Disagreeing with Norm – Defending the Part-Time Web Entrepreneur

Inc. is my favorite magazine. It’s probably my single favorite source of news. If I was limited to one hour of business/tech/entrepreneurship news per month, I’d probably spend 45 minutes of it reading Inc.

Norm Brodsky authors one of my favorite columns, Street Smarts, in which he fields questions from business owners. Norm is a veteran entrepreneur who has probably forgotten more business than I know. However, I have to take him to task for his latest column. Norm Brodsky on the New Breed of Entrepreneur ventures in to something I do know quite a bit about – web entrepreneurship – and I respectfully disagree with the conclusion that he arrived at.

But there’s another reason I am troubled by all these part-time, Web-based businesses. It’s precisely because they are less difficult, less expensive, and less risky. When you’ve scrounged up every last cent and put it all on the line, success or failure becomes a matter of survival. Your instincts become sharper. You approach problems with a totally different mindset. If, in your part-time Web business, no customers show up for a week or two, you can take your time finding a solution. In a business you depend on for your livelihood, you have to come up with a solution immediately. I realize that there are many Web entrepreneurs who make that kind of total commitment to their companies. But my sense is that they are a minority. A decade ago, nearly every aspiring entrepreneur I met was 100 percent committed.

I hope I’m wrong. If I’m right, it could be very bad news for our economy.

I don’t doubt that a higher percentage of entrepreneurs were more fully committed a decade ago (or any other time in history really). What I think Norm is missing is that the raw number of ventures being attempted has skyrocketed*. So what if now only 10% or 20% of new business owners are “fully committed”? That might be 10% of a number that’s 100x larger, likely leaving a much larger raw number of “fully committed” entrepreneurs…which I think is a net win for our economy.

Even the 80% or 90% who aren’t committed and ultimately fail have been exposed to entrepreneurship, which is also probably a good thing for the economy. Maybe that person who couldn’t cut it on their own becomes a better employee because they understand more about how a business is run, or maybe they are someday in a position (personally, at a corporate job, or in government) to influence how small businesses are run and they use their short experience as a business owner to empathize with entrepreneurs and develop solutions that truly work.

The other thing I think Norm misses is just how much better this method of part-time web entrepreneurship is for the individual. I get quite a few emails from people who are miserable at their job and are looking to start a business. I always try to steer them in to keeping their job while getting their venture up and running.

Why? Well, for some people (a lot of people actually), this is just a phase. Maybe they’re pissed off at their boss or they just went through a nasty breakup. For one reason or another their looking for something new and adventurous, and starting a business sounds like a good idea. Until they start doing it and they realize that they’d rather do other stuff when they’re not at work. Which is fine. They didn’t lose anything more than their time and probably a few thousand dollars. They keep their job and move on with life. But could you imagine if they had quit their job? A few months later when their venture failed they could lose their savings or their house, or be in so much debt that they’ll never dig their way out.

Other times, people are very serious and they just can’t get the venture to work for one reason or another. If the customers don’t come after a few months, they can again pull the plug without their entire life being over. They can take a break for a few months and try again without risking their livelihood.

And if the part-time entrepreneur is successful – they have customers and they’re on the road to profitability – they can quit their full-time job with confidence. They also proved their work ethic by starting a successful company while working a full-time job, something that I think is an amazing feat in and of itself.

I feel like I have a pretty good pulse on the web entrepreneur community. If everyone quit their job and became fully committed to every new venture we’d have a lot of miserable, broke entrepreneurs running crappy businesses. Afraid to pull the plug. Afraid to try something new (or just move on with their lives) because quitting would equate to failure at life. That, to me, would be bad for our economy.

*The most recent data I can find from both the Kauffman Foundation and the SBA is from 2009 and suggests that while entrepreneurship is at record highs, it’s nowhere near the 100X I suggested. BUT that doesn’t factor in everyone who has attempted a website or app on the side, which for our purposes makes the number much much higher. It also omits the past few years, where I would surmise you’d see an even greater rise in new businesses than you did during the start of the recession.

8 comments on Disagreeing with Norm – Defending the Part-Time Web Entrepreneur

  1. Dale says:

    Yeah I hafta agree with you to disagree. Part time entrepreneurship gives people a chance to take a calculated risk. I would argue the old way of doing entrepreneurship is like betting your house on red on a roulette wheel… you can hit it big, but you’re taking unnecessary risks.

  2. Brad says:

    Part time entrepreneurship lets you run a test drive of an idea without gambling your life’s wealth on it. This means the idea doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, just decent…hell, even if it’s a bad idea you don’t lose much other than your time.

    This should (and has) create a huge influx of startups that will probably won’t change the world, but certainly can dominate a niche that no investor would touch. Every once in awhile, one of these projects could turn into something big enough to draw attention and change the face of the internet. The only question that really remains is:

    Is it a good or bad thing if ferret lovers have their own dating site?

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Haha good point Brad. A lot of small demands get met that otherwise wouldn’t have. For us, a good example is the SportsLizard Price Guide. For almost 5 years now it’s chugged along and been a nice small revenue source for us. An investor would never touch it because the ceiling is far too low, but it’s allowed us to make some supplementary cash while filling a need that’s clearly there…as evidenced by the 10 million+ queries that have been run by our users.

  3. Mark W. says:

    I agree with you Adam. Well written and very logical article (as usual). Probably why I read this blog. 🙂

    “Maybe that person who couldn’t cut it on their own becomes a better employee because they understand more about how a business is run, …”

    I really like this statement because it’s a phenomena that’s so difficult to measure and yet important to consider. Many people won’t mention it because it’s not measurable but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks for the kind words Mark 🙂

      Agreed on the “just because it can’t be measured it isn’t important” point. I just know that personally there have been a lot of things in my life that I’ve tried for a little while and then realized that they weren’t for me (jobs, hobbies, etc). Even if it’s something I only did for a few weeks or months, I feel like having that experience is invaluable when it comes to understanding what the people who are successful go through. Their problems, challenges, frustrations, and the like.

  4. Rob says:

    (coming from someone who has never worked for a big company..or any company really)

    It seems to me that the entrepreneurial spirit is missing from a lot of organisations. Oftentimes staff view it as their job and their paycheck but either don’t think how they could help improve the company or the company doesn’t have suitable mechanisms in places/is not welcoming to innovation. Everyone who works for a living has frustrations at their workplace, things that could be more efficient, things that could be better, new things that might be worth trying and it’s this way of continual improvement and trial & error that is what makes entrepreneurs tick. If people try going out on their own and fail, they’ll still learn a huge amount as a person and hopefully be able to roll that experience into being a happier, more useful employee.

    In terms of part time vs full time, there seems to be a lot of hate from the full-timers towards the part-timers in some industries. In photography we see it all the time, especially wedding photographers – “Don’t use that guy, why did they book him? I can’t believe they booked him when he only works weekends and I do this all week and I have a studio to pay for too…” blah blah entitlement. They call them “weekend warriors”. The fulltimers don’t face the issue head on – if you do the best work and have solid marketing structures in place, you’ll come out on top. However, for some jobs, it’s simply not possible for it to become a full time gig. Maybe it once was, but times may have changed, technology and the economy might have had an impact in the industry. For instance, I’d imagine being a Wedding photographer (for example) would be difficult to do full time if you lived in an isolated area with low population. It’s a similar story for all kinds of creatives – sculptors, painters, designers etc.

    Norm doesn’t consider that people like working this way too – they might love being a civil engineer on the weekdays and then doing the odd bit of crafting for their side hustle on the weekend, whether that be coding up an app or making greetings cards. There’s nothing at all wrong with them wanting to live their life that way if they choose & I don’t think it’s on to judge them for it as everybody has different values & priorities.

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