Becoming self-employed in Norway is a popular choice for expats, especially the partners of oil industry workers or citizens of EEA countries for whom residency is a relatively simple process. I’ve been working for myself for two years now and am frequently contacted by people considering a move to Norway who want to know more about working for yourself, so here we go…
Why freelance in Norway?
In the UK or USA, people are encouraged to work for themeslves by the prospect of earning more money or more freedom, but being an employee in Norway has so many benefits. You’re unlikely to be fired, wages for simple jobs are relatively high, and working conditions are some of the most generous and flexible in the world.
Unlike the buoyant freelance market in the UK or USA, Norwegian companies of all sizes are much more used to hiring employees. Sharing the wealth by creating jobs is part of the culture here, which makes job creation something that many fledgling companies aspire to and consider a success factor. Don’t underestimate the impact this has. Many times I’ve approached companies to work on a project only for them to propose to “hire” me on a temporary basis. Paying an individual as a supplier rather than an employee is an alien concept to many.
I work for myself for a number of reasons, but primarily I don’t like having a boss, I want to work when I want to work, and I love to travel. I love to push myself, constantly learn new things and help as many different people and companies as I can. All of that is very difficult to achieve in a traditional employment relationship.
Look up, look down
This brings me nicely onto problem number two. For those companies that do hire freelance talent, they tend to look to the extremes: the price-sensitive bottom end of the market or the premium consultancy end.
In the last few years, Norwegian companies have cottoned on to geo-arbitrage. Why pay a Norwegian graduate graphic designer 400.000 kr a year when you can pay 100.000 kr for someone in the South East Asia or Eastern Europe with far greater skills and experience? Competing at this low end of the market is impossible if you are to achieve a reasonable standard of living in Norway.
At the other end of the market come the premium consultants. Lawyers and tax advisors fall into this category, but also other professionals who for one reason or another have made a name for themselves. They are usually Norwegian citizens with published books or regular media appearances and are able to command fees of 25.000 kr per day or more.
I’ve found in trying to compete in the middle ground, I’m met with clients that either want the job done for the cheapest possible price or they want the very best and are willing to pay for it.
Although there aren’t so many solo businesses doing well in Norway, I do see a startling number of mini-agencies. Typically these are formed when a number of freelancers get together and combine their skills. For example, put a copywriter, graphic designer and web developer together for long enough and you have a web design agency.
Fees charged by these agencies tend to be high, even though some of them outsource a lot of the work.
It’s very easy to register an enkeltpersonforetak (sole proprietorship) and start billing clients for work, but be aware you must pay tax in advance, once per quarter. Even so, it’s the route I would recommend for almost everyone who wants to try out self-employment. Register with the Brønnøysund Register Centre.
Once successful, you may consider forming an AS, or aksjeselskap (limited company) especially if you are targeting bigger businesses, intend on growing your business and/or employing people, or you travel extensively. This isn’t the place to discuss the pros and cons of business structure, so consult an expert for advice.
Whichever business form you choose, it’s important to understand and abide by the rules of doing business in Norway. For example, you must keep proper bookkeeping records and invoices must be auto-numbered (no creating invoices in Word!)
Needless to say, hiring an accountant is highly recommended.
Advice for expats considering self-employment
Are you considering self-employment in Norway? Here are some things to consider before taking the plunge:
1. Take a part-time job
Taking a part-time job is a great way to keep earning at least a baseline income while you build up your freelance business. Bonus points if it’s in a related field, although be very careful with competing with your employer! Also be wary of your employment contract, as I’ve seen some that specifically forbid you running any kind of enterprise alongside your employment.
If you can, working part-time removes the stress of paying your bills and relieves the cash-flow pressures suffered by all small businesses. If you are currently employed full-time, consider asking your employer if they are willing to reduce your hours to 40% or 60%.
2. Find a mentor
As Dave Smith wrote in his excellent article about how to find a job in Trondheim, networking is essential to business success in Norway. There is a definite culture of “paying it forward” here and many senior people are willing to meet for coffee and dispense advice. Find two or three people relevant to what you do and get networking.
3. Find a community
Even before I went freelance, I was a member of a co-working space. After finishing at my full-time job, I would rock up at MESH, open my laptop and start working. The connections I made through just being in the building are still valuable to this day. The very first thing I did after quitting my job and moving to Trondheim was to seek out a coworking space, and I’ve been a part of the DIGS community ever since.
I cannot underestimate how important having a community is. Very few people at DIGS work in fields related to what I do, but as a writer who writes about Norway and Norwegians, it’s very fertile ground for inspiration. I won my first major client through a connection made there, and I’ve since been able to make similar introductions for other people. But perhaps the most important benefit of all is when I have a question about the administrative side of running a business, there’s always someone who knows the answer.
4. Can you serve foreign clients?
Just because you live in Norway and run a business registered here does not mean you have to restrict yourself to such a small client base. Over 75% of my business income now comes from clients in Sweden, Finland, the UK and even the USA. Depending on what you do, serving clients in other countries can keep you busy and in some cases, earn you more than you could from Norwegian clients.
5. Put in 100% but be patient
You wont succeed as a freelancer in Norway without maximum effort, but even then you shouldn’t expect to see overnight success. It takes time to hone your craft and become known for your skills, abilities and achievements. If the circumstances are right, for example if your partner is willing to support you during the lean months (there will be lean months) and you are willing to play the long game, then freelancing could be for you. But if you’re considering self employment just because you’re struggling to find a job, you may be better off continuing your job search.