Maybe it's because I'm a child of the eighties, but I really do believe you can nurture the tiniest seed of an idea to fulfilment. There's a chance that I watched too much 'Why Don't You?', 'Blue Peter' and 'Tomorrow's World', but that entrepreneurial spirit has always been a big part of my personality. My dad has been a very successful self-employed sparky since 1975, so I suppose that made my own journey to self-employment inevitable, because he made it seem possible to believe in your skills, set up your stall and make your own money. As of July 2018, the BBC reported that self-employment was up and now accounted for 15% of the workforce. Choosing to be self-employed brings autonomy, endless opportunities to learn and a lot of pride, but it can also bring with it a unique challenge to a person's metal health and wellbeing.
As a child, I never got the impression that our family struggled. Talking to mum and dad, as an adult, who now understands such things as mortgages, household bills and interest rates, I know that they found it hard to make ends meet some months whist dad was in the early stages of building his business. I remember my mum used to work nights as an auxiliary nurse to help with cash flow. Goodness knows how she had the energy to look after us and fulfil all the domestic tasks facing a young wife of the 80s! She used to leave a pink post it note on our pillows when she left for work, saying 'sleep tight & God bless xxxxx' and I'd always worry about her driving all the way to Milford Hospital on lonely, dark country roads.
As a child, you have no real concept of how hard your parents are working or how consuming the business of paying the bills day-by-day can be. Looking back with the knowledge I have now at how they managed to hold it all together, I feel a great sense of admiration for them both. It has been very inspiring and empowering growing up in a household kept afloat through self-employment. It proved to me that a person could rely upon the strength of their own skills and talents rather than having to graft themselves onto a corporation or institution. Perhaps, due to my parents' example, self-employment was always a goal for me at some point in my life.
Self-employed can be the zenith of creativity and control, but it can also be the nadir of self-esteem and resilience. It's the paradoxical nature of self-employment which inspired me to write today's blog. From my own experience, and from listening to my fellow entrepreneurs, self-employement can be a defining moment in their lives: the moment they've dreamed of for years. However, it can also bring with it a great many unique challenges that being in a salaried role doesn't, and these can affect a person's mental health in a different way to someone who knows their paycheck is coming at the end of the month.
1. You are EVERYONE in your company:
One challenge of being self-employed is that you ARE the company. You have multiple roles to play, some of which you may never have had experience of before: you are your secretary, your accountant, your web developer, your marketing team and your front of house all at once. From my own experience, being everyone all of the time can be tiring and daunting, since you become accountable for everything; there's no-one to pass the buck to for things that go wrong or for things that aren't done. Keeping your energy levels up to ensure you can fulfil your various roles is challenging. I was certanly well practised from spinning metaphorical plates from my career in teaching. Self-employment is a very steep learning curve. Having said this, taking the plunge can make you realise that you can cope with far more than you ever thought you could. For example, anyone who knows me knows I loathe maths. I've hated maths ever since I had to have 'special lessons' for it at middle school. But, since going solo, I've succeeded in running my accounts and filling in my tax form without catastrophe. Okay, so my spreadsheet has stopped adding up, and I've no idea why, but it's a matter of taking small steps!
- Don't be afraid to ask for help from the experts lurking in your friendship group: for example, a friend of mine in HR was able to teach me how to set up and use spreadsheets
- If you can afford to outsource something, then do it - some things deserve to have a bit of money spent on them, such as your photography and your marketing
- Look into creating passive income streams, such as downloads, merchandise or selling products related to your business - you could even invent something new for your occupation. This will help you to earn money without having to be physically in front of a client, in turn combating exhaustion
- Block out time during the week for self-care: on a Sunday night, I use the Everyone Active app to book a yoga class and, as least, one cardio class in for the week ahead and my clients' sessions are then booked around these. As the saying goes: you can't pour from an empty cup
2. All aboard the self-esteem roller coaster:
Being self-employed is full of potential peaks and troughs for the sole trader's confidence. One moment, you can be celebrating the freedom, autonomy and pride of launching your business , and the next you can be wondering where all your customers have gone, worrying how much you're going to make by the end of the month, and agonising over why Mrs Smith never replied to your quote. Working in a department or an office, you have other people to lean on for support and to lift your spirits when you're feeling low. When you ARE the office, you only have yourself to rely on for recognition and praise. Being a sole trader can be a great test of your resilience and self-perception.
- I've found the prinicples of LOA (The Law of Attraction) really useful here, and I've used it to ensure that I am keeping my 'vibration' at a healthy level: instead of feeling desperate and sending lack out into the universe, I focus on the clear goals I've set myself and expect to meet them through a series of concrete actions
- Keep a notepad by your bedside so you can keep a 'gratitude diary' in which you celebrate what's gone well in the week, filling it in either at the end of each day, or at the end of each week
- Be realistic: some months are quiet because no-one has any money and you're just not going to float everyone's boat. Target a distinct market and focus your energies there rather than trying to be everything to everyone
- Acknowledge those difficult moments and the feelings that come with them; they are opportunities to learn about yourself
3. You used to be somebody
In my previous career, I was part of a 15 strong team of people. I saw those people day in day out for ten years. I laughed with them, I lunched with them, I went to their weddings and their hen parties and I picked out birthday presents for them. When I retired from that career to start my own business, I lost my voice for two days - something my acupuncturist friend said was symbolic of loss. I knew full well that self-employment was going to be isolating to some extent, but I'm lucky I've always been comfortable in my own company. What I do miss is not getting in a good belly laugh - you know - a giggle that makes your eyes water and leaves you gasping for breath. The isolation that, in particular, can come from working as a one-man-band can compound the other challenges a sole trader faces; low self worth and anxiety, for example, can be amplified if you feel alone.
- If making the transition from being an employee to being a sole trader, choose who you want to keep in touch with from your 'old' career and be proactive in arranging meet ups with them. When one door closes and another opens, you have to give permission for people to follow you
- Join your local business or networking 'hub'. For a small monthly fee, I joined The Farnham Hub, which has weekly meetings and training events. It's a great way to meet like-minded people and to pick their brains over a coffee. There are also a plethora of online communities for the self-employed which can be useful for sharing concerns, asking questions or seeing if anyone's about for a drink
- Take responsibility for making new connections by joining a club or society outside of work. For example, my husband and I have recently joined our local film club - nothing to do what what any of us do for a living, but it gets us meeting new people and talking about something other than work
- If your home is your office, like mine is, make sure you plan in time when you get out into the fresh air or out into a different space; plenty of cafes now offer free wifi, so you can do a bit of work whilst surrounded by the babble of other human beings. Co-working spaces are also becoming popular in the UK; for example, Signal, in Bordon, offers a fresh, modern co-working space run by the welcoming Emma Selby. Find out more on their website:
4. Money, Money, Money
Setting up a business from scratch takes a lot of hard cash. You have the cost of your training, the cost of registering with various professional bodies or government bodies, you have your equipment and tools to shell out for, your advertising and your marketing, your premises, and, of course, all the usual household bills on top of that. I wouldn't advise anyone to become self employed without saving up a buffer first. Customers won't come along straight away, no matter how great your brand is or how fabulous your website. On top of the outlay, is the fear and anxiety that comes with no longer having a regular salary.
During my salaried days, I knew what I could get away with spending each month, I could set up a standing order for savings, and I knew my bills would be paid, because I knew the exact amount that was going into my account at the end of the month. When you're self-employed, it can be quite overwhleming to know that every penny you make has got to be made by you and you only. As if these issues weren't already enough to be worrying about, there's the fact that, when you take a holiday or fall ill, the money stops getting made. There's no easy way to confront this challenge; it's all about knowing your numbers, being disciplined and being ready to change your attitude towards life.
- If you're thinking about taking the plunge into self-employment, make sure you know exactly how much your monthly outgoings are and make sure you have enough money in the bank to fund these for up to a year: this will be your 'buffer'
- Before you leave a full time position, work out how you can get your outgoings down to the absolute minimum: which direct debits and standing orders can go or be reduced?
- Consider applying for a part-time job a few days a week which will cover your essential bills whilst you make the transition into self-employment and build up your client base
- Re-think your philosophy of life: how much do you really need? What activities truly bring you joy? What makes you feel you are doing something meaningful?
- If you can't afford what you used to be able to afford in a salaried position, then be honest with friends and family rather than getting angry that they keep asking you out for costly coffees and lunches. Instead, suggest cheaper alternatives
- Speak to your bank or a financial advisor about ways you could cover outgoings in case of illness
5. It's all just so unpredictable
Whilst I was doing a receptionist job to ease the transition from being a teacher to becoming a counsellor (I always follow my own advice!), a fellow entrepreneur used a striking metaphor to explain the process of starting your own business:
" You've got to imagine you're a plane on a runway. That plane is making its way along that runway for what seems like forever, and often, just before it's about to take flight, people get scared and leap off."
I thought this was a great way to describe the fear newbies to the world of self-employment experience when they feel like they've done all they can to be seen, but no-one's booked or no-one's bought from them. The unpredictable nature of making your own living is certainly a game of nerve. Unlike a salaried job paying the same money to you every month, the sole trader might find that August was unbelievably busy, only to find that September is quiet as the grave. It's that unpredictable nature of the workload, the income and the success that can make a potential business person leap back into the safety of a regular payslip before they've really had a chance to 'take off'.
- Again, LOA techniques work well here: if enquiries die down, or you have a quiet month, don't sit panicking and sending out lack and desperation into the world around you, otherwise that's all you will get back. Instead, be grateful for the time you've been given to up-date your website, put some energy into a new advertising idea, up-date your social media streams, network, do some training or simply rest
- Sitting around waiting for people to come to you will get you nowhere; take yourself and your business cards out to trade events, find out the advertising days on online communities, write and deliver a workshop or taster session so people get to witness your expertise. Things are only unpredictable if you don't take action
Disclaimer: Please note, I am not an expert in employment law or finance. All advice given above is based on personal experience and is not given as professional advice.