Monday, January 19, 2009

A Time for Entrepreneurs

Job security has become something of an oxymoron lately. Guaranteed employment situations are very rare. Even the usual assurances that if you do a good job there will be a place for you are rarer than they have been in years. This isn't the first recession that we've experienced. But this one is so remarkable it may get a name. I've been hearing the title "The Great Recession" being bandied about.

Like the similarly named depression of our parent's and grandparent's generation, there's nothing great about going through a severe business downturn. Losing a job without the prospect of replacing it is a reality for a growing number of people. You see the stories in the papers and on TV. Companies are laying off workers. It's a few thousand here and twenty or thirty thousand there. But it's every day. How soon before the grim reaper comes to visit your desk?

Unemployment is a disaster for 1 of 10 working Americans in some areas. But fear of unemployment, so wrenching and persistent that you can hardly focus on the work at hand, is an everyday reality for millions more. I've been through slowdowns, downsizings, and corporate mergers for decades and seen first hand the morale destruction that happens even to the top tier of employees. When no one can be told definitely when the next round of layoffs will come, what areas will be affected, or how deep the cuts will go, it's just human nature to fear the worst.

Probably the worst source of anxiety is the feeling of helplessness, the loss of control of your own destiny. That, I'm afraid, is the working bargain for so many people today. In exchange for providing you with a place to work, a defined hourly wage or salary, the structure of a job so you know what is expected, and a benefit package with vacation pay and at least some health care benefits, you give up autonomy and expectation that you have any equity in your position. You can go home at night and not have to worry about what "they" have to do to run the business. But your job may or may not be there in a couple of weeks.

Contrast that with the life of the independent business person. These people do have to worry about what it takes to run the business including where the money is coming from, whether or not a profit is being generated, how the bills are getting paid, and what needs to be done to keep the business viable. The entrepreneur has no more guarantee of success than an employee has a guarantee of employment. Much less in fact. But the entrepreneur does have one thing an employee doesn't. That's at least some influence over one's destiny.

The entrepreneur decides what avenues to pursue, what things to drop or do less of, what expenses to take on or avoid, whether or not to hire or let go of employees and how much effort to expend. In good times, employees heading home after 8 hours may shake their heads in disbelief at entrepreneurs who burn the midnight oil and never take a holiday. But when employees are told to go home early because there is less work to do and less pay to do it, those crazy hours of the entrepreneur start to look a bit more attractive.

Neither the situation of the employee nor the entrepreneur is the proverbial bed of roses in this environment. Both have their anxieties and their rewards. But during periods when traditional jobs are harder to find and less secure, there are an increasing number of people who start thinking about going into business for themselves. For many would-be entrepreneurs, the best way to see how the "other half lives" is to give it a try on a part-time or moonlighting basis while they still have a job. That way if you find that the demands of having to define your own work and make yourself do it is way more stressful than having a boss lay everything out for you, you'll know that you should spend your time looking for jobs rather than looking to start a business.

Basically, if you can approach business people with the idea that you can save them money on their voice and data services, or promote things like VoIP telephone, cell phones, satellite TV and broadband Internet to residential users, you are a good candidate to start generating commission checks. Of course, the more you enjoy this type of work and the harder you work at it, the more successful you are likely to be. Creative business and technical writers and developers of successful web sites are also good candidates for success in this field. So are people who already have sales or consulting experience.

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