What image does the word “businessperson” conjure up in your mind?
A rich man in pinstripes, in an office, making deals? Or perhaps a woman talking on the phone whilst walking through an airport, briefcase swinging from an elegantly suited arm.
Allow me to transform that view of business, if you will, by showing you another world. Instead of the corporate imagery of LinkedIn, take a look on Kiva at the micro-entrepreneurs around the world – mainly women, mainly working from their home in villages or precarious urban settlements, supporting themselves and their families. Over a billion people work in cooperatives worldwide. Most of these are local producer cooperatives, of farmers and craftspeople, traders and builders. They pool their limited resources to keep their families safe and healthy just above a subsistence income. If we in developed countries see business as an elite undertaking, it is a skewed view.
Even in the developed world, a new breed of micro-entrepreneurs are flourishing on the internet. Again predominantly women, makers and artists use the Etsy platform to sell their work. People start creative or science projects via crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. People self-publish books, comics, calendars, t-shirts, bespoke 3D-printed phone cases – anything.
Ah, you might say, but this is all marginal stuff, even if the numbers are huge. These tiny “Mom & Pop shops” are not really serious business. Well, they may start out small – most businesses do. Most entrepreneurs do. Alan Sugar boiled beetroots in a bathtub long before he founded Amstrad. Don’t underestimate a person’s ambition based on where they currently are.
And “where they currently are” is the core issue here. What the internet has enabled – for those who are connected and literate enough to use its platforms – is for anyone, anywhere to set up shop online, for no money, in under 24 hours, and start trading globally. The combination of free-to-start email, shopfront and payment services (for example Gmail + Etsy + PayPal) is a revolutionary triad. You just don’t need a bank account, a registered company or even an address. If you’re selling virtual goods, you don’t even need a postal service nearby. You don’t need to use a real world currency. People have been doing this for a couple of decades in virtual game worlds. What that means is that if you just have an internet connection and basic literacy, you can start a business TODAY. Stuck at home Mum? No problem. Stuck in a tiny village a hundred miles from the nearest market town? Get on with it. No matter what country you are in, whether you’re in a wheelchair or have five kids or a bed-bound grandfather to look after, you can set up and start trading, TODAY. You don’t need any money and you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to do so.
Please note: never underestimate the barriers to access for the internet connection, and the basic literacy required. This will not work for everyone. But what I’m saying is that for a large number of people, the access is there, right now, today. Basically everybody on Facebook can do this.
Also, not everyone will be successful. You have to find something to sell that people want to buy, you have to create value in the world. But there are a million ways to do that. You also have to get your pricing right to make a margin. It will not be easy to build up an income anything like a “regular salary” one might enjoy in the developed world – as anyone who’s given up the day job to sell cupcakes on market stalls can attest. But it’s better than zero income, and plenty of people do build a viable business, employing several staff, starting out this way. You’ve seen them pitching on Dragon’s Den. You have to understand the laws and taxes and regulations in due course – but you can get started, now, today, here. Here, in your bedsit in Nowheresville, East Somewhereshire.
In developed countries we are used to the standard work model being employment by a company, in a factory or office. That model is breaking down, and being transformed by new technologies. Manual workers, knowledge workers and even face-to-face service workers are all being replaced by machines – whether robots, data-crunching algorithms or digitised assistants. The outsourcers we used to bemoan, and the micro-taskers on eLance, are being replaced by machines wherever possible, and fast. Even the least obvious professions are not immune. It is estimated that 80% of doctors’ tasks (by hours spent) could be done – and done better – by a smartphone app. For some of these people, and for some of those downsized or made redundant by recession or family commitments, setting up an online business will be a great solution.
I’m most excited about the potential for women, for young unemployed people, for ill or elderly people, for those who just don’t fit the 9-5 mould.
The future world of work looks very different. Parts of it are here today. If you’ve always dreamt of starting your own business, you can start right here, right now, and sell your first product today. The book at the top of this post? I made it by hand, at home, from paper and card, glue and cloth. It was my first Etsy sale, in November 2011, to a lady in Canada. That first online sale is a fabulous feeling.