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The Perks of Self-Employment

Noelle Ihli
Noelle Ihli

Self-employment gives you a chance to find a healthier work-life balance.

"Go big or go home." It's not just the king of corporate catchphrases – it's the American way.

"Bigger is better," "size matters," "dream big," "it's all or nothing," "if you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch," and "scaling is everything" are all common catchphrases. In other words, we say if you can’t supersize it, double it, dominate it or climb to the top of it, what good is it?

But I’ve always been one to question the status quo, and so when given the opportunity, I went home. I stayed small. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made. Here’s why. 

Self-employment: The home advantage

Like the majority of people who choose self-employment, I'm happier, more fulfilled and better paid for an hour of my time than I was working a traditional job. 

Most weeks, I work fewer hours than I did as a traditional employee (usually 30-35 hours). This week, I'm headed to the dentist, my kids' school music program, a haircut and lunch with a good friend – with zero stress that I’ll be missed at the office. During the holiday season, I work 80 hours a week. But I'm not resentful of those extra hours. I'm exhausted after Black Friday, but it's the feeling of running a marathon, not running for my life. 

I get to share breakfast, lunch and dinner with my husband who also works from home, making dishes I really want to eat instead of a frozen Lean Cuisine I grabbed on my way out the door. I sit with a purring cat on my lap, while I drink a cup of tea in my stretchy pants and write, design or fulfill orders with zero interruptions. Most days it really is that idyllic. 

Good things come in small packages

The question people invariably ask when they learn I run a small, successful business is how soon I plan to expand, automate and open a bunch of retail stores. 

But to be honest, expansion, automation and world (or market) domination doesn't appeal to me at all. For one thing, I like being small. I like living in a niche of my market, becoming friends with my customers, making the things that I sell with my own two hands and working in the trenches with my two (incredible) part-time employees. 

My business has grown a lot since 2013. For a while, I was doubling and tripling and quadrupling my sales. But I've stopped casting my net wider. Why? Because if I continue that growth, the dynamics I love will change. I screen print the shirts for my online boutique in small batches, with water-based ink, in a little studio where every inch of space is maximized. If my business keeps growing, I'll have to move out of my studio, outsource my customer service and social media presence, hire more employees and switch to plastisol ink – the gold standard for almost every profitable mid-sized and large-scale screen printer. 

Here's the thing: I love my studio and the two women who share the workspace. I love the personal interaction with my customers. I don't want to manage more employees. And water-based ink is one of the qualities that sets my shop apart from other makers. In other words, I'm really happy where I'm at. This is my big dream. A small shop that pays the bills, gives me all the flexibility in the world and makes my customers happy. 

Home is where the heart is

In most cases, the freedom to work from home means looking past the "bigger is better" model and leading with the heart, especially at first. 

For every "bigger is better" aphorism, there’s another one about the "almighty dollar" or how "money is power." I get it. We’ve all got bills to pay and kids to raise, but if your endgame is growing really fast, scaling like crazy and then selling your business for a pretty penny, you could be setting yourself up to become one of the small businesses that fail within the first two years.

Unsurprisingly, most people who choose to work from home value work-life balance, time with family and freedom more than a big paycheck. This doesn't necessarily mean we don't earn a big paycheck (more on that in a minute), but it's not our endgame.

So what is our endgame? Honing in on an untapped corner of the universe that's the perfect triangle of something we love, something we're good at and something the world needs. Then finding a way to monetize it. 

I love cleaning house – figuratively speaking, of course

I honestly expected to make less money working from home. While it's true that my paycheck does fluctuate from month to month, depending on how much I work and what's happening in the retail market, my hourly rate is consistently and significantly higher than it was at a traditional job. 

Part of that is my new ability to decide exactly when and how I work. As an introvert, I really struggled in an open-concept office space – par for the course in the modern workplace, despite evidence that open workspaces make employees less satisfied and less productive. 

I plan my most critical, creative tasks for my personal peak hours (between 8 a.m. and noon) and save errands and more rote tasks for later in the afternoon. Once in a while, I jump out of bed at midnight when I have a sudden stroke of inspiration for a new design or article angle, then enjoy a slower morning the following day. All this means I accomplish a lot more on any given day, which, in turn, means better bang for an hour of work. 

Yes, I have to pay for my own health insurance, and it's true that nobody matches my retirement contributions anymore. But between my supercharged productivity and the non-monetary benefits of self-employment, I still feel like I'm cleaning house.

Who says you can't go home?

Working from home isn't just for the job-insecure or the independently wealthy serial entrepreneur anymore. For people who are creative, scrappy and value work-life balance more than a paycheck, it's easier than ever to join the ranks of the self-employed. The tools and technology are there. The opportunities are there. The wild card is really whether or not you have the skill set, the personality and the perseverance to thrive as a self-employed person.  

What you create might not be big – or maybe it will! But one of the best indications that you'd love working from home is that you're OK with the idea of being successful and small. 

I recently learned that I'm one of the only commercial screen printers in the country whose bread and butter is water-based ink. This medium has been mostly relegated to hobbyists because it doesn't scale very well – and that's OK with me. Staying small isn't at odds with being successful. Sometimes, it's just the right move. 

Image Credit: stockfour/Shutterstock
Noelle Ihli
Noelle Ihli Member
I'm Noelle, founder and owner of Fourth Wave Apparel. I make super-soft t-shirts with messages I believe in. I'm proud to be one of the few screen printing shops in the US that uses eco-friendly water based ink, and I'm proud to work with local and national organizations like NOW (the National Organization for Women), the Idaho Democratic Party, and March for Our Lives Boise to spread messages of inclusivity, progress, and hope.