Working as a contractor in digital product design is amazing. You’ll get to be in control of your work arrangements while charging rates usually a fair bit higher than permanent employment offers. These high rates compensate for unpaid annual leave and lack of pension schemes, and cover running costs such as insurance and accounting.
But if the steady routine of a regular 9-5 job year after year doesn’t suit your lifestyle, and you’ve got a bit of financial acumen, my experience tells me that being a contractor offers you both freedom and good finances. On top of that you’ll need to keep pushing yourself to stay relevant, and in return you’ll get to work with new clients, expand your professional network and constantly learn new things.
The most common reason against contracting and freelancing is the financial uncertainty. Having a bit of downtime between contracts can be both a blessing and a curse. You need to get comfortable with this uncertainty if you want to become a contractor.
But here’s the kicker – the same uncertainty you’ll get comfortable with when going free agent is the uncertainty you’ll need in order to grow as a person. It’s the uncertainty you’ll feel outside your comfort zone.
Get comfortable with uncertainty and grow as a person
Growth only happens outside your comfort zone, as the old adage says. And the reason it’s uncomfortable out there is because success is not guaranteed. The outcome of your effort is uncertain. In fact, it’s fairly certain that you’ll fail more often than succeed – and this is what we need to address, because inherently no-one enjoys failing.
What it comes down to is as simple as this: You have to raise the bar to grow, and you have to accept and even embrace failure as you do so. That try-fail-analyse-adjust feedback loop is essential for improvement.
But as we said, failing is painful and putting in the effort to fail and improve is something our lazy, comfortable brains rather avoid. So we have to negotiate a bit with them. Give them a comfort blanket to hold on to as we step out of the comfort zone.
Give yourself a comfort blanket
If you’re learning to backflip, a comfort blanket is probably something to prevent pain and injury, like a foam pit, or a person spotting you. But what’s your comfort blanket for pushing your career? How do you gain confidence to pursue contracting, change career path or start a new business?
I’ve been moving around since I started consulting in 2015. Never knowing where I’ll be next. Not knowing where my career is going even, with all these possibilities and no obvious What to my Why. It was scary before I took the leap, but once I got going I quickly gained confidence in my newly found freedom and embraced the uncertainty. How did I do this?
The key to be comfortable with uncertainty as a contractor is to have a financial buffer, little financial commitments and to have confidence in the value you bring to a project.
Have a financial buffer
If you have enough liquid funds to maintain your lifestyle for a few months without income you’ll feel a lot more comfortable leaving your current job, or moving from contract to contract. There will be downtime as a contractor. Sometimes only a few days, sometimes months.
Three months of buffer to cover essential expenses like rent and food is a recommendation I’ve been following for years. You could probably get by with less if you had to, and most likely you’ll get back on your feet before three months, but give your buffer a buffer and your worrying brain will feel better.
But don’t overdo it. These are funds that need to be readily available so you can’t lock them into long term investments or jeopardise them in the stock market’s ups and downs. These funds will do little to nothing to build your wealth, so you really don’t want to put aside more than necessary when it could be working hard in your investment portfolio.
Have little financial commitments
Personal financing’s most basic rule is ‘bring in more than you spend’. In order to get past those dry months of no work, planned or unplanned, it’s obvious that the less expenses you have, the smaller buffer you need. For Europeans in general, and me in particular, the idea of overspending and living beyond one’s means is a bit odd. I only live a lifestyle I can afford using cash, and the only loan I’m likely to take is a mortgage. Living on credit has its benefits, but it ties you down financially which can be very stressful if you’re contracting.
Short-term leases and pay-as-you-go plans is the way to go if you want to remove financial stress. An ability to cut down on luxury if needed rather than being locked into interest-invoking financial agreements is to recommend, and feels amazing. It’s not always the cheapest option so personally I weigh my options carefully, thinking of both long-term gains and short-term flexibility.
Have confidence in the value you bring to a project
There’s no right or wrong time in your career for becoming a contractor. There are contractors of all levels of seniority, but what they all (should) have in common is that they’re good at what they do and they get the job done.
The more sought after your skill set is and the more value you can bring to a project, the more you can charge. It usually helps to have a few years of experience under your belt, and even better if you have a niche where you have documented expertise. Clients love to work with contractors with experience in their domain. It means that you can hit the ground running and you can speak the same lingo from day one.
As a parenthesis, clients also love to see some big brands in your portfolio. This is a bit of a fallacy though, since simply working for a recognised brand doesn’t make you a star designer. If you’ve worked there as a contractor it’s likely that you were there to work on campaigns or internal tools rather than the flagship products. Companies like Apple, Google and Amazon do have a rigorous hiring process though. They don’t hire bozos, so at least it means that you passed the high standards of the interview process.
I started out as a general designer of digital products and gained experience from a variety of domains, companies and methodologies. After eight years I became a contractor but continued being a jack-of-all-trades. After 15 years in digital design I now know what I bring to a project. I can quickly gauge whether I’d be a good match for an advertised role. I know what I’m good at and I know where I lack experience. I tend to work more with system thinking and product strategy nowadays. I know a lot about designOps but I lack experience in managing people.
Knowing what I’m good at, how I integrate in different teams and the value I bring to a project gives me confidence when I’m looking for new contracts. This confidence in my own value is important because without it it would be a lot more stressful when a contract is coming to and end.
So, are you ready?
Part financial guidance, part personal development, I realise this post might’ve digressed a bit. But the main point still remains – contracting can support an amazing lifestyle, but you should prepare yourself for the uncertainty it brings. Also, read these practical tips by Stewart Dean. In the end there’s a lot to gain, both personally and financially. And you’ll learn a lot about yourself along the way.