Do you have the right personality to be an independent contractor?

Being an independent contractor means more than finding and keeping customers. Here are some tips for evaluating whether you have the stomach for it.

Almost every business depends on computers and networks, so there’s a huge demand for IT professionals in all types of organizations. When you hear the rumor that your company is paying a contractor brought in for a three-month project almost as much as you make in a year, it can be easy to think, “Hey, why not me?”

But if you’re thinking about quitting your day job, you can’t think only about the money you could make—you need to think about whether your personality and expectations are a good fit with the contracting life. Before you look too far ahead, examine some of the more personal factors in going out on your own.

Take a good look at your personality
Can you keep smiling when everyone else is grumbling? Are you prepared to constantly network and market yourself?

As an independent contractor, you must keep in mind that you are not a regular employee. Part of your goal with every contract is to leave with a stellar reference that will help you land future contracts. This means you can’t do a lot of things you may have done as an employee.

Don’t gossip
For example, you are no longer at liberty to engage in office gossip. Besides, why would you want to? Because you negotiated a contract that includes certain provisions, you don’t need to worry about the latest rumors or who the next VP will be. Although you should speak to the right person if a situation is preventing you from doing the task you were hired to do, it’s never appropriate to get too involved with your client, the people who work there, or how the company chooses to run its business.

Aim high
Your standards have to be higher as a contractor. It’s more important to be on time, all the time—whether it’s to a meeting or turning in a project. It’s not as easy to get away with having a bad day. To some extent, you’re constantly selling yourself, even after you start a project.

Be outgoing and hardworking
You don’t have to be an extrovert to go out on your own, but it sure helps. If you’re a true independent, working without a full-service agency, you’ll have to market yourself, make contacts, and meet with prospective clients. Sometimes, you’ll have two jobs at once—your current contract and your efforts to land the next contract—and you may need to work overtime so that neither suffers.

What about dealing with change and insecurity?
As they say, change is the only constant. Every project will have different goals and expectations, and sometimes you won’t have any work at all.

New people, new rules
Does the thought of walking into a new office, with new coworkers and a new manager, several times a year make you want to pull the covers up over your head? An outgoing personality can help here too. Of course, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) make friends with everybody; you just have to work with them. But if you dread new situations, you’ll find the start of each contract very stressful.

When the well runs dry
Will you be tearing out your hair the second week you don’t have work? What about the first month? Although the savings you stockpiled before starting out will cover your bills, it can still be nerve-racking not to know exactly when or where you’ll work again.

Of course, this dilemma has two sides. How many people do you know who have been laid off or downsized in the past five years despite the booming economy? Perhaps it has even happened to you. The difference is that as a contractor, you’re prepared for change and insecurity; as an employee, you risk being blindsided by it.

Finally, are your expectations realistic?
If you think freelancing means taking a vacation whenever you want, never having another bad boss, and working at home in your pj's, you’re wrong.

You aren’t exactly your own boss
It’s possible that instead of one difficult boss, you now have two—the measure of your own high standards and the jerk in charge of your current project. The good news is, unlike with a job, there’s an end in sight when dealing with an unpleasant or unreasonable person.

As for vacation time, one fellow writer I know has been in business solo for nearly three years now and has yet to take a week off. When you no longer have paid vacation, how will you balance the fear of “out of sight, out of mind” with the necessity of taking some time for yourself?

Don’t throw out your suits yet
In IT, it’s unlikely that you’ll do much work at home. But if it’s feasible to do some work offsite and you want to do so, insist on it. A key part of being a contractor is that you say when and how you work—in fact, that’s the IRS litmus test on defining an independent.

If you’re disciplined, you may actually get more done at home. Plus, you don’t need permission to take an hour or two to see your child’s school play, or just go to the gym before it gets crowded. You just have to be willing to make up the time later.

Ask yourself why you really want to do this
Being an independent contractor is about more than money. Being in business for yourself can be incredibly rewarding. Don’t rule it out even if you aren’t always an outgoing, punctual, ultra-disciplined person who’s totally impervious to stress. Resourcefulness and flexibility are important, too. You’ll be surprised at how much you learn about yourself and what you can accomplish when you have to when you’re working for yourself.

Meredith Little has worn many hats under the broad term of freelance writer, including technical writer, documentation specialist, trainer, business analyst, photographer, and travel writer. To share your opinion on this article, please post a comment below or follow this link to write to Meredith .

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