Ask A Freelancer: Can I Quit My Full-Time Job and Freelance For My Employer?By Nicole Dieker January 28th, 2015
I’m thinking of quitting my job as a graphic designer to consult/freelance for my current employer so they’re one of multiple clients. Any advice on how to go about doing this?
—Becoming My Own Boss
Before I start handing out advice, I have one question for you: How do you feel about risk?
UX Matters has a guide to making the transition from employee to consultant, and one of the biggest points they make is that consulting is risky work:
You risk not having work or not having enough work. You risk underselling your services and earning less money than you should or overbidding and losing a project. You have nobody at your company to back you up if things go wrong with a client. You need to be willing to take those risks, learn from your mistakes, and always keep moving forward.
Of course, we at The Freelancer believe there are plenty of ways to overcome these risks and build a successful career.
So here’s my advice on how to do it right.
The first thing you’ll want to do is have a Freelance Business Plan at the ready. Make your plan, figure out your hourly rate, and have the structure of your freelance consulting business ready to go before you approach your current employer about transitioning into a consulting role.
Once you’ve got your plan in place, you can mitigate some of the risk by building your client base while you are a full-time employee. I know it sounds tempting to make your current employer your first freelance client, but it’s also important to find a few other clients before you walk into your boss’s office and announce you’re quitting your job to become a freelancer.
The big question here is whether your employer will allow you to take on outside work.
If your employer has rules against moonlighting, you’re going to have to skip this step and go straight to meeting with your supervisor to pitch your consulting idea.
If you’re allowed to freelance after hours, see if you can build up at least complete a few consulting jobs while still a full-time employee. You’ll be able to test your marketing and sales skills and see if you can manage responsibilities for multiple clients (and your current employer) simultaneously. Essentially, you’ll get a decent sense of whether you’re good enough to make a living as a freelancer.
You’ll also begin to build up a cash reserve you’ll need after you quit. As I’ve covered in the past, one year’s worth of income is a safe benchmark.
So let’s say you’ve taken care of all the above and worked with an initial client or two. You’re ready to set a meeting with your boss and propose your move from full-time to consultant.
First, know there’s always the chance that your employer will say no. Sometimes companies are just not interested in working with consultants. Others may worry about team dynamics—how will it affect workflow if one full-timer becomes a part-time consultant? And some may push back against the cost of taking you on as a consultant, especially if they also need to hire someone to replace your full-time position.
To justify the switch, you are going to have to walk into that meeting ready to hit your employer with some persuasive reasoning. Mainly: You’ll save the company money in the long run and complete work more efficiently. Interestingly, you’ll probably have to convince the boss you’ll be able to provide even more value as a consultant than you did as a full-time employee.
If your employer is hesitant to work with you, Carol Tice suggests offering a trial period:
Your employer may be befuddled and want to simply hire another staffer to replace you, especially if they have few existing freelance relationships. Rather than giving up at that point, or trying to get a commitment to an ongoing freelance contract, propose a short-term, 60- or 90-day trial. They won’t find an immediate replacement, anyway, which paves the way for you to suggest they give you a try as a freelancer. Once the freelance relationship starts, your employer may see firsthand that freelancing this role works just great and drop their plans to make a new permanent hire.
What happens if you do all of these things and your employer still says no? You move on. Yes, of course you want your employer as your client. You’ve already built up a relationship with your employer, and you want to both earn money from that relationship and use it to connect with other potential clients. But your freelance career’s success is unlikely to depend on whether or not your current employer is one of your clients.
If your employer does agree to take you on as a consultant, congratulations! Celebrate, then be prepared to experience some transitional bumps as you and your (former) employer both get used to changed roles. If an old boss asks you to take on extra work, you need to be prepared to refer to your contract.
Likewise, you need to be prepared for changing relationships with former co-workers. Do not be surprised if you are left off of the happy hour invite. It is possible (and recommended!) to still have positive relationships with former co-workers, but be prepared to deal with some uncomfortable situations at first. After the transition period, it’ll be easy enough to return to the occasional happy hour if you want.
One more piece of advice: Be careful about going into this plan with the idea that you can get your old spot back if freelancing doesn’t work out. Transitioning back into your full-time role is not impossible, but odds are the next full-time job you get won’t be with your former employer.
Nicole Dieker liked her last full-time job, but she loves freelancing even more. One of her favorite parts of the freelancing job is answering your questions, so please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.