biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies 09: HR for the Self-Employed: Perk Up!

by Grace Bonney

Hello, all! I’m Lauren, and I’m new here. Well, scratch that — I’m a regular visitor but a new contributor.

I’ve known Grace for a while now, and we share a passion for supporting and strengthening communities of women entrepreneurs, as well as a love of great design and independent spirit. We got a chance to connect further when my business partner Emira and I interviewed Grace for our book, The Boss of You: Everything A Woman Needs to Know to Start, Run, and Maintain Her Own Business. That conversation revealed that we had found a real kindred spirit, and so I was thrilled when Grace invited us to contribute to her Biz Ladies series here on d*s.

I’ll be covering a few different topics, but to start with I’ll be talking about HR for the self-employed. In this series of posts, I want to share some of the ways Emira & I have tried to be our own (and each other’s) best-ever bosses, by treating ourselves like valuable employees. Along the way, I’ll pass along some of the best advice I’ve received from other entrepreneurs, and tell you a few stories from our company’s nine-year history that I hope will help spare some of you the headaches we had.

I want to say up front that we still have a long way to go. I’d love to say that we have mastered work-life balance, and that we leave work at 5 o’clock every day and never work on the weekends, but I’d be lying. What I can do, though, is speak from the perspective of an entrepreneur who at least puts self-care on the agenda, and whose vision of success involves a healthy balance of hard work and well-earned rewards.

My goal here is to help all of you hardworking entrepreneurs, who are dreaming big and striving to leave your unique stamp on the world, spend a little bit of your tremendous energy making the journey towards that big dream as satisfying as the destination. It’s too easy for us to get caught up in the vision we’re driving towards and ignore our own health and well-being along the way. If you can have a life while you run your business — if you can lead a healthy, well-rested, diverse life, that is, rather than a workaholic one — your clarity, productivity, and creativity will all benefit. And those aren’t things that are just nice to have — they’re critical to your success as an entrepreneur.

With all that said, let’s dive in and talk about one concrete way Emira and I have tried to make our self-employed lives happier and healthier: by showering ourselves with job perks!

(OK, “showering” is an exaggeration… but I wanted to catch your attention. Did it work?)

CLICK HERE for the rest of Lauren’s post after the jump!

Very early on in our entrepreneurial adventure, we realized that in becoming our own bosses, we had lost many of the perks of being full-time employees: We were no longer eligible for employment insurance; we didn’t have extended health benefits; and perhaps most frightening of all, if one or both of us became unable to work (due to, say, those pesky repetitive strain injuries us geeky web designer types are prone to), both our financial futures were at risk. It wasn’t long before we were up to our eyeballs in scintillating literature describing disability insurance, health insurance, and retirement savings plans.

The exciting part was that we had the power to put together the best benefits plan we could imagine. The downside, of course, was that we were the ones who’d be paying for it. So we had to find the middle ground between subsidized-massage fantasy and fiscally-solvent reality.

Now, before I break down how we put together our benefits plan, I want to clarify why I think every entrepreneur should give themselves a benefits package. The short answer is that we all have days when we catch ourselves daydreaming about not being the boss anymore, and going back to working for someone else — days when it just seems infinitely simpler not to be the one making the big decisions and shouldering the financial risks. And when those days come, you need to have a stockpile of very good reasons to keep on truckin’. The lure of a steady paycheck and benefits is one of the most tempting things about that other life you could be leading, so I strongly suggest you set up your own company to be a viable competitor with the imaginary employer in your daydream. Think of it as your way of improving employee retention.

So, what do you need to put together a killer benefits package? It’s pretty simple, really. First, figure out what you need. Make a little wishlist. Use broad brushstrokes. Our list was: Health & dental package (with room for spouses & dependents); disability insurance; RRSP (that’s Canadian for 401(K)) matching; vacation; and reimbursed expenses. Once we had our list, we started asking around for help. We talked to an insurance broker about our insurance options, and we talked to all our entrepreneurial friends about what they were doing, what they’d tried in the past, and what they hoped to do in future.

Step two is to determine what the company can & should pay for. I suggest you talk to your bookkeeper and/or accountant about what’s smartest from a financial/business perspective. This will vary a lot from one region to the next, but for us, we discovered that we had to pay our own disability insurance premiums personally — the business couldn’t pay for those. And they weren’t cheap, but we decided we would sleep a whole lot better knowing that if, heaven forbid, one of us should develop carpal tunnel syndrome, we’d be provided for financially. So rather than have the business pay for the insurance, we factored the added personal expenses into our salary calculations and made a plan to increase our salaries accordingly, as soon as we could afford to.

That brings me to an important note: You’re probably all asking yourselves how the heck you’re going to pay for all this stuff. Well, we chose to look at it as an inevitable cost of business — something we were going to have to pay for sooner or later. If and when we brought on staff, we knew we’d want to provide them with a competitive benefits package, so why wouldn’t we expect one ourselves? And since we’re the ones who determine our pricing, ultimately we have the power to ensure our revenues are high enough to provide decent compensation. So we tackled it like we would any other expense: we shopped around, figured out a budget, and worked out a plan for phasing in the new costs.

It’s also worth asking your bookkeeper/accountant what expenses your business can pay for that might otherwise be incurred personally. For example, when we started our business, we immediately instituted a company bus pass policy: both of us get bus passes every month, and the company pays for them. (This benefit is now extended to our staff, too.) It makes good financial sense for stuff like this, i.e. personal expenses that relate to your work, to be paid for by your company, with before-tax dollars, rather than with your own after-tax money. The eligibility of expenses will vary, so do check with your favourite number-cruncher and get their advice on whether you can get your company to pay for things like work-related books, lunches with clients, or the CDs you play in your store. Obviously, there are limits on how much spending you want your company to do, but if it’s stuff you’d be paying for anyway, it’s valuable to examine where to draw the money from.

OK, I think that’s more than enough for one blog post. I’ll be writing more on HR stuff, from paying yourself a decent salary to improving your job satisfaction, as well as things like making your first hire. (I’ll also be posting occasionally on online marketing questions, since that’s kinda my day job.) If you’ve got questions you’d like me to address, please leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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  • Thanks, this was really interesting. I’m well overdue for some ‘job perks’ and you’ve inspired me to get thinking how I can have some.
    Looking forward to reading more.

  • thank you so much for your balanced perspective! it is so encouraging and something i don’t think we hear enough as creative entrepreneurial women. i am so excited to read your book and i’m so glad you will be contributing here! i will be your faithful disciple :)

  • Aw, man. This makes me realize I’m a terrible boss….this definitely gives me a roadmap for considering a do-over before the employee (me) decides to unionize and go on strike. Thanks!

  • so excited to see you contributing here!! i actually just ordered of copy of “the boss of you” on amazon last week, and am on chapter 4. the list part is the hardest, but getting concrete ideas on paper has been super helpful in organizing my *gazillion* thoughts. thanks to you and emira for a great book!

  • Thank you for your words of wisdom. I’m always looking for inspiration and ways to help grow as an entrepreneur. This information is great! I’m off to buy the book.

  • Thank you! This was a really helpful post, I look forward to further ones. Now you’ve got me dreaming about self-employment…

  • Thanks so much for this series! It gets a little lonely working from home and I appreciate the support, encouragement, and practical advice.

    Keep up the good work!

  • I’ve generally thought that being my own boss meant I had to think outside the box on benefits- instead of insurance/401k plan etc, what about being able to travel for my job, being an integral part of my community, and being surrounded my amazing beauty everyday? I find that the “phasing in” of these benefits is totally accurate- small businesses need lots of reinvestment in the beginning, and often I lose sight of the fact that someday I will be able to pay for all these “real job” benefits if I just work at it long and hard enough!

  • Thank you so much! what solid wisdom! These practical matters are hard to find advice on. Really appreciate it!!!

    Looking forward to your next post!

  • Lauren, I so appreciate this series and Grace’s great content in general. I am an interior designer (w/ two babes under 4) and my husband and I have worked our tails off this last year preparing a studio for me to work out of and show my work. I am just exhausted with doing all aspects of this and wonder where the energy will come for getting the doors open —which I must do :) I will keep coming back to see more here; we do have benefits, we are both self employed and honestly, it is brutally expensive, and in a slower economy, the rates do not go down :(.

    I need to feel the breadth of my net being larger with support, and knowing you and your partner are braving the trail is helpful. Sorry for the long reply—can you tell I’m weary :)

    tons of appreciation

  • Thanks for the great advice! I really look forward to the rest of this series. I love the idea of thinking of yourself as your own employee. Or the flip side, being your best boss ever.

  • Lauren, thanks to you and Emira for sharing your Lessons Learned. I read your book a while ago and it’s been one of the best I’ve consumed. I am just in the beginning stages of my plans to go independent. The information from your book (and from the Biz Ladies so far) has really made it seems less daunting and something I know I can do.

    Thank you, Grace, for the Biz Ladies.


  • Hi all — just a quick note to thank you all for your kind & thoughtful comments. Do let me know if you have questions you’d like me to tackle in future!

  • This is a great topic. When I think about going out on my own I just sort of figured I wouldnt be able to have benefits. Its nice to actually know that its a possibility but I am going to have to work for it – which is ok.

  • Hello
    Looking forward to getting the book if I ever manage to tear myself away from work, kids & house stuff!
    It can be lonely working at home. Can’t wait for more!

  • Great post, wonderful insight, unique perspective. Loving it. One thing I would like to add is that there is a coooool company that does all of this for you. I don’t yet make enough money to join, but if you want to look into it: http://www.solow2.com

  • I’m currently in a divorce situation, but when it’s final, I really NEED to do something and know that I will need a business plan and start up capital. Do you know any legitimate organizations or gov. resources that will offer low interest loans or grants to women starting over?
    Thanks! So far I am loving this thread series, thank you for your information.

  • This is really sensible advice, all of it. I’ve just gone back to self employment after having been sucked into working for someone else for a year for a lot of these reasons – the lure of a job that stopped at 6 o’ clock and not having to worry about my paycheck and pension contributions. But I hated it.

    This time I’m taking more time off at weekends to spend with my husband and keeping a cap on my hours but charging more for them. It’s amazing how no one seems phased by a higher hourly rate after all.

    Thank heavens I’m in the UK though and get healthcare free at the point of need – it’s a brilliant and reassuring safety net and makes the cost of self employment so much lower. Thank you, post WW2 politicians. Think about it, US politicians, when you have clawed some money back from banking. How much free healthcare could be provided by the amount of money given to bail out banks?

  • Thank you for this article. I am really intruiged by the idea of creating a vacation plan for myself (being self-employed) because I can see how there is a perk in theory that I can take time off whenever I want…but will I? Oftentimes not. Great idea to value your balance and well-being right from the start. Thanks again!

  • As someone who is in the beginning stages of going out on my own—I wanted to let you know how grateful I am for this business series. It gives me hope that I can make things work! Thank you.

  • It’s refreshing to see a post — and series — like this. So often, women who start businesses depend on the benefits provided by the jobs their partners hold. I know I’m one of those women. It would be fantastic to have benefits so that things like eye glasses and extra dental care aren’t so darn expensive. And working toward providing these benefits means building a business more so than a job.

  • The whole U.S. health plan debacle has made it hard for me to want to leave my job.

    I already have a full time self owned business and want to start another, but the safety net of having a job that pays my health insurance and vacation pay makes it a tough decision.

    I do love being home and this will eventually win out, maybe as soon as this year.

    Thanks for website and your ideas.