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Data & Insights 3 min read

Flexibility over size: Why many sole traders are choosing to stay small


Apr 15, 2021

The way we choose to work has been changing for a long time, but COVID-19 has accelerated this shift. The pandemic has changed many people’s priorities and encouraged them to take the leap into something new.

We already have a flourishing three million strong sole trader community in the UK. With many choosing a career path as a ‘solopreneur’ due to the financial and creative independence it offers, the number of sole traders is likely to keep growing in the coming months. 

Our research amongst UK sole traders found that 70% enjoy being small, with 62% saying the benefits and freedom far outweigh those of being a larger business. So what is the appeal of going solo?

We spoke to two sole traders to find out more about their motivations and advice for others thinking of going it alone. 

Why many are choosing to go solo

Our research found the top motivators for becoming a sole trader include being your own boss (54%), having a career that suits your lifestyle (40%) and being able to create something of your own (31%).

Leon Hamilton, owner of Hamilton Dessert Company, was working in a field he had no passion for which pushed him to build something of his own. “I was making desserts I enjoy at home and my friends and family told me I should go out and sell them. It was a huge gamble, but I decided to invest a small amount in a gazebo and table and started selling at local artisan markets,” he explains.

Xiaojuan Yuan, founder of Mai Dim Sum, reflects on starting-up during the pandemic: “I took the courage to step out of my comfort zone and pursue my dream. Going out on my own meant I could ensure the things that are more important to me – like environmental sustainability and only using quality ingredients, which sits at the heart of my business.”

The benefits of being a sole trader

Many sole traders are attracted to the flexibility and control that staying small provides. The top benefits for sole traders include flexible working (63%), independence (49%), job satisfaction (29%), and creative freedom (25%).

Having creative freedom was one of the key benefits that drew Leon to pursue his dream. “Being small gives me full control of how I turn my passion into a business. I have the freedom to stamp my own personality onto the products. Growing up, my father used to say ‘people don’t buy products, they buy people’, and I see now that he was right.”

The path is not without challenges

Despite often wanting to stay small, the sector faces growing challenges. Only 8% of sole traders feel they’ve been fully supported by the government during the pandemic, whilst 57% said that support has been more focussed towards SMEs and larger businesses, leaving them behind.

Xiaojuan has felt the challenges of going solo. “It has been very difficult opening a business during the pandemic, but I am lucky to have had a tremendous amount of help and opportunity to take the risk.” 

“To date, I’ve had to be really hands-on in the kitchen, driving quality control and constantly adapting the business in response to the pandemic. Looking to the future, I want to expand the brand and offer our delicious dim sum to more people across the UK.” 

Advice to others

“Setting up the business has not been easy and anyone thinking of going solo should be ready to throw everything at it. Always step back to check that you’re still on course. In the whirlwind it can be easy to get lost down a wrong route. Not everything will work straight away but don’t give up. Keep trying. Find the solution, don’t be afraid to ask for help and learn, learn, learn,” encourages Xiaojuan.

Nearly a third (29%) of sole traders said they’ve collaborated with others to skillshare, and this is something that Leon has benefitted from too. “Since launching, I’ve been able to meet many other sole traders and small business owners. We’ve become a community to bounce ideas off and share advice. It’s amazing to share in the success of what has become an extended family for me – so I’d advise others to tap into the sole trader community for support.” 

Leon also advises, “before you take the leap, make sure it’s the right option for you and do your research. Does being a sole trader fit your product and lifestyle? There is no one size fits all solution, so you need to come up with a plan that’s right for you.”

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