Dave Chaplin is the CEO of ContractorCalculator.co.uk. He has lived and breathed contracting since becoming a professional contractor in 1997 and spent seven years working as an IT contractor in the City of London on critical, cutting edge IT infrastructure and development projects. Chaplin launched online advice and support resource for contractors and freelancers, ContractorCalculator.co.uk in 2004 and talks to inspiresme about his experiences.

Q: What inspired you to create ContractorCalculator.co.uk?

A: The initial catalyst was the proposed introduction of new tax legislation (called IR35) in November 1999 which sought to tax contractors as if they were employees. At the time I was an IT contractor and figured that other contractors would want to know the effect on their finances of the legislation. So I created the first ever “IR35 Tax Calculator” and released it on IR35Calc.co.uk. The scope of the site expanded over the years and was rebranded as ContractorCalculator.co.uk in 2004.

Q: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

A: Probably, but without knowing what that meant until I was much older. At school I started a record selling business and car washing business, amongst others. After graduating with an MSc aged 22 I was an employee for just three years before deciding to do my own thing and go contracting. I’m much happier as captain of my own ship and being in charge of my own professional destiny. That pretty much means I can’t have a boss!

Q: How did you fund the venture?

A: There was little initial investment required, other than buying a web space for a few hundred pounds. The main outlay was my time to do the website development. The site was a hobby site for a few years before I decided to turn it into a proper business.

For six months I worked eight hours a day for clients as an IT contractor, and another eight hours a day (including every weekend) on building the business. Then I quit contracting and had enough money saved to cover the first six months. It took two years before I was earning the same as contracting. It was hard graft for years, but the reward was worth it.

Q: What distinguishes ContractorCalculator from other online contractor/freelancer resources? What is its USP?

A: There are several differentiating features including our vast number of online calculators, high quality editorial content, independently audited traffic stats by ABC as well as the fact that our site drives more online traffic than any of our competitors, 156,346 unique users were recorded during our last audit in March 2012.

Q: How did you set about marketing the site?

A: Initially the site was marketed by word of mouth. Its uniqueness and demand for information meant that our audience spread the word.

In the longer term our philosophy has always been to write good copy and the audience will come, via Google and other search engines. About a quarter of our audience are returning visitors who bookmark the site.

Q: How do you think the employment landscape has changed for contractors during the economic downturn?

A: For some sectors it is harder to secure contracts and rates have dropped. Many banking contractors have had rate cuts of 10 percent to 20 percent enforced on them.

With cost effective alternatives becoming more easily available via global online 'skills matching' web sites it is even more important for local contractors to have business skills in addition to core technical skills.

The usual adage applies in tough economic times: “It’s not the best contractor for the role that gets hired, it’s the contractor that knows best how to secure the role that gets hired.” It’s more important than ever that contractors enhance their non-core skills in the areas of sales, marketing and negotiation.

Q: What were the three biggest challenges you faced when setting up the business and how did you overcome them?

  • Learning business skills: Sales, marketing, account management, accounting, financial planning and accounting. I read an awful lot of books, and learnt from many experiences along the way. In later years we hired consultants to help us on some processes.
  • Maintaining focus and drive: Working solitarily from a home office with no one else setting deadlines can result in drifting. From day one I set annual and quarterly targets across all areas of the business, and made sure I stuck to them. I’ve told myself off a few times!
  • Finding time: Regular monthly tasks for running a business increase as it grows, leaving little time for further growth based tasks. Typically a business will hire employees. Instead I became obsessed with process and automated anything and everything I could.
Q: How do you ensure you strike a reasonable work/life balance?

A: In the early years I was a workaholic and work pretty much came first. Now though, with a team on board, I can enjoy more free time. The main bonus is being able to work from any location, so I often spend time abroad, working in the mornings and taking the rest of the day off.

Q: If you could only give three pieces of advice to an entrepreneur currently starting a business, what would they be?
  • Focus on building a business based on simple processes so you can either automate with technology or bring in low salaried staff to take over the day to day tasks.
  • Set yourself annual/quarterly realistic measurable goals and targets and review each quarter.
Q: What plans do you have for the business going forward?

The second edition of our book, the Contractors’ Handbook is coming out in June 2012, which has expanded by 40 percent with new material to 626 pages.

We will continue to publish high quality news, guides and tax calculators to ensure we continue to earn our reputation as: “Your expert guide to contracting”.

There’s opportunity to leverage social networking more which we shall also be exploring this year.