The Maslow Problem for Micro-Business Owners and What To Do About It

Failure can be one of the hardest things a microbusiness owner can cope with. Failure is hard for anyone, of course, but when you eat sleep and breathe your business, it’s particularly difficult.

Your business may fail. But here’s why that’s okay.

Have you ever had a job where the boss didn’t like initiative? Where improving things was frowned upon? Where you were ordered to do things that were stupid, or inefficient? Where you dumbed yourself down, and did less than you were capable of, just because that’s what the boss wanted?

When you lost that job, you didn’t feel like a failure, did you? No. Because you knew that a job like that was a betrayal of everything you were capable of. That job was holding you back.

When MicroBusinesses Fail

I see microbusinesses fail all the time. Usually, they’re in the embryonic stage, the capitalist equivalent of a stillborn. Some, through sheer dogged persistence, make it farther, but wind up ‘dying in the cradle,’ you might say. Here’s the two most common ways a microbiz will die:

  • The business is based on a flawed premise; either there’s not enough demand, or you can’t charge enough, or you can’t make the product cheaply enough, or any combination thereof. This is what I call the Etsy/Elance problem.
  • The premise of the business is successful enough: you found something that there’s a market demand for, and you can make good money off it. But the problem is that the business isn’t right for you. It’s holding you back from better things. This is a Maslow problem, and it’s a whole lot harder to stomach.

But let’s deal with the easy one first.

The Etsy/Elance Problem

Nearly every micro-entrepreneur has a few of these failed business ideas under his or her belt. You know the phrase “fail fast, fail often?” Well, most of the time, these do fail fast. Once in a while it takes longer, though, and here’s why:

You can’t really market a business on Etsy or Elance because there’s always someone, somewhere, prepared to do the job more cheaply. But this means that you have to market your work elsewhere, and it can take a while to figure out whether there is a demand for the offering at your price point. This is especially hard if you offer a product or service with a long sales cycle. Or, if you’re a service provider, you start at one lower rate to get your foot in the door with the intention of raising your prices later.

As with most things in business, you can’t tell what will happen until you try. So, in some cases, it will be six, twelve, or eighteen months before it becomes clear that the demand isn’t there for you, whether you’re selling bookkeeping services or fine art. Now, in some cases, this can be attributed to a lack of business skills, usually in the area of marketing. If you have something that seems like it should sell and doesn’t (like bookkeeping) it could just be that you’re not either talking to the people who could use your services, or they’re not clear on the benefit you’re offering. So you can spend some more time improving your marketing skills, or you can try again with another idea.

I’m going to use Abby Markov as an example, because her job description on this site currently reads “guinea pig.” For those of you who’ve only recently met her, Abigail is not only a gorgeous metalsmith and jewelry designer, she is also an internationally-collected fine art painter.

I draw your attention to the term “internationally collected.” People from all over the world have heard about her skills and bought her original art. She’s not deluding herself about her skills and abilities. But there’s not enough people buying her art for her to pay her rent. Maybe, over a decade or two, her paintings will gain a large enough following to support her comfortably. But not right now.

As a business, Abby’s abstract art is a failure. And I wouldn’t put it down to a marketing failure, either. Abigail is excellent at marketing. It just didn’t work. It’s a failure, but it’s not anyone’s fault.

Do you see what I’m saying here? Like Edison and his lightbulb, “I’ve found a hundred ways that don’t work.”

But there is something that Abby might have done that would make it a true failure. The kind of failure that’s often disguised as success.

The Maslow Problem

One time, when we were talking about the State of the Art World, I joked that Abby should take a page out of Thomas Kinkade’s book and paint “for the masses.” In case you don’t know, Thomas Kinkade is that guy with all the calendars and greeting cards of cozy cottages with glowing windows in a kind of glamor-shoot soft focus. He branded himself as “Painter of Light” and he was VERY successful.

The thing is, Thomas Kinkade actually DID believe that it was his mission to bring these sorts of nostalgic settings to people.

“Every element in my paintings, from the patch of sun in the foreground to the mists on a distant horizon, is an effort to summon back those perfect moments that hang in our minds as pictures of harmony,” he once wrote in Lightposts for Living. “My deepest desire is that my work will help people aspire to the life those kinds of images evoke.” In more private moments, according to one former employee, he sometimes referred to his paintings as “a 30-second vacation in a double-wide.” source.

Kinkade created this art for himself– it was the art he wanted to make– but it simultaneously also fed the need of the market. These sentimental landscapes were exactly the kind of art they wanted to consume.

If Abigail had started to feed the market instead of her own soul, it could have been very lucrative for her. But it’s the sort of thing that only drives demand for more of what you don’t want to be doing.

Success isn’t a success if it doesn’t feed your soul.

Some people realize this truth of entrepreneurship intuitively, and some struggle with it: Just because you can make good money in a business doesn’t mean that it’s a business you should be running. I’m one of the ones that struggle with it, because I see money-making opportunities everywhere I look. But while they would probably make someone money, they wouldn’t be a good fit for me.

And although the concept of refusing to make art that doesn’t feed your soul probably seems reasonable and intuitive, in my experience, this comprehension doesn’t always extend to the more commonplace businesses.

Like the bookkeeper from the example up top. It doesn’t matter if you can do the work, it doesn’t matter if you are good at the work. If you don’t want to be doing the work, this is not the business for you.

With one exception to the rule…

In a vacuum, people tend to figure this out quickly. But if people are beating down their door, begging to hire them, then they waver. They wilt. They agree, because “Hey, who am I to argue with this person who wants to give me money?” These are the Golden Handcuffs, and they are HEAVY and hard to break. It’s even harder when you started off enjoying the work, but now it just doesn’t do it for you anymore. Are you throwing away a good thing?

Because however much you can’t get excited about the work, the fact remains that you are still your own boss. Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven and all that.

So this situation can work if you do one thing while you’re biding your time:

Figure out what you want to do instead.

The golden handcuffs AREN’T a failure if you’re using them to enable Future You. At that point, you no longer have a Maslow Problem. You have a Maslow Solution.   


I’d love for you to tell me in the comments about a business failure or “failure,” as the case may be.


12 thoughts on “The Maslow Problem for Micro-Business Owners and What To Do About It”

  1. In college I launched a pandora for blog posts tech company. The idea came out of the fact that it was usually very difficult for me to find quality posts on topics I’m interested in. But as a business guy, 90% of my time was spent marketing the product. There’s nothing wrong with marketing… but I felt as though my marketing wasn’t really adding value to the world, just re-directing dollars from one product to another. So I got a job with golden handcuffs, which ended up financing my current venture 🙂

  2. Been there, done that on the Etsy thing. I realized very quickly that it wasn’t going to work for me. Now that I think about it, it was a “failure” in both of the ways you’re talking about: it wasn’t sustainable financially, AND it didn’t fulfill me. What it did do is enable me to transition more into what I’m doing now. It was a practice business of sorts, and without it, I’d probably never have made the jump.
    P.S. AbigailMarkov — That painting is stunning!

  3. erinkurup That’s what’s so interesting to me– the way that we talk about failure when it’s clear that it’s anything but. I mean– we would never have wanted to succeed, and luckily, we typically avoid wasting time getting that far.

  4. HappierHuman Golden handcuffs are underrated, provided you like the situation okay. The overriding NEED to make a business grow faster than it’s naturally inclined has doomed many a microbusiness.

  5. Shanna Mann I think it’s still hard to pour yourself into something and then have it not work out. Like how it’s hard to admit you were wrong (for some people, at least). Or like you COULDN’T swing it, even if the reality is that you didn’t really WANT to swing it. Silly, but that’s humans for you! I’m glad we have people like you to point out our folly to us 😀

  6. erinkurup Ha! I still have problems with the “I could have made it succeed, but I didn’t want to” thing, ESPECIALLY with family. But I can at least be a voice of reason 😉

  7. Shanna Mann HappierHuman The problem with golden handcuff is that you often think that you’re the one who put them on in the first place. In reality? It was your employer, and they slipped them on subtly. They almost feel cozy at first.

    But then the 401k match ramps up … if only you stay until your stock options vest. Then your base pay increases 3% instead of the common 2% … barely beating inflation. And then you get 15 days of vacation instead of 10 … if only you can get that promotion that’s been dangling in front of you for years. 15 days of vacation! That’s a metric crapton, right? But it doesn’t compare to the paid time off policy of You, Inc.

    I know lots of people in failing micro-businesses who would love the comfort and stability of the golden handcuffs. But after being shackled for a decade, I can tell you: the handcuff are more like a trap door. You get lowered and lowered and lowered … until it seems like the only way out is to wait until you’re 65-70 when they lower down the ladder, give you a slap on the back, and tell you, “Enjoy your unhealthy retirement with those kids whose childhood you missed because you spent so much time with us!”

  8. AbigailMarkov

    erinkurup Thank you!

    Etsy is my trial grounds, when I have an idea and don’t want to commit to building a full site for it. Painting was one of those things. I love(d) it for me, but gah, I hated the commercial side of “The Art World”. Definitely a practice business for me, and a great learning experience.

  9. roderickrussell

    Wow Shanna!  You just nailed the problem for so many of us.  I truly and sincerely have come away feeling more inspired, and thinking of my situation as the Maslow Solution.  Thanks for helping me reframe!

  10. Maslow put self-actualization at the top of the pyramid, but I think it’s a moving target that is tangled up with the social need to be accepted and the whole feeding yourself and your family. Why do some poor people find such deep pleasure in their work (musicians, artists, etc), even when they struggle to survive? And why do some social outcasts often deliver some of the most inspiring social messages? 

    The golden handcuffs of doing work that doesn’t inspire you is just another flavor I think. Instead of having all of my work be rewarding in all ways, I’ve had to divide my time between endeavors, some of which pay the bills, and others that feed my soul. I wish it was simpler, but it ain’t.

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