Let’s have a vocabulary day.
- Self-employed: This is the top-level concept: You’re employed by yourself, the buck stops with you. Even if you are in partnership, or have outside funding, you are still considered self-employed.
- Small business owner: Technically, anyone who owns a small business, which can be defined a number of ways, either by number of employees, or by gross annual sales. By this definition, the local salon owner is a self-employed small-business owner. This term is falling out of use in the online world because it implies so many off-line-y things. Instead, we’re using the term …
- Solopreneur: Essentially, a small business of one. The term is in heavy use because online businesses can often be run by one person and maybe a few specialty contractors, so it’s used to specify a smaller-than-usual small business.
- Freelancer: Freelancers are small business owners, often solopreneurs but solopreneurs are not always freelancers. Freelancing just happens to be one of the easiest online businesses to start, although not perhaps the easiest to earn a living wage at.
- Moonlighter: I rarely use this term, but if I did it would be to specify someone who has a side business but who is not looking to leave their main gig. Whether that gig is employment or self-employment is irrelevant. A graphic designer who moonlights as a DJ would be totally reasonable, since DJing is one of those things that might not be worth the effort to make a living at.
- Entrepreneur: I left this for last because it’s something of a pet peeve of mine. An entrepreneur is technically defined as a “a person who starts a business, taking on a financial risk to do so.” And because more an more people are using their own money to start businesses (rather than taking a bank loan or venture capital) this technically applies to all sorts of people. However, some people, (and I’m one of them) tend to defend ‘entrepreneurship’ as a personality trait. “Entrepreneurship” is building businesses for no other reason than to see if you can. “Self-employment” is to create a living for yourself, and “small business owners” tend to have a much more stable growth habit than entrepreneurs because entrepreneurs get bored when they’re not building something new and exciting. Many a business has faltered and dissolved in year ten because its entrepreneur-owner got bored. Still, “entrepreneur” has mostly been bastardized to mean “someone who starts a business
Naturally, the Venn diagram you could draw here is complex. But that hammers out all the technical categories. I wanted to define all these categories because as I delve into the deeper aspects of business, I want you to know that each of these types have different motivations, and each approach business on a slightly different tack.
“Entrepreneurs” (in the bastardized sense) aren’t this big homogeneous group of old-West cowboys, determined to stick it to polite society and express their individuality and self-reliance. That’s a bullshit myth we’ve constructed because most of society is so far removed from the concept of business ownership and self-employment.
I come from self-employed stock. That’s what farmers are, after all. Self-employed, all the way back, on both sides. (All right. Only four generations.) So there’s a lot of stuff that I just take for granted as a self-employed person, born of self-employed people. Even though I’ve had jobs, it’s not my default.
And on the other hand, I know intellectually, that there are people who don’t know this stuff. I don’t even know what “this stuff” is, for sure, that’s how unconscious it is for me.
The other day I was reading this account of a woman who started her own business, and she had only corporate experience. Her entire family, and her husband’s family had only ever worked for vast conglomerates– IBM, the U.S Airforce, the Chicago Board of Education. She wrote, “If you are fortunate enough to have a relative who runs a business soak up everything you can from them.”
I almost can’t wrap my head around the idea of not knowing how to start a business. I don’t say that to be superior, I say that to emphasize the difference in worldviews. I also can’t comprehend the idea of working for a big corporation. I mean, I watched Office Space. I read Dilbert. But I still really don’t know what happens in an office all day. The only work ‘team’ I’ve ever been a member of was when I worked as a prep-cook in a diner for two weeks the summer I turned 16. Whenever I ask what white-collar people do in a day, the answer I inevitably get is “Nothing,” with the intonation ranging from shamefaced to ironic. But on the other hand, neither do I fully understand “creating a business” from the aspect of building a big factory that employs hundreds of people. I know about “cottage industry.”
I don’t think this is a bridge that can’t be gapped, obviously. Plenty of people have done it. But maybe we should have a discussion about our worldviews and what these concepts mean to us.
What’s your conception of self-employment, and where do you come from with that opinion?