Self-employed workers are more likely to have long-term assignments with a few clients. Over the past four years, the percentage of self-employed individuals selling their own labor to fewer than three business clients increased by 5 percentage points.

Of all the types of self-employed workers, independent professionals with a few clients are the smallest group. But over the past four years, their percentage has increased significantly. Currently, 20.4% of all self-employed professionals sell services to fewer than three business clients per year. This is a lot higher than in 2019 (16.7%) and 2017 (15.4%). This is according to the report 'The self-employed do exist. Facts about the self-employed without staff' by ZiPconomy commissioned by HeadFirst and ONL for Entrepreneurs. ZiPconomy discovered this trend after analyzing figures from the Self-Employed Labor Survey (ZEA).

Four groups

Policymakers quite often overlook the heterogeneity among the self-employed, for example when replacing the DBA law or scaling back the self-employed deduction. By no means all self-employed people potentially compete with employees in the labor market. One way to clarify this heterogeneity is to divide the group of self-employed persons without personnel into four groups:

  1. Self-employed people selling products
  2. Self-employed individuals providing their own labor (services) to individuals
  3. Self-employed persons own labor, providing services to more than three companies or organizations per year.
  4. Independent contractors own labor, providing services to three or fewer companies or organizations per year. So they often do somewhat longer assignments with a client.


For years there have been more self-employed people selling their own labor than self-employed people trading products. The ZEAs in the period 2012-2021 show that the difference is only increasing: in recent years, the percentage of "self-employed own labor" increased relative to the percentage of "self-employed products. In 2012, 29.5% of all self-employed people were still selling products; by 2021, that share will have dropped to 23.2%.

Business, private or both?

Thus, more than three-quarters of the total group of self-employed people sell their own labor. In 2021, about 53% of them worked exclusively for organizations (b-to-b); that percentage has remained almost the same since 2012. These are all kinds of entrepreneurs: day presidents, interim managers, freelance editors at a newspaper, zzp nurses at the hospital, contractors. In 2012, 29.5% of the self-employed worked own labor exclusively for individuals. In 2021, it will be 30.9%. Examples include handymen, cleaners or horseback riding instructors. In 2012, the remaining 18.1% worked for business clients as often as for private individuals. That percentage will drop slightly to 15.9% by 2021. An example is yoga teachers who teach both individuals and conduct business workshops.

Many or few clients

There are two types of self-employed people who work for companies and organizations: those with many different clients and those with a few clients per year. The group with many clients per year often works briefly for one client. Think of accountants, coaches, day chairmen and logo designers. It is usually also clear among these self-employed people that they do not have an employer-employee relationship with their client. The percentage of self-employed persons with more than three clients decreased: 28.2% of all self-employed persons fall into this category in 2021.

Smallest group grows the fastest

The self-employed category with a limited number of clients per year is the smallest group in percentage terms. At the same time, it is the group that is currently growing the fastest. From 2017 to 2021, their share in the total number of self-employed workers increased by 5 percentage points to 20.4%. These independent entrepreneurs often have longer-term assignments for many hours per week. Examples include interim managers, freelance editors of a TV show and carpenters working full-time on a large project for a contractor. Independent contractors with such long-term assignments are also called "independent interim professionals. Our analysis shows that this smallest group has grown the fastest over the past four years.


One possible explanation for the increase is the corona crisis: longer assignments for more hours per week give more security. Research by HR service provider HeadFirst Group and labor market data specialist Intelligence Group (2021) shows that during the crisis a shift was visible from staffing to hiring self-employed workers. In addition, the number of self-employed workers grew above average within certain occupational groups as additional demand arose during the corona crisis.

Curious about more facts and figures about the self-employed? Download the report 'The zzp'er does exist. Facts about the self-employed without staff' by ZiPconomy commissioned by HeadFirst and ONL for Entrepreneurs.