Three Fundamental Truths About Being Self-Employed

In my years as a blogger and web developer, I’ve spent a lot of time around people who are self-employed, freelancing on the side, and/or plotting to quit their jobs.

I think of it as an occupational hazard – it’s natural for us to gravitate toward those who are in our field or niche, and only a fellow self-employed person can truly understand the nature of the work I do and the frustrations (and joys!) that come along with it. Plus most bloggers and designers are nerds at heart, so there’s plenty to talk about.

The other side of that coin? At least once a week, I get an email from someone who is desperate to become a “full-time blogger” or wants tips on starting a web design business. And my instinct is to tell them to run screaming, though I usually manage to phrase it a little better than that.

Why would I feel that way? After leaving my career to run my business full time, wouldn’t I want to encourage other people to take the route I chose? After all, self-employment is pretty flipping sweet, right?

Yes it is. But I’ve learned that most people have a totally warped view of what working for themselves really means. And once they find out the truth, those dreams of the easy life quickly evaporate.

arpWQv0_460sSelf Employment: Three Fundamental Truths

Fundamental Truth #1: Self-employed people work harder for themselves than they have ever worked (or will ever work) for someone else.

A lot of the people I talk to have this vision of self-employment that involves a laptop, a beach, and fruity drinks with umbrellas. They dream of the day when they have no deadlines, no one telling them what to do, and no schedule except the one they set.

And that’s basically a load of BS that will never happen.

When you’re self-employed, you do have deadlines (assuming you have some means of income and aren’t just sitting around doing nothing). You do have people telling you what to do, but instead of a supervisor, it’s your clients, customers, or blog readers. Don’t believe me? Stop writing blog posts or working on whatever you do for clients and see how long it takes the emails to come (and the income to stop).

If you stick with self-employment for awhile, you’ll develop a routine. You’ll get some systems in place that allow you to work smarter, not harder, and you might even find some passive (or semi-passive) streams of income. But you’ll spend a lot of hours and weeks and months killing yourself and wishing you still had a “normal job” before you get to that point.

Fundamental Truth #2: Your landlord will not accept “If I build it, they will come” as a valid reason for missing this month’s rent payment.

Oh, so you want to quit your job and create the next Facebook? Awesome! Except you should probably keep your job until your service or product is earning enough to pay your bills.

Far too many people jump into self-employment without a clear plan for how exactly they will earn money. And you’d be amazed how quickly your savings account will drain and you’ll be choosing between electricity and groceries. Self-employed people do not get paid if they do not work. And that’s exactly why you’ll hear so many business owners complaining about long hours and sleepless nights; there is no vacation time or sick time when you work for yourself.

Case in point: Last week I launched a client site, and let’s just say the launch didn’t go well. To the tune of about 35 straight hours in front of my computer working out kinks, and another 15+ hours of work since. I had two choices:

  • I could bust butt to fix the issues and get the job done, thus getting paid.
  • I could say “Sorry, but I stop working at 5pm every day to achieve better work-life balance!” or “Sorry, my goal for the year involves more time for travel so I’m leaving for the Caribbean!” and leave the client hanging, thus not getting paid and infuriating/losing the client.

Now, because I have no intention of missing a meal or living without running water, I chose Option 1. But I know a lot of people who would choose Option 2, and they’re the same people who are shocked because they aren’t earning millions of dollars in passive income from the internet.

Fundamental Truth #3: There is no such thing as a full-time blogger.

Let me give this to you as straight as possible: There is no future where you’ll write 3-4 blog posts a week and people will fill your Paypal account out of pure gratitude for the content you share. It’s never going to happen.

There are plenty of people who earn their income from activities related to blogging, but it’s not the glamorous “writer” lifestyle people often imagine. It’s building an audience and working on SEO and earning money from affiliate links and taking on staff writing positions that pay a crappy $25-75 per post. It’s sticking around long enough to be considered an “authority” so you can charge people for a webinar on how to blog (AKA “selling the dream”). It’s networking and learning to use social media for more than funny cat pictures.

If you have any illusions in your head whatsoever that you’ll buy a domain, start a blog, and become internet famous, just stop right now. Go to work. Earn your paycheck. Consider buying a lottery ticket since the odds of getting rich from the lottery are probably better than the odds of becoming a famous blogger.

The Bottom Line

If you don’t have some kind of marketable skill, you will not succeed in self-employment. That’s a promise. Hopes, dreams, and feel-good landing pages have their place, but when it comes down to it, you must work to earn money.

Sure, it’s possible that in the far-off future you’ll become a guru like Chris Lema or Chris Guillebeau. (Apparently the secret lies in being named Chris!) But if you ask either of them, they’ll tell you that their self-employment experiences didn’t start out with speaking at conferences and selling tons of products and consulting for hundreds of dollars per hour. It started with good old-fashioned hard work. Lots of it.

Now quit living in a fantasy land and get creating.

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  1. But what do you mean I can’t just roll up and earn millions in passive income from the internet?!!! You’ve dashed all of my hopes, Andrea. I guess I’ll just punch out at the end of the day and collect my paycheque 😉

    • That’s very true! I know many, many people who just aren’t able to make themselves get up and work (and it’s very easy to get distracted, I’ll admit). It takes a lot of willpower to make yourself sit down and work when there’s no boss to fire you or write you up when you don’t. :)

  2. Haha. I feel the same way about writing – I do it for a living and I love it, but I discourage anyone from doing the same thing careerwise unless they really have no better options.

    • People really don’t realize how much work writing can be! I wrote for several sites for awhile and I burned out fast… Kudos to you for being able to do it all the time! (I struggle enough with keeping this blog up to date, and that’s after getting rid of my personal blog!)

    • It’s like a builder/contractor whose house is never finished… It’s hard to carve out time to deal with your own stuff when you spend all your time dealing with everyone else’s!

  3. So true! I’m still trying to figure things out, and I’ve been 100% freelance for almost 3 years now. Unlike so many others who chose to go freelance, I had to do something because I couldn’t find work in my previous field anymore (decades of Unix sysadmin experience, but no background in Windows or networking).

    That part about “no work, no eat” has been my situation for months on end more than once, but I try not to let myself put on too many hats, otherwise nothing would ever get completed, LOL!

    My biggest challenge has been finding reliable clients. Word of mouth from friends and previous customers has brought me some good projects to work on, but there’s that driving need to have a steady income stream, and word of mouth alone isn’t always going to be able to fill that bill. How and where do you market your services and availability?