Taking the Leap to Self-Employment
By PHYLLIS KORKKI
Published: June 18, 2010 From the New York Times
SITTING in their cubicles, rolling their eyes over the latest bureaucratic slowdown or marveling at the near-incompetence of higher-ups, some employees are thinking: If only I were my own boss, I wouldn’t have these problems.
How can a salaried employee with some savings tell if the idea of becoming self-employed is a viable option and not just an escape fantasy? And how can a recently laid-off employee with some severance pay determine whether this is the right time to pursue her dream of being an entrepreneur?
First, you must be highly motivated to sell a specific product or service that your research has found to be marketable. And your business idea should be based on expertise that you already have, said Susan Urquhart-Brown, author of “The Accidental Entrepreneur” and a career coach. Learning how to run a business is hard enough without also learning a new skill from scratch, she said.
Some soon-to-be entrepreneurs come up with a solution to a business problem and find their company is unwilling to pursue it, said William A. Sahlman, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School with a focus on entrepreneurship.
“There’s a mismatch between what they’re passionate about and feel ought to be done and what the company is prepared to support,” he said.
Motivation, drive, passion — these words are often used in connection with entrepreneurs. “They need to be passionate about what they do because that will carry them through the tough times,” Ms. Urquhart-Brown said.
As an entrepreneur you also need to be an excellent multitasker, because you’re in charge of your own marketing, payroll, administrative work, taxes and health insurance. Oh, and don’t forget — you also have to deliver a product or service.
At first, the actual business may be secondary because you will need to devote most of your time to marketing, Ms. Urquhart-Brown said. If you cringe at the idea of selling yourself, vow to hire someone for that odious task once the company has more customers.
Expect to devote long hours to your enterprise, said Jessica Pryce-Jones, author of “Happiness at Work” and chief executive of iOpener, a workplace consulting firm.
At one of her consulting clients, Ms. Pryce-Jones once talked to a high-level employee who was complaining bitterly about having to work 40 hours a week. “He thought that if he went freelance he would magically become happy,” she said.
She asked him, “How many hours a week do you think you’d have to work if you were freelance?” The man put the number at about 35. She told him he needed to double that number, at a minimum.
And those hours, though more flexible, can be unpredictable. People who prefer a fixed structure are probably better off as salaried employees, Ms. Pryce-Jones said, whereas entrepreneurs prefer a more fluid work environment. They actually thrive on the stress of uncertainty and the adrenaline rush it gives them, she said.
In addition to structure and predictability, a workplace offers a built-in sense of community and belonging, which is hugely important to happiness, Ms. Pryce-Jones said. One of the biggest problems faced by the self-employed is loneliness, she said. So make sure to connect regularly — either online or in person — with other business people, she advised.
Another major advantage of having an employer is access to benefits like health insurance. But fewer businesses are now offering comprehensive benefits, which can tip the scale toward self-employment, said Sara Horowitz, executive director of the Freelancers Union. Her group, which has 140,000 members, offers five levels of health insurance to self-employed people in a range of industries.
A harder adjustment for the self-employed is dealing with the lack of a steady paycheck, Ms. Horowitz said, as work tends to be feast or famine. And even when freelancers do get work, there’s a chance that they may not be paid. According to a survey of Freelancers Union members, more than three-quarters said they had experienced nonpayment in their careers. By contrast, a business has to be in very bad shape not to meet its employee payroll, she said.
Given all the risks, it’s no surprise that the failure rate for new businesses is high. Half of all start-ups fail within the first five years, according to federal data. But a failure of your business doesn’t mean you have failed as a person, Professor Sahlman said. When you’re seeking venture capital, he added, a past failure is often seen as valuable experience.
Even in the face of failure, most entrepreneurs are not willing to give up. “Once they taste having more control over their lives,” he said, “they almost never go back.”