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How this corporate high-flyer left her six-figure job

Fiona Hamann turned her back on her corporate career and now runs her communications consultancy from her home office. Photo: Getty

Tired of the corporate rat race?

After 27 years handling public relations and corporate affairs for the likes of Coca Cola, Seven Network and Aussie Home Loans, Fiona Hamann had enough.

The Blue Mountains-based mother of two turned her back on full-time work and joined the burgeoning gig economy that’s been luring away more and more nine-to-fivers.

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And it’s a growing trend for highly experienced corporates to pack in secure salaries  often upwards of $200,000  and use their decades of experience to run their own show.

What Hamann lost in income in the early days she made back tenfold in time, flexibility, variety, and choice. She’s won back time with her family, and it’s freed her up to do things she loves like saving wildlife around her home at the foot of the Blue Mountains.

But she’s not kicking back and taking it easy; in fact, Hamann thrives on a faster work pace, something she’s now able to set for herself with her own communications consultancy Hamann Communication.

Yahoo Finance spoke to Hamann to find out about the straw that broke the camel’s back, taking the plunge to leave the corporate world and enter the new gig economy life.

What was your ‘aha’ moment? How did you come to realise you wanted to chuck it all in?

I was spending around four hours a day travelling. I spent years packed like a sardine into a train to travel two hours each way into the city from my home near the Blue Mountains. It was that, or pay $40 each way to be stuck in traffic driving, not counting petrol and parking.

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Coupled with that, when I went to work there was very little to do, and it was super quiet – ‘tumbleweed’ quiet. Many employees loved the fact they weren’t stretched too much. I resented spending four hours on public transport or in a traffic jam to waste my day doing nothing.

One day it just clicked. I did my sums and gave my notice.

You left a comfortable job and leapt into the unknown world of consulting. Where did you start? How did you build your client base?

I get a the majority of my clients via word of mouth recommendations, but to remain successful, I don’t want to rely on word of mouth alone for new business leads.

A friend told me about Commtract [an online marketplace platform for freelancers and consultants in the communications industry] before it launched. I signed up straight away as the concept was simple and I could manage the whole process remotely. I secured two interesting start-up clients almost immediately.

Freelancers and consultants enjoy the freedom of choosing their own projects and pay rates. Photo: Getty
How do these freelance platforms actually work?

As a consultant on Commtract, I receive multiple opportunities directly to my inbox across a variety of sectors, that I may not otherwise have had the chance to know about. Some of the projects listed are quite large (eg: may be longer term retainers, or large government clients), and some are quick one-off jobs.

The Commtract platform and process are straightforward. If I am interested in a role, I simply send a cover letter/pitch with my fees and availability, and if shortlisted will chat directly with the client about their requirements.

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All work contracts are arranged directly with the client, but my invoices are sent to Commtract. Commtract adds its commission at that point. There is no cost to me to access the new projects.

As such a small fish in a big pond, how do you fight through the competition? Aren’t big firms more inclined to engage with established agencies rather than one-man-band consultants?

Clients can benefit by using these online marketplace platforms because many of the consultants on the platform are very senior people in the industry with extensive corporate or agency experience. For example, I headed or managed corporate affairs at Seven Network, Aussie, Coca-Cola South Pacific and Reader’s Digest APAC before setting up my own business.

However, without the large agency overheads, we don’t charge the large agency prices. In other words, we can be more price competitive without compromising the quality of deliverables.

My rates are definitely in line with the industry standard, and in line with my previous earnings as a salaried employee, so are realistic in the market.

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However, I don’t have business costs around office rental, staff salaries, and so forth. I imagine this is true of many freelancers and consultants, so the marketplace platform’s commission on top of our rates is still economical for clients.

There really isn’t any need to to be chained to an office as a salaried employee these days. Commtract is one of many innovative platforms that make working in the gig economy really quite a simple transition.

A regular secure salary is probably the one thing holding most people back from making the plunge. Did you have to take a pay cut when you left your job to become a consultant?

Unless you have ready-made clients, or are incredibly lucky to secure new clients on day one of freelance life, you will take a pay cut.

I am not quite yet at my previous salary, but have grown significantly year on year (by that I mean have doubled annual income year-on-year a few times).

I had to build up from a zero base. My first year freelancing earned me a mere $24,000, but by learning from others I have grown my business enormously and have had some fantastic clients, including a couple of multi-national household names.

The biggest mistake I made in the first year was undervaluing myself, and charging out at a stupidly low hourly rate.

I think if I had charged at market rates, the first year’s income would have been very different.

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Was it worth it? What does a day at work look like for you now?

The biggest change is the complete removal of any city/metro lifestyle. Life is cheaper now that I don’t have to pay for public transport, motorway tolls, fancy office attire and expensive city lunches. So the shortfall in income is offset by reduced expenses. I am paying myself above average superannuation now as well. Wherever possible I also conduct all client meetings via teleconference.

The resultant lack of metro lifestyle also means I no longer have a clue what is appropriate office attire!

But I am also quite rigid with how I manage my day – I would never wear my pyjamas into my home office, and I start and finish in business hours.

The downside of freelancing is that some months will be leaner than others (and perhaps you may not have a pipeline of work lined up) which can be stressful, especially where you may have been used to a regular salary. And no socialising at lunchtime – that bit is another negative of freelance life.

With no commute, I get more time to spend with the family or go to pilates and have some “me” time. I now have the opportunity to rescue wildlife, which I love, and to be my own boss, and work at the pace I like (fast and varied) and on clients and industries I enjoy.

The Blue Mountains’ Three Sisters at sunrise. Kurrajong, NSW is a small town that sits on the lower slopes of the Blue Mountains. Photo: Getty
What are three pieces of advice you would offer to those considering making the jump?

Where to start with this one? I have so much advice (whether you want it or not)!

  • Set yourself up correctly. That includes setting your hourly rate realistically – factor in superannuation, office running costs, holidays, sick leave and business expenses. Set up a good accounting system and set yourself some goals. (I recommend Rounded.com.au for sole traders – it is simple and very affordable).
  • Have a solid contract drafted. I now have a Statement of Work (contract) that I give all new clients which includes payment terms, deliverables, rates, intellectual property rights. It means we are all on the same page and all parties have recourse if the project doesn’t go to plan. Look at freelance groups in your industry for guidance on what to include in yours.
  • Back yourself. That means making sure you have the right equipment for the job. Equipment and software may cost a lot but will help you provide an efficient product or service and be able to scale up when the time comes.

If you believe in yourself, it will all be worthwhile.

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