The benefits of being self-employed

For this particular blog post I would like to reflect on this article I read just after Christmas. It mused on the benefits of being self-employed, and explored what it was like starting a new business in the midst of a pandemic. It’s fair to say that the article struck a chord, and I wanted to add some personal context to some of the main themes.

First of all though, sitting down to write this blog post, I could hardly fail to notice that our last post was nearly 5 months ago! Of course this breaks one of the cardinal rules of blogging, namely “keep your blog up to date”. So there’s a lesson to learn and take through 2021 – post more regularly.

Fortunately there is a reason why our blog posts have been so infrequent recently, and that’s simply because we have been very busy! Of course this is a good thing, and we do feel fortunate. Our work with Wickes https://www.wickes.co.uk/ continues apace, and the results will be in the public sphere in due course. It’s worth saying again how much we’re enjoying it, and how welcoming everyone has been.

So what were those particular themes I’d like to comment on?

The push factor

The article quotes longstanding survey evidence that at any one time, one in three of us are thinking about changing our jobs or careers. But in more secure times we tend not to act on those impulses. Quite understandably we prefer the reassurance of stability and a regular income. There’s no obvious “push factor” to override our inherent caution, such as bereavement, divorce, or redundancy. However one could view this whole pandemic as a giant push factor.

And that was certainly the case with me. I was made redundant in July after being on furlough for months. The benefit of hindsight is the biggest of cliches, but I when I was furloughed, I was certain there would only be one outcome eventually. So my push factor was definitely redundancy, although it still took me a while to not be afraid of going self-employed. The conviction that we should give it a go kind of crept up on the both of us.

Re-evaluating success

The article highlighted that based on anecdotal evidence and personal feedback, a common thread emerges from those who have chosen to overhaul their lives in 2020/21: “they are seeking something that goes beyond a traditional notion of success”. There’s so much that could be written about what defines traditional success (and I’m not going to do that here). But I think it’s fair to argue that it would be measured by monetary gain, and a linear progression through various positions of increasing seniority. Who knows what a new version of success is for those people involved, but they obviously felt that it encompassed something different to money and management.

According to a recent American study, 9 out of 10 people would be willing to work for less money in exchange for more meaningful work. How or if any of us derive ‘meaning’ from work is obviously entirely personal. Idealism and economic reality don’t often make comfortable bedfellows. But I presume that by becoming self-employed people have a chance to define their own success as a result of having more control over their professional lives. There’s probably an understandable degree of possessive pride involved too. Any benefits gained are entirely down to your own hard work and guiding hand.

I’m not sure I can entirely agree with those sentiments yet, but that’s because we are very early in our journey. We know quite a few people who are self-employed – and in some cases have been so for over 20 years – and one theme emerges. It’s flipping hard work! No surprise there. Many SMEs go under within a couple of years of hard work, sweat and toil, which doesn’t seem to me to be completely redefining success.

But perhaps the message here is ‘if you don’t try, you’ll never know’. What I do know is that those of my friends who are self-employed would find it very difficult to go back to normal employment. The attraction of being one’s own boss is perpetually alluring.

The risk factor

Another big one which is well known and seems to boil down to money. Can I afford to do this, to keep going for a year? Will I be able to pay myself? This is an obvious one. Surely it’s much easier to commit to a career change if you know you’ve got some capital behind you. It becomes its own push factor.

The article states that “self-employed people….are happier than they were and are enjoying their life more. But they have lower incomes, and it’s far, far less secure to be self-employed than to be employed”. The pandemic has only served to reinforce this fact, although one of the main contributors to the article states, “there’s a lot of change happening in the labour market” and that jobs in IT, accountancy and finance for example are creating opportunities for people who want to make the jump.

I think it’s fair to say that we’ve definitely been lucky enough to take advantage of this. Our background and expertise is in digital retail, and we’re very glad to start our business on a secure footing. But to return to an earlier point, that alone doesn’t guarantee the future. It’s a tough market out there, and we’re going to have to learn business development pretty swiftly.

This isn’t a political blog, but it’s also worth noting that the raft of support measures offered by the government so far don’t cover everyone. Plenty of self-employed people aren’t eligible for support yet, and haven’t been since the start of the pandemic. We’re one of them, having only started our business 6 months ago.

Pursuing Plan B

The article ended with a summary of six things to bear in mind if you’re looking to take the radical step of changing careers. It’s easy to put something aspirational down on paper, and these guidelines definitely are aspirational and a little bit vague. Cold hard reality may well be different. But even as a rather cautious person by nature, I think these points have resonated somewhat. I’ll definitely have them at the back of my mind as we go through 2021 and hopefully keep our business going. Whether they provide a useful and actionable framework, only time will tell.

  • Act first, think later
  • Ask for help
  • Stay optimistic
  • Prioritise possibilities over plans
  • Run to, not from, a job
  • Success is a squiggly line, not a straight one