What I have learned from 5 years of self-employment

Wow – 5 years. Didn’t they just fly by! It barely seems like five minutes since I was sitting down with my rickety old laptop on the first day of self-employment, feeling odd not to be wearing a suit for work and brainstorming company names. That was in summer 2015. The end of 2020 is now nearing, I need to replace my laptop again, and it’s time to reflect on what my first 5 years of self-employment have taught me.

What a bad employee I was

There is nothing like self-employment to hold a mirror up to you. And, among other things, that means facing up to all your previous weaknesses as an employee. In my case, there were a lot of them. As a lone translation freelancer, it is tremendously hard to earn enough to cover my taxes, social security, business costs and overheads. And that’s not even taking all the other “luxuries” like clothes and going out into account. I’m mortified to think of my self-entitlement as an employee and how I thought I automatically deserved a pay rise.

When you’re self-employed, you’re suddenly confronted with just how much everything costs and how much money has to be brought in to justify each business investment. If I’d have known just how much money my former employers had to generate to justify my being there, I might have acted a little differently.

[For the record, I’d been an even worse employee now if I were to go back to regular office life. I’m now so used to making all my decisions myself and implementing them without consulting anyone else that I’d be more unmanageable than I was before. But that’s a different story.]

Don’t let yourself be commandeered by a single customer

The same logic applies in self-employment as for any kind of investment strategy: spread your risk. If you don’t, you could be setting yourself up for a serious fall.

Fairly early on in the self-employment game, I started working for a customer who seemed perfect. Organised, professional in communications, provided interesting work and paid well too. Soon the projects were rolling in, one after the next. It was hard for my other customers to get a look in.

As easy a life as that was, it was a big mistake to let this customer dominate my time. And, as soon as they arrived, they disappeared again – cutting my income by 60% overnight. I was essentially back at square one and it took months to get back to the same income level. Never again!

These days – even if it’s tempting to simply take on project after project from the same customer – I take every effort to ensure that other customers get enough of my attention. I also invest more time in acquiring additional customers to spread risk. Sometimes that means saying no to a well-paid project. But if this serves the overall stability of my business, then it is necessary.

The importance of multiple income streams

In the same way that it is important to keep your client portfolio diversified, it is also advisable not to put all your eggs in one basket as far as the services you offer are concerned. Soon after having set up my legal translation business, I realised that automatic translation technologies were fast destroying the industry.

While work is still coming in, it’s easy to put the risks for your business to the back of your mind and swim along with the current. But that is not the way to go – unless you want to have a huge and stressful existential crisis when the work really starts to dry up and you’ve got no Plan B.

My partner (also self-employed) advised me that – ideally – your day as a self-employed person should be 50% paid work and 50% business development. While it’s not always possible to do that each day (translation projects generally involve sitting on your bottom and typing from morning until night from the word “go” until they’re done), this was a sound piece of advice that I wish I’d taken to heart a lot earlier.

It did take a while of trying things out and looking for ideas to find something that I felt like committing to as a second line of business. But I also wasted a lot of time, getting into the comfort zone and just not making the effort. In self-employment, you’ve got to make yourself uncomfortable to make progress.

It’s a different kind of stress

Self-employment is hard and it is stressful and – particularly if you work and live in the same space like I do – it goes everywhere with you. But it can’t be compared with the way you feel about a hard, stressful employed job that also comes home with you and eats up your thoughts day and night.

Because this business was mine and mine alone, I identified with it and am solely responsible for it. I never felt resentment about self-employment’s all-consuming nature in the same way that I have about my previous jobs. In employed life, I always felt like something was being stolen from me and that my pay was really compensation for sacrificing my lifetime. Maybe I just never found the right job for me. But self-employment has given me the purpose which made all the difference.

Self-employment entirely changes your attitude to life

When I first started out on this self-employment journey, I knew it would change my life. I knew it would be a whole other kettle of fish to do my own thing, taking my own ideas from conception to fruition without any guarantee of any pay at the end of the month or an IT department to sort out my computer meltdowns.

That all seemed quite obvious. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the way in which self-employment would completely alter my outlook on life – and people. Having to shoulder the responsibility of a business every single day, dealing with problems large and small on an everyday basis, weighing up, mitigating and living with risks…all of this has come together to change the way I think about and react to almost everything else in my life.

Hearing someone moan about some minor intrigue or setback in the office? Or that the state isn’t protecting them against some sort of risk or misfortune? It makes me feel how I imagine parents of young children feel when someone without kids says to them: “oh, I’m SO tired today – I didn’t sleep at all well last night.” Poor, POOR you.

My patience for listening to this kind of thing is now minimal. Self-employment places you in a completely different biosphere where you have to adapt to survive. And – in all honesty – it’s often easier to spend time with the like-minded who are going through exactly the same thing as you.

It’s difficult and frequently drives me mad…but I wouldn’t give it up for the world

I’d never go back to employment – not for all the tea in China. Sitting in a weekly department meeting, listening to whatever uninteresting bit of bureaucracy someone else has spent their week on that has zero relevance to what I’m doing? Expend energy trying to avoid office politics but end up getting sucked into it anyway because it’s obstructing my work? Having to sit in the office until a certain hour – not because I’ve got anything specific or urgent to do but because it’s just the done thing?

Absolutely not. The benefits of self-employment are just too many. I can choose when and where to work, and decide on every aspect of my business from the name and logo to how to market my services and how to build up additional income streams. The freedom gained far outweighs the difficulties and the self-doubt and even the twinges of envy when friends take home fat pay packages from jobs with titles including words like “Head of..” and “Vice President of…” and “senior” when I’ve earned the grand total of EUR 120 that month.

I wouldn’t ever change it.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
Gründerin von RiskPlayWin | Inhaberin & Gründerin des juristischen Übersetzungsbüros Spezialis