Friday, 7 September 2001
interact_articles_jobs_skills/Linux Job Skills
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Self Employment: An Alternative to the Job Hunt
Linux.com job guru Mark Miller returns with an inspired look at an alternative to waiting in the employment line or tightening up that business suit. Perhaps an economic downturn is the best time to start a new business after all. It's worth some serious thought.
Self Employment, an Alternative to Job Hunting?
One alternative that you might have overlooked in the job hunt arena is self employment. Ok, maybe you didn't overlook it, you just didn't think you could pull it off. Time to look again.
The American Dream
Just about every red blooded American (and quite a few non-Americans) has considered running their own business at one time or another. We all want to be the boss, call the shots and be that shining example of a manager who isn't clueless about it all. We yearn for the good life, the cars, the fancy homes, the endless techno-toys. Ahhhh, sweet! Of course right about his point our real boss pokes his head in and screams at us to stop daydreaming and get to work.
Putting your money where your mouth is
Visualizing the result of your goals is a good way to motivate yourself and achieve success but there is more to being self employed than that. Being self employed isn't for everyone. If all you want to do is code then it isn't the way to go. If you want a steady paycheck and oodles of benefits then it isn't the way to go. If you need the comfort of lots of others around you then try something else. If, however, you like the idea of being the one who makes the decisions, of creating an organization that sucks less than the ones you have experienced, or having the chance to prove that your idea is a winner then this may be for you.
There is always a down side. Running your own business can be a real strain. You might find yourself doing everything but
coding at times just to survive. As a business owner you will have to master a great many things that you now take for granted: sales, bookkeeping, administrative tasks, janitorial services. That's right bubba, when you are the company you take out the trash.
Oddly enough, it seems that recent polls indicate people who are not already in business for themselves worry about the risk a lot more than people who are. Once you have taken that first step into the unknown, risk drops down on the list of negatives behind having to sell yourself all the time and paperwork. Risk is relative as well. Anyone who has worked in the high-tech world understands the risk of boom and bust business cycles, and the constant fear of layoff in a downturn. These kinds of daily realities make the prospect of business failure a little easier to bear.
So what about the often quoted statistics about most small businesses failing? First off they are misleading. As with all statistics, you have to know just what is being counted. Business turnover, which is the number of new companies minus the companies that terminated (note that is not the same as failed) operations was a positive number during the entire 1990's except for 1991 when terminations slightly exceeded births. Looked at this way the picture is much brighter.
Still it is wise to know that many businesses don't make it to their fifth birthday for many reasons. One example, however, shows that this isn't always a negative. The number of self employed people in the US declined between 1998 and 1999. The biggest reason was the tight labor market of the recent tech boom
enticed many to give up on self employment in favor of dot com jobs. Overall the rate of self employment has been declining since the 1960's which caused many to declare the end of the small business was nigh. Apparently some people weren't listening because self employment has doggedly remained at about 8% of the workforce since the 1970's. With the demise of so many dot coms I suspect that more and more technical professionals will be opening up their own shops to show themselves and others that they can do it right.
A Day in the Life
Small business owners often put in long hours, work with unreasonable customers, face economic insecurity, and can become isolated because work tends to dominate their life. Er, sounds like my
life as an employee! Hmmmm. Seriously, many of the other disadvantages of self employment are common features of the technical life. How many of you reading this have had to reason with highly demanding customers, worked long hours, been on the pager leash, weren't certain if they would have a job next week as the economy turned sour and couldn't talk to people outside of work because they had no idea what you were talking about? My guess is many of you. My point is that you are already coping with a number of the major drawbacks of self employment so you can be assured that they are not likely to present insurmountable obstacles if you follow the independent path.
Finding The Way
Once you have decided to go for the self employed life there comes an even more difficult question; just how? It seems that figuring out just what to do can prove difficult. Perhaps you can't think of that insanely great business that will change the world and put Bill Gates firmly in the number two spot on the World's Richest Man list. Equally frustrating is having so many ideas that you don't know which one to run with. Most books on
starting a business assume that you already have a business idea and you just need help in the mechanics of small business construction. I think they are missing a big part of the process with that attitude. Your business idea is a crucial step and will be unique to you and your circumstances. It need not be unique in the world, however. Heaven knows that there are a zillion auto repair shops in any given area. The implementation of that idea would be the unique thing. One good resource on this pre startup phase is a book called The Republic of Tea
(ISBN 0-385-42056-0). TRoT is a bit heavy on the Zen but really illuminates how each startup is unique to the founder(s) and their discovery of the "right" way to start their particular idea.
Linux and self employment
My suggestion for a business opportunity (and you knew this didn't you?) is Linux. Linux has come a long way but it has a long way to go to fill in all the gaps. On a quick sweep of the internet recently I collected about 150 megabytes of GPL software specific to business processes that wasn't already in most distributions. That is about what the average office suit comes in at. While many applications are promising, most are beta or not fully implemented. If I run an ISP I have lots of billing software and help desk tools available but if I run a hardware store I won't find much. Point of sale apps are out
there but often customized for a specific application (you can get a POS solution for dry cleaners under the GPL, for example). Many bits and pieces exist as well like Perl scripts to verify credit card numbers or read and write barcodes. These await someone to put them together into a credit management application and an inventory control system. Accounting applications and enterprise resource planners are rife on the development
web sites like Freshmeat and Sourceforge but many others are not there. I can find projects aimed at running a medical practice or veterinarian clinic but I find nothing for auto repair shops, mom and pop markets, real estate offices (except a great script for realty web sites) and on and on. Pretty much pick an application from the Windows world and make a better one under Linux and I'll bet you can create a viable business for yourself.
But wait, there's more!
Even with the killer app in hand we still might not make it to economic super-stardom. Running a business is a skill set that must be acquired just like programming. Despite the flames throw in the direction of managers they provide skills that you can't take for granted if you are running the entire show: financial skills, marketing skills, sales
skills, organizational skills, people skills. Then you have to get up some money to make your dream happen because you won't
be profitable from the start. Setting up the business, getting business cards and stationary, figuring out procedures to handle sales and support, and on and on. Luckily for us there are an endless variety of books, tapes,
classes, and resources to help figure all that out. Start at the nearest library and at the nearest Small Business Administration
office to begin your journey.
Taking the first step
If you are like me you have wanted to be your own boss for a long time but just never got around to doing it. My advice to you (and me) is to begin the journey with a step. Any
step. Then take another, and another. Like the book about the life of Steve Jobs (an icon of geek turned successful businessman) says, "the journey is the reward". I feel wanderlust bad and it's just about time for me to lace up my hiking boots and follow that
How about it? What need would you fill using Linux or what Linux related business would you start if you could right now?
Mark Miller has provided technical and non-technical training since the mid eighties and managed workforce development in a large aerospace repair facility for two years. Feel free to let him know how he can help your company with it's training and development needs at firstname.lastname@example.org