Not Just Rugged Individualism: How Do You See Self-Employment?

 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?


25 thoughts on “Not Just Rugged Individualism: How Do You See Self-Employment?”

  1. I’m not sure I understand what “conception of self-employment” means, but imho, to become self-employed what you need is an idea for a business.  I don’t think it matters how you were raised, your education, or work experience.  We have all the information we need at our fingertips. Period. There really are few excuses to not do it, if that truly is what you want.  Years and years ago, your background might have mattered and made a huge difference in whether you succeed or not, but not today.  Some people might have greater challenges than others.  Maybe an immigrant living in the U.S. struggling to learn English and navigate their way around how things work here might have a greater challenge, for example.  But, for the rest of us Americans… just do it, if you want to.  No biggie.  Keep your day job at first.  Could take a long time to get going, but at least starting… not that hard.

    1.  @deniseurena Yeah, that’s the literal interpretation of self-employment, just like the literal interpretation of “home-owner” is “owns a home.” But just like home ownership, it’s not so much that the state itself is special, it’s about the meaning we imbue it with. That’s what I’m asking; what the romantic ideal of self-employment is for them.

      1.  @Shanna Mann ah, ok.  I don’t really romanticize it because it’s not easier, but harder than working for someone else, and it’s important to be realistic about what’s involved.  But, if I was going to put a romantic spin on it, I would say that’s what makes it great – the satisfaction of pushing through the challenge and adding value to the world with your ideas.

    2.  @deniseurena I agree the tools are available for anyone in America to start their own business. And at a ridiculously small initial investment. But some people who start their own business might be doing it as a side hustle to their normal employment arrangement. So I’m starting to think it’s more of a mindset than a skill set to be self-employed.

      1.  @joeyjoejoe  @deniseurena I think it’s both, but of the two, mindset is more important. The skillset is a skillset like anything else, it’s not an arcane lore. It’s just not very well-defined, but that’s because business models and industries vary so widely, not because there’s a conspiracy to keep us all mindless drones. 😛

  2. It’s funny, I started to type “No one in my family owns his or her own business.” But then I realized, that’s totally untrue. I have an aunt who has built a wildly successful translation company and an uncle doing very well for himself with his own carpentry firm. But these businesses were already firmly established and doing well by the time I was old enough to notice. They’ve never felt like small businesses to me.
    Until maybe six months ago, the thought of starting my own business had never even occurred to me. It’s not something I’ve been exposed to. No one really talks about my aunt and uncle’s companies being anything but companies. I knew people did it, but the only image I could conjure about starting a business was a Silicon Valley tech start-up. It’s a whole new world I’m exploring. I find it overwhelming, amazing, and a bit startling — who knew all this was here??
    I’m working on changing my conception now. There’s so much to learn and so many assumptions to break! I’ve always felt like I’d either have a job or not be working. I like the looks of this third option much better.

    1.  @remadebyhand In a similar vein, I know when I was first married, I wanted to buy all new furniture for my new house, reasoning that “I was going to need it anyway.” My mom sat me down and was like, “Yeah, honey, that’s not how it works. Nobody’s well established in the beginning; you save up for this stuff, and when you get established, THAT’s when you buy yourself a matching dining room set.” 
      And my grandparents told me about how they had to take out a loan from their established relatives to buy the farm equipment when they were married. It’s weird how when you don’t see the awkward, broke, start-up-y phase, you assume it never happened. 
      My mom’s theory for why my youngest brother never had any hobbies was because he couldn’t find anything one of the rest of us hadn’t ever done, and being younger he was never as good as us at it, and didn’t have the patience to practice. If he couldn’t compete and win, he just wouldn’t play, but he couldn’t see that all he’d have to do is put in the same practice as the rest of us and he’d catch right up. Without realizing it, he compared himself with us and assumed that he just wasn’t any good.
      I think that’s a trap people fall into a lot, and not just in business. 

      1.  @Shanna Mann  I can relate to your brother’s experience – not so much the needing to pick something different, but not seeing the work that everybody else puts in. I had the notion that “I should be excellent at this from the get-go” – too much talk around me (miscellaneous adults) of me being ‘so smart!’ or something?

  3. Shanna,
    When we talk next, I’ll tell you what it’s like to work in Corporate America for a decade and decide to quit and start my own business (without anyone in my immediate or extended family having experience with it). It’s kind of like the Wild West in a way where anything goes for a while and you’re not quite sure what the new rules are (or how many you should break right away).
    Going back to the post, I fit neatly into the category of solopreneur as you’ve defined it. Although since leaving my corporate gig to start my own business, I’ve often told people I’m a small business owner. I guess that’s because the solopreneur label always felt too “buzzwordy” to me. But if that’s the appropriate label, and you’re making me think it is, I’m going to start using it. The problem will be most people I interact with have never heard of it before and I’ll need to explain the concept each time. Oh well, I can handle that. I do a lot of explaining to people since I’m not exactly mainstream anymore.
    In the most concise form, my definition of self-employment is not being on someone else’s payroll. Freelancers, moonlighters, and small business owners would fall into this definition, as would solopreneurs. Granted, I’m coming at this from the polar opposite perspective as you with my family work history and my personal work history.
    If you can generate your own income and can say to the people giving you that income, “Sorry, this isn’t working out. We need to part ways.”, then I feel like you’re self-employed. I might need to give this some more thought though.

    1.  @joeyjoejoe That would be great! A whole new world!
      Yeah, solopreneur came into use because “small business” can mean up to 500 employees, depending on who you ask, and in the off-line world, being a small business owner strongly implies that you have employees, even if it’s just a receptionist. It’s kind of weird when you go into a “small business mixer” at your chamber of commerce, and meet the local fine homebuilder– technically, a small business, but it’s not what *I* would think of as one.  

  4. You know, I never really thought about business-ownership as a hereditary thing… I knew my dad has anyway had his own businesses, but forgot that both of my grandfathers also were small business owners. I also like the distinction you make regarding entrepreneurs. I have never really liked that word applied to myself, but I do associate strongly as a freelancer.

    1.  @sarahemily It’s weird to use the word ‘hereditary’ because it’s more like social heredity; it’s easy to contemplate when you have an example. If you’ve never seen it done personally, it might not occur to you as something *someone like you* could do. 
      Even though I’m about as prototypical entrepreneur as they come, I still feel uncomfortable applying the word to myself. I still have the ‘build to sell’ mindset going on.

  5. I think somewhere, at some point, the people who started those multi million dollar corporations were entrepreneurs.  Or business people of some flavor. I think there’s some threshold that a business crosses when it becomes an entity larger than the service it even provides and the employees/owners lose site of what it was all about. Maybe it’s around the time the business goes public. Just my hunch. 
    I’ll add my own distinction that when you are “self employed” you do all of the labor. You are employed by yourself- but you still have to do all the work of an employee. This thinking comes largely from The E-Myth Revisited- and the idea that if you are irreplaceable to your own business, you don’t have a business at all- you have a job.  For the blogger, I think this means offering services AND products. Selling a product is more passive, while selling your services is like selling yourself for small jobs.  

    1.  @ethanwaldman That’s an interesting point of difference between a small business and being self-employed. I like it. On the other hand, we can’t exactly mandate that people use it in that strict definition 🙂 

  6. Brilliant idea, Shanna: “have a discussion about our worldviews and what these concepts mean to us”!!!
    {Now, I’m going to read the Comments 🙂 }

      1.  @Shanna Mann ahahhah ~ good point!
        I think it’s a lot about ‘stuff’ still hanging around from childhood – and like you said, not having seen ‘the work’ that went into someone else’s success.
        Gotta ponder your question some more,  now… 😉

  7. > so far removed from the concept of business ownership and self-employment.
    That’s a great point.
    When that happens, it’s easy for people to lose touch of what it means to provide real value, participate in a meaningful ecosystem, put their skills and expertise to the test, and find a way to flow value in a sustainable way … the blend of passion, purpose, and profit.

    1.  @J.D. Meier That’s a great way to put it! Especially the ecosystem bit. I think a lot of us have lost touch with what it means for communities to be economic ecosystems (in the pay-it-forward sense)… or even what it means to be a community, which are beginning to transcend physical boundaries.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  8. Good morning! @ Karen: I was so there in 2005. How the hell did that person get from where I am to where they are? Now I am that person I was wondering about and so is my wife. If you have a friend that went from slave to self-employment, I’d ask them to lunch. I’d love to blab about my experience to someone over lunch, but not here, so as not to bore everyone. @JD: love the three Ps. Which P would you choose to begin with? I went with passion, but some may think that foolish. Dunno?

    1.  @cjrenzi It’s great feeling when you realize that you have something to share! Blabbing over lunch is one of my favorite things. An ego boost like that can carry me for a week. 🙂 
      I think most people default to passion because it’s what they lack the most. For me, the other two were relatively easy, so I went with purpose.

      1.  @Shanna Mann  @cjrenzi Well said Shanna! I am now sufficiently lathered up to take someone, probably my wife, to lunch today and blab my fool face off and let her do the same!

    2.  @cjrenzi So what part of the world are you in, this week?* I’m near-enough to Chicago…wanna have lunch?
      * I phrase the question that way because so many folks I’m finding are all-over-the-place…

      1.  @Karen J Thanks for asking Karen, and yes, that would be fun, but I am in Houston.  Hope you find a fun lunch partner today!!! 

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