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Going solo – What’s it really like to work for yourself as an ecologist?

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What’s the reality of setting up on your own as an ecologist? After five years of owning her own business, Kate Priestman was keen to find out how others have found the experience of going solo…

Whilst the big consultancies often take centre stage, there are a surprisingly large number of consultant ecologists going it alone. Having sat on both sides of the fence, I was interested to see what motivated other freelance ecologists to work for themselves, and what their experience of taking the leap has been.

It has been interesting to find out that the answers to the questions posed to other freelancers, accord with my own experience; it appears that an ecologist’s reasons for setting up on their own, along with the pros and cons of working for oneself, regularly align.

I have worked as a professional ecologist for 16 years; 11 of those years were divided between two large multidisciplinary consultancies in London, before I decided to set up my own business in 2012. As with all things, there are pros and cons with both sides of the coin. In the main, I thoroughly enjoyed my time working for these companies. It enabled me to take the lead on very large and complex projects that I would have been unlikely to have had access to on my own, alongside multiple stakeholders and other technical disciplines. My learning curve was swift, challenging and exciting. However, the downside to this type of life is the relatively low level of control that an employee has regarding the projects that are taken on by the company, and the workload, which especially during the main survey season can be crushing – I became well accustomed to seeing my colleague’s expressions become increasingly strained as the summer months progressed.

The primary answer when asking others about their reasons for setting up on their own, is the need to find a better work life balance and having the flexibility to fit in with family life more successfully. Being an ecologist often means working unsociable hours and unsociably long hours during the survey season, both of which can make life outside of the job difficult to juggle. The ecologists that I spoke to, had all worked for larger consultancy firms before setting up on their own.

A few factors enticed me to leave the big consultancies behind: I wanted to have more control over my workload, primarily in terms of the volume of work that I took on; I had other avenues and interests outside of consultancy that I wanted to explore; and I wanted to regain a better work/life balance. I was also at the stage in my career where I felt that the experience I had gained meant that I could cope with working on my own i.e. I had reached a level of competence to do so effectively.

I asked a couple of ecologists what they have found to be the main pros and cons of working for themselves. Here are their combined answers:

Pros

  • The ability to pick and choose clients.
  • Working from home.
  • The ability to focus on the type of ecological work which is of interest.
  • Increased flexibility.
  • Incentive – “the more I work the more I earn”.
  • Job satisfaction and pride in the work that is produced.
  • Can choose the location of work – i.e. no long commutes or over nighters unless you choose to.
  • Networking – meeting lots of other local freelancers.

Cons

  • Worry about balancing workload – having either too much work or not enough. “It’s very easy to take on too much, an example being those five quick Phase 1 Surveys you are undertaking all suddenly need bat surveys and GCN surveys”.
  • Business development can sometimes be daunting / confusing e.g. “not knowing whether to expand or stay as sole trader”.
  • Being the only person who can deal with a client – “clients have my mobile number and will call evenings, weekends, holidays”.
  • Can be difficult to switch off and down tools completely.
  • A reliance on other freelancers – “arranging additional surveyors when needed can be problematic in terms of availability (can also be let down at the last minute)”.
  • It’s more than just ecology – “you have all the other trappings of running a business such as accounting, marketing, invoicing and sorting out the general day to day running of a company”.
  • The buck stops with you – “if a client doesn’t want to pay, it’s up to you to take the hit or pursue them to get what you are owed”.

I find that I can concur with pretty much all of those points. For me personally, in addition to the above, the main pros of working for myself are:

  • Being able to set up and operate a business in my own way.
  • You get to know yourself a whole lot better – your strengths and weaknesses are very quickly highlighted.
  • Type of work – this point sits across the pros and the cons – I was a little worried that I wouldn’t have access to a wide breadth of projects like I had working for a large company. I have found that not to be the case – I still have access to a range of different projects and consultancy work, but I have not taken on some of those opportunities because I have felt that without the support of colleagues, the project had the potential to be too much for me to cope with on my own – so a kind of bittersweet turning away of projects can occur.

I have found the downsides of going solo to be:

  • Cashflow – you have to factor in that money coming into your bank account is no longer a given or deposited regularly in the same way that a salary is.
  • Confidence – it can be daunting to know that you are on your own without a colleague to turn to and discuss things with or having the comfort of being part of a larger company to back you up.

The main snippet of advice I would pass onto anyone that is considering setting up on their own is to make sure that you have already gained a wealth of experience as part of a wider team before taking the leap – at the end of the day, the responsibility lies with you; working for yourself requires you to call upon all of the personal resources that you can muster. As well as building up a business, you need to know when to turn down work on the basis that a particular project is not something that you can comfortably deliver on your own – again, this decision making is based on having the experience to know what a project is likely to involve.

Advice from others comprises:

  • Go for it, but be prepared for a big drop in income until you become established. Remember that you will have a lag time of around three months between your first day and getting that first payment, make sure you have a little saved to get you through this period.
  • You need to be super organised, and happy to do everything (fieldwork, reports, licence applications, fee quotes, invoicing, tax return, chasing payments, arguing with architects and being polite but firm).
  • Have the confidence to stand by your advice and decisions – Clients may think that if they are paying you then you will do what they want. The key is to remain polite but always explain why you are doing something, why the design change is needed.
  • Be ready to take on jobs at short notice (everyone seems to want everything done yesterday).
  • Be reliable.
  • Make friends and network with other ecologists – try and work with each other and use others to discuss problems/bounce ideas off. Working by yourself can be isolating and there is the risk of falling into a rut.
  • Consider setting up with someone else – this really helps with easing the burden of work; if you don’t want to do this, try and have a good relationship with companies about the same size and in the same geographical area. It’s likely you might need them as an extra body on site as much as they might need you.
  • Start with sub-contracting for larger companies. this means that you are a bit of a survey monkey to begin with but it gives you more time to sort out the type of clients that you want and the sort of work that you want to focus on.
  • Get advice from people who have set up a company before, preferably one that is similar to yours.

Despite all of the ups and downs that go with any ‘job’, the general consensus seems to be that whilst setting up on your own may not be right for everybody, and should be approached in an enlightened fashion with an awareness of the reality of working for yourself, if your reasons for doing so are aligned with the reality, it is a great route to go down. I have not met anybody to date who would consider going back to being an employee after setting up on their own.

A big thank you to those who assisted with the research for this article.  Particular thanks go to Paul Howden-Leach (Skyline Ecology) and Fiona Sharpe (Sharpe Ecology).

About the Author:  Kate Priestman (CEnv, MCIEEM) has over sixteen years experience as an ecologist.  Prior to setting up her own consultancy business in 2012, Kate worked in London for over a decade, providing the lead ecology role for a number of high profile projects.  Kate works as an artistauthorwriter and editor.

 

 

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