It's the universal American dream: to strike out on your own, become your own boss, and—of course—become fabulously wealthy. It is a dream shared by men and women at all levels of society from janitors to executives. I'm convinced it is the reason why many middle income and even lower-middle income people are diehard political conservatives; they truly believe that they are a few steps away from becoming a business owners who, by definition, would be adversely affected by high taxes and burdensome health/safety/labor/environmental regulations.
Certainly there are possibilities for the meteoric rises from “rags to riches” that we all celebrate, such as the orphaned, high-school dropout Dave Thomas, who went on to create a world-wide restaurant chain: Wendy's. However, we must remember these are exceptions; we can't base policy decisions on a few outliers. Without outside influence, people generally stay in the socio-economic class that they were born in, which—at best—is a little better than their parents. These non-contiguous jumps in success that we all dream of, whether in business, sports, or entertainment, are actually extremely rare. When it comes to small business, we must acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of them fail within the first few years, and not only dwell on a few success stories.
This is why I've become convinced that—just as it is foolhardy (and cruel) to pump up poor, inner-city youths with dreams of becoming basketball or rap stars—it is cruel to even tacitly encourage a friend who, with little more than contempt for his employer, wants to strike out on his own. A friend should be the voice of reason in these circumstances, and test the budding entrepreneur’s commitment, knowledge, discipline, and capabilities in this area. Someone who is really intelligent and capable enough to succeed in this respect will have no problem answering the tough questions, starting with how he (or she) is going to support himself, and what evidence there is that this will actually attract customers and make money.
Although there are thousands of self-described independent business people and even more business licenses & incorporation filings, most are not successful—even if they do show some kind of profit. To be a successful entrepreneur, first of all you have to make enough from your salary and/or profit to at least equal your previous job. Too often I hear self-employed friends talk about how much they made in that one good week or month, but are silent about their yearly income. Later, when they run out of money, I often hear they went back to their old job…apparently their business wasn’t as successful as they made it out to be.
The next measure of success is return on investment (ROI) or return on assets; if you already have (or inherited) buildings/facilities/real estate, vehicles, and equipment, you must consider the value of these in any calculation. There is an opportunity cost for these items; could these items could be sold or leased if you were not utilizing them? If so, then this must be determined and subtracted from your profit statement.
There are many other ways of measuring financial success, but my final question would be: how much would someone buy your business for? Obviously part of the equation is the value of cash, inventory, and assets (minus depreciation, of course), but a successful business is really measured by how much money it makes (and is expected to make in the future), and this is where it often becomes sticky for sole proprietors who do not recognize all their cash income and mix business and personal expenses. If I want to buy your business, and you say, “Well, I receive a lot more income than I report on my taxes” then I must trust your word on how much you actually make, since you certainly wouldn’t risk keeping separate books reflecting this additional income (because that would guarantee a conviction in a tax evasion case.)
Too often entrepreneurs end up buying themselves a low-paying job (especially considering the long hours involved) for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and only seem to be successful because they own or control significant assets, while their spouse is actually earning the family’s income from a conventional job.
I will come back to possibly successful entrepreneurial business ideas, but first I want to address why you can’t beat the big guys in the consumer retail sector by defending supposedly evil corporate bad guys against incessant criticism from consumers and small businessmen. I am blown away when I hear local would-be entrepreneurs declare how they could bring goods and service to customers at a lower price than large corporations…who, then by definition, are ripping us off. Their unsophisticated analysis show they do not understand the efficiencies, especially in supply chains, that large corporations have, and ignore the overhead costs in delivering goods & services (I’ve even heard redneck business owners claim to have “low overhead” without realizing that they actually have higher overhead per unit!)
Likewise nearly everyone complains about how cable TV, satellite, and mobile phone companies are ripping them off. The assumptions is that, as an intangible good, data must have a marginal cost near zero, so why should they be getting dinged tens of additional dollars every months for overages and arcane fees for using these services? What is forgotten is the capital tied up in infrastructure and ongoing expenses in maintenance of these massive networks. This reality is divorced from what the advertising/marketing department must do to increase market share: namely get customers to sign contracts for $x9.95/month with—of course—an asterisk at the end! Recently I’ve watched a nearby AT&T tower go up (easily a 7-figure project) and watched dozens to hundreds of UTMS cabinets being assembled for installation around the state as AT&T upgrades their network for 3G. Now I understand why they need $70 a month for the unlimited iPhone data plan.
On the left/green front, some assert that the local & organic food movement stands to gain efficiencies (and reduce carbon footprint) by not transporting food hundreds (or even thousands) of miles across the country or world as the incumbent, industrial food/agriculture industry does. Their childish logic implies that these giants are transporting goods over long distance for no good reason. In fact, large concerns such as Wal-Mart are very careful to minimize the carbon footprint of each product; they just don’t call it that, but use a perfect proxy: money! The less money they spend on diesel fuel, the more profit they make; this is why they pack their 18-wheelers to the roof and use all kinds of logistics experts and computer software to minimize transportation cost (and therefore carbon footprint as well.) Although your local organic farmer doesn’t move his produce as far, it is likely that, on a per pound or kilogram basis, it could actually have a bigger carbon footprint!
Finally, corporations exist in a marketplace of competitors and potential competitors, which—in the long term—make any advantage temporary. Regardless of how much or little they pay their executives, large corporations—across the board—generally make single-digit (percentage) profits. In industries/niches where profits are higher, more players naturally enter the market and dilute any above-average profits.
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I don’t necessary disbelieve the get-rich-quick crowd’s claims of how much money they have made; however, what each one fails to disclose is that they now have a new money-making scheme: selling get-rich-quick books, recordings, and training. They may have very well discovered a lucrative arbitrage opportunity some years ago, but it has since dried up or been diluted by new entrants. Now they are essentially selling nothing more than their life’s story to suckers whom they have convinced can repeat their success. Now, this view is only the most charitable possibility; actually I do believe that most of these charlatans go way beyond exaggeration and embellishment to outright deceit.
Innovative niche entrepreneurship
So, in what field is it prudent to become an entrepreneur? First of all, it has to be a niche that is not adequately served now. Even in the mature economies of the west, there are products and services that a small businessperson can provide other businesses (generally never to consumers) that provide such a great value, they practically sell themselves. With the application and integration of modern technology, it is possible to revolutionize tedious business processes that organizations would like to outsource anyhow. A startup based on the founder(s) competencies/expertise in a given field, and the development of innovative software and/or other systems for several client businesses is a great start. However, notice it must be in your field of expertise. If you haven’t already been working in a particular business or sector for many years, you are simply not qualified to start a business in that area. You can’t just dive in the deep end and expect to learn as you go. If, for example you a machinist who is tired of getting oil under your fingernails, and decide you’re going to change directions and teach yourself computer programming in order to start a business, then you are certainly doomed to fail. (Incidentally, it should go without saying that unless you’ve been a general manager of a restaurant for several years, you should never consider opening a restaurant—even if you have this experience, the odd are against you as an independent restaurant, bar, cafe, etc.) If you really want to make a big change in your professional life, you’re better off going back to school to learn a new profession, work in this new profession for a few years and only then think about starting a business in that area. [UPDATE 7-29-2010] Two researchers from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, Pino Audia and Chris Rider published a paper debunking the "myth of the garage", that is, the humble & isolated beginnings of many tech startups. It turns out that most successful startups leaned heavily on information, skills, and networks established while working with their previous employers. (FastCompany article)
I am sorry for sounding so negative, especially now that I am considering starting my own business, but I’ve written this in part to sharpen my own view on the issue. I’m just tired of conversations about entrepreneurship focusing only on the best-case scenarios, while ignoring the significant costs involved that often are never recouped. Whenever someone whispers, “you know, there’s good money in x” I reply, “yes, there is good money in everything.” Every potential investment or business idea requires a comparable mix of capital, risk, and plain old hard work to produce a comparable income. For example, being a landlord is an excellent way of building wealth, since your tenants are paying the mortgage—building your equity in the property. However, it also means you’ve got to deal with collecting rent, fixing broken plumbing, etc. If you decide to hire a management company so that you don’t have to worry about these things, you will find (with the management fee deducted) your investment now returns about the same as if you just bought stock in a REIT (real estate investment trust.) This is how a capitalist system works; the market determines the value of all inputs through their reward. If an opportunity temporarily returns better than expected returns, then more people will flock to it and dilute the returns.