business strategy for contractors

A 2020 business survival strategy for contractors 

How contractors can navigate these challenging times 

These are extremely tough times – Coronavirus and IR35 reform are just two of the significant challenges to affect contractors currently. Although, there was some moderately good news when the Government announced the postponement of IR35 reform to 2021, which at least gives the contracting community more time to put its case forward. 

But as business owners, we need to strategise a way through these murky waters. Nobody is going to do it for us, and whether it’s just you and your contracting business or me and my troupe of 29 people relying on us for a wage, we all have to take positive action. 

Some inspiration for contractors

Someone sent me a meme recently with a quote that I always find inspiration in. It reads: “Worry is a complete waste of time. It doesn’t change anything. All it does is steal your joy and keeps you busy doing nothing.” 

I also saw a quote from Nigel Botterill yesterday. He was delivering a webinar on how businesses can survive the upcoming months of uncertainty and a likely recession – he put on screen the following: “Doing business without marketing is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you’re doing but nobody else does.”

The point is, worrying and doing nothing will achieve nothing. Getting out there and marketing your company and its services might. So, what can you do to take positive action?

Contract or permanent?

The first decision will, of course, revolve around your long-term future. Are you going to make hay in the contract market while you still can? Are you going to forge a niche for yourself in the post-IR35 reform world? Or are you going to explore the permanent jobs market? There’s no right or wrong, but there are different tactics depending on what you decide. 

To give you an insight into the challenges faced when securing a permanent job, I recently interviewed a Director of one of the UK’s leading recruitment businesses and these were his thoughts when I asked him about contractors looking for permanent jobs: 

“We have lots of contractors coming onto the market and the overriding feeling is that most of them are begrudgingly looking for a permanent role because of IR35. This doesn’t create a positive impression. Most have an over-inflated view of what they should be getting paid and their experience is often at a level below the perm opportunities they are looking at. On the other hand, if they do have good experience, are a genuinely good candidate with realistic salary expectations, they are placeable. They do need a good story about why they are seeking a permanent role though, and as a recruiter, I would want to make sure they are able to positively get across their career goals in an interview before I would feel comfortable putting them in front of a client.”

So, there you have it from the horse’s mouth. Pretty hard-hitting stuff, but I thought it would be useful to show you the mindset of your target audience should you go down the permanent job route.

If you do want to explore permanent opportunities, you also need to make sure your CV is written in a way that appeals to a permanent recruiter. I wrote an article about this recently, which is worth a read if you’re considering permanent employment.

The key take-aways for contractors thinking about going employed are:

  • Write your CV in a way that appeals to a permanent recruiter
  • Be realistic about salary and role
  • Be enthusiastic about the permanent market
  • Justify your career goals in an interview

If you’re keen to remain a contractor then it’s very much carry on as you are. However, the market will become more competitive and the way that you promote yourself is going to change when IR35 reform finally arrives. This is going to affect your winning work strategy, your CV and your LinkedIn profile. 

I’ll tackle these points now…

Your contractor marketing collateral

When I talk about marketing collateral, I mean CVs, LinkedIn and possibly your website. Many contractors write their CV as if they are a job seeker instead of portraying themselves as a business. If you’re interested, I also wrote an article focusing on eight things you can do to promote an outside-IR35 status through your CV – take a read of it here.

With regards to marketing yourself, there’s an argument for producing a portfolio-based CV that replaces the Career History section of a chronological CV with a portfolio of client engagements in a case study format. This is what we call the ‘case study style CV’, which may become extremely useful from April 2021 onwards. The format of your CV is a detailed topic that I’ll discuss in more depth in the upcoming Contractor Weekly webinar on April 1st, which you can register for here.

Marketing and lockdown

Going back to what Nigel Botterill said: “Doing business without marketing is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you’re doing but nobody else does.” My point is, to generate business, you need to do some marketing. Yes, the world might be on pause, but that will hopefully end soon and when it does it will be the collateral you have created (whether it’s your CV or LinkedIn profile) and the relationships you have built that will get you back in the game when normality resumes. 

My advice is to use the next few weeks (or months) to create a super-effective CV and LinkedIn profile and start marketing yourself. Many contractors solely rely on recruiters to find work, however, these unprecedented times provide an opportunity to invest in developing a much deeper and future proof strategy – one that centres on business development and networking. LinkedIn will become your key tool for this.

Getting yourself a LinkedIn Business Premium or Sales Navigator account is worth looking into. This allows you to run sophisticated searches on your target audience, connect with them and build relationships. And despite what many people think, LinkedIn can be used for sales (that’s why it has a platform called Sales Navigator), you just need to know how to do it properly with the right etiquette. If you can identify decision makers, connect with them, build a relationship and eventually have a meaningful conversation, you can position yourself to get the gig the next time your skills and experience are in demand. 

As touched on earlier, I’ll cover all of the above and more in an upcoming free webinar.  In the meantime, keep safe and well.

Matt Craven is the Founder of The CV & Interview Advisors, experts in personal branding and winning-work in the contract market.

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