My top tips for being self-employed

My top tips for being self-employed
Image by Michał Kosmulski (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

In 2006, the same summer as my eldest child was born, I made the move to being self-employed. Over 17 years later, I'm still an independent consultant.

I'm still advising on, designing and researching digital things for my clients - Even though many of the names and labels for what I work with, as well as the tools I use, have changed multiple times over the years!

Back in 2002 I was made redundant. This has turned out to be the last time I've had permanent employment outside my own business. In the years that followed, I had a number of temporary or project-based contracts.

I'm not sure that, at the time, I was aiming for or expecting to start my own company. I think, like most people, I just presumed that eventually I'd end up with a "real job".

By the time the calendar had ticked over to 2006, I realised that in the 4 years since I was last permanently employed that my income had held up. I had people waiting for a project to finish so they could pull me into another one. I was enjoying the variation that working with different organisations brings.

At the time, during the first half of 2006, I was working closely with a number of people who were also self-employed. Not only did people like Anders Alhbin sing the praises of going solo, but it also gave me the opportunity to get ask questions and get advice about how to go about it.

Having your own box

After being self-employed for so long, it's not unusual that I get asked by people who are just starting out, or are thinking of making the move to "egen låda" (literally your own box in Swedish, slang for being a self-employed consultant) what my advice is for them.

Earlier this year, David De Leon, who had recently made the move to his own box, put me on the spot at a conference and asked: What are my top 3 tips? I answered at the time with a modest four tips. In this article, I've thrown off the modesty and added a 5th double-bonus tip!

Personally, I never really considered that what I've done business-wise is anything special, or dramatic, but I have been doing this a long time now which means whatever I've been doing must have been special enough to work!

Before I get into my tips though, it's worth pointing out that I live and work in Sweden. My company is based in Sweden. The majority (but not all!) of my clients are also in Sweden.

Sweden has by and large a pretty good work culture. While this might have enabled me, to a certain extent, to follow these tips, I don't think it affects the underlying principles behind them. In short; you'll need to map this advice onto your own country and working culture...

Family first

Those closest to you are the most important. Not your work, or clients. Clients come and go, but generally not your family. Your definition of who is family be different from mine, but prioritise those closest. Being there for them might mean not being there for a client. That's OK; if a client doesn't understand it's OK, they are probably not the right client.

Over the years I've witnessed the stress, strain and destruction that prioritising work above family can cause. I've also seen how compassionate organisations can make a big difference to the wellbeing of their employees during tough periods.

Be patient

Sometimes there will be lean spells where you don't have as much work as you would like, or need. Don't worry. Sometimes the coin comes down tails 5 times in a row. That's OK. It's just maths, it's not you. They are independent events. Another time, that coin will come down heads 5 times in a row. Make sure you have a buffer so that you can cope with a lean spell. Smooth the curve.

This is easy for me to write, but harder to cope with in practice. When that coin comes down tails, and deals fail to land. You can feel low, and feel like this self-employed nonsense isn't the right path for you. Maybe it isn't - but I've been through a number of economic downturns and seen many rounds of restructuring that left friends and colleagues, who thought they had permanent employment, searching for new work.

In many ways, we're all self-employed. Hunting for that next job is very similar to hunting for that next project or client. Be patient, you'll get there.

Partner up with agencies

You're small - or at least your business is. Make sure you're friends with someone bigger, or at least an organisation that can help sell your skills and talents as a consultant to a wider audience. You won't always have the ability, or the desire, to invest a lot of time in this. Those of us who are self-employed are often specialists first, salespeople second; or fifth.

The best partners for me over the years have been the ones that don't have a James. Or at least don't have so many resources that cover the skill set that I have. That way, when the question comes from one of their clients, I'm there for them to help fill that gap. It gives them flexibility, and gives me a "sales funnel".

It's not something that comes free. Usually, this kind of partnering-up means that the partner organisation takes a slice of the pie. Over the years I've adopted a rule where I limit the cut partners take to 10% I've found that higher than this causes friction and discontent - sometimes from me, but more often from end-customers who react badly when they find out it's too high.

Don't work 100%

Now you might think I really mean don't work 100% - which, to be honest, isn't a bad idea as there is a growing body of evidence that a 4-day week is as productive as a 5-day one.

What I actually mean is, don't work 100% with one client. Doing this leaves no time for anything else. It leaves no time to care for the other clients you have a relationship with. It leaves no time to build new relationships with new clients.

Not only that, but it also leaves no time to enjoy the freedom that being self-employed can bring. That freedom is everything from writing this article, to recording a podcast, or even doing a bit of gardening because the sun is out.

There is though a situation where 100% is a good idea - at the start. There is another situation where 100% might suit you - and that's when you work as a contractor rather than a consultant.

Discount don't lower

Don't lower your prices. You know how much your time and services are worth, and how that positions you in your sector as a whole. Hopefully you've put some time and effort into working that out.

There will be situations when a (potential) client asks for a lower price. It might be the case that you want to offer a client, or potential client, a lower price (perhaps because they are buying multiples, or it's a big deal, or it's remote rather than on-site, or just because it's a worthy cause).

In those situations, always discount your price rather than lower it. Discounts make people smile. Keep your prices the same as usual but offer a discount (10% for example). One advantage of this is that you make the saving visible to the client, but still lead with your full price. Further down the line, ending discounts, or even reducing them, can be easier than increasing prices.


These are the four tips I gave David at the time. The 5th tip about discounting your prices was something I passed on to him a few days later, after a little reflection.

Prioritise family over work.
Be patient, don't panic, but prepare for lean spells.
Partner up with organisations who can sell your talents for you.
Don't work 100% with one client, leave room for yourself and others.
Discount your prices but don't reduce them.

These are just 5 pieces of advice. I guess that they give a bit of insight into the values I have underpinning my business.

There are obviously many more things that contribute to being successfully self-employed - not least of which is actually doing a good job! 😂 I'm going to presume that's something you take pride in making sure happens...

James Royal-Lawson - Senior digital advisor · Designer · Digital analyst · Economist · Podcaster