Step 1: Making the decision to go solo
Making the decision to become a self-employed consultant should not be taken lightly. Whilst it will give you the flexibility to work when you want, take on projects you like and deliver the type of OSH you feel is important, it also means running a small business.
Along with this can come a ‘feast or famine’ work level and the amount of time required to create and then keep running the business side of the operation should not be underestimated. A sizeable chunk of your day rate will go on the time you need to administrate the financial side, create a brand/image, look for work and HR if you take on staff.
You will also need to make decisions on how to set up your company. As a sole trader your personal finances are linked to your business. A limited company is a separate entity in the eyes of the law. Umbrella companies can take on the administrative side of the business. You must ensure your VAT and tax arrangements are set up well. If you trade globally you will be required to comply with other territory arrangements too. This is why it is critical to seek the advice of a helpful accountant. Go in with your eyes wide open.
Getting your first sales will probably be tough. If you have come from a corporate role you may be used to a certain amount of deference in respect of your previous position. In order to work toward the types of projects you really want, such as influencing at board level, be prepared for a step back even if you have this experience. You may find you need to be less choosy in the early days or work as an associate for a larger company until you get the ball rolling. The good news is most work will come from referrals if you do a great job and you will work your way into the board room when you deliver.
If you have come from a larger consultancy think very carefully about your leaving strategy and fully understand any restrictions within your employment contract. It is likely this will contain covenants in respect of clients. The removal of data or information is illegal. Any work you have created for them does not belong to you and even if you have nurtured and grown their client base this was part of your role. Their customers are not yours. Conversely, be prepared, as this can happen to you if you employ an OSH practitioner, and ensure you protect your business too.
Plan how you are going to work. Will you take on large contracts where you are working full time for a fixed period or will you work with multiple clients? Will you always work on your own or might you create something bigger with staff? Use LinkedIn, create a website and a brand.
Being a small business owner is immediately humbling. If your approach does not fit with the customer they will disengage or not renew often without telling you. Deliver what is asked for and agreed on time. Turn up when you say you are going to. Be accessible, flexible, polite and open minded. Have a good set of terms and conditions and communicate well.
You will need a strong work ethic - be resilient and don’t give up. Have a good network around you and don’t let yourself become isolated, especially in the early days. Talk to others who have been where you are now. Joining the IOSH Consultancy Group can be a great option, providing access to essential expertise and networking opportunities.
There is plenty of work out there for good OSH practitioners - but no matter what you were doing before, expect the unexpected.
Louise Hosking CMIOSH CEnvH MCIEH CMaPS PIEMA SIIRSM
Consultancy Group Committee Member