September 26, 2018 Freelancer en_US Why do some people succeed at self-employment while others don't? New QuickBooks survey reveals 7 characteristics many self-employed people share. 7 things that separate self-employed workers from everyone else

7 things that separate self-employed workers from everyone else

By Kim Harris September 26, 2018

When you think of the term “self-employed,” what springs to mind?

Do you think of an entrepreneur building a start-up? A freelance photographer? Someone with a brilliant idea that has yet to take flight?

To get a better understanding of the mindset of this incredibly diverse set of workers, QuickBooks Self-employed commissioned a survey of 923 self-employed people to establish how and why they got started and what motivates them to succeed.

What this survey revealed was exciting and affirming of speculation — that along with self-employment challenges come massive opportunities for work flexibility, to overcome adversity, and to work at what you love every day. Here are the findings.

Why choose self-employment?

The decision to become a self-employed worker isn’t always easy, but there are some common threads when you start looking at people’s reasoning for taking the self-employed route.

According to the survey respondents, the top three reasons for deciding on the type of self-employed work they’d like to do were:

  1. “I’ve been doing it a long time as a hobby.”
  2. “I have always wanted to do it.”
  3. “I have a passion for it.”

The majority also said they find it difficult to work for someone else, and that they’ve always been an entrepreneur.

How did you decide what type of self-employed work you would be doing?

What motivates self-employed people?

The survey asked about motivations and outside factors that pushed the respondents to become self-employed. It considered factors like having a baby, wanting more freedom, and access to new technology, alongside factors like moving, getting fired, having a midlife crisis, and not having enough money.

In terms of why self-employed people begin working for themselves, an amazing 68% of respondents had some kind of negative experience that pushed them to start working for themselves. Additionally, 55.7% said they had a series of experiences that pushed them to pursue self-employment, 24.5% had a single experience that pushed them, and 20.8% said there was no rhyme or reason for their decision.

Of the 24.5% who said a single experience pushed them to become self-employed, the top three responses were:

  1. Being motivated by someone
  2. Being tired of working for someone else
  3. Getting fired or laid off

What single experience pushed you to start working for yourself?

Of the 55.7% who said a series of experiences pushed them to become self-employed, the top three responses were:

  1. Wanting to build their own business
  2. Being tired of working for someone else
  3. Being motivated by someone

What series of experiences pushed you to start working for yourself?

Seven qualities self-employed workers share

It’s tough to pin down one single persona or background when it comes to self-employed workers, because their line of work, as well as their personal and professional idiosyncrasies, can be vastly different from their counterparts. But the survey did find at least seven common traits that many seem to share. The first is all about self improvement.

1. They are lifelong learners

In any business or profession, continued education is a must if you want to go further and make a deeper impact. But no matter how much it matters to a field or industry, there are always people who will resist adapting to changing times and try to do things the old-fashioned way, instead of educating themselves on new trends and practices.

For self-employed people, however, the need for continued, or even constant, education is a common trait. The overwhelming majority of self-employed people think of themselves as lifelong learners. When asked whether the statement was true or false, almost all of the respondents affirmed they’re lifelong learners, followed by being multitaskers, loving to read, and affirming they thought about self-employment a lot before doing it.

Which of the following statements are true about you?

2. They work out of passion instead of necessity

Self-employed people are most likely to list passion, problem-solving, adaptability, and productivity as their most prominent strengths. Interestingly, self-employed workers don’t seem to think they have as many weaknesses as they have strengths. In fact, when given the option to identify their strengths and weaknesses, all of the traits were marked as strengths by the majority, with less than 50% of each trait marked a weakness. The skills they ranked the lowest were marketing, technical skills, and networking.

Please rate the following as a strength or a weakness for yourself?

3. They are willing to make sacrifices

According to this survey, successfully becoming self-employed might come down to your drive. When asked what separates self-employed workers from those who simply want to be self-employed, our respondents said it comes down to a willingness to make sacrifices, wanting it enough, and passion.

In your opinion, what separates people who work for themselves from people who want to work for themselves?

4. They value time over money and people over profits

You might think that because of their entrepreneurial spirits, self-employed workers would be type-A workaholics who are hungry for cash, but it’s actually the opposite. Most described themselves as introverts who follow the rules and overwhelmingly value time over money. So much so that the majority claim they don’t sacrifice their work-life balance, even when things are busy. We found that most self-employed people say their success can be attributed more to hard work than luck, people over profits, and the tendency to follow the rules. Almost three out of four (72.8%) say they people over profit — compared to 27.2% who say they value profits over people.

5. They tend to be jacks-of-all-trades rather than masters of one

Another interesting finding from the survey is that the majority of self-employed people seem to be all-rounders rather than specialists in a single area of expertise. Almost 71% say they consider themselves to be jacks-of-all-trades, compared to 29.1% who said they were not. This doesn’t mean they lack focus, however, with 77.1% saying they prefer to push themselves to do the impossible, compared to  22.9% who admit they would sooner give up than chase the unattainable.

6. They aren’t afraid to work with people smarter than they are

The majority of the self-employed workers who took part in the survey (79.2%) reveal they get excited by the opportunity to work with people they consider to be smarter than themselves. In comparison, 20.8% were honest enough to admit that they are threatened by the thought.

Which of the following best apply to you?

7. They tend to be more cautious than risk-taking

The data is split between the cautious and the risk-taking self-employed but on balance, a slim majority (53%) say they are more cautious by nature, while 47% see themselves as risk takers. But there’s plenty of adversity to go around — working for yourself wouldn’t be what it is without a few surprises. The biggest surprise self-employed workers face, according to the survey, is underestimating the amount of work involved.

Interestingly, a common misconception was they thought they’d feel more lonely. They also said they didn’t think it would be so difficult to get started, and they underestimated the costs associated with getting their business off the ground.

Did you face any surprises with self-employment?

Common goals for self-employed workers

Of the self-employed workers who took part in the survey, some had more experience than others. Less than half (35.2%) started working for themselves more than five years ago. About 32% said they’d been self-employed for two years or fewer.

Whether just starting out or a seasoned self-employed pro, there have to be goals involved when setting out as a self-employed worker. But what are the most common goals? The survey looked at intentions for the future. Interestingly, many of the respondents didn’t mark “growing into a successful business with employees” as one of their top hopes for their business.

In fact, that number (37.3%) looked small compared to people who aren’t looking to grow into a successful business with employees, while only 3% of self-employed workers are looking to grow their business in order to sell it. Around a third (32%) said they hope to grow a successful business without employees, suggesting most self-employed workers hope to continue their solo operation. They are more concerned with being successful than experiencing major growth in order to sell the business, or add more workers to the mix.

What are your plans for the future of your self-employment/business?

Considering self-employment?

If you are currently working for an employer and thinking about becoming self-employed at some point in the future, take a cue from some of our respondents on how it’s done and the mindset you might need to be successful.

More than half said they spent a long time planning for self-employment before starting to work for themselves, and nearly 78% said they thought a lot about being self-employed before deciding to do it. If you’re in this camp or aspire to be, these survey results may offer some useful advice.

“Never give up no matter how many times you fail.”

When asked what advice they’d give someone thinking about becoming self-employed, the respondents had a myriad of ideas. When grouped together into categories, there are several common threads. Top answers included just going for it, planning ahead, not giving up, and staying dedicated.

There were many more pieces of advice that fell outside of these categories, like going to business school, not relying on a loan to get your self-employed gig off the ground, and finding a mentor to help you along your way. Being smart with your money was another common piece of advice from self-employed workers, with examples including strict budgeting and having enough money in savings to last you a year.

Overwhelmingly, the sentiment was about jumping into self-employment and applying persistence. “Never give up no matter how many times you fail,” read one response.

The self-employed advice breakdown

Top tips from some of the self-employed workers who took part in the survey:

  • Just go for it
  • Plan and do your research
  • Don’t give up/be dedicated/patient/persistent
  • Be smart with money/have savings
  • Find your passion/do what you love
  • Work hard
  • It’s difficult/requires sacrifice
  • Believe in yourself
  • Ask questions/ask for help
  • Keep your day job/start small
  • Don’t be afraid to fail/make mistakes
  • Stay positive
  • Taxes are hard/tricky

Learn from experience

Overall, there’s a lot to learn from people who have lived the ups and downs of self-employment. The survey shows that by getting inside the mind of the self-employed, we can see they’re the type who see success as a product of hard work and are apt to push through obstacles and develop a thick skin. They’re passionate. They’re not threatened by working with people smarter than they are — even if they’re commonly introverted. They value their time and work-life balance, and they aren’t afraid to fail. On the contrary, they learn from their failures. Although the majority will not let fear deter them, many admit they’re afraid to fail.

The determination of the survey respondents was astounding and inspirational. For many, self-employment is a way to fulfill a dream of working more freely, pursuing a passion, and becoming more financially independent. And since time is their most valued resource, it makes sense that to achieve a position in life wherein time is flexible and balance is achievable, the reward is well worth the effort.



QuickBooks Self-Employed surveyed 923 self-employed people throughout the US in August 2018. The sample was selected by Pollfish. QuickBooks Self-Employed welcomes the re-use of this data under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original source is cited with attribution to

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Kim Harris is a copywriter and blogger for TSheets by QuickBooks. When she’s not writing about new ways time tracking and scheduling save business owners time and money, you’ll find her reading, dining, or plotting her next adventure. Read more