Information on self-employment including starting your own business, freelancing, consulting, startups, and where to get further help and support at the university and beyond.
Self-employment is an option that an increasing number of students are considering, and some even start their businesses while studying. You may have a strong interest or skill in a certain business area, want more independence, or self-employment may be the only option for the career path you wish to pursue.
Self-employment has been growing steadily over recent years - numbers have increased from 12% of the labour force in 2001 to 15.1% of the labour force in 2017 (Office for National Statistics). Sectors and roles with a larger number of self-employed opportunities include: accountancy, management consultancy, sports coaching, fitness instruction, private tuition, journalism, performing arts, creative industries, food-related businesses, web developers, and designers.
The University of Edinburgh is keen to support entrepreneurs and operates a commercialisation service called Edinburgh Innovations (EI). The EI team are dedicated to helping students and recent alumni with their endeavours in freelancing, or starting their own business or social enterprise. They offer 1-2-1 advice, online resources, networking opportunities, hands-on workshops and events, funding support, and access to the new Student Enterprise Hub. Based at Appleton Tower, this hub is new for the entrepreneurial community and provides hotdesking space.
What is self-employment?
Self-employment can come in many forms, including:
- Starting your own business
Generating business ideas, writing a business plan and financial preparation. If you are interested in starting a business, entrepreneurship or freelancing, you should contact the University's Edinburgh Innovations team. Whether you want a taste of entrepreneurship, have an idea you want to work on or have a running business you want to develop, Edinburgh Innovations can help. You don’t need to be studying in the Business School or have prior knowledge to take the first step. EI services are open to students and alumni from all schools, at all levels of study.
Prospects list some of the advantages and disadvantages associated with being self-employed.
Startups are emerging businesses started by entrepreneurs. They are often in the early stages of development, have a focus on growth, fill a gap in the market, have few employees, and work toward an innovative common goal (startups.com).
EI have information on their webpages about funding startups and startup visas, as well as a startup gallery where you can read case studies and watch videos of inspiring student success stories.
A person who is self-employed and is not committed to an employer long-term. Freelancers offer a skill or service to other businesses which employ them as needed for particular projects or for set lengths of time. They may be given office space or work from home, delivering work to deadlines.
Freelancers can be totally independent, actively marketing themselves and managing all their own work, or can be represented by a company or agency that sells their skills, and which offers a full range of financial and other support services.
EI run specific workshops aimed at those interested in freelancing. These workshops will give you an insight into what it takes to become a successful freelancer and highlight the wide range of resources and support that is available to you.
Contractors can be self-employed or work for an agency and work on a contract basis. They may be viewed as an employee of the organisation they are contracted out to, or be considered a self-employed member of staff.
Consultants are professionals with an area of expertise - often called in to help companies or individuals who do not have the resource themselves or require specialist advice (Consultancy.uk).
What skills do I need for self-employment?
As well as often requiring specialist skills, you should be considering how to acquire the necessary skills to succeed. You need commitment, initiative, drive, enthusiasm and hard work to get a venture off the ground, but you also need to have basic business skills. Where possible, you should aim to combine your specific subject knowledge with some business or marketing courses. No matter how good the idea is, lack of qualifications, technical skills and business acumen can hinder anyone starting a business.
How do I make myself known?
Know your market
Research is vital to acquire an in-depth understanding of your chosen business sector, and the customers who will want and can afford your goods or services. You must also have a realistic business plan if you want to obtain financial backing.
Using social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest (especially useful for the creative industries) is a great way to promote your business, to network with other business people, to showcase your work, and even to sell your work (not directly, but by linking to the website selling your products). Read our information and advice to help you make the most of these platforms.
Networking skills are vital to success. The Artists Information Company commissioned research in 2012 found that a huge 65% of freelance work in the visual arts sector comes via the hidden jobs market (jobs that are not advertised), with only 35% from advertised opportunities.
Joining a professional body can provide opportunities to network, access to information resources and regular updates in the sector. Professional bodies can be especially important to those who are self-employed as they can offer advice and guidance on rates that you should be charging for your skills, continued professional development opportunities (CPD), and support for issues that may arise. It shows your professionalism and commitment to the profession, and may be an indicator to potential clients of your seriousness for the industry.
You can search for relevant professional associations on the Government website: Approved professional organisations and learned societies
Where to look for freelancing and contracting work?
Some of the below websites and companies enable freelancers to communicate with employers, raise invoices, and track their jobs and financial interactions. Some have a UK focus, but as many of the jobs can be carried out online from home, there are opportunities for freelancers to get work from all over the world.
E4S (Employment 4 Students) - includes a section for online freelancing work with useful information and links to freelancing job sites.
Contractor UK - provides a service for the UK's IT contracting community, where freelancers can not only find job adverts, but get daily news, market information and an active forum with members sharing experiences and willing to help new freelancers. There is also a series of First Timer guides, covering all aspects of freelancing, including CV advice and how to find work.
Upwork - an international website with many UK jobs listed. As the work is being done online, clients can take jobs from anywhere in the world.
People per hour - has a wide range of jobs on offer, with a good selection in creative arts, and employers’ pay rates seem reasonable. Freelancers can also sell their services for either an hourly rate or a fixed price for the entire project. Offers a full range of services.
Support available at the University of Edinburgh:
Edinburgh Innovations - a free support service to student entrepreneurs at the University of Edinburgh.
Informatics Ventures - provides support to technology entrepreneurs and offers networking opportunities. It aims to inspire and develop globally ambitious software startups across Scotland.
Scottish Institute for Enterprise (SIE) - a collaboration between all Scottish universities. The Institute's activities at the University of Edinburgh include undergraduate and postgraduate study options, a programme of free workshops, and commercialisation advice and support.
Support available from outside of the University:
National Library of Scotland Business eResources - has the largest publicly accessible collection of business information in Scotland, covering local, regional, national and international concerns. These resources include COBRA (Complete Business Reference Adviser) for anyone aiming to start a business. Comprehensive resources can help you produce a business plan, carry out market research, and find out who you can contact locally for free business support, whether you're in the creative field or science and technology.
Local enterprise organisations - these organisations often offer free business training advice, contacts and, in some cases, funding. For example, Business Gatway.
Entrepreneur First - a programme enabling participants to build a tech startup. It is not required that you are technical before you join the programme.
Shell LiveWIRE - helps individuals access the knowledge, skills, networks and resources to turn their ideas into successful businesses.
Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust - if you are 18-25 years old, they offer specialist advice and possible grants of up to £1,000.