People think that
the self-employed lifestyle is relaxed, that you have total control of your day
-- that's a myth. There's always risk, always exposure. You never know how
much longer you're going to be able to maintain independence.
Working as an independent contractor comes with its own burdens, of course,
and McClain is quick to dispel what he sees as prevalent misconceptions about
IPs. "People think that the self-employed lifestyle is relaxed, that you
have total control of your day -- that's a total myth. There's always risk, always
exposure. You never know how much longer you are going to be able to maintain
McClain is speaking somewhat theoretically, because these days he has plenty
of work and doesn't worry much about where his next job will come from. Indeed,
he actually spends time trying, politely, to defer overtime projects.
A single, on-going contract with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health
(which operates independently of the Federation) anchors McClain's business, accounting
for 40 percent of his yearly billable hours. (When McClain says 40 percent, his
calculations are based on a traditional 40-hour week and 52-week work year. This
amounts to 2080 billable hours per year: 40 X 52 = 2080.)
"I've had a retainer with the city of Philadelphia for nearly six years,"
he explains. "We agree I'm going to provide a certain number of hours and
they guarantee a certain amount of work. I give them a discounted rate and I avoid
marketing and other costs."
Most self-employed people McClain knows, however, work many more hours than
they bill for. "There's work that doesn't get billed but has to get done,"
he says, including marketing, accounting, and office work. "If you're billing
2080 hours a year, you're fully employed -- more than fully employed."
Judging from his schedule on a Monday in March, McClain isn't having any trouble
filling the rest of his billable hours.
In the morning, he attends a meeting in Rockville, Md., on an important piece
of health legislation. He leaves early for a conference of national AIDS-awareness
advocates in D.C. From there, he races to Union Station to catch the five-o'clock
Metroliner to Philadelphia -- he's got to meet with community volunteers there.
At 8:14 p.m., he departs Philadelphia for D.C.; at 11 p.m. he's home, but another
hectic day looms eight hours ahead.
Following His Nose
Success in business hasn't gone to McClain's head. He feels grateful to be
where he is, doing what he's doing. Long days and difficult clients are small
bother, he says, for a chance to do something that makes a difference.
"I'm an out gay man in a field that affects my community and many others,"
he says. "I feel personal satisfaction that I'm making a difference. I'm
really, really lucky."
Unfortunately, McClain has no simple way to explain the secret to achieving
fulfilling, financially remunerative self-employment. "Following my nose"
is the phrase he uses to describe the path to his success. "Coming into it
from the passion side, rather than the intellectual side."
Like many good things, McClain's success is a cocktail -- of skill, opportunity,
and resourcefulness. First, he has a set of versatile skills that includes grant
writing, facilitation, and long-range planning. Second, he applies these skills
to ends he cares about -- including AIDS education, research, and service. Third,
he knows the value of his own time.
One of the most ingenious ways that McClain maximizes his own time is by keeping
others out of it. When he can, for example, he works alone: "When you're
one person like me, it's not that hard to accommodate [variations in schedule],"
he says. "When you're working with colleagues or hiring people to work with
you, it can get more complicated.
"It's back to the myth of the self-employed, or 'not having a job.' I
have as many bosses as I have contracts at the moment. The clients all feel that
they are number one on my list." Of course, says McClain, "it's impossible
to have nine people as number one."
The trick is to make all clients feel as if they're the only client, and McClain
has mastered it. Anyone wishing to forge a working life without a permanent boss
-- anyone with more than one client, for that matter -- will want to know how
to do it, but the answer is elusive.
McClain's education and prior work experience didn't exactly point him towards
large, abstract public policy problem-solving. His undergraduate degree from the
University of Cincinnati was in art history, and for years he worked as an arts
administrator and curator before he began helping small businesses with fund-raising
and long-term planning. This dovetailed into the AIDS-related work he does now.
McClain says he's never felt handicapped by his lack of formal training in public
health policy. Expertise is what counts, he says: whether you get it in school
or on-the-job doesn't matter.
When you work for yourself, experience is often the best teacher, too. "There's
a lot to learn about the business of being in business," McClain says. "Even
if you get advice, you don't discover a lot of things until you make a mistake."
McClain's most painful mistake was failing to research Philadelphia's taxation
requirements for the self-employed. "The tax obligation for self-employed
people in Philadelphia is very bizarre," he says. "You pay your taxes
in advance [for the coming year]." Very few cities have this requirement
-- for that matter, most cities don't have a wage tax at all. "I didn't find
that out 'til the year was over," McClain continues. By the time he did,
he was already due to pay taxes for the coming year, as well as for the year past.
(So when people express sticker shock at his day rates, he reminds them that the
fee must cover all of his expenses, including vacation time, sick days, and overhead
-- things that employees take for granted, because they're covered by employers.)
Now he knows to look out for circumstances special to the self-employed, and says
he stumbles upon them all the time.
On occasion, McClain daydreams about the security of life within the cubicle
kingdom. "Sometimes I wish I had just a regular job so I only had to negotiate
with one person," he allows. "I would have more free time if I worked
a 9-to-5 day."
But it's a fleeting dream.
"Any job in the world has a set range of expectations and responsibilities.
I know that some day I would just become bored. I prefer multiple issues, problems,
tasks, simultaneously. To me, that's a rich work life."