course is you realise that taking a holiday mid contract actually costs you twice as much. The cost of the holiday plus the amount of money you’ll lose by not working during that holiday. It all adds up.



3. Hidden costs

It sounds great a contract at £500/day when you’re been working in a permanent role for years around the £50K mark. But there are hidden costs to freelancing – well, costs that are not immediately obvious. You’ll want to keep your pension going, perhaps private healthcare (isn’t it even more important now you’re freelancing?), putting money aside for holidays, rainy day funds for sickness, treats like a training course or attending a conference. Then there’s the cost of running your freelance business. You’ll need an accountant, perhaps some help with marketing your business, some insurance, you’ll definitely need the equipment and more time to do some business development. All of these are going to cost you.

4. Getting stuck

Get used to the fact that people will hire you based on your current experience. It doesn’t matter that you did something years ago that you enjoyed and want to get back into that again. No one cares about that and what you’d like to do. The marketable thing you have in freelancing is what you’re good for today. Get used to the fact that you might be delivering the same kinds of projects for different but similar organisations each time. It can be difficult for freelancers to suddenly go from project manager to programme manager (like a promotion in the permanent work world can happen) because if an organisation wants a freelance programme manager they’ll just go out there and hire one. Why take you when they can hire the real deal?

5. Your expertise isn’t wanted

Each freelance project manager has a uniqueness about them. It could be the sector they deliver in, the type of projects they manage or both. When everyone wants you, you can fill your boots and happy days. The recession again showed us the devastating consequences of specialism in project management. When IT infrastructure or construction projects are not in demand anymore, neither are you. A freelancer has to think about how they evolve with each contract they take. They need to polish that crystal ball and see their future. If you’re not a Mystic Mike/Meg, business development has to be something you think about rather than just taking any old contract because the money is good. Make hay now as we never know what’s around the corner.

Like any life change there are always going to be pros and cons. The trick is to understand what the potential cons might be and as a project manager think about how you can mitigate them. Now’s the time to draw on all that project management experience you have and turn it inwards for a bit while you are the project. Good luck!

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Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this article, sadly I find it very negatively biased. I have been a self-employed freelance contractor for four years and I can safely say it is the best thing that I have ever done.

    In this article you do not cover any of the benefits of being a freelancer. Here are my top 4.

    1. The money is better, a lot better.
    I find that you can take home four times as much as any as a permanent employee at the equivalent level.
    2. Take holiday, it’s built into the rate
    If you notify a client at the beginning of the contract or with plenty on notice it is possible to go on holidays during your contract, just like an employee. Don’t think of it as costing you twice as much your holiday pay is built into your daily rate. Thinking otherwise is an express route to burn out.
    3. Never be deeply unhappy at work again.
    The joy of working for yourself is that you have much greater control over your own destiny. If you find yourself working in a very unpleasant environment or on a job that bores you to tears, you can thank them for the opportunity and move on.
    4. You get promoted, a lot.
    Contrary to your description above I have found that I have been promoted much more rapidly since I became a freelancer. When a client has a good candidate working for them and they believe that candidate is capable of a more senior role they will often add to your responsibilities. Sometimes this is done without an uplift in rate or a change in title. However, at renewal time there is a perfect opportunity for asking for an increase in your rate to match your new level of responsibility.
    Secondly, often the thing which stops people being promoted is what I like to call a perception gap (people imagine you are only as capable as when you first arrived at the firm). As a freelancer you get a “fresh start” with each new client and you are not constrained by outdated perceptions.

    1. Hi Kay

      Great response thank you. Of course freelancing/contracting/working for yourself has a hige range of positives and benefits (something I’ve written about a lot), sometimes its good to see the downside too, to get a considered view.

      Your comments here of course provide the balance in one place. Thanks again.

    2. Hi there. I wonder if we could talk about modes of finding freelance projects as I have previously only worked through employment agencies and find that they do not really negotiate the best rate for me. I work mainly on residential refurbishments and commercial fit outs and would like to stick to these areas as they are my strong suits.

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