What Is It Like To Be Self-Employed?
The term self-employed conjures a variety of images. The high-flying entrepreneur hungry for success. The artistic slacker who barely lifts a pencil more than twice a week. The man in a van doing odd jobs at a moments notice. The small business owner carving a niche on the high street. Being self-employed can mean literally anything but it this woman’s experience, it is definitely challenging.
Holidays don’t come easy. You don’t only have the expense of paying to go away, you have to cover the cost of not working too. Being sick is out of the question and weekends are never entirely yours. There is no payment for days where you rest or play.
Work is hard to arrange as you’re always juggling multiple clients and it’s rare that anyone wants to plan more than a few days ahead. Work comes in waves. Clients can be demanding when you have a lot on and then have little work to offer when you clear your calendar. Some jobs are short. Some jobs last years. Some jobs start as one thing and become another. Sometimes you’re offered too much work to handle yourself, other times you can’t find enough to scrape by and have to invent a new way to bring in money.
You lose your regular rest space to desk space, and your weeks bloat from the standard 37.5 hours a week to an exhausting 60+ hours a week, most weeks. You only stop to make a few meals, several cups of tea and to use the bathroom. One stopwatch turns off, another turns on. You have the art of switching between clients and work tasks mastered but every few hours you need to walk away for 10 minutes and let your brain catch up with itself.
You lose your social life. Even when you’re not working, you’re doing something work-related. A photo here, a tweet there. I’ll just answer this email. Your friends and family notice and they’re not impressed. “Where have you been?”, “Why don’t you call?” and “What have you been doing with yourself?” are the questions you hear most often and you have the same answer for all of them; “I’ve been working.”
You have several email addresses to take care of. You find yourself on the backfoot quickly if you leave your inboxes alone for more than a couple of days and figuring out which newsletters to ditch is an anxiety-inducing but necessary time-saving exercise.
Keeping records of your time worked requires meticulous precision, something that became second nature when I was recording units as a solicitor. Money is an important commodity when you’re covering all of your business overheads – the tech, the props, the travel, the expense of visiting clients, the products, the magazine subscriptions… books, clothing, makeup, advertising, stationary, electric, subscriptions, hosting, domain registration. Your earnings are constantly chipped away by running costs, bad time keeping can’t chip away at them more.
No matter how good your records, your business costs are always far more than you expect. The cost rises faster than your fees and when you hammer tech as hard as you do, it doesn’t last anything like it should. Because you only need single units, office prices are out of your reach. You’ll pay retail and like it. Tax time is the stuff of nightmares and you have the additional cost of an accountant because you’re not crazy enough to think you can handle the books too.
Then there’s the time you spend training. In the digital world, time doesn’t stand still. If you’re not reading for a couple of hours a day, you’re missing vital information that affects your ability to perform in the long term.
You have to constantly field new business, most of which will never result in paid work. Hours spent on Skype, exchanging messages, writing proposals and taking phone calls. And a proportion of those will be people hitting on you or asking you to do work in exchange for publicity.
You’re your own PR. Your own secretary. Your own PA. Your own sales team. Your own advertising team.
Your own recruitment agent. Your own web designer. Your own facilities manager. Your own marketing team. Your own graphics designer. Your own brand manager. Your own teacher. Your own project manager.
And you have your clients to do much of that for too.
A life of being self-employed is not particularly financially lucrative or secure, unless you work long hours and take few breaks. You can often feel taken for granted, on the outside and resented for having other business interests. But all of these bad things are worth suffering.
Being self-employed is incredibly rewarding. It gives you a level of self-drive that’s based on the primal interest to fight for your own progression. Setting your own goals and achieving them feels much better than being set unrealistic targets by managers who don’t help achieve them, and then working to the bone to meet them.
The long hours you work will begin to pay off and you’ll learn to better negotiate your client rates. You’ll learn what your salary bracket is by the companies who approach you to go full time and you’ll learn that your yearly earnings should include that holiday time an employer would pay you if you were contracted PAYE.
You love your work so the reading and learning part is interesting and fun to you. Because you have to do so many different types of work, you expand your skillset and learn from both your clients and your own business efforts. You’ll discover new trends and develop the ability to maximise their potential. You’re a pioneer in your own craft so things never get dull.
You get to choose the technology you work with and your office environment. You can choose to work in-office or find space to go remotely. If you need a change of scenery, you can work from a cafe or a co-working space and create your own colleagues.
Being successfully self-employed takes a lot of dedication and it’s filled with highs and lows. It can teach you a work ethic like nothing else and it can break your resolve better than any task.
If you’re interested in becoming self-employed, make sure you have collateral to fund it. Ensure you line-up clients before you take the plunge, just like you’d line-up a new job contract before leaving your current position. Do the ground work while you’re still employed – the branding, the website, the social media, the advertising – build your presence. You have evenings, weekends and holidays at your disposal. You’ll be using them once you go self-employed, you may as well start now.
It is 100% worth giving it a go on your own. You never know where it might lead but you have to be strong and determined to make it work.
Here’s to 5 years and all that it’s taught me.
– Hella Rude