11 things I learned about self-employment in Malaysia

Self-employment in Malaysia

I’ve been self-employed for about a year now!

For those who don’t know the story, it’s basically this: moved to Ipoh late-2015, tried to open a business. Failed. Tried to look for jobs. Failed to find high-paying jobs. Started freelance writing. Now I am a self-employed writer.

Prior to this, I had always had 9am-6pm jobs. Like many people, I liked the stability of a full-time job. But I’ve also been envious of entrepreneurs and other people who ‘work for themselves’. Not having a boss seems like a nice concept, even though I liked all of my bosses.

Whether you’re currently self-employed, or considering to take the self-employment route in Malaysia, I think you’ll find this post insightful. Here are 11 things about self-employment in Malaysia that I found out in the past year.

1. You’ll still have bosses

Quitting your job so that you can be your own boss is a popular reason why people become self-employed. But let me tell you – I now juggle between at least 5 bosses/employers/clients. You still have to be a good employee who is easy to work with AND deliver results each time, every time.

To be fair, you do have a degree of choice in terms of who you accept as a client. But being ultra-choosy is not sustainable for your business. If you find fault with everyone who contact you for work purposes (already a rarity), you will end up with no clients at all. And that means no income.

2. You still have to do things that you don’t necessarily like

A misconception about self-employment is you get to do only things you like. No, not really. Sometimes you do have to do some types of work that you don’t like or don’t fully agree with. Cheryl Yeoh – you know her as the Former CEO of MaGIC – helped me navigate this grey area. In a blogpost, she said this about facing adversity, cynicism and compromise:

“Play the 80-20 rule. Sometimes, in order to fulfil a bigger purpose (the 80%), we have to compromise and do things we don’t fully agree with (the 20%). As long as it doesn’t violate your personal values and principles, you can live with it.”

I’ll give you an example. Once I was tasked to write articles justifying the United States’ military deployment as necessary in war-torn countries. I had to paint them in a positive light. I refused the hell out of that, because frankly, that kind of moral superiority is sickening.  That was an easy no.

But something like sales copies – which I ensure are written in non-discriminatory language – I accept, despite personally believing that spending money unnecessarily is wrong. (Yes, I admit that ‘unnecessary spending’ is subjective)

3. You don’t have to limit to earning only in MYR

Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay

I think (and correct me if I’m wrong) that many self-employed Malaysians look for work from other Malaysians.

It’s not wrong, but depending on the industry, it can be pretty limiting. Selling products and services to only Malaysians will stagnate your income. If everyone accepts RM200 (for example) is the max they’ll pay for something, then it’s hard to find Malaysians who are willing to pay more than that.

I know it’s easier said than done, but regardless of what you sell (products or services), try and market it to international clients. You can make a website, or list USD prices in your Facebook shop (with delivery costs), or advertise to the non-Malaysian target audience.

4. You have to step up your personal branding game

The best scenario for your business is that people buy your products and services because of you. Self-employment is all about how easy to work with/effective/solution-oriented you project yourself as a temporary employee. In short, you must immediately stand out as capable in solving the client’s problem, whatever they may be.

Something made me super happy recently. A company contacted me via Facebook. They were looking for a writer to help with their annual report. The person said that I was recommended by her colleague, who liked what she read on this blog (which is reflective of my personal branding).

(If this was you, thank you. God bless you 🙂

Show your values and your professionalism. Potential clients dig that. Now that we’re online-everything, choose your words carefully when you’re online. Avoid abusive language, avoid complaining without offering solutions, avoid things that ‘cheapens’ your image, so to speak.

5. Pricing yourself high will get you better clients

Clients are generally divided into two groups. The first group prefers the cheapest cost possible. The second prefers ‘get this job done right despite the cost’. Both are good, as long as they pay up. They just have different approaches.

Can you get cheap and quality work from a self-employed individual? Yes. But the searching process is time-consuming as heck, because it’s somewhat of a rarity (at least in the freelance writing world). Also, cheap tends to be synonymous with ‘not good’.

I say you should price yourself high because:

  • The positive connotation of expensive = good is a powerful first impression. Those who contact you first will assume that you’re good at what you do
  • You can always reduce your fee if the client is interested in working with you, but it’s harder to increase prices
  • This is an anecdote, but clients who don’t haggle with my prices tend to be clients who are very easy to work with, professionally speaking

6. Pricing your products and services is a very, very hard process for the soul

katermikesch / Pixabay

Above: my actual face during this process.

Self-employed people, especially in the services industry should be able to relate to this. This process forces you to ask yourself ‘how much do I value myself and my time?’ and actually put a number on it.

Like, I’d love to say ‘my time is priceless!’ but I still have to submit quotations and invoices to clients, and they need actual numbers.

How much do you want to price your time? RM10 per hour? RM20? RM5? RM100?

One year in, I still struggle with this. Even though I think my prices are fair, even cheap if compared with what Westerners charge, sometimes I feel like I’m ‘not worth the price’. It’s ridiculous because I’ve only received good feedback on my work. It’s a confidence thing? Maybe. It might also be the Impostor Syndrome – where individuals struggle to internalise and self-validate their accomplishments. Idkkk

7. “We Malaysians have one of the most public holidays in the world!” now means NOTHING

You work weekends. You work on public holidays.

It’s fine though, because if you do self-employment right, you’ll actually enjoy your work. And that’s why I’m writing this on a Sunday night.

8. People not paying you… will happen

I don’t want to sound like a pessimist, but this happens. I belong to the Malaysian writers’ FB group and have heard anecdotes of non-paying clients/ clients who pay less than agreed. I’ve heard sellers who had buyers giving themselves discounts, and it was too late/ not strategic to do anything about it. I know someone who was promised high salaries, but received coupons in return for their work instead!

On my side, I have not had this happen yet, but I’m emotionally and financially prepared for it. I know that protecting myself through contracts can only do so much. When it’s time to cut ties and let go, you have to cut ties and let go. And ideally warn others about it, because that’s the right thing to do.

Being self-employed is all about looking forward, never looking back.

9. Income/expense accounting and taxes are confusing but also kinda fun

JuralMin / Pixabay

I mean, I’m a personal finance enthusiast so yes this process of understanding finances during self-employment is actually downright fun for me 😛

In the past one year, I’ve figured out:

  • The need to separate my business and personal bank accounts
  • Opening a company
  • Accounting for small businesses
  • How to give quotations and invoices
  • How to accept money from international clients (beyond PayPal)
  • What I can and cannot claim as part of business expenses
  • How to monetise website
  • How to make a writers’ page
  • The benefits of having a virtual assistant to help me earn more/get better work-life balance
  • Learning how to outsource
  • Remote working
  • Automating stuff, especially marketing
  • How to be an influencer (kinda), ethically
  • And others, via online research and asking around

I wrote above some of the above in this website. See:

I’m still learning.

10.  Saving money actually became harder after self-employment

Disclaimer: Pure anecdote from my end. Hear me out.

When I was employed, I know how much I’ll get in a month. From then, I’ll ration out my salary appropriately to cover expenses like rent and utilities. I wrote about this in my ‘My actual monthly budget with RM3,500 salary a month‘ article. Because my income was consistent, I was in ‘saving money’ mode.

Now that I’m self-employed, my focus is to earn as much as possible every month. I am now in ‘earning money’ mode, and I find that I spend more freely now. It’s quite a big shift in mentality and habits, and I’m trying to adjust as well as possible. I’ll give you an example:

  • A = earn RM2000 and save RM1000
  • B = earn RM10,000 and save just RM500
  • Which is better?

If you chose A, you’re right. I’m becoming more like B now. I need to have a saving money plan in place, and fast. Every month I tell myself to add more money to ASB, and every month I postpone this. Many times I’m reminded that I can make voluntary deductions for EPF, and many times I postpone this, too. This is bad, because I do care about my retirement. If possible I want to retire early and just travel around. I don’t think I’m alone in this dream. I’m sure you have it too.

One of my favourite personal finance heroes, Mr Money Mustache wrote this must-read article – The Shockingly Simple Maths Behind Early Retirement. It’s a bit oversimplified, but according to the chart, if I can save 80% of my earnings, I can retire in just 5.5 years.

That’s freaking good motivation right there.

11. It’s hard until it’s easy

Extremely common: months of little/no income when you first start out. Extremely rare: making money right from the start.

Steep learning curve? Yes. The first few months of self-employment for me were depressing as heck. I wasn’t making money. I doubted my ability (because we believe that the amount we earn is related to our self-worth, no?). I was stressed out. Continued anyway.

Then one day it just… stopped being hard. Enough things were put in place and they need little maintenance. My blog generates consistent traffic from posts written months ago. Some previous clients contacted me for repeat work. Being self-employed now is easier than a year ago, and I know it’ll be even easier a year from now.

The best advice to go through the hard part is to follow Sheryl Sandberg’s advice – Done is better than perfect. If I had insisted to self-design and self-edit all blog images into perfect Instagram-worthy images, things might still be in the hard phase instead of the easy phase. So just get things done – you can always make it better later.

Self-employment in Malaysia – What do you think of it?

Pixel-mixer / Pixabay

If you’re self-employed, I want to hear from you SO bad. Do you agree with the above, and what additional things can you share about working for yourself?

If you’re currently employed/unemployed and thinking of transitioning to self-employment, were any of the above things shocking to you?

Take a minute to share what you think 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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20 comments

  1. I’ve been self-employed for almost a year too! I quit my software engineer job in Dec 2015 to become a freelance programmer. I relate to this post so much – especially the bit about having multiple “bosses”. Right now it’s constantly trying to find more clients and completing jobs asap, while not letting my savings disappear too quickly!

    1. Hey, a fellow freelancer! Hello Andy! Glad you found this post relatable. I think programming is one of the more sought-after and higher-paying skillset out there, good for you!

  2. Congrats Suraya! These are some great lessons and super valuable. Your point about personal branding is very important. Most freelancers neglect this and are unable to get quality clients. I’m happy for your achievement and to have worked with you. Wishing you continued growth and success.

  3. I’ve been self-employed for a few months and I have to agree with your example:

    Previously = earn RM3000+ and save RM2000
    Now = earn RM2,000 to maybe RM4,000+ but save only RM 0-500

    I spend much more freely now and I figured I can really use a budget (like what I used to have).
    Some of the suggestions were to do my budget based on the lowest income the year before, which I don’t have. So I am doing an experiment here: the total money I collected on this month will be the “income” for my next month expenses. Pending payment just doesn’t count in this case. I guess I can do my budget more accurately this way? it had to be on a monthly basis though.

    1. My personal way to count income is to calculate it as part of that month’s earning only after it was deposited. Sometimes clients take time to pay (or worst, not at all), so I try not to count chicks before eggs hatch, so to speak

  4. “clients who don’t haggle with my prices tend to be clients who are very easy to work with, professionally speaking”

    Agree!


    btw can you write about setting up these:

    The need to separate my business and personal bank accounts
    Opening a company
    Accounting for small businesses
    How to give quotations and invoices
    How to accept money from international clients (beyond PayPal)
    What I can and cannot claim as part of business expenses

    i am a freelancer and im interested to know!

    1. Hey asd!

      I’m still navigating all of them- it’s still my first year doing this, so I’m collecting info as well!

      But let me point you to the right direction:

    2. The need to separate my business and personal bank accounts – See the accounting tips by David, link in here
      Opening a company – See Mr Stingy’s post about LLP. I have sole prop. Both works, see which one better for you.
      Accounting for small businesses – Same accounting tips by David
      How to give quotations and invoices – Use online tools that can help you generate them. I like Financio.co. Free for normal users but get the paid one for proper accounting.
      How to accept money from international clients (beyond PayPal) – See here
      What I can and cannot claim as part of business expenses – Varies across industries. For freelance writing this is what I *think* can be deducted. Not a tax expert. Will be getting help come tax season.
  5. Hi Suraya,

    A HUGE thank you for your website! I’ve been reading various posts for the last two days.
    I started freelancing since early last year. And yes. It was torture at the beginning. The income trickled in. I’m not out of the woods yet but I’m certain this is the path for me. That’s half the battle – knowing you’re doing the right thing. I’m an introvert so marketing my work is what I need to focus on.

    I love your points on building your personal brand and pricing your work. I’m looking into getting my own .com and registering the business. Meanwhile I have a business blog with blogger. Yesterday, a friend told me that he wants to resign and freelance. He’s a graphic designer by training but works in marketing. I asked him if he’s set up a website and he looked surprised. I think many freelancers in Malaysia still don’t know about the basics of setting up and marketing yourself. And about handling our finances (living in Malaysia) – so thanks again for your site and all the links.
    God bless and have a great year ahead.

    1. Hi Kathleen,

      You’re welcome! I’m so glad they helped. I’m an introvert too, so I focus more on online branding rather than networking, and yes they can work just as well! All the best to you 🙂

  6. Your article is very inspiring Miss. Suraya, just like you, I also made the decision to have absolute control of my life making the decision of not having more boss, I had many challenges in the beginning but now I see that I should have done this a long time ago.

  7. Thanks for the great post here. I’m also freelancing on the side and your post is really helpful. Meanwhile on payment options, I actually ditched Paypal and go for TransferWise
    their fees are so much lower than Paypal. Saved me and my clients hundreds of ringgit! If you use my link above to sign up, your first 500 GBP (roughly RM 2.7K as of time of writing) transfer is free. Sorry for the promo message, just wanted to let fellow freelancers here know of an alternative option that is waaayy better than paypal. Cheers

    (suraya edit: deleted sign up link. I don’t want to create precedence)

  8. I agree with most of the issues when you are self-employed in Malaysia. I’m also a freelance writer for years, and I found there are times I have to deal with inconsistent incomes every month. One of the things that I dislike the most is dealing with dishonest clients, who either love to give excuses to delay the payment or worst case scenario, not paying at all! And as mentioned in No. 7, public holidays no longer means a thing for me. Most of the time I have to work on weekends or even during public holidays. Being a freelancer can be both mentally and physically exhausting. Still, there are perks being a freelancer. For instance, you don’t have to worry about following a dress code like you work full-time in the office.

    Finally, there is one more thing I would like to address as a freelancer. I’m not sure whether you have encountered this scenario before. Some of my friends and relatives always dismissed a person who works as a freelancer means he or she is “free”. Sometimes they only see the upside of being a freelancer, but hardly the downside of it. Even when you try to explain to them that “freelancing isn’t as so-called glamorous as you think”.

    1. Hi Casey,

      Yes, keeping track of all projects is mentally exhaustive. One must be good at planning and time management; my personal life suffered from this. I’m trying to be more balanced now and try not to be ‘switched on’ all the time!

      On the relatives and friends side, I noticed that they don’t view me as so free anymore once I say I’m self-employed or independent consultant. Worth a try 🙂

  9. Hey Suraya,

    I have been reading your blog for a few days now and I really enjoy it! I am quitting my 9-6 job soon and am thinking about starting something myself – haven’t quite figured out what yet though. I’m quite scared to be honest but optimistic as well. Can’t say your blog didn’t help out with some of the optimism! I am really happy that I got to *accidentally* stumbled on your blog while doing research on freelancing in Malaysia.

    What I struggle with right now is finding what I am good at and monetizing on that talent(s). Where should I start and go from there (after finding said talent)? Right now all I can think about is getting my hands dirty and doing multiple things to figure out what I’m actually good at. At least, that’s a start no?

    But anyway, love your blog! Keep writing and inspiring <3

    Sending love all the way from Kota Kinabalu!

    1. Hey Jasmine,

      Thanks for the love all the way from KK <3

      Personally I started more or less the same way. Even in writing work, there are so many niche and branches so I tried many things before striking gold! All the best in your journey, I think you'll be great. There's no better time to be freelancing, in this economy 🙂

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