It seems that creative entrepreneurship is the hottest job on the market.
Even though I have no statistics to back that up (or I don't feel like searching for them), simple observation can tell you that 2015 has been The Year of the Small Businessperson. Every major city now hosts multiple "co-working" spaces - workplaces that rival a Google-campus level of cool with their constant flow of single-origin coffee, obscure-eclectic Spotify playlists and chilled kegs of microbrew in rustic, hand crafted wooden cabinets.
These flourishing oases are built to fill a need: working works better when you have a place to go to work. And man, membership is high. There are plenty of butts to fill those Eames chairs. Business is good.
Some of these people are freelancers:
Independent contractors on 1099's. Photographers. Designers. Videographers. App Developers. The people who make start-ups flourish (before they have the capacity to actually hire employees). The people who start start-ups. Trendy socialites rooted in social enterprise. Doers. Shakers. Non-profit builders. Writers. Consultants. CPA's.
And then, there are the makers:
People who make wood spoons. People who make silk ribbons. People who make small-batch _____ (fill in the blank). People who make designer Belgian-imported linen shorts. People who collect and rehabilitate vintage ephemera for resale. I could go on forever.
In short, it's the people who have marketable skills and enough wits/guts about them to self-market. The vast majority of these businesses are sole proprietorships. One person - maybe small teams. The face of the company is the creator is the boss.
This is markedly different than the system we've seen in the past few decades. Actually, this is probably in response to the old system where someone has money to invest, they hire business-people to take care of the logistics and they outsource creation to China, India, Bangladesh or Peru. We are bringing the making of things back home, back about a hundred years - the slow, painful, inventive, careful and meticulous way.
Don't get me wrong. I in no way, shape, or form am considering this to be an undesirable business climate. I'm all for small business. I haven't shopped at a Wal-Mart in eight years (for real, not once). I love nothing more than seeing an economic landscape divided into tiny, specialized pieces. I find no romance in going to Target to buy underwear and tampons and Chobani. If I could find someone who made small-batch-organic-local-cotton tampons, I would buy them. Vive la freelance!
We are forging new territory. We're making things like its 1889, but the makers back then didn't compete with Target. They didn't have online shops. They didn't have one zillion choices about where to source their materials, or where to sell their products. People created and supplied within their communities, and as long as you didn't suck at your job you had a job. We are diverse and in-demand. We ship internationally. We're better than Target (unless we get a wholesale request and then WE'RE IN TARGET). Come on, we were featured on Design*Sponge.
However, have we been following this model long enough to see what it does to us... as people?
There are obvious up-sides:
1. You work when you want.
2. Where you want.
3. In yoga pants, if you want.
4. And you're the boss.
5. You hire the help.
6. You call the shots. You make the plan. You dream up the future.
7. You get to tell people you created something. You get to tell your story.
8. And you look cool. All your corporate-ladder friends remind you how cool you look.
9. On social media, your life seems like an endless stream of meetings over coffee and adventure.
10. You have freedom.
But alas, so many of those come with unintended bummers:
1. You work all day. Sometimes from sun-up to sun-up again.
2. Frequently from your sofa. There is a butt-shaped dent in your sofa.
3. And you haven't changed out of these yoga pants in three days.
4. No one else will answer the hard questions for you. You're the boss.
5. And you really don't make that much money. Definitely not enough to hire help.
6. Most days, you don't even know what shots to call. You majored in art, not finance. You have ideas for the future, but your last few ideas didn't really... you know... work.
7. Half the time, you're so confused and tired that when someone asks you what you do, you stare back blankly, wishing you knew the answer.
8. It gets frustrating being told that your life looks so cool when it feels so hard.
9. Social media has grabbed you by the nuts and just won't let you go. You have to show up, because that's how your business stays relevant. But all the scrolling gets more and more depressing every time you see that someone else scored that coffee meeting. Your adventures seem glamorous, but they're really self-funded road trips to tight-budget projects where you work way more than you get paid.
10. But hey, it's better to shut up. It's pretty ungrateful to complain about your freedom.
Let's not forget about the unavoidable responsibilities that large companies have whole departments dedicated to, like:
- Even knowing how to register your business with all the appropriate agencies
- And then getting notices about forgetting to remit payroll and withholding tax.
- And then actually finding the money to remit payroll and withholding tax.
- After you used your money to barely make payroll for your employees.
- After you paid your monthly/quarterly sales and use tax.
- After you sent the 4th email to that sweet, sweet client who (you love, but) kept forgetting to pay their invoice.
- What's left for you gets hampered by that self-employment tax.
- If you have anything left after paying rent, utilities, insurance and internet.
- Let's not talk about how much money you technically owe your loved ones for all their free, sympathy labor.
- And you might have more if you hadn't made that weird mistake on that client's order and been so horrified to offer anything less than 110% outstanding service that you fixed it all for free and shipped it all overnight, just to be safe.
- After you read their disappointed, lengthy email in bed at 11:43pm
- And you feel bad, because it was your product, and you thought you did a good job.
- You should do a better job. You should find better materials and make sure your sources are more organic and more local and more sustainable and more environmentally friendly and somehow less expensive because your overhead is killing you.
- You should change your contract. And your website. Maybe you weren't specific enough about what you do, or what you sell, and that's why it feels like you're often a half-step short from gaining your client's unwavering approval. Or maybe that's just business?
- You'll get to all that tomorrow. There's always tomorrow.
Let's see. I think that means we covered Research and Development, Production, Purchasing, Loss Prevention, Marketing, Human Resources, Financial Analysis, Logistics and Operations, Quality Control, Legal, Creative, Sales and Customer Service. I bet you didn't know you were so multi-talented!
Ok, so enough whining. You get it, being the boss is hard. So, what are we going to do about it?
We have forged The Great Age of Small Business with bravery and have found that the customers exist. There are clients. There is money to be made. We are talented. Cheers to us.
But. How do we keep steering this ship of responsibilities alone? Should we read more books about organizing our days, making boundaries and setting up auto-responders on our email? Is that really enough to make an impact? What if you just don't like being the boss?
I have an idea.
The best worker is the kind of person who isn't afraid to try and be a boss. It's the person who looks at being 13 departments and thinks, "maybe I can pull this off." It's the person with vision, drive, ambition, dedication and enough optimism to power through disappointment.
You can be that kind of person and still you realize that you don't want to be THE BOSS. There is another job title! It's called: EMPLOYEE.
Find an entrepreneur or small business owner who will, and can be, the boss. Send them an email. Walk through their door. Creep up on their desk at the local co-working studio. Tell them you like what they do - you do what they do - and you want to do it with them. This comes with a sacrifice. It means you don't get to be "the face." It means you might have to be told where to work, when to work and what to wear. (Haven't we covered how that seems less important than it used to?) You might end up having less Instagram followers. Your boss might get asked to speak at a conference while you, painfully, take those three days off and go to the beach with your friends. It could be a big blow to your freedom and your pride, but a huge gift to your sanity.
Spend a minute focusing on how you have the capacity to invest. There are a million cliches for this, right? Two heads are better than one. It takes a village. We are only as good as the sum of our parts. Are you the type of person who could possibly flourish in an environment where the vision-casting is handled by someone else and you're in charge of the follow-through?
If you're still working a 9-5 and you can't stop dreaming of putting in your two weeks notice to be the boss, do it. Go for it. But if you lie awake at night wondering what you would do without health insurance, dental for your kids and the matching contribution to your 401k - those are valid concerns. Those are three things most creative small business owners are usually far from tackling - especially at the beginning of their journey.
Plainly speaking, work is work. There are going to be things that suck about work no matter your job description. It might be a grumpy old boss with bad breath. It might be promotion drama (and the fact that you're way past due for a raise). However, there isn't a magical dream job on the other side of the employment spectrum.
That doesn't mean you can't follow your dreams.
Just prioritize them. It's a dream of mine to have work/life balance. I dream of taking a 10 day vacation without fearing that my business will crumble without constant attention. I dream that I can one day teach my kids how to make a pie without my phone ringing off the hook. (It was never my dream to organize SKU numbers or reconcile my accounts in Quickbooks.)
I dream of using my letterpress and excelling in my skills on the machine. That doesn't mean I have to be a #girlboss. I am now, but it would be nice to have more help and less competition. I could use another experienced girl (or man) boss - who hates being "the boss" - to hang up their URL and happily live behind mine. Speaking as a business owner, I know I'm not alone.
Here's an idea: you can perfect a skill without even having to sell it. If you have an Instagram account dedicated to your home's floral arrangements, but you love being a Market Research Analyst at Someplace, Inc. - protect your passions. When a friend calls you to do her wedding flowers, send her along to someone who has built that business (I've already explained why they need the referrals slash money, right?). Requests like that can turn you into "Accidental Boss of Company You Unintentionally Started," which is often the most exhausting and confusing kind. There is beauty in learning how to create for the sheer purpose of improving your own life and passing your skills onto the people you love, for fun. There is beauty in knowing how to churn your own butter so you can give some to your neighbors. That's still worth doing.
Spend a minute laying down the #mondaymotivation and think about your quality of life.
You aren't a failure if you don't like running the show. It doesn't make you less creative. Nurturing your creativity doesn't have to bully you into thinking your current job is boring or unimportant. Watching someone else start a business doesn't diminish the fact that you help maintain one.
It's a rare and resilient person who can be the boss. Most days I still don't know if I'm that kind of person. It takes a lot of courage and a specific set of skills. If you feel that calling in your bones - answer it. I cheer you on.