The dos and don’ts of freelancing in the UAE

As more people eschew corporate structure for freelance flexibility, we ask those in the know how to succeed on your own

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There is no limit to jobs you can freelance in – from creative writing and marketing to personal training and business consultancy. In a modern working environment, having control over your hours and workload seems to be more appealing than ever.

However, that control comes at a cost, and that is often late payments and heavy start-up fees. We speak to freelancers across industries to find out their top dos and don'ts for pursuing this mode of career in the UAE.

Do: get officially licensed

"The initial investment is a challenge for freelancers in terms of being legally registered. It comes at a cost, but the payoff is great because you can get the correct insurance, so that you are covered if anything goes wrong in a job," says Nadim Jamal, managing director of Event Lab, a ­provider of freelance and events staff.

There are many licensing ­solutions in the UAE – from Virtuzone to Twofour54 – so "shopping around" is important, says freelance news correspondent Rosanna Lockwood. "Getting licensed is not a cheap or an easy thing to do but, as a result, it sorts the serious freelancers from the rest," she says. This is a sentiment echoed by Kelly Harvarde, founder of KHPR. "I knew that I wanted to be a professional, licensed business, so I planned for the costs from the outset. Still, there's no doubt about it, setting up your own business here is not for the faint-­hearted. There are licence fees, visa costs and health insurance, not to mention myriad day-to-day costs and overheads. It's a significant undertaking, and it can be galling when you see people ­working illegally."

Don’t: be afraid to ask for a down payment

Payment seems to be the most pressing preoccupation for freelancers. Chasing after the money owed to you, months after a job is completed, seems to be a frequent ­experience in the world of the self-employed.

"I've always been paid for the jobs I've done, touch wood, but payments are more than likely late. The longest I had to wait to get paid for a job was six months," a freelance fashion stylist says of her experience working in the UAE. Another adds that the biggest challenge she faced as a writer was clients "who like your work enough to commission you, but not enough to pay your invoice. Don't be afraid to blacklist people who ­suddenly decide not to pay you. ­Requesting a deposit upfront also helps weed out the fiscally challenged." This is something that's easier once you've established a reputation of being a reliable freelancer.

Not all experiences have been bad, however. Harvarde adds, “As a professional, licensed freelancer, I have specific payments terms and cycles, which are agreed upon with clients at the outset of any campaign or project. I haven’t faced any [non-payment] issues so far.”

Companies such as Event Lab ­provide solutions to those worried about late payment. They connect freelancers to clients, and handle payment, irrespective of their own invoicing, Jamal says. “Event Lab is the facilitator; we find the right ­freelancer for the right job on time,” he explains. “When a freelancer does the job, the money is ensured irrespective of when Event Lab gets paid. Freelancers love us because they aren’t the single individual chasing a client for money.”

Do: find a working environment that works for you

What constitutes a constructive work environment is different for everyone. For some, the biggest perk of freelancing is a day spent without leaving the house; for others a structure and an office space is a must.

"I usually work from my clients' offices – whether that's individual brands or within PR agencies, Harvarde says. "I find that that it's the best way to truly ­understand a business, and I love being immersed in a team ­environment. We learn so much from being around others – their energy and experience is motivating and inspiring."

That isn't an option for everyone ­however, and many freelancers opt for local cafes, or prefer to work from home, from an in-house office or on the couch. One top tip from a freelance PR manager is "keeping your ­workspace separate from the rest of your living space, so you don't bring your work home with you".

Don’t: bow to pressure to put in extra hours

Being your own boss can be a blessing and a curse. Yes, you can be the most flexible manager you’ll ever have, but you can also be your hardest taskmaster. “If you are doing most of your work from home, make sure you allow time for exercise in the morning or evening, and take a proper break away from your desk at lunchtime,” Lockwood says of creating a healthy working environment. “When you are not in an office surrounded by other people, it can be easy to lose track of time and spend too long staring at a screen.”

"When you are not in an office surrounded by other people, it can be easy to lose track of time and spend too long staring at a screen."

Another freelancer, an editor, finds it useful to "incentivise" breaks. ­"Decide what time you're putting down your pen / laptop, etc, and stick to it. If you absolutely have to go over this set number of hours, pay yourself 'overtime' – a little treat to thank yourself for ­putting in the effort."

Do: enjoy the flexibility

“I worked in PR agencies for almost 20 years before I went freelance. I love agency life, but it can be rigid and inflexible when it comes to ­timings. The long hours didn’t faze me, but I did want to fragment that time so I could engage in family life while still working and ­delivering for clients,” Harvarde says of her ­working hours.

“Freelancing allows me to do this. I’m at a desk at 7.45am each day after the school run, and my clients understand that for one hour each evening I might be switched off when I put my daughter to bed.”

Don’t: forget to keep on top of your cash flow

With no regular monthly wage ­system "there will be on and off seasons", Jamal explains. "­Freelancers need to make sure they have enough work and money to sustain themselves throughout the year. Planning is essential."

This is more key than ever since VAT was introduced in the UAE. "Even if you don't meet the ­required minimum turnover threshold to ­register for VAT, it is vital that you keep proper financial accounts in case you are required to show them to the Federal Tax ­Authority," ­Lockwood says. "It is also a good idea to get your ­finances in good order anyway, because it will help you to track how much you are earning, and spot any invoices you need to chase up."