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The pros, cons and hazards of working for yourself

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Working for himself gives Karl du Fresne a sense of freedom and ease – at least until he has to talk to his accountant.

In 2002, preparations were being made for the merger of Wellington’s two daily newspapers, the Dominion and the Evening Post. I was assistant editor of the latter.

Tim Pankhurst, one of the architects of the merger (and later to become editor of the new paper), summoned me to the office where the planning was being done. He showed me a large chart spread out on a desk showing how the editorial hierarchy of the new paper would look. “As you can see,” he said, “your name isn’t there.” Tim was never one to beat about the bush.

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I took it as an invitation to quit. It would be dishonest to pretend I wasn’t angry and hurt. I had been assistant editor of the Evening Post for the previous 10 years and, before that, editor of the Dominion. Most of my career had been spent with one or other of the two papers.

Once the initial shock wore off, however, I began to see it less as a slight and more as an opportunity. The company’s generous redundancy deal, combined with my superannuation, meant I stood to pick up a substantial sum.

My wife and I had been idly talking for years about getting away from Wellington’s weather. (It’s true that you can’t beat Wellington on a good day. What they omit to mention is that it happens only about 10 times a year.)

Du Fresne with his wife, Jolanta.

I had to admit, too, that I’d been feeling a bit cranky and dissatisfied. Maybe Tim was doing me a favour. (In fact, he later put some important work my way, for which I remain grateful.)

So, to cut a long story short, I took the money and scarpered. By 2003, after a long overseas holiday, we had moved to the Wairarapa and I was working from home as a freelance journalist. And in the 15 years since, I haven’t lost a millisecond of sleep worrying whether I did the wrong thing.

Pardon me for sounding smug, but I love being self-employed. So, apparently, do a lot of other people. According to the statistics, roughly 15% of us work for ourselves.

For many of those people, self-employment may not have been a matter of choice – at least to start with. In the 1980s, economic upheaval and the restructuring of the public service tipped a lot of people out of previously secure full-time jobs.

Many reinvented themselves as contractors and consultants – and often ended up working for the same public-sector employers who had previously laid them off, but for much better money. Others took the opportunity to build new careers doing things they enjoyed and exploiting skills that had previously lain dormant.

I know a lot of people who, like me, moved from secure salaried jobs to the uncertainty of self-employment. For many, it was a leap into a void. But here’s the interesting thing: I hardly ever encounter anyone who pines for their old job. For most of them, even if they ended up earning substantially less (as I did), it was a liberating experience. They have no wish to go back.

Here, then, is a list – based on my experience and observations – of the pros, cons and hazards of self-employment.
  • I walk to work each day. It’s about 10m.
  • On warm days, I can throw the window wide open and listen to the droning of the bees in the garden. Try doing that five storeys above Boulcott St in central Wellington, where I worked previously. Living in a semi-rural locality, I also get a peculiar pleasure from watching tractors and stock trucks constantly trundling past.
  • I am not bound by office hours. I still have deadlines to meet, but I can structure my work commitments to suit myself. I can work at night or get up early in the morning, and if it’s fine on a weekday, I can exploit the weather by going for a long bike ride – or mowing the lawns or whatever – and make up for it on the weekend.
  • If I’m feeling slovenly, I can work in my pyjamas and dressing gown – arguably the most comfortable working clobber known to humankind (Hugh Hefner was no mug). The last suit I bought, in 2002, is worn only to funerals, and I can barely remember how to knot a tie.
  • My wife and I can have lunch in the sun on the back deck, and afterwards, if I’m feeling self-indulgent, I can enjoy a nap – a civilised and evidently health-enhancing habit. I sometimes managed a surreptitious snooze in my Evening Post days too, since my back was to the door and I had developed the ability to doze off while sitting upright, thus giving the impression – to a casual observer – that I was intently studying my computer screen. In hindsight, perhaps they became wise to my sneaky ways and decided there was no room in the new paper for passengers.
  • My work is blissfully free of interruption. It’s only after you give up working in an office that you realise how distracting it is to be constantly answering the phone, attending meetings or dealing with people. Like my late former colleague Frank Haden, I regard phones as existing for me to ring other people on, not vice versa. And like Greta Garbo, I want to be alone – at least when I’m trying to work.
  • Most important of all, I don’t have to answer to anyone. In fact, I have developed an almost pathological aversion to instructions. Some people thrive in the hierarchical corporate environment, but I prefer the anarchic freedom of being my own boss, even with all its uncertainty and disadvantages.
  • Speaking of disadvantages, it would be idle to pretend that self-employment doesn’t have any. Here are a few.
  • You have to generate your own energy. It was a surprise, having gone out on my own, to realise the extent to which people feed off each other’s energy and ideas in an office environment – particularly in a congenial, close-knit team such as the one I worked in. When you’re on your own, you have to energise yourself.
  • You have to be disciplined – and not just about working, which goes without saying, but also about not working. When your office is in your home, it’s easy to fall into the trap of working seven days a week. You decide to check your emails, or finish off that article you were working on yesterday, or fill in an idle hour by doing some research – and before you know it, what was supposed to be your day off has been spent working. I try to leave the computer switched off for one day a week.
  • It’s also tempting to tackle the easy jobs and find excuses to keep putting off the less appealing ones. I have learnt to follow my mood and tackle whatever job I’m in the right frame of mind for. Fortunately, I have a mixed portfolio of work, so unless there’s a pressing deadline looming, I usually have options.
  • Your downtime – the time you spend on extraneous stuff such as completing GST returns or doing housework on your computer files – isn’t paid for by your employer. Neither are your holidays. You have to factor those costs into the rates you charge your clients (good luck).
  • I could have made a lot more money had I remained in a salaried position, working for a big company. But it’s a trade-off: I regard the reduced income as a reasonable price to pay for the immeasurable benefit of being my own boss.
  • You have no in-house support to call on when equipment breaks down, you’re at the mercy of employers who decide when they will get around to paying you, and several times a year you have to talk to your accountant, who speaks what appears to be English but is in fact a totally unfathomable language (journalists are from Mars; accountants are from Venus).

But all up, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I’m still mates with Tim Pankhurst.

This article was first published in the February 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.