VSJ – May 2009 – Work in Progress

Mike Ryan, the IAP’s Director General, has some very pertinent tips, given the current economic climate, for those considering starting their own businesses.

Being an employee is in many ways a sheltered existence. Coming out from under the umbrella and setting up in business on your own account means you have to start doing things for yourself that probably you have never had to consider before. From my own experience, and from speaking to many IAP members, I have concluded that the following points are the key to succeeding – or maybe even surviving – in business.

1.             Getting work when you need it

2.             Getting paid on time

3.             Avoiding tax and cash flow problems

Finding work: You have professional skills, and there are thousands of potential clients out there with problems that you might be able to solve for them. But how are they to know? You have to market your skills, and though this doesn’t come easily to many IT professionals who are happier dealing with PCs than with people, it has to be done. You can’t get off first base in business until you’ve found a customer and got some work.

There are agents whose business it is to find work for professionals like you. Some of them are very good. It is worth paying the agent’s commission if he can keep you working and avoid downtime. But ultimately it is far better to cultivate your own circle of clients. Chat up friends who work in big companies. If you get too much work you can always subcontract it. Never turn work away if you can avoid it – particularly if it comes from an existing client. That client, who might otherwise have stuck with you forever, may not come back. I cannot overemphasize the importance of marketing.

Getting paid: The reason for going into business is to make money. You have to get this bit right. The cornerstone of successful business is to have a clear contract with your client. A contract is an agreement between two parties, one to provide services and the other to pay for them. Verbal contracts are legal – but it is safer to commit the key points to paper or at least email. Contracts need not contain pages of legal jargon; an exchange of letters will usually do.

Contractors or consultants are normally employed to work on projects: parcels of work that finish when a certain target has been achieved. You may be asked to quote a price for the entire job, or the client may propose to pay you by the day until it is complete. The Lump Sum option is tempting – you feel that once you have signed the contract there’s nothing to prevent that large amount of money from hitting your bank account. But in my experience it is often difficult to agree when milestones for payment have been reached, or when the project can be considered complete, particularly with new IT systems where commissioning may be followed by a tail of bugs and problems. Often at this point the client realizes that the instructions he gave you at the outset were inadequate and he has not got what he was expecting. He wants you to change work you feel you have completed.

These problems can all be avoided if you work on a daily rate. The rate you charge will need to vary according to circumstances. For example a year’s contract in a comfortable office around the corner from your home would be very convenient, so it would be sensible to quote a keen rate to secure the job. Short-term work or jobs in very inconvenient places are much less attractive because you tend to get a lot of downtime when you are not earning. Rates have to allow for this, consequently they can substantially exceed £1,000 a day.

Clients are only interested in getting the job done. If you can convince them you understand what’s needed and can fix it, they will try to pay the rate you are asking. But sometimes clients are genuinely unable to pay that much. It is very important the discussion doesn’t end at that point – you want to keep the door open for negotiation. When the client asks how much you charge, instead of saying “£500 per day” you say “Well, taking into account everything we’ve discussed , in normal circumstances I would expect to charge around £500”. This gives the client the opportunity to say “Is there any give in that figure?”, then you say “Possibly – how much do you think you could pay?”

Your contract should also cover points such as where you will be working, working hours, who you will get your instructions from, any other entitlements such as holiday and sick pay. But most important is when and how you get paid. You may, for example, plan to invoice the client at the end of every month, for payment within 30 days. Find out who you should give the invoice to, who will authorize payment, and how the payment procedure works. Then if you don’t get paid on time you know how to follow it up. Don’t be afraid to discuss the arrangements for getting paid before you start the job. That way you avoid misunderstandings and nip problems in the bud.

Avoiding tax and cash flow problems: Suppose you get a contract worth £10,000 a month, and that you employ someone who will do the work for half as much. This could be a very profitable contract, but only if you can finance it in the short term. At the end of the first month you will have to find £5,000 to pay your employee’s salary. You can invoice your client for £10,000 but he won’t have to pay until the end of month two. By that time you will have had to find a second £5000 salary payment. Then if, as often happens in the real world, your client doesn’t actually pay in 30 days, or even 60 days, instead of making money you will find yourself slipping further and further into the red. What happens when you reach the limit of your overdraft? Don’t wait to find out; don’t work for people who don’t pay promptly.

This simplified scenario ignores factors such as administration costs, National Insurance, tax, VAT and bank interest, all of which create cash flow problems of their own. But it illustrates the essential point that before you take on work, no matter how profitable it might turn out to be, you must be sure you can handle the cash flow. That is why it is so important to have a clear understanding with your clients about prompt payment.

In real life there are costs to running any business, and until the cheques start coming in you will stack up a pile of liabilities. Some of your suppliers, being in business themselves, may have some sympathy if you are slow paying their invoices. If you explain the situation to them honestly, they may be willing to be patient for quite a long time. In reality there is not a lot else they can do. Starting legal proceedings costs money, and anyway they don’t want to lose a client. Unfortunately this does not apply with the Inland Revenue or the VAT man, who don’t care if you go broke. Being funded by the taxpayer, they can afford to pursue you to the ends of the earth, regardless of the time and money it wastes. So it is very important to comply with the laws governing business and to pay your tax bills promptly. Taxation can be complex, but members of the Institution can get free advice on tax and accounting matters over the telephone. This service is provided by a top firm of accountants.

Interested IAP members should call or email the Office (0208 567 2118 or admin@iap.org.uk) to be put in touch with our accountants. Free legal advice is also available in the same way.

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