Start-ups and innovation

Do you have what it takes to be self-employed? The essentials

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The Swiss Federal Statistical Office’s March 2020 report on work and income  (available in French and German) reveals that an eighth of the Swiss workforce is self-employed. Have you ever thought about starting your own company? What does it take to make a successful transition into self-employment? We spoke to Johanna Seeliger about the essential qualities and prerequisites.

Johanna describes herself as “an enthusiast entrepreneur and change agent” on her Impact Hub Zurich profile page. She’s an expert in the subject with lots to say about it, as you’ll find out if you keep reading.

Johanna Seeliger, what abilities and qualities should a person bring to the table if they want to be self-employed?

The most important thing of all is to enjoy what you do. Starting your own business is a big leap into the unknown, and you can’t expect to be an expert in every aspect. You’ve got to have the courage to put yourself out there and tell the world your mission. Like a lot of other people, I sometimes found it hard in the early days. My attitude changed once I found my niche: diversity & inclusion. I’m not scared of being the center of attention anymore because I don’t see it as a test but as an opportunity to do important work.

It also helps if you like having your own freedom. If you enjoy being your own boss, organizing your day as you see fit, and making your own decisions, then self-employment will appeal to you.

What personal qualities are needed? Does a lack of specific qualities make starting a business harder?

Generally speaking, I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as a natural born entrepreneur or self-employed person. I think there’s a lot you can learn if you really put your mind to it. The will to make a go of it is paramount. If you’re just looking to get rich quickly, self-employment probably isn’t for you. Depending on your industry and role, you might end up working more than you would as an employee but earning less. 

Some qualities genuinely are essential: you need either to be a “people person” or to have abilities that are in demand and extensive know-how. For example, if others can do what you’re offering, you can stand out from the competition with a friendly manner and good interpersonal skills.

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    Johanna Seeliger

    Johanna is currently focused on building up Diversify, a consulting firm that specializes in diversity and inclusion – helping companies to recruit women to leadership positions, for instance. Firmly rooted in the start-up scene, Johanna knows what it takes to make self-employment a success.

    To Diversify

Is a willingness to take risks crucial to making self-employment work?

I think people overestimate the risk involved in being self-employed. Most people who have their own company worry that it might fail, but self-employment helps you to develop various skills that are very much in demand on the Swiss job market. Having start-up or freelance experience is a bonus in many jobs. 

The real risk is that you might be earning less for a year or so, so I don’t see self-employment as particularly risky. It’s more of an investment and an opportunity to learn.

What personal qualities and conditions are not conducive to self-employment?

A good financial cushion is very useful. It can often take longer than you expect until the money starts rolling in. Processes might be slower, and you might not be getting big orders right from the outset. It’s soul-destroying if you have to give up because you’ve run out of money, even though financial success seemed to be just round the corner. Money causes stress. 

I’ve noticed that selling your own products or services tends to work best when you don’t have an urgent need to sell. Potential customers can tell when you’re desperate for them to accept your offer. Putting yourself under too much pressure blocks your creativity.There are various ways to bolster your finances. You can dip into your savings, take a part-time job on the side or cut down on your living costs. The important thing is to ease the financial pressure.

“Do what you love!”

Johanna Seeliger, founder & CEO of Diversify

Do you have any insider tips for boosting motivation?

I’ll admit that, personally, I rarely lack motivation. That’s probably because I’m so fired up about what I do.  Of course, I’ve had doubts from time to time, and they were crippling. I dealt with them by talking about them at length with my husband, my friends, and other self-employed people.

What’s my secret? Do what you love! Have the right people around you. Above all, stay true to yourself. It’s important to be yourself!

Does that mean that there’s no wrong time to make the move into self-employment?

That very much depends on what you want to do and what else is important in your life. If – like me – you work in a service industry, you can decide for yourself how much work you want to take on, and you can organize your time and your jobs as you see fit. That gives you a certain amount of flexibility in the start-up phase. If you’re leading a team or accountable to investors, on the other hand, that takes away a lot of your flexibility. Generally speaking, I’d say the sooner, the better, but there’s no upper age limit. One of my friends became self-employed shortly before retirement age, and she flourished.

How important is your mindset in determining whether you can make self-employment work? What would be “the right attitude”?

It’s fundamentally helpful if you don’t just see the risks all the time. Having the courage to try new things is a useful attitude. Don’t be too timid! If something doesn’t work, there’s no shame in it. 

It’s important to communicate your abilities, projects, and references to others. This includes posting testimonials and achievements on your website.

Johanna Seeliger, founder & CEO of Diversify

How are self-employed people influenced by their surroundings?

It certainly helps if others around you are self-employed as well. I spent three years working at the Impact Hub, where I was in contact with start-up founders all the time. Some were successful, some weren’t, but life went on, and nobody ended up on the street. They either moved on to found another start-up or went back to full-time employment. I watched as perfectly normal people plucked up the courage to go it alone, and that gave me the courage to try it for myself.

Buzzwords like “self-marketing” and “personal branding” are very popular. Do self-employed people need a flair for selling to turn their business idea into a success story?

It’s important to communicate your abilities, projects, and references to others. This includes posting testimonials and achievements on your website. That reminds me: I really need to update my website (laughs).

What makes a good business idea?

I personally think it’s important for a business idea to bring some sort of benefit for society. If you want to make money from it, there has to be a market for it. And you have to feel enthusiastic about it. Ask yourself what you need to do day to day to make it work, whether that’s genuinely what you want to be doing. You have to answer these questions honestly to judge whether it’s the right idea for you.

With the benefit of hindsight, what tips would you pass on to your earlier self about starting a business?

I started my first company when I was a student. Looking back, I think we should have asked for more money (laughs). Above all, it was a lot of fun and the best training in the world. If we’d focused solely on profits, we’d have missed out on a lot of exciting projects. With that in mind, I’m very proud of our first taste of self-employment.

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“If only someone had told me that!” Can you confirm some common sayings on the subject of self-employment?

  1. “The business model you start with isn’t the one you succeed with.”: Yes, that’s right. The idea tends to evolve over time, so the business model has to evolve too. That’s exactly how it was for me (smiles).
  2. “You’ll have doubts and just want to give up.”: Doubts, yes. Give up, no.
  3. “Family and friends won’t share your joy.”: That depends on who your family and friends are (laughs). If you have people around you with experience of running a business, you’ll definitely be able to share the joy.
  4. “There’s no such thing as instant success.”: Yes.
  5. “Acquiring customers is the hardest part.”: At the start, yes, but it gets easier. I never saw myself as a good salesperson, and yet selling my services is now one of the things I enjoy most. I invest in my network, visibility, good customer relations, and the high quality of my work. For example, I spend time on content marketing and networking events. These often lead to mutually beneficial synergies. Before you know it, your services are more or less selling themselves.
  6. “When you’re your own boss, you still have to do all the dirty work.”: Of course you do!
  7. “After three years, you’ll either never want to do anything else or give up.”: Ask me again in a year (laughs). I think I’d like to be self-employed for the rest of my life. I want to stay true to my chosen field of diversity & inclusion, but the topics I deal with and the services I provide will surely change. It would be boring if they didn’t.

So, Johanna, what’s your conclusion? You’ve got what it takes to be self-employed if...

  • you want to be your own boss;
  • you’re passionate about something;
  • you’ve got some start-up capital.

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