Everyone is an Entrepreneur (or at Least a Small Business Owner)

At the end of September I was back at Denison University for parent and homecoming weekend. As part of the fall weekend, the Career Exploration department always organizes a series of roundtables for particular careers. Last year I covered communications, but this year I figured that the Arts roundtable was bound to have students I could help advise. I always enjoy these discussions with students because it sparks so many new ideas for me. While I didn’t think Reid Hoffman’s book quite hit the mark since his focus was more on managing your career, making the “Start-up of You” a metaphor, my takeaway from my roundtable experience is that everyone literally should be thinking about their business(es). (And as I read more about Mr. Hoffman’s thinking, I think we might be in agreement, after all.)

For arts students it’s perhaps more obvious that this is required. While one student I met seemed more interested in a career as a recording artist, for which I have little advice, it was clear that he also had the skills to compose music, so my follow up email was about the various royalty-free sites where we buy music for many of our films. Essentially an Etsy-like business model, I don’t know why any music student wouldn‘t put some tracks up and start learning what sells and what doesn’t. Although this may not be enough to earn a living and it may not be their ideal career path, what if it could ultimately generate $300/month in income? (With a limited consumption of time, and all that time consumed when most convenient to them.) Add in one wedding-type performance event a month (always a weekend) with perhaps four people splitting $1,000. Again, very little time given up in exchange for part of a monthly income stream. Build up a following via the royalty-free music and maybe once a month you can sell a custom composition for a corporate film for $1,000. You see where I’m going, right? Something has to happen before you’re an overnight success with millions coming in.

And all three of those ideas are things a music student can do while in college. It doesn’t require skipping classes, shorting the time academic work requires, or even mean you have to forgo a more typical student job that generates immediate cash. But if you can use those to build up a business, you’ll have a lot more freedom when you graduate. Although, honestly, while building those into viable revenue amounts, it probably would be a great idea to get an office job in a related business upon graduation. Having practical insights into event planning, venue management, or in the music industry, would not only build your network, but they would build real skills and business understanding that can be put to use as the larger dream is in motion.

I think for students with more traditional career path interests, it’s still a model worth considering. As a business owner, we would never let ourselves be dependent on one client for our survival. And yet, that’s exactly what people do with a paycheck. All their income comes from one place, over which they ultimately have no control. Once upon a time corporations hired people and they spent their whole careers in one place, but that world is long gone. And people have so many diverse interests it’s hard to imagine one job can meet all those needs, so a side business makes sense for creative fulfillment. Most art directors and copywriters all have side gigs despite working famously long hours at an advertising agency. While that money may just serve to keep them in new Apple products, it’s still additional income and a chance to work more directly on a different set of clients than their agency might take. (Agencies generally don’t care because the clients who want to hire a solo person aren’t big enough to spend enough to hire the agency.) This tends to be how new agencies get started—a freelance client gets big or person at freelance client takes a new job and their trust is in that solo creative, but they realize to get them to go out on their own they’ll need to commit to being a reliable client. Creative already has a business entity and a network, so getting a couple of partners to handle the new workload is easy. Two weeks notice later, a new business is born. (Or at least a new position is created and you get hired into it, before it ever gets advertised. Even if you love a steady paycheck, those side gigs keep you aware of opportunities you might otherwise miss.)

In practical terms, what does this mean? Well, I think it means everyone needs some basic understanding of business. (That’s a different post, I know.) It means you should think about what skills you have, or would like to develop. If you need new skills, the best way to learn them outside of an academic setting is to volunteer for a group that needs them. (Best to be slow and imperfect before you are looking to get paid.) 

I’ve never had creative skills to sell, but early in my career I was always up for house- and dog-sitting. Since I worked in the entertainment industry I got to stay in a lot of nice houses and (this is before streaming video), I got to wade through a lot of great movie collections. I’d meet spouses with jobs in other sides of the industry and get to hear a little bit about their world. And everyone I worked for would refer me to more people. The extra cash was great, but the exposure to a curated education in film and the building of a network was invaluable. Ultimately I had a vendor who was colorizing comic books for me in San Diego who introduced me to his (day job) employer, who hired me on the weekends to computerize their financials and offered me a job—a job they created for me. I moved to San Diego, met my husband and business partner at that job, and we started our company on the side. Inside of two years we were married with a viable business that supported both of us. You just really never know what’s going to lead to your big break. But you do have be out there, engaged in the world, usually a little outside your comfort zone for serendipitous things to happen.

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