The number of people choosing to start a business or work for themselves is at a record high. At latest count there were more than 4.6m self-employed workers in the UK – just shy of one in six members of the workforce. The internet has kicked over barriers to entry and the rise of the sharing economy and flexible working has given millions the freedom to go out on their own.
It is right to highlight the different employment rights and protections for self-employed people, something people who might be thinking about starting their own business need to be aware of, and the government should keep under a watching brief.
The main thing, however, which stuck out for me, was Deane’s research into the working habits of self-employed people. While 10 per cent of people working for themselves said the thing they missed most about being a regular staffer was the benefits and protections of employment, a bigger concern was the lack of interaction with colleagues. One-quarter of self-employed people said they missed working in teams, discussing ideas and coming up with new projects as part of a group.
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Deane also found that 40 per cent of self-employed people had never co-operated or worked with other self-employed people. This is a surprise. In London, you can barely move for co-working and meeting spaces and most City AM readers will be familiar with the likes of We Work and Google’s Campus. At the IoD, we like to think we had one of the very first co-working spaces in London at our Pall Mall headquarters.
But, as always, we are in danger of seeing things through the lens of hyperactive London. Fifty-five per cent of self-employed people either haven’t used or haven’t even heard of these work hubs. Even taking into account the kinds of contractors and freelancers who might never need a co-working space, this is an incredible amount of missed opportunities.
With so many self-employed people saying isolation is a problem, and more than half worried about not having enough customers or work, self-employed people who work together, co-operate where they can and open themselves up to new ideas will reap the rewards both for their business and their personal development.
Encouragingly, there seems to be a growing appetite for this kind of collaborative entrepreneurship across the business spectrum. This month the IoD launched a pilot for its new super-charged, exclusive IoD Advance network. The promise of a curated network of expert business leaders, and de facto mentors, advisors and consultants saw 500 people apply to join the scheme on its very first day.
For those running their own business, who are responsible for finding their own clients and coming up with new products or services, collaboration isn’t just a nice added extra, it can be essential to staying at the cutting edge of the market. Just being around other entrepreneurs and working in a space with a definite “buzz” can focus the mind.
Then there are the tangible business opportunities of collaboration. As Thomas Richards, a member of the IoD’s young entrepreneurs network says, working with other self-employed people creates “opportunities to gain knowledge from others” and talk “to people that you may not otherwise talk to.”
Robert Liddiard, co-founder of Yapster, a social media app, says collaborating “allows small businesses to compete” against their larger competitors by pooling resources and tapping in to expertise from different sections. Start-ups and one-person bands clearly can’t afford a mighty marketing, design, IT or accounts department. And most of the time they might not need one. But sounding out a self-employed marketer, or former finance director over coffee is within the reach of everybody.
Employees get this kind of interaction every day, through formal meetings as much as water cooler chats. Re-inventing these kinds of connections, and then making the most of them, will turn start-ups into scale-ups and help the freelancer with too few clients become the business owner without enough time.