How to be a freelance outdoor instructor

by Stephan Natynczuk, My Big Adventure CIC

The idea of being freelance is very attractive for many outdoor enthusiasts, especially new ones to the industry, fresh from college or a fast track instructor scheme.  The attraction is often overwhelmingly romantic, a bohemian existence working here and there, having lots of fun and having lots of free time to pursue your own adventures and interests, along with being your own boss, doing what you like when you like.  There is no doubt that being freelance is a life style choice and some instructors do make a reasonable living being self-employed.  The reality is that it is not easy and many aspirant freelancers fall by the wayside and even leave the industry because they cannot earn enough money.  Make no doubt working freelance, as an outdoor instructor, is not an easy way to get rich.  It is hard work; risky, especially in terms of relationships and can be financially crippling, uncertain, you need to be focused, determined to succeed, strong, self-reliant, mentally tough, and good enough at many tasks. It is beginning to sound like an arduous expedition.  Being like an expedition is, I think, a great metaphor for the journey to become a successful freelancer. Certainly one’s achievement is a function of preparation, knowledge, tenacity, endurance, and recognising good fortune when it comes your way, as well as having a good map, as you don’t want to go into the unknown totally unprepared do you?  Knowing where you are going and how to get there is crucial so you will need a business plan.  If all this sounds too much try for a job at county outdoor centre, paid by a local council as a public servant so you will get a regular wage and perhaps a pension.

Where to start?

As soon as you decide to become self-employed is probably the moment to take a deep breath.  In the UK you need to tell the Inland Revenue that you are now self employed and register to pay your own national insurance and self-assessment tax returns.  The rules about when you are self-employed or an employee must be understood too.  It is important to understand that it is the business relationship you have with whomever pays that is critical.  You can be self-employed with some clients and employed elsewhere at the same time.  The Revenue want their tax and whether it is you or another business who pays comes down to a number of considerations like how much independence you have to get the work done, what major items of kit you supply yourself, whether you can send someone else if you cannot turn up, and how much financial risk you personally take in doing the work.  There is a test you can do on the HMRC website and keep the result and reference number as HMRC say they will stand by the result you get from their test.  Not doing exercises like this can land you in lots of financial trouble paying back taxes and bring down heaps of hassle.

Keep Accounts

It follows that your record keeping for tax purposes has to be good and you should keep all those receipts, invoices, and accounts books for at least six years.  When setting up your accounts system you need to be organised.  Use the same headings for expenses as the revenue use on their self-assessment forms.  It saves time at the end of your tax year when you submit your return.  If you are likely to bring in more than £15 000 consider getting an accountant to do your return for you.  At this income level you are beginning to do well and are probably able to pay your bills on time and are making a living.  Having proper accounts looks good at the bank should you need a loan for a trailer full of canoes and kayaks, a shed full of wellies and caving suits, a collection of crampons and axes, or to negotiate an overdraft on your business account.

Financial Planning

Financial planning is so very important.  Definitely learn to budget and save like crazy as there will be lean times and invariably your public liability insurance will need to be renewed just as you empty your current account.  Cash flow can be a big problem and can ruin a big business just as easily as a one-person company.  Stay on top of invoicing and make sure you do get paid on time.  Agreeing on when you will get paid when you take on a job is often overlooked by freelancers and this can result in waiting months for the money.  Having an understanding with a client extends far beyond when you get paid. There are many expectations that have to be agreed by all parties and make sure this is done before the work starts.  Take a look at a selection of terms and conditions from other providers.  Having good and simple to understand terms and conditions will not only make you look professional it is professional. There should be no misunderstandings about what your clients expect from you and what you expect from them.  Make sure you keep to your side of the bargain and do a good job.  Happy clients will come back and at the very least tell their friends what a great time they had and there is no better advertising than that.

Reputation is everything. 

Professionally you need to be up-to-date with best practice to keep it all safe and sound.  Do not ignore your ongoing professional development.  Best you are accredited, associated, licensed if working with under 18 year olds, insured, ethical, CRB checked, have good and appropriate venues, provide the right kit for the right job and for the right person, know how to talk to a wide range of people, be polite, listen properly, be interesting to talk to and personally engaging at all levels.  Be aware that you can blow everything with a choice inappropriate comment or putting something stupid on social media.  Employers and clients will look you up and not just on your website.  Some businesses will check your ratings on eBay to see whether they want to trade with you.  Your online reputation is as crucial to your brand as messing up in front of a group.

What will be your brand? 

What is your USP?  Why should you get the work and not the other guy?  Are you reliable?  Do you have a good reputation?  It is competitive out there and giving good value with clients’ experiences foremost in your mind is not to be underestimated or ignored.  Remember whose adventure it is when you take out those apprehensive, excited, eager clients.  At the start of your career you might only have a starter selection of NGB awards, level 1 or 2 BCU coach, local cave leader level 1, CWA or perhaps SPA, a BEL or ML summer training, and do not neglect your first-aid training.  Well everyone has to start somewhere and a good selection of awards makes you attractive to employ at centres and companies running multi-activity taster sessions.  They do not have to pay you much either, though having a PGCE might get you a better day rate.  Remember those sorts of basic awards are meant for situations where you are supervised by someone with a CIC, MIA, MIC, a higher BCU coaching award and appropriate endorsements and are not meant to enable you to instruct, train, assess or go off to remote places.

Career Plan 

A career plan is necessary.  Choose one of those activities you do best at, enjoy most, can easily do in terms of travel and invest in getting one of those senior tickets so you can eventually train, assess and guide in remote places.  Higher-level tickets open many doors.  Meanwhile there is nothing to stop you bringing in higher coaches and people with Instructor Certificates to run more enterprising activities and you can get some invaluable experience working with them as well as spreading your network.  While you are at it, develop a special interest to bolster your USP such as botany, local history, animal tracking, bird recognition, photography, water-colours or geology: there is so much to choose from and it all makes you more interesting to be with whilst perhaps opening a new market and client base.

Be sustainable

Stay freelance by ensuring your business is sustainable.  This is when the hard graft starts.  Not only have you got to be out there running sessions and you might be away for days or even weeks, you have to stay on top of the admin and be looking out for your next job.  If you are able to get bookings in advance and have collected the deposits you can confidently take time out for training and for your own adventures.  Costs have to be kept low and remember you only pay tax on your profits.  You should expect to do a lot of driving and fuel is a major cost.  Get yourself a cheap to run and reliable vehicle that ideally you can sleep in with all your gear stowed away.  A van converted for sleeping in is ideal for working away from home and is a cheap base for your own adventures.  Make sure you do have your own adventures in all the activities you have tickets for.  It is all too easy to let your personal skill base lapse, and there are plenty of climbing supervisors out there who cannot lead severe routes anymore.  So keep filling in your logbooks and ensure you still have stories to tell, as some companies will insist on seeing your logbooks and certificates before using you.

Being a freelancer is a great thing to do though make sure you know the pitfalls, so network with other freelancers and get and stay organised with the admin so that it does not become too much of a chore.  Little and often is the key.  Just 15 minutes a day saves you about a day’s work a month and who would rather spend a day at a desk doing paperwork than being outside?

Stephan Natynczuk has been a freelance instructor as well as an employer of outdoor adventurers for over 20 years.  Stephan is the founding director of My Big Adventure CIC, a leading provider of therapeutic adventures and practitioner training. or find us on FaceBook.