Lone wolf – Going it alone in health and safety
Until a few years ago, Nick Bell would never have entertained the thought of going it alone in health and safety. He expected that he would be a salaried employee for the next 20 years of his working life. After spending a couple of years as a very small and over-used cog in a very large, corporate machine Nich decided to make a break for freedom. This short article is a reflection on the pitfalls and pleasure he’s discovered in 18 months of self-employment.
In many ways, I think health and safety professionals are ideal candidates for self-employment. They can work autonomously, can deal positively with people from all walks of life, are solution-focussed, and are pretty organised. Many of us don’t need expensive overheads to perform our work (other than IT equipment and a mode of transport).
Nonetheless, becoming self-employed is a huge step and you would be wise to take advice. I recommend Geoff Burch’s “Go it Alone”, which contains oodles of common sense, as a starting point. I also sought advice from the Centre for Entrepreneurship at Cardiff Met University, where I am doing my PhD. In fact, freeing up time for my PhD was one reason for becoming self-employed. The other driver was a desire to offer clients what they actually need and want, rather than what a QA process tells me to give them.
More technical issues you may need advice on includes the legal structure of your business (e.g. limited company or sole trader), insurance (you’ll need Professional Indemnity as a minimum), financial impacts (e.g. on mortgages and pensions) and your terms and conditions. I found IOSH’s good practice guide on consultancy an invaluable resource particularly for developing my template for project proposals. You’ll also need to sort out nuts-and-bolts issues such as day rates, the tools of your trade (e.g. templates, training slides and licenses etc.), book keeping and marketing.
Geoff Burch recommends that you initially make-do-and-mend as much as you can, apart from branding. In my opinion, branding boils down to being crystal clear about what you are offering and to whom. This might be problematic for many health and safety practitioners who are generalists. “I do health and safety” isn’t a particularly easy message to sell. What aspects of your working life do you really enjoy and/or when do you feel most confident? This could potentially be a sound basis for your business.
My strengths are delivering training and working client-side in construction. My PhD is starting to take me down a different path (around worker engagement), but being self-employed I’m in control of my own destiny.
Marketing isn’t about pretending you are bigger or better than you are, or disguising the fact that you are self-employed. That could be hugely problematic, as you could quickly find yourself looking for or taking on jobs that are beyond your capability. You can make self-employment a virtue: Your clients won’t be palmed off onto a junior member of the team, they won’t have generic numbers to ring etc.
Despite the effort and expense I put into branding, my work has come through linkedin and past contacts. Even so, people still visit my website to check me out or get in contact if they’ve lost my details. This highlights the importance of having a good reputation and a proven track record. Without these I would be very wary of going it alone. Why would a responsible client take a punt on something as important as legal compliance, the safety of their assets and the wellbeing of their workers?
Until now, about 50% of my time has been spent working as an associate for just one company. There are some risks attached to this (what if the company stops trading?) but it offers benefits, especially flexibility, to both parties. This may be a good option if you are still establishing your credibility or don’t have a client base of your own. Of course, your host company will get the lion’s share of the plaudits and fees for your hard work but that is one of the trade-offs.
Apart from working and doing the back-office activities that keeps a business running you’ll also need to keep your CPD up-to-date. Being very focussed in the services you are offering makes selecting appropriate CPD activities so much easier.
The self-employed people I’ve spoken to have said that a mild level of anxiety is quite normal. I find the worry that work will suddenly dry up is often gnawing away (even though I’ve got a steady flow of work for the next couple of months). When IT goes wrong I still have mini melt-downs: There’s no IT department springing into action. The self-employed therefore need simple, sensible business risk management strategies just as much as big organisations. It helps me turn my internal fear-knob down from ‘mind-numbing terror’ to ‘healthy paranoia’.
There are times when all the jobs come at once, followed by quieter periods. You have no one to deputise to and you would need to be very careful if you are considering sub-consulting (and personally I would never consider it). I’ve therefore had to thoughtfully and honestly discuss realistic completion dates. I’m personally content giving up occasional evenings or a day on the weekend to cope with a glut, knowing that I can take a day or two off the following week without having to get anyone’s permission (apart from my better half, of course).
Different people have different ambitions. If you want to build a small empire, then starting out on your own could be the first stepping stone. However, it could influence, for example, the legal structure or name of your business so it’s worth considering up front. I just enjoy doing the work and am quite content with my life as a sole trader.
Whatever you decide to do in your career, I wish you the best of luck!
IOSH, Consultancy – Good Practice Guide http://www.iosh.co.uk/~/media/Documents/Books%20and%20resources/Guidance%20and%20tools/Consultancy%20-%20good%20practice%20guide.pdf
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