Meet the one-man band

In part two of our series on the rise of sole traders in Holland, three former employees who have become their own boss tell PHILIP HOFMAN how their lives have changed after becoming entrepreneurs. “It felt like a big step into the unknown.”

Doreth Kramer (50) has been working as a self-employed personnel adviser ever since her contract as human resources adviser at the Politieacademie (Police Academy) expired two years ago. Initially, she wanted to hire herself out to larger companies as an interim HR manager, but few wanted to spend money on external consultants during the recession. Now she advises small and medium-sized businesses on human resource issues, such as absenteeism, insurance matters and career coaching. “It is not a full time job for me yet,” says Doreth. “Hunting for new clients is my weak point. I guess I want to rely on good word of mouth, but that is not always enough.” She attends network events, but says she often meets more fellow zzp’ers (short for entrepreneurs without personnel in Dutch) than prospective clients. Together with four other HR advisers, she has just sent out a mailing to prospects, offering a “free HR scan”. Doreth, who has previously worked 11 years for the respected consultancy firm Twynstra Gudde, says that before becoming self-employed, she had quite a rosy picture of regulating her working hours and choosing projects that interested her. “That has not completely come true though!,” she admits with a thundering laugh. Sure, not having to ask your boss for a day off is nice, says Doreth, who works from home, “but before you know it you find yourself emptying the washing machine and do other household chores during work hours.” She “really misses” the close contact with colleagues in her former life as an employee. “I always enjoyed working shoulder to shoulder to make something happen for a client. Now I visit customers for half a day on my own, then I am off somewhere else.” Doreth may have colleagues once more though. “I have just spotted a dream job,” she chuckles. “It is for three days a week, so if I can combine it with running my own business, that would be perfect!”

Wouter Bos (30) worked for a construction company before setting up his carpentry and home improvement business in 2008. Ironically, it was an unexpected promotion from carpenter to foreman, which drove him away from life as a salary man. Just before Christmas Wouter had completed a building project in his new management role, but was refused the pay rise that fitted the greater responsibility of the job. Over the holidays, he headed straight to the chamber of commerce to register his own business. “It felt like a big step into the unknown,” says Wouter. “Saying goodbye to an employer who had always been good to me brought insecurity, but it was exciting too.”  In the first year he hired himself out as a temp to local construction companies. By year two he managed to fill most of his time with jobs for his own customers. His workdays are long. “I start at seven and finish at five, and most evenings I spend about an hour and a half behind the computer, answering e-mails and doing my admin.” It is a price Wouter is happy to pay for being his own boss. “I do more small scale jobs, making things to measure. That brings variety and is more fun than being involved in building new houses, as I did before. Time really flies for me every day, that shows I am enjoying myself.” The money is better too. Wouter earns about 30 percent more than he used to as an employee. “In the beginning I found it difficult to make quotations though,” he says. “I disadvantaged myself several times by pricing too modestly, but I have learned to be fair and realistic at the same time.”

Roger Lagarde (41) started his one-man ICT consultancy business when his former boss did not approve of the new client - The Ministry of Defense - Roger had found on his own initiative for the 20-strong IT-company he worked for. “I believe the project for the ministry was considered a bit too far removed from the company’s core-business,” Roger says pensively. “I never fully understood the thinking behind it, to be honest.” After an unsuccessful attempt to persuade his boss, he quit his job and took the project on himself. That was five and a half years ago. Since then, Roger, a former Siemens and Lucent Technologies employee, has kept rather busy. He was never seriously tempted by offers to go back to regular employment. “I earn more this way and go to work whistling. The fun factor is very important to me, I choose projects that I know I will enjoy.” His bread-and-butter service is IT project-management for large companies such as ABN Amro and DSM. A typical project keeps him occupied for several months. When he has some time to spare, Roger advises medium sized companies on IT buying decisions. “It helps me keep tabs on technical developments. It is a bit like a hobby too, I do not really do it for the money,” he admits. Roger says he has no trouble finding new assignments to keep him busy. “I always find work informally, through hearing things and talking to people.” Holidays aside, he claims not having had one idle day over the past five years. Roger finds there are very few downsides to running his own business. Sometimes he misses confiding in colleagues, but only a little. He admits to always having a small wish list of interesting courses in mind, but a lack of time to take part. “But I find you can learn a lot on the job. I ask my customers for feedback on my performance, that tells me how to improve.” Business is good, plenty of work to do, but Roger will not hire staff to expand. “I will stay a zzp’er. Advice is something one gives in a personal capacity, I would not want to delegate that.”