Freelance Work in Russia
Cash Economy Is Ideal For Freelancers
Russia ’s cash economy provides an ideal environment for freelancing. Local markets across the country have openings for industrious foreign freelancers. And thanks to new trends in global business, opportunities for working in Russia are no longer limited to dealing with local clients.
The low cost of skilled Russian labor makes it a challenge to find areas where the expense of hiring a foreigner can be justified. Most opportunities involve languages and culture.
Services outsourcing is an expanding global market, and Russia is a major contender in this software field. Offshore software development companies require their staff to be fluent in English and other languages.
Customer service is vital to these businesses, as is cultural awareness. Russian standards of customer service are very different from those expected in the West. Telephone manners are discourteously abrupt; information is rarely volunteered; and it is common to be cut off without warning after making an enquiry that the telephonist cannot deal with.
Such issues are common to all businesses with foreign clients. There is considerable potential for freelancers to provide training in Western-style business practices.
Outsourcing is becoming common practice. The service sector is growing and businesses are finding it more economical to subcontract than to hire and train full-time employees.
Many outsourced tasks can be carried out via the Internet. Writing website content, dealing with email enquiries — even graphic design and programming are outsourcable.
Based in Russia, you can be a competitive outsourced worker yourself. E-commuting, telecommuting, and the concept of the virtual office are real and becoming more popular all the time. If you can work from home in your own country, you can do it in Russia with lower overheads.
Internet availability in Russia is good and improving. Low-speed connections (28 to 56kb/s) using domestic lines cost around 30 cents per hour, and ADSL in St. Petersburg (www.webplus.ru) costs from $27 per month. Cable internet is also increasingly available. International phone cards can be bought from $5, giving approximately two hours of calling time. Using Skype (www.skype.com) makes phone calls cheaper still.
Many freelancing forums and employment sites on the internet advertise assignments that can be done via the Internet. Be careful to avoid the multitude of homeworking scams that make ridiculous promises of huge incomes for no work. Use your intuition when taking on a task over the Internet.
If you don’t trust something entirely, it’s safer to look elsewhere. Losing time and money in your home country can be bad, but in Russia it can be disastrous if you don’t have a reserve of cash to fall back on.
Diversify or Specialise?
Finding a single niche that will provide enough work to support you may be difficult. Having a repertoire of skills that can be adapted to suit opportunities as they arise is useful for freelancing, although a jack-of-all-trades approach may not always bring the best results. Specialising within your skills range can help you to command higher fees.
If you can teach languages, translate, and write, consider combining these abilities with other skills. You could advertise as a tutor, translator, editor and writer specialising in the fields of your professional or educational background. Your services will be more attractive to clients working in your sphere than those of a catch-all agency.
Russia ’s new middle class is famous for extravagance and oneupmanship. Knowledge of trendy subjects such as landscaping, interior design and even Feng Shui can be very profitable. The noveaux riches are always keen to tell neighbors exactly who they employed, how much it cost and how exclusive the service was. Even au pairs and childminders may be paid more than $1,000 per month. Childcare experience is essential, and opportunities are largely exclusive to women.
The ideal strategy for success in freelancing is to offer a service that you enjoy doing and know you can do well. Think hard about which of your existing skills could be best applied or adapted to suit the target environment and focus on how to market them.
Advertising Freelance Services
Promoting your services to Russian clients requires careful thought. Foreigners require a permit to work in the Russian Federation. Permits can only be applied for by a business with Ministry of Internal Affairs permission to employ foreign nationals.
A work permit only allows you to work for the business that acquired it for you. (Note that having a Russian businessvisa is not the same as having a work permit (www.waytorussia.net/RussianVisa/Types.html).
Thus freelancing is largely illegal for foreigners. While drawing attention to your services, you must also be mindful of whose attention you are drawing.
Most private language teachers advertise their lessons in the local press and on notice boards around town with impunity. The fact that many ads appear in the same place year after year probably means that the authorities turn a blind eye to such small-scale enterprise. Occasional rumors of entrapment and dawn raids by tax authorities are most likely spread maliciously by schools or other teachers to drive competition underground.
Advertising in local newspapers can be effective for services targeted at private individuals; for example general language lessons or personal translations. Try specialist publications for a more targeted audience. There are plenty of journals serving all professional fields.
A simple website can be an excellent marketing tool. Many free internet hosts can be accessed from Russia. Creating a website adds an extra dimension to your marketing reach. Not only can you display large amounts of information at little or no cost, you can advertise cheaply on other websites or in search engines’ “sponsored results” sections.
Working with Russian Businesses
If you are offering higher-value services to businesses, exercise discretion in your marketing tactics. Word of mouth is a good, safe solution — almost everyone you deal with will come across someone needing similar services at some point. Offering an incentive for referrals can be a great way to get words out of mouths.
Finding your first few clients will be the hardest part. Identify businesses that might need your services, approach them directly, and be confident. Email is largely futile, as few companies ever respond to unsolicited messages. Cold calling is essential. Be persuasive and make sure you always get past the receptionist. If you are asked to send an email with more information, always follow up with another call to check that it has been received. Ask when a decision will be made and arrange a meeting if appropriate.
When getting started, you might try offering a discount or barter of services in exchange for a mention on the prospect’s website: for example, “spellchecked by www.yoursite.com.” Businesses keep a close eye on their competitors’ websites. A great way to get Russians interested in you is to make them think you are denying them a competitive advantage that you are giving someone else.
Get to know your clients: socialise and network. Look for places or events that would attract the kind of people who might need your services — trade fairs, conferences, etc. Be bold, introduce yourself to some people, start conversations and casually mention what you do. You may be surprised how many leads you will pick up. Print good quality business cards. Russians love them, and they give a more professional impression than an email address scrawled on a supermarket receipt.
While the cash economy makes freelancing easier, it also limits the market geographically. Checking accounts are unheard of, and electronic money transfer is complicated. Dealing with businesses in other cities can be uneconomical if you have to travel to collect payment. Registering a company and opening a business banking account in Russia is one solution, but it entails overheads and exposure to tax authorities.
Russian businesses are adept at delaying payments or not paying at all. Keeping track of bank transfers can be time consuming for a sole trader. The legal system offers little protection, and taking small claims to court can lead to further losses. An illegal foreign freelancer doesn’t have the option of going to court if a client decides to withhold payment. Even a contract or written agreement will be worthless if you are working illegitimately.
The Freelancing Alternative: Foreign-Owned Small Businesses
In 2005 Edward Thompson set up a simple delivery service for people who want to send flowers to Saint Petersburg (www.topetersburgwithlove.com). With a very basic website and minimal advertising he was quickly able to build up a successful business in spite of strong and well-established competition.
Since Edward’s company is registered in the U.K. and payments are taken online, it neatly sidesteps Russia’s complicated business legislation.
Mike Sherman’s school, American Language Master (www.americanlanguagemaster.com), is one of very few independent foreign-owned language schools in Russia. Despite the difficulties of officially registering and opening the school, Mike persevered and now competes with the St. Petersburg branch of English First.
Princeton graduate Lindy Comstock imports equestrian goods from the US for resale in Russia.
All three still rely on teaching English for at least a portion of their income.
Abandoning a stable job to work alone as a freelancer in a foreign country can be very stressful. Not knowing who you will work for tomorrow is sometimes liberating but it can also lead to moments of despair. Working from home removes the need for daily commuting, but many grow to miss the atmosphere and camaraderie of the workplace.
Discipline is vital for successful freelancing, and using idle time wisely is essential. If you don’t have a steady flow of orders or enquiries about your services, think: do you need more? It’s better to turn down a few assignments than to have to clutch at every lead you get.
Unless you are making more money than you need, spend all waiting time gainfully. Polish up your literature, if you have any. Update your website. Think of ways to reach new customers, think of new services you can offer, or how to add value to your existing services.
Without the motivation of the office environment, focussing on work demands extra effort. Maintain a routine with working hours, breaks, and days off. Set realistic targets for earnings. Calculate how much you need to make each month to break even and how much you need for a comfortable living. Keep careful track of your income and expenditures, both personal and business.
Freelancing doesn’t deserve any romantic associations of carefree flitting from one assignment to another. While it does allow some freedom of lifestyle and control over income, it is very hard work. As a freelancer you are not only your own boss but also your own workforce. Be prepared to work at least as hard as in full-time employment.
Freelancing in Russia offers a wealth of opportunities, both locally and globally. Finding and exploiting these opportunities takes time, patience, and hard work. Always have a backup plan in case your freelancing venture doesn’t work out.