Skip to main content

Millions of Canadians are considering leaving their nine-to-five jobs to work for themselves, as new tools – such as online marketplaces and remote communication technologies – bring the dream of self-employment closer to reality.

In a recent study conducted by FreshBooks, almost a third of traditionally employed Canadians, or about seven million people, say they intend to pursue self-employment in the next two years – a trend that mirrors a surge in the creation of startups in the U.S. According to the study, more career control was the strongest motivator for pursuing self-employment, followed by career fulfilment, with financial reasons placing third.

The number of self-employed Canadians has been on the rise for decades, from 1.2 million in 1976 to 2.9 million in 2018, according to Statistics Canada, although the challenges of the pandemic caused that number to drop to 2.6 million in 2020 – the lowest level in a decade.

“New business starts might be on the decline, but people have a positive outlook toward the future,” said Paul Cowan, FreshBooks’ chief marketing officer, attributing that optimism to the ease of starting a business today.

Favourable government policies that make it relatively easy to start a small or independent business, new technology solutions, and the ability to pursue entrepreneurship while maintaining a traditional full or part-time salaried job, among other factors, have contributed to the rise in self-employment, according to Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses president Dan Kelly.

Aspiring entrepreneurs can now register a business online, access free or low-cost accounting and invoicing tools, find and market to their target audience through social media, and sell through online marketplaces ranging from Etsy and eBay to Upwork and Fiver.

“Self employment is no longer necessarily just a full-time calling,” Mr. Kelly said. “People sometimes start off at the kitchen table with a side hustle or a side hobby, but then turn it into a full-time business, and isn’t that a great way to get in?”

Mr. Kelly, who has worked at CFIB since 1994, says that when the organization was founded self-employed Canadians struggled to access resources vital to their success – such as health care coverage, financing and insurance – as there wasn’t a large enough market for service providers to offer small business-specific solutions.

“In the beginning we were desperately seeking them out, begging them to build a product to serve small business owners,” he said. Now Mr. Kelly says he receives dozens of emails every day from providers across a variety of industries that have created solutions designed to serve the self-employed.

There is now a flywheel effect taking shape that is poised to significantly increase the number of entrepreneurs in Canada and around the world. New tools are simplifying self-employment, leading more Canadians to start independent businesses, which further increase the market for such tools – leading to the creation of even more barrier-lowering solutions.

Mr. Cowan, notes, however, that some significant barriers remain.

“We have been serving the small business market for over 17 years,” he said. “When we started, we saw that the world was not built for the small business owner, and we still don’t feel like the small business owner is being addressed in as many ways as they could be served.”

For example, while there may be more products, services, tools and resources designed for those who are self-employed, Mr. Cowan explains that it takes a high degree of technical know-how to utilize them effectively.

“The small business market is massive, and yet there is still a digital divide happening in terms of business owners understanding the types of technologies that exist to help them run their business,” he said. “Our research uncovered that only 37 per cent of people feel up-to-speed on the technology that can help them run their business.”

While some entrepreneurs may struggle to find and utilize the tools and services that are available to them, however, the fact that they exist is a significant development for the small business community, according to Shopify’s vice president of revenue, Mark Bergen.

“There’s no doubt that it’s become far simpler and far easier,” he said. “There’s more and more content, widely available and easily accessible, to guide entrepreneurs through that [process] than has ever been available.”

Mr. Bergen adds that Shopify is used by millions of entrepreneurs around the world, and its app store alone includes more than 7,000 third-party tools and solutions designed specifically to assist its merchants.

“Now you’ve got all of these other service providers who are saying, ‘There’s a whole market out here of people pursuing entrepreneurship, how can I support them? How can I make solutions that make their journey easier? Or flatten the curve of learning and make self-employment easier for them?” he said. “If you look at Shopify’s growth in the last two years, this flywheel has exploded.”

Mr. Bergen adds he doesn’t have to look very far for an example of just how low the barrier of entry to self-employment has become.

“My 17-year-old son runs his own business on Shopify, and he did it himself, it wasn’t dad coming in and teaching him, he figured it out in the course of a couple of evenings and built his own business,” he said.

Mr. Bergen explained that watching his son start an independent business during his spare time demonstrated how much more accessible self-employment has become.

“Ten or twenty years ago the barrier to entry and the risks were much higher; do I have capital to do this? Can I get a bank loan? Where am I going to have a storefront? Do I have to sign a lease? What kind of inventory do I need?” he said. “Now, the barrier to entrepreneurship is my 17-year old with a cool idea creating a business by himself with a total investment of about $300.”

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.