Picture by 2H Media on UnsplashI’m self-employed and have been for the past six years. Prior to this, I was working full-time for various corporations - not very successfully. During these six years, I’ve experienced all types of hurdles and celebratory wins. Yet I’ve figured it out largely by myself - and still continue to. No one really teaches you how to be self-employed.

I’d like to add that I really enjoy being self-employed. It’s far more satisfying to work for myself, knowing that the work I do will directly help propel my career forwards. This straightforward correlation is very appealing and makes a lot of logical sense to me in a way that being an employee previously didn’t. I also enjoy being able to plan my work and to flexibly work around this if my health isn’t so great. And that’s a huge plus that isn’t perhaps always allowed when you work for someone else. I’d also like to link in Dean Beadle’s fantastic blog on being an autistic freelance speaker, which gives another perspective on this topic.

Read on to learn about the nuggets that I’ve collated on my self-employment journey!

1. Plan and schedule

Remember that you are at work. And you should always act as if you are. If you’ve worked for an organisation before, take all that you’ve already learnt from the working world. Plan your work and schedule your days in whatever format works best for you. There’s really no right or wrong way about this. I like having some general overarching goals for the month to begin with, and then I plan each week as I go along. The night before, I will write up my upcoming day’s work. This helps give me tremendous structure, which I crave and need. I take quite a bit of time to plan my work, but at the same time I feel this pays dividends, as I can simply crack on with work each day. I would like to get better at annual goal setting. I feel these longer-term goals are useful for the overall strategy and vision of your business.

My tip for this section is to not be too hard on yourself by setting unseemly lofty goals, especially if one day you’re not feeling well and can’t do very much. You’ll always make up for it on a more productive day. Twice fold.

Leave in some breathing space

Plus, you’ll get better at this skill over time. And remember - you’re the boss! Speaking of which...

2. Be a nice boss

What does being a good boss mean to you? Is it taking regular breaks, having the odd afternoon or morning off, or treating yourself every now and again? Whatever it is that will be conducive to your work – allow yourself to have this. The great thing about being self-employed is that you can pick the benefits package that suits you, and only you!

Don’t forget to have a good workplace setup and to invest in your learning by taking courses or attending conferences, for instance. You need your skills to be up-to-date. Pay yourself fairly, too. All these aspects are so crucial and will make you stronger longer term. I used to find that I’d sometimes have the attitude of “well it’s just me working from home, I don’t need to have an established setup for just a few hours of work here and there” or “this won’t take much of my time at all, I can simply do it for free”. These types of thinking, and many others, are hugely detrimental.

Do some work to identify where you may be sabotaging your own success

You are number one to your business (because that’s what it is) and you need to respect all your time and energy.

3. Delegate when you can

No doubt you are smart, talented and motivated. But you won’t be Jack of all trades. It’s not simply worth doing everything yourself, it doesn’t make economical sense.

Look to delegate an aspect of the work that you are less inspired to do

This is an important step for growth. No one makes it on their own, so do remember that, and think of the bigger picture.

This is a real tough area, I admit, and I’ve had my own issues with. For various reasons, normally “well I can do it quicker myself” or “they won’t know my art to the extent that I know it” or “how can someone else possibly understand my work?” – and more! But it really helps having someone else at hand.

I would advise to try websites like Fiverr or People per Hour in the first instance, to find people to hire with specific expertise to do a part of the business that simply isn’t your strong point, or something that you enjoy less so. You may also be able to get funding to help pay for support through Access to Work. This could be a support worker who helps you do aspects of your role that through being autistic, you are not always able to do, especially if you find yourself exhausted and overwhelmed a lot of the time. I hope to write more on this topic at a later stage, as I am currently going through the Access to Work application process.

Plus, it’s nice to have someone else to work with. Especially when it’s not some general unpicked colleague from the office. Someone you’ve selected to help you is far nicer.

4. Identify Routes to Market

As a self-employed person, you’ll have some type of product or service that you will be selling to an audience of some kind. These may be far or near, online or in-person. Whatever it is you’re selling, you need to be able to identify your routes to market. You can find out the various channels to sell your speciality by researching others in a similar field to you, via the Internet, books or by speaking with people.

As an artist, I know that I can sell work on online art platforms, in-person at exhibitions or art trails, but also through selling merchandise of my work (both online and in-person). I’ve also learnt that people like to hear artists speak and run workshops, so my income sometimes comes from these means too. And there are funding bodies and open commissions that I can apply to when I have a specific project or exhibition in mind that I would like to create. In my six years of being an artist, I’ve tried lots of different ways of selling. The pandemic taught me to be quite selective about in-person exhibiting going forwards, as I realised that I find it to be quite draining and stressful. But this is really useful information for me, as I now know to only pick exhibitions that really serve my vision – or very much excite me.  

Try different ways to sell your product and service and find a mix that works for you, that you enjoy and find easy

5. Network with others

Admittedly an area I’m not very good at myself! And a lot of this is related to confidence, but also my personality trait of being such an introvert. It always feels like a real chore to do, plus I just don’t enjoy it very much. It’s a lot of effort and it exhausts me, so, I’m not going to write about how it’s important to stretch yourself and be outside of your comfort zone all the time. Instead, my tip and what I’ve learnt is: make networking your own! Find what works for you. For instance, reaching out to your existing networks of friends, family and colleagues is sometimes enough if you need a recommendation or if you’re looking for a sounding board.

And with Covid-19, this can absolutely be achieved virtually. Through social media and attending events and talks online. Or connecting by signing up to newsletters. These all count. In fact, the internet allows you to have a far more targeted approach to networking. It’s better use of your time, and it has a more authentic base: you’re reaching out to someone because you genuinely like what they do, and you’re interested in them. Find your own way forward and just test the waters. And definitely don’t be hard on yourself if you’re not ‘out there’ networking left, right and centre every week!

6. Learn to say no

Apparently self-employed people very rarely turn down work. And I know this can be the case for me. This urge to just say yes all the time feels almost intrinsic. And with being autistic, the work you’re doing is likely to be something you’re passionate about, so you may not see it as work per say. But it is work and you need to be able to find an equilibrium.

Finding a balance does take to time to establish, as does finding areas of work that you enjoy more than others

As you fine-tune this, I’d also find a budget that works for you, which includes contributing to a pension (this is extremely important), and then accumulate a buffer. This buffer then helps with being able to say no, as well as allowing yourself to take time off, which leads me on to the next, probably the most important section…

7. Look after yourself

This is vital. I’ve experienced burnout and it’s no fun. The impact was tremendous, and it really knocked my confidence and affected my relationship with work for the entirety of the next year. It can also make you resentful. If you do experience stress and burnout, be kind to yourself, but ultimately learn from it. I find having part time work around my art business a good way to give me balance and financial security. I also get the best of both worlds. And I’m so grateful for this.

Take that odd afternoon off work – why not take the whole day off while you’re at it!

Book in holidays. And don’t do any work while you’re away. You are your greatest asset when working for yourself, so looking after number one is critical. As a creative, periods of time off in different environments and through alternate activities is essential for me to come up with new ideas, as well as to reflect on what’s going on with my career, and life in general. When you’re in the midst of constantly striving towards goals (which may no longer be serving you), it can be hard to get that much needed headspace to see the bigger picture.

In conclusion

Self-employment is wonderfully nourishing, and I truly love it. There’s a great deal to learn and the learning curve always feels steeper than with an organisation, but the personal rewards are much greater. I’d wholly recommend it if you feel it’s for you, and I would definitely consider following these seven tips as a basis. Read around the subject and seek out advice from those you know who are already doing it. Ensure you have a good rhythm and authentic base to build from.

Be sustainable. Grow. And enjoy yourself too.

Mahlia Amatina

November 2021