The world of entrepreneurship is typically one of black and white. Magazine covers are full of people who have given up their lives to grow a billion dollar tech company. And the phalanx around those people are the entrepreneurs who want to sell a big company themselves. Which means long hours, huge tradeoffs, and participation in a hard-core boys club.
In that view, entrepreneurship is only for an intrepid few. They are young with no responsibility, or they are rich, with a huge paid or unpaid support system. But I think there is a much more broad way to think about entrepreneurship.
Here are four models for entrepreneurship that no one talks about. See if you find something that’s a good fit for you.
1. Professional sports.
When you think about entrepreneurship it’s important to include ideas beyond the office. Professional athletes run the gamut from loving to be told what to do to loving to work for themselves.
A good example is April Ross, a silver medal winner in Olympic beach volleyball. She was a star on indoor volleyball teams in high school and college. She could have gone on to play indoor volleyball in Europe and then play on the indoor Olympic team for the US. But she said she turned to beach volleyball because she couldn’t stand the highly structured life of indoor volleyball.
Indoor volleyball has six players on the court, and you have to practice constantly together to know where everyone is going to be at every moment. You workout together, you practice together, and you travel together. It’s a regimented life. With beach volleyball, you can workout by yourself and you only have to coordinate with one other person. In beach doubles each team has a coach, but unlike indoor volleyball, the team, rather than the coach, runs the show.
What Ross was really saying is that she chose to be an entrepreneurial professional athlete. There will be no exit. No big sale of the company. But she works for herself, and she makes her own schedule.
2. Freelance work.
Some freelancers run their lives as if they are working for a company. At the other end of the spectrum, some freelancers blend the line between freelancing and entrepreneurship.
For most people, freelancing is a way to get more control over your life. For a wide range of reasons, people don’t want to go into an office every day. If you are booking gig after gig to pay the bills, you are, in effect, running your own business. It’s a lifestyle business that has the goal of creating a stable life. This is the opposite of a tech startup which creates a very unstable life that allows you to play a lottery game with a potentially big exit.
In the freelance world, you could aim for low-paying steady jobs, or you could aim to collect high-budget clients that allow you to hire other people to do the work.
Further down the spectrum would be a freelancer who creates a brand identity for the freelance business and collects high-paying clients. It’s a higher risk game: you need a pool of big clients and they have to be consistent with your brand. But the exit potential emerges if you take that risk: Sapient, for example, is an agency that grew from freelance gigs to a branded company and then to an exit.
3. Outsourcing your own job.
Cassie works at my new company, Quistic. Her job is sales and she’s a typical sales person in that she’s got a million ideas for how to get people to buy, and she has a million ways she wants me to tweak the product so she can sell it, but she hates doing the detailed, repetitive task of sending email inquiries.
So I check up on her. I say, “Cassie, send me your sales pipeline at the end of the day,” and she says “Okay, yeah,” which I have learned means, “I hate that so much.”
But then one day she said, “Oh. Sure, great. I’ll get that to you right now.”
I got scared.
It turns out that Cassie hired someone to do that part of her job. And all the other parts she hates.
Alex, who works with us, said, “That’s crazy! Aren’t you upset?”
I am not. Cassie is totally entrepreneurial. Before she was working with me, she was taking my course about launching your own business, but she doesn’t have the risk profile to do it on her own. I love that she started a little business inside of our business. She hired someone to do work that held her back from making bigger sales, which is exactly what entrepreneurship is—finding a way to make money that other people are missing.
4. Creative obstinance.
There is a type of person who insists on making movies, writing novels, playing music, or some other of those annoyingly impossible and low-paying dream-boat lives, all of them starving artists. But that’s out of fashion. It’s not fun to starve, and most parents will let you live at home anyway. But maybe most important is that it’s difficult to do good art if you are can’t meet your basic living requirements.
This means that most artists today are also entrepreneurs. Some people are more entrepreneur than artists—Andy Warhol set the standard for this. Today’s version is more like Damien Hirst (pictured up top), who hires forty people to produce paintings of lots of dots that sell for millions of dollars. A good movie about the entrepreneurial nature of art is Exit Through the Gift Shop. It’s breathtaking, actually. You must see this movie if you want to be an art-world entrepreneur.
If you book yourself on music tours you are running your own business. It’s focused on the music, and you probably hate the drudgery of calling people and booking gigs. But you know what? Tech startup founders just want to run with their idea and hate that they have to spend their time calling investors and pitching them.
Writers also are entrepreneurs. It’s unlikely that they will find a publisher that is competent at marketing a book online. So it’s up to writers to figure out how to sell their book. And even if you do sell your book, you’ll probably have to sell something else to support a family.
Ramit Sethi is a great example of how a book author became an entrepreneur. Ramit has built such a robust business that he could probably exit it at some point—that is, it could run just fine without him because he has built such a trusted brand for his information products under the name Iwillteachyoutoberich.
Miranda July is at the other end of the spectrum. Her advertising for her book is phenomenal. This is so fun to watch that that I loved her before I read the book. And I bought the book. Miranda July is not committed to building a Ramit Sethi type brand. She just wants to write books. But both are entrepreneurs.
So instead of beating yourself up that you are not starting your own company, think about where you fit on the spectrum. Landing on the cover of Fast Company is not the only model. We each have our own capacity for starting something up. And each of us will succeed if we get to our right spot in the spectrum.