Jobs & Careers, September 2004
In the age of electronic information technology, theoretically many people can now work for clients and companies located on the other side of the globe. CIAN MOLLOY looks at the practical issues surrounding international trade for home workers.
The same IT technology that allows home office working, also allows you to work for clients that are based overseas.
A whole range of e-lancers - journalists, computer programmers and designers - are finding that email and the internet can extend their reach to provide them with a global market.
"Email makes it all very easy for me to serve clients in the UK and Europe," says journalist Ann Marie Foley, who specialises in writing about the Irish food industry.
"In the bad old days, I would have to write my stories at least a week in advance and then use Swiftpost, which is fairly expensive, to get my copy to clients. Now everything I write is sent at the touch of a button and at the price of a local call.
"Generally, I find that in Ireland the market for freelancing is quite small and everyone is paying roughly the same poor rates - but markets abroad are bigger and generally pay better. Getting paid in Sterling is great at the moment, because of the exchange rate, but a few years ago it was the other way around. On reflection, I would say currency fluctuations balance out in the long run."
The main reason why overseas companies hire Irish journalists is that they are best suited to report on Irish issues, says Foley. If you are going to write on a particular subject matter without a specific Irish connection, you will either have to have a specialised knowledge of international standing about your subject or you will need to have built up a very strong reputation for the quality of your writing style.
"The reason I get asked to write about the Irish food industry for European publications is that I am on the spot, I am physically in a better position to go and find the necessary information, do the interviews here and/or visit local exhibitions and trade fares. Being a local stringer and 'on the spot' is very saleable expertise."
Those who have worked as home-based freelance journalist for many years will tell you that there are two key tactics to ensuring financial well-being: find a specialist niche and become an expert in a particular area or industry so that you become an automatic choice for writing on a particular topic and try to sell on your articles to different publications or news organisations. For example, in addition to writing about teleworking, one of my chief specialisations is writing about Church affairs and, sometimes, when I am lucky I can sell the same news story or feature to as many as five different clients!
"You can use the same research again and again in a variety of articles for publications in different countries," says Foley. "I do find that each client has different requirement, depending on their readership, so each time an article is resold it does require a bit of a rewrite."
The biggest problem with overseas clients is that should difficulties arise between you, they may be more difficult to overcome because of the distance between you. This is particularly true of clients that prove to be bad payers. For this reason, Pat Delaney of the Small Firms Association recommends that you "do your homework carefully", before giving an overseas client credit.
"A credit check with an agency like Dun & Bradstreet will cost you about Euro 60 and will be the best money that you spend. The check will tell you what the clients payments record is like, how good their credit is and will provide an estimate as to their overall financial viability.
"If you are being commissioned to do bespoke work, say a once-off piece of design, always ask for a deposit in advance. As well as giving you some protection, paying a deposit will increase your client's commitment to you.
"That said, don't look at distance as a problem. It isn't and you should manage the business relationship with your overseas clients on the same basis as you manage the relationship with those clients who are physically closest to you. Always deliver on your promises and try to add value to the relationship."
One source of information about overseas companies that is available, free-of-charge, to all Irish businesses is the services of trade attaches at Irish embassies in foreign countries.
"An Irish trade attache won't be able to do a credit check for you," says Delaney. "But he or she should be able to provide you with a certain amount of information about the bona fides of the company you are proposing to do business with."
However, should you run into difficulties, remember that most Irish debt collection agencies have partnership agreements with debt collectors in other countries - so if needed, you can turn the screws to some extent.
Finding overseas clients
By their very nature overseas clients are hard to find, because they are not close at hand. Indeed, many journalists working for overseas clients start the relationship when the client comes looking for them or for someone who fits their particular category. Occasionally, requests from overseas publishers, particularly those in the UK, come via enquiries made to the National Union of Journalists office in Dublin, where there is a directory of freelance journalists and photographers working in Ireland.
Similarly, for those elancers working in other sectors, it is well worth registering with a trade organisation that offers a membership directory to potential clients. For example, budding artists should contact the Arts Council for help on marketing their work overseas. Indeed, it may well be worth registering with overseas trade organisations, particularly those in the UK, which is Ireland's nearest and biggest overseas market. For those interested in teleworking that is based on general office skills, it may be worth registering with the UK-based Teleworking Association, who have a website at www.tca.org.uk.
Income from overseas must be declared to the Revenue Commissioners in the same way as your domestic income must all be declared in your annual tax return. In addition, should any of your foreign income be invested in offshore funds or foreign life insurance policies, any interest earned will also have to be declared.
Should your foreign income be taxed at source, you can usually claim a tax credit for the amount deducted by foreign tax commissioners. At present, Ireland has double taxation agreements with 42 different countries, where you are given a full tax credit for any double taxation that takes place. Where you are taxed by a country that does not have a double taxation agreement with Ireland, you can claim the amount deducted as a legitimate business expense Ð but this means that you will only recover 42 per cent of the amount of tax paid overseas.
One advantage of having an overseas client is that the cost of some of your overseas trips can be deducted against tax, providing the trip includes a meeting with your client to discuss business related matters and providing its obvious that you are not abusing this facility - ie a trip made to the US to meet a client can be justified if the relationship is a long-standing one, or has the potential to become a long-standing relationship, but the taxman may take a very dim view of your claim if the income from the client doesn't justify the cost of a trans-Atlantic plane trip!