Someone once told me "there's a fine line between being self-employed and being unemployed." I'm sure that any independent consultant can relate to that sentiment. When things are good, you proudly declare that you own your own business. When things aren't so good and you are desperate for work, you start to feel like you are unemployed and look wistfully at your friends who are taking home a steady paycheck.
I recently read a blog post from Diana Schneidman titled How to Get a Job Today that got me thinking about the "fine line" from another perspective. A lot of people who normally go the "safe and secure" route of a traditional job are finding themselves unemployed. Some of these folks are realizing that, if they have skills that an employer can leverage into profit, then perhaps they can do that for themselves.
When the job market is difficult, the idea of self employment is less scary. But can you successfully sell your skills in the marketplace? I'll let you in on a secret: that's exactly what you have done every time you went looking for a job. The truth is that selling your skills "direct to consumer" might actually be easier than selling them to an employer middleman.
To an employer, you are a generic widget that fills a position in a larger scheme, and there's little that differentiates the job from one employer to the next. It is harder to sell your services to a broad market than a narrow one, so one marketing advantage you have as an independent operator is that you can niche your services to the best vertical market for your skills and interests.
I won't pretend it is easy. Operating a business involves some degree of familiarity with the four basic business disciplines: Marketing, Finance, Legal, and Operations. When most people think about running a business, they focus exclusively on Operations because that is the part they know the best. That's "the job." Fortunately, you can outsource just about anything you aren't comfortable doing yourself, but what saves you time will certainly cost you money.
But really, what are your alternatives? Go back to work for a company that doesn't appreciate what you do and that will make all the real money from your creativity? And you're doing it for what? Job security? Sorry, but job security is a myth. Gone are the days of the gold watch. If you do get close enough to earn any retirement benefits, the bean counters will recommend that the company get rid of you. Of course, you'll get laid off in the next economic downturn long before retirement is even a consideration. And the layoff will come when you are least prepared for it.
Perhaps you are concerned about the risk of starting your own business. What about it? It is our nature to put more weight on the potential for loss than on the potential for gain, even when the potential for gain is actually much higher. Do you believe in yourself? What would it mean to you if you were successful as an independent businessperson? Doesn't the potential gain go far beyond just the monetary aspects?
My wife Susan and I have been operating our business Logical Expressions since 1994. It has been glorious at times and it has been frightening at times. When things were at their worst for us in 2001, I even went "back to work" for a while in Corporate America, but I knew at the time it was only a temporary solution to make ends meet. We changed the nature of our business and got back on our feet. That's one tremendous advantage you have as a small business: you can switch direction to meet changes in the market almost instantaneously.
We've learned a lot in that time, and we've shared most of what we've learned through our various newsletters, web sites, and self-published books. One of the things we learned was that writing a book is a good way to demonstrate your expertise to a skeptical marketplace. That discovery is responsible for one of the shifts in our business focus. We now help other small business people publish their story and share their knowledge. Our book Publishize describes that process.
What I'm getting at is that starting a business does not mean you have to commit yourself to building a massive organization or investing a ton of money. You start small. Sell your skills to those who need them, but who can't afford you full time. Over time, develop products you can sell alongside your services (like your book!) and outsource the work that is not a good use of your time.
Your goal is to eventually build a business that requires less and less of your time to keep making money. Even if you never get there, you'll be better off than if you keep trading hours for dollars at company after company that does not appreciate your contribution.