The Self Employment Paradox

By Simon Akers

When you start a company, or go it alone, it is ups and downs. Both within a day, and over a longer period.

When things are good it is great (e.g. when I started, lots of day rate work thank you very much)…

…then when you have a pandemic it goes downhill (not alone on this I well know).

THEN you work hard, pivot, focus and get back to the good times again!!

THEN things go quiet and it’s slow again.

THEN all good, I have a call for a potentially big new client/gig!

The oscillation can be exhausting. Add in a foundational mental health challenge, and trying some different antidepressants for size, then you are really going for the thrill ride. I write this on the back of what has honestly been a particularly challenging fortnight for my head.

Self employed. Lone rangers. Solopreneurs. Freelancers. For all intents and purposes, we are going through the very similar thing. Alone. I have worked hard to flatten the curves of the P&L with some retained clients who offer predictability of income, but often the nature of the beast is a feast-and-famine approach, one which can play havoc on your wellbeing, future planning and all sorts.

It is good to remember though – why you did this in the first place.

It often seems an easy and obvious choice to just say ‘fuck it’ and go and get a cushy job with a handsome salary and a guarantee that, on the 28th of the month, regardless of your credit controller abilities or business bank balance, you will get paid a salary that is comfortable and guaranteed. Oh and not only that, all the tax and NI has been taken care of, and a pension deduction was made at source — AND doubled by my employer. What! 100% interest savings account? Happy Days. No need for the jiggery-pokery of putting self-assessment money aside your end now and pensions for the future. What a dream. You lot in FT jobs don’t realise how lucky you are!

But wait, there was a trade-off, and a reason you did this in the first place.

You were probably sick of the daily grind of working for a bigger corporation, the same place every day, on the same client with the same people, the soulless existence of feeling like a pig in a huge pen, with the monotony of repetitive work. Remind yourself of this next time you have a wobble. As no doubt the mental health downside you felt in that alien and perhaps stifling situation far outweighs the downsides of the day you are having today.

One of the upsides of feeling lost at sea at times, or being incessantly soul-searching and curious is that you may read a lot.

And oftentimes the wisdom of others provides solace. From business books to philosophy and self help. I particularly enjoy Matt Haig’s writing as he speaks from mental health experiences that I have personally related to. Here is one of my favourite quotes from his book ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’ :

“You are not your feelings. You just experience them. Anger, sadness, hate, depression, fear. This is the rain you walk in. But you don’t become the rain. You know the rain will pass. You walk on. And you remember the soft glow of the sun that will come again.”

You do not become the rain. It is hard to see the sunshine sometimes but one has to know that the events around them does not define their current situation.

Also, love a bit of Stoicism and some timeless ancient wisdom. When the chips are down we can easily catastrophise, and imagine a much more dystopian future than ever happens. As Seneca wrote in his letters:

“We suffer more in imagination than reality”

To complete this mini lit-review, I also read great book You are The Business by Anna Codrea-Rado, who excellently prescribes to us the notion of a self-employed benefits package. What are the things that you can rely on? Certain times and days off. Extra non-commute time. Emergency fund prep. Fridays off. Employer pension etc etc. Recite them to yourself. Incidentally I read it on holiday in US at start of this year, living one of the very benefits; the freedom of movement, holidays and remote working. Incidentally, the image atop this article is from the Embarcadero near downtown San Diego, a shot that I took myself2 weeks ago. Not to be a terrible show-off, but as a reminder to myself that I started the month in a happy place that was afforded to me through time and money created from my venture. Plus the fact it isn’t stock imagery and I admire seagulls’ independent ballsy way. So — when in a funk, try not to begrudge the non-positives too much.

Also last week after a few weeks of planning a collaboration, I was able to buddy up with 3 other rangers in a similar marketing space. Professionally it is great to work with them as we can deliver for more clients now, often those who would not look at you twice if on your own. But personally, and way more importantly, we provide a pastoral layer of support for each other; only this morning I had a call with one of the partners and their client challenges. It is great to share. A problem shared is indeed, cliché or not, a problem halved.

So, create your own benefits package

I therefore overcome this paradox of self employment and placate myself with a handful of key techniques.

By reciting/reminding myself of the benefits of my position, NOT focusing on the benefits I am NOT getting.

By flattening the curve of feast and famine by sensible and prudent living and planning to put aside money for the rainy day, and making it my business to create the benefits of employment, like pensions. Create boredom and predictability amongst the thrills and spills.

By collaborating with others. and ensuring I am not alone with my fake colleagues. There is only so much you can do alone. Be independent, be headstrong, but do not become isolated.

By feeding your uncertainty with new techniques and learning. In my case it is reading. You may find solace elsewhere. Documentaries. Courses. Shadowing in a coworking space.

I do not know the answer for you, I barely know it for me; I am a work in progress. I am going through a personal process. But I know what can work for me, and by focussing on the areas that are of benefit to me, and remembering why I did this in the first place, this is a sure-fire bet you are exactly where you are meant to be. From decisions you made to follow your passion or goals. So don’t worry (even though we will).