Top 5 tips for successful self-employment

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
October, 2015

Going self-employed requires huge commitment and, sometimes, an even bigger leap of faith; but there's plenty of expert advice available to help you make the transition

We asked three graduate entrepreneurs for their tips on making a success of self-employment. Here’s what they advised…

Add value to your customer's life

First and foremost, your offering must fix a problem efficiently and distinctively. Greg Duggan, co-founder of high-protein, sugar-free ice cream company Wheyhey, is living proof of this fact.

Greg devised Wheyhey after visiting his business partner's diabetic parents, who wrongly believed that their favourite 'low fat, low calorie' frozen yoghurt was beneficial to their health.

In reality, its high fructose content ensured that it certainly wasn't good news - and inspired the development of Greg's nutritious alternative. 'Your business must add value to your customer's life,' he says. 'What could be more satisfying than genuinely helping others?'

Making a difference requires you to focus on maximising quality rather than profit, explains Dr Akanimo Odon, CEO and principal consultant at EnviroFLY Consulting UK, an initiative that helps international organisations form business partnerships with their African counterparts.

Providing great service is especially important, he adds, as self-employed individuals initially lack the reputational leeway of established businesses. 'Always impress your clients with top-quality work,' urges Dr Odon. 'This is crucial, as you're the last line of defence. If a poor job is delivered, you alone are to blame.'

Do something you love

Since self-employment requires so much hard work, it's essential that you spend time doing something that you love. This is especially important early on, as you'll be faced with countless obstacles as your business grows.

Anna Gray is owner of Model Students, a professional modelling agency that finds students part-time, flexible work in their local area. She was inspired to start her business after struggling to balance her full-time undergraduate degree at The University of Nottingham with long-distance modelling work.

Capitalising on this opportunity involved Anna burdening the stress and financial challenges of self-employment, while many of her friends enjoyed well-paid graduate jobs. Five years on, and Model Students has major clients including Boots and Regis, plus impressive expansion plans that involve the recruitment of full-time staff.

'Self-employment is really exciting, and looking back at what I've achieved is amazing,' Anna says. 'What's more, I'm doing something that I love and find fun.'

Understand your industry

Industry knowledge is imperative - you should never consider starting a business without having a strong sector understanding first.

Greg and Anna both formed businesses in industries they knew well. Dr Odon, meanwhile, established EnviroFLY after recognising that the African market's 'peculiar' business culture was deterring potential collaborators from abroad - despite the continent's obvious economic potential.

'Africa is a virgin business market waiting to be explored,' he says. 'Having spent a long time before and during my postgraduate studies at Lancaster University developing extensive links and networks in numerous key industries, it made sense to set up a company that helps global clients to enter and grow in the African market.'

You must also thoroughly understand any specialist legislation that affects your business. Anna recalls one incident where someone attempted to sue her under copyright law after using a photograph.

'Luckily, it all turned out okay and I wasn't in the wrong,' she recalls. 'But because I was unsure of the law, I had many sleepless nights until the issue was resolved.'

Keep costs low

Being financially savvy in your business's infancy is particularly important. Greg, who started Wheyhey with a second-hand ice cream machine purchased for £150 from eBay, urges budding entrepreneurs to spend wisely, and remember that all initial expenditure must be recouped.

'It's easy to focus on getting your business started at any cost,' he warns. 'But don't lose sight of the cash that you're spending. Have a clear plan as to how and when you're going to pull the money back.'

You can make significant savings by becoming innovative in your sourcing, development and delivery. Dr Odon suggests that your first strategic partner should be your university and its extensive alumni network. This, he claims, could help you to keep costs low - and that isn't the only benefit.

'The worst thing about self-employment is the limited resources, whether it's time, manpower, knowledge or funding,' he admits. 'Working in strategic partnership with others to bridge the gaps is therefore vital.'

Combine self-belief with self-reflection

Last but not least, you must balance unwavering self-assurance with the eagerness to learn from others.

Greg emphasises the importance of maintaining an 'uncompromised persistence and belief' in yourself and your vision - even in the face of rejection. In addition, you shouldn't be overly formal in your presentation and communication, as this can compromise potential business relationships. 'Be respectful, courteous and polite, but above all be you,' Greg advises.

While Anna agrees that self-confidence is vital, she also highlights the importance of learning from others and responding positively to constructive criticism. 'You'll find plenty of people who want to offer advice,' she adds. 'This can sometimes be a little frustrating, but always listen - they might just come up with something that you haven't thought about.'