The thing with self-employment

I recently visited a friend (let’s call him Chitsanzo) who rears local chickens, lots of them. As someone who rears a much smaller number myself, I was impressed that his chickens don’t die in droves like mine. Together with someone else that I was with at the time, we started discussing how Chitsanzo could turn his ‘thing’ into a business and make a living off chickens. We never asked if going commercial was on Chitsanzo’s mind and resisted the temptation to ask him.

I have heard many times, people advising their friends to quit their jobs and concentrate on building a seemingly successful hobby or side gig into their main business. “You obviously already have a market and customers, got for it!” or “You have the skills and passion, you can’t fail”.

Ask any business owner who has been in business long enough and they will tell you that self-employment is not that simple. Being passionate about rearing chickens and tailoring clothes or being skilled at public speaking is not all it takes to run a successful business.

Self-employment involves a lot of desk work too

Jack of many skills

A startup has many moving parts and you have to be comfortable with each of them. You have to wear the many hats of bookkeeper, admin guy, business development guru, salesperson and marketer. As you start adding on employees and assets, you need to know how to deal with HR and insurance issues.

If you know jack about these things, then you have to read the driving manual while you are at the steering wheel. Learning how to market online, understanding taxes and a dozen other things – generally learning how to keep your head above fast-moving water.

Juggling all these issues will generally leave you with little time for your family and friends. Because it is a lot more than a 8-5, Monday to Friday kinda job. In the early years, they’re very few, if any, sick days, leave days and days to nurse that hangover from the night before when you tried to unsuccessfully drown your sorrows. If you have family that doesn’t really understand the entrepreneurial journey, then you will turn into the errand boy for the family. “Si mumango khala? Nde mawa mupite kumudzi mukatiyimirire ku maliro”. (Since you just sit around, go to the village and represent us at the funeral). Some will even question the wisdom of opting to rear livestock or make jams over a desk job.

“Gosh, Austin, you are one negative son of a gun!” you must be telling yourselves :))

My point is this, running and operating a business is not as glamorous as some people have made it look. There are usually many days of tears, sweat, sleepless nights, anxiety and often extremely isolating moments. So what is my point?

Dive into self-employment knowing the whole deal

Dive into self-employment knowing fully well what it is all about. Commit to it. It will be hard and you may fall along the wayside. There is no shame in that. If one is willing to dust themself and go through the struggle again, by all means, do it. But there is no shame in going back to full-time employment.

It is also important to understand that some people sail (relatively) easily through setting up and growing their business because they have easy access to finance and have an established support network. Hard work + access to finance + social capital can work wonders for someone who is just starting out. Not everyone starts out on an equal footing. Some will be more advantaged than others.

No shame in full-time employment

There is no shame in being employed. Employment gives you the security of a regular income. You are assured of leave days, sick days and even compassionate days too. On most occasions than not, you have a set 8 am – 5 pm, Monday to Friday work schedule. And perhaps most importantly, you can focus only on your speciality and excel at it.

And that is exactly what Chitsanzo does. He has a regular tech job that he loves. The chickens he rears are a hobby that assures him a healthy organic meal once in a while. He probably is under no pressure to turn it into a business.

Anzathu, you are your own boss!” Self-employed people have bosses too. Don’t be fooled.

Grow already growing entrepreneurs

I would love to see a lot more focus being placed on helping business owners who have been in business for a number of years and show promise to scale. Entrepreneurs that have a viable product or service and fully understand their business and the market. Entrepreneurs that can employ people to produce a product at scale. Many capable entrepreneurs, that hold a lot of promise, fail to access finance and training to move beyond being a small business.

Self-employment is great. There are just many people out there oversimplifying the journey. Jump in with caution. It can be a rocky ride!

*Cover Photo: © Arne Hoel/The World Bank

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