Opinion: Everyone should be self-employed at least once

Before you rush to send a resignation email to your boss, or run around the office revealing hidden frustrations with your colleagues, I’m not about to suggest everyone should immediately quit employment and become a freelancer. But I do believe that everyone should be self-employed at least once in their lives and careers.

It could involve a small side hustle, or taking on some extra work in any spare time rather than jumping into self-employment with no preparation or safety net. Even if it doesn’t result in a multi-million-pound success story, the benefits and lessons you can gain will help you on any career path.

There’s no shame if your attempt fails, or it leads to the realisation that you’d prefer to be employed rather than running your own business or freelancing for clients. The experience of trying self-employment is the benefit, and any financial reward is secondary (although still useful for paying bills or being able to treat yourself!)

Your first benefit will be experiencing freedom, possibly for the first time in your working life. Even in creative roles, your work is guided by managers, senior colleagues, house styles, and traditional working practices and expectations. But when you’re running your own business or sending out client proposals, none of that applies.

This doesn’t guarantee that your choices will be trailblazing successes, especially if you decide to challenge a brief sent to you by a client with your own ideas.

But ultimately, it’s entirely your decision whether to launch a product, work with a client, and if you’re willing to work within restrictions or challenge them. Realising that you can say no to something is one of the most liberating moments in anyone’s career. And will help build your self-confidence and empowerment if you do continue in an employed role, or decide to return to one in the future.

The second is that you’ll be ultimately responsible for every aspect of your self-employment. Unless you’re starting out with a significant amount of savings or funding, you’re not going to be hiring staff from the get go. And even if you’re in that fortunate position, it’s your job to make sure they’re delivering.

This means you’ll have a much better understanding of other roles in your industry. Nothing teaches you about web design and development as much as setting up your own website. Digging into SEO and social media will hopefully give you more knowledge and respect for marketing. And it’s easy to dismiss the value of office managers, PAs, bookkeepers and accountants until you’re juggling meetings, deadlines, invoices and tax returns.

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Self-employment doesn’t mean you have to become an expert in all of these areas. But as you pick up a working knowledge of each specialism, it’ll give you a much better understanding about how to work with people in each field, and what pressures and constraints they’ll be dealing with.

Being responsible for all of your business finances is also valuable. Without a corporate credit card or budget, even small costs suddenly become very important. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t invest in essential or useful tools for your business, or pay for specialist help in areas where you’re not confident (or even competent). But it will lead you to be more discerning about where you spend your money, and give you a much deeper insight into how purchasing decisions are made.

Suddenly you can test different approaches to promotion, advertising, setting prices, or running special offers, without having to battle for permission from managers or begging for a tiny percentage of the corporate budget. If you want to run paid search adverts, you can have them running in minutes. Want to promote your business on a billboard? Find the details of the advertising company and give them a call.

It’s also likely you’ll become much more rigorous in tracking the impact your decisions have. If you’re asked to set up a marketing campaign in an employed role, you follow the traditional approach, and it underperforms, your management might be disappointed, but they’ll probably understand. And you won’t be financially punished as a result. But when you make a change in your own business or set up a paid promotion, it’s much more likely you’ll be paying close attention to the costs and results.

And possibly the most interesting example is that you’ll understand what it’s like to be the boss. If you’re working for someone else, especially in larger companies, it’s hard to understand exactly what the people in charge are doing most days. Or why they’re able to achieve large salaries when they’re not actually building the products or delivering the services the company gets paid for.

But managing a self-employed business or freelancing career will give you a better understanding and respect for the challenges of being ultimately responsible for the careers and financial wellbeing of people, whether it’s just for yourself, or a team of thousands. Which doesn’t mean bad bosses or managers don’t exist, or that you should make excuses if they make terrible decisions. But it does give you some empathy with them, which can help you understand their choices, or enable you to possibly challenge them in a more effective way.

Given the cost of formal education and qualifications, it seems bizarre that more people don’t take advantage of self-employment as a way to gain knowledge, experience and a better understanding of their colleagues and management in any full-time employment.

It’s incredibly rare to have a learning experience which could also earn you a substantial extra income, or develop into an entirely new career.

And it’s never too late. You might not be keen on returning to university as a mature student, but on the internet, no-one has to know your age, gender, or previous history. Whatever career experience you’ve had, it won’t prevent you starting a business, or succeeding, in an entirely different field.

You could be a retirement-age accountant and start designing t-shirts for gamers, a teenager who creates the ultimate in corporate bookkeeping software, or a single parent designing soft furnishings and uploading them to a site which fulfils your orders, letting you create in rare moments free of work and childcare.

It might not be easy to find the time and space to develop a side hustle right now. And self-employment isn’t a certain route to financial security (it’s definitely a good idea to keep costs and investment as low as possible when you’re starting out). But the one guarantee is that you’ll learn some valuable lessons from even a few weeks or months of self-employment or freelancing.