Self-employment sounds wondrous, doesn't it? Waking up whenever you want, not having to answer to a boss, taking a mental health day in the middle of the week, controlling your income...
That's what everyone sees from the outside looking in, but the truth is that running your own show is tough.
Yeah, you get to wake up whenever you want, but your work's gotta get done eventually.
Sure, you don't have to answer to a boss, but you have to answer to your clients and/or customers.
And ok, you get to control your income, but you have to provide more value to your clients and/or customers to bump those income numbers up.
It's for these and other reasons that self-employed people tend to be older and have years of experience in the workforce as an employee.
Yet there is a small but growing contingent of young entrepreneurs and risk-takers striking out on their own. It's fascinating for me to see my peers take their careers and incomes into their own hands, but let me tell you, hanging your own shingle is even harder without the work and life experience an older self-employed person might have.
As a relatively successful (insofar as my income pays the bills) fully self-employed person (I'm a freelance writer), I thought I'd share a few tips I've learned in the trial by fire that's been my self-employed career.
1. Take Action Every Day (Even if You Don't Want to)
If there's one thing that'll carry you through, it's consistent action. Every day, you have to get up and do your work whether you feel like it or not.
Many rely on "motivation" to take action, but motivation is fleeting. It's the spark to the fire burning inside of you; it'll get you started, but you have to keep that fire alive by constantly moving forward and doing.
"Acta, non verba", or "deeds, not words" as Latin-speakers used to say.
2. Set Boundaries Between Work & Life
A lot of self-employed people, myself included, feel guilty if they aren't "on" all the time; I think it's due to a few factors.
For one, you want to please your clients however possible, even if that means working 10 hours a day every day or being available for your clients 24/7.
And that's before getting any marketing, bookkeeping, or other non-billable tasks get done.
Long story short, you'll quickly burn out if you make yourself available all the time.
Don't be available all the time. Set a defined time period during the day where you're working and communicating with clients. Inform your clients of your "business" hours to minimize confusion or debate down the line.
Each day, when your "business hours" end, stop working on client work.
Personally, I work 6-7 billable hours a day, with an hour for admin tasks like marketing and bookkeeping. I work from 10am/11am - 3:30pm, with a break from 4:00 - 6:30 to hit the gym, then come back and work another 2 hours or so, usually finishing around 8:30.
3. Compare Yourself to Others the Right Way
You've heard the "don't compare yourself to others" advice so many times that you want to compare yourself to others just to spite the advice-giver; trust me, I felt the same way until I really pondered this piece of advice and how it applies to my career.
In my opinion, I think there's a good middle ground between only comparing yourself to others and only competing against your past self.
There's always going to be somebody better than you: earning more money, enjoying cooler experiences, working on more exciting projects, etc. Talking or thinking down on yourself because you aren't at their level is irrational. They've been in the field much longer than you, so it's natural they're making more.
And if they had everything handed to them, you shouldn't be comparing anyways because they aren't in a similar situation.
But like I said, it's ok to do some comparison. You should compare what you're doing to grow your career with someone who's already successful and gain insights from them.
For example, if you had a fledgling freelance writing gig, you'd want to know how to land better-paying clients. In this case, you'd compare your client acquisition strategy to someone successful in freelance writing. Some friendly competition with your self-employed peers, but don't freak out if they're making $100/month more than you. They're probably spending that $100 extra irresponsibly, anyways.
Basically, compare yourself insofar as your business's current status.
4. Set Short- and Long-Term Goals
Long-term goals give you a grand objective to strive towards in your self-employed pursuits. But Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither can you do so with your business, so break down your long-term goals into more manageable short-term goals.
For example, let's say you have a long-term goal of reaching an average of $8,333.33 revenue per month (aka $100,000 per year, a fairly common goal among many) within the next 3 years.
Currently, you're making $4,000 a month.
You have to earn an additional $4333.33 per month to reach your goal.
Break it down as small as you want. For example, you could break it down into quarters: each quarter, you have to earn $361.11 more than the previous quarter. Break it down further, and that's about $121 more each month.
Hit that tiny number every month, and you'll reach your goal in time.
When it comes to goals, set goals that slightly scare you or seem just a bit out of reach. Too easy of goals won't help you grow yourself and your business, while impossible goals only serve to discourage you.
Strike that balance between achievable and difficult. You'll be surprised by what you can accomplish.
5. Track Everything
When you're self-employed, you don't have an employer to hold your hand by withholding taxes and buying equipment so you can succeed at work.
If my accounting degree taught me anything, it's that you need to keep track of nearly everything when you're doing your own thing.
Keep any record of your income: checks, PayPal payments, freelance marketplace payment, anything.
Same with expenses. You can write off several things on your taxes., but the IRS won't be too kind if you take write-offs without being able to prove it. That means holding onto receipts and keeping logs of any miles you drive in the course of business.
I'd highly recommend grabbing some bookkeeping software because it does most of your tracking for you.
On a similar note, I'd also suggest getting a separate checking account for your work-related expenses. No need for a business checking account in most cases, but you need to separate your "business" and "personal" transactions to follow the rules and not lose track of your money.
6. Find Hobbies
Unless you're making enough money to travel often and experience cool things, self-employment can get boring. If all you do is work, watch TV, then sleep, you'll probably start to feel bored or even dissatisfied with your life, despite being in control of your career.
Boredom and dissatisfaction aren't good for business.
Time to pick up some hobbies!
It's not always easy to find something new that you enjoy. Trying new things is the most straightforward way of discovering new hobbies, but it can be hard to put yourself out there and sift through a bunch of stuff you don't enjoy doing before you find something you DO enjoy doing.
Here's an idea: what do you already enjoy doing? Do you love animals? Volunteer at an animal shelter or get yourself a pet if you can afford to do so. Big fan of cars? Try working on your car yourself, or maybe attend local car meetup groups near you.
Personally, I started reading voraciously, learning about cars, and refocusing on my gym habit to combat the self-employment boredom blues.
7. Find Opportunities to Socialize
They say that college is the last place where you'll have tons of social opportunities just handed to you, and what they say is true. Out in the real world, you have to consciously pursue social opportunities.
This relatively minor issue (for most people, at least) is exacerbated by self-employment. You don't even get to form friendships (or at least working relationships) based on mere proximity to your coworkers.
Yet humans are social creatures; no matter how self-reliant you think you are, you'll eventually find yourself craving some form of social contact to get you away from the eat/sleep/work routine. Without it, your work may start to suffer as you constantly daydream about shutting the laptop and hanging out with people.
Thus, as a self-employed 20 something, you have to make an even larger effort to pursue social opportunities.
Fortunately, they're everywhere if you spend some time looking.
Here're a few ideas for places to look that came to my mind:
- Hobbies (see #5)
- Professional groups (if you're a freelance writer, find a freelance writer group)
- Rec league sports
- Gym classes
- Coworking spaces
Whatever you do, just find a way to get out of the house and interact with other humans. We aren't soulless automatons born only to labor; socializing is just as vital as working.
Well, those are a few tips I've learned in my tumultuous freelance career. I hope some of these tips can both help other young self-employed people get more satisfaction out of life and inspire people on the fence about self-employment to make that jump.
In a financially responsible manner, of course.