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Self-employment in the Internet Age

“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” – Motto of The Christophers

I mostly make my living on the internet these days but I have a confession. I never worked much with computers until about five years ago, least of which the internet. Sure, in the preceding 25 years that I worked in mortgages and accounting I used computer applications, lots of them. But most of us understand the not so subtle difference between that and working in an environment in which your primary means of support is coming directly from working on/in computers or somewhere out in cyberspace. Or more specifically, participating in self-employment in the Internet Age.

My career as a paper pusher ended unceremoniously at the end of 2008, a time when recycled paper pushers weren’t in very big demand. Where to go, what to do? Damn computers – #%&*@$g internet – they’ll be the end of the world, you watch!

That last line is a fiction (OK, it was a deeply suppressed thought), but I chose to intentionally avoid dwelling on it. Every one who’s ever seen their career crash and burn can point to one or more big picture factors that directly or indirectly greased the wheels of their departure. We can either poison ourselves with bitterness, or find some way to benefit from prevailing changes (hence the Christopher’s quote above). Which route we take will mostly determine our future direction.

Job VS Opportunity

Self-employment in the Internet Age
Self-employment in the Internet Age
Here’s the thing about computers and the internet – yes, they have been responsible for the permanent elimination of millions of jobs around the world (and almost certainly more to come) – but they’ve also created a sea change of opportunity. We should work to take advantage of that opportunity.

Now notice I said “opportunity”, rather than jobs – computers and the internet have created many, many jobs, most of them high paying. But they’ve destroyed more jobs than they’ve created on balance. And let’s face it, unless you’re a highly trained “techie”, getting a high paying job in the computer field is tough.

The opportunities I’m describing won’t be found in a job, but in having your own business. Scared? Don’t be. I think it’s the wave of the future.

Most people who have held jobs all their lives tend to think “job” when it comes to earning a living, but the onslaught of computers and the internet have changed that arrangement. I think that computers and the internet are the 21st Century equivalent of the return to the family farm and shop that provided income for the majority of humanity since the beginning of civilization.

What are some of the ways that computers and the internet are making self-employment more doable?

The entire world is our market

Because of the internet we’re no longer limited to the local community as a business base. Business can quite literally be developed throughout the world. The obvious advantage here is a much bigger market, but probably more significant is the niche factor. There are more niches globally than locally, and that heightens the chance of finding business success.

For example, let’s say you’re an art dealer; you can only drum up so much business in your immediate local community. But by selling on the web, you can reach hundreds of larger markets around the world, and many of them may buy proportionately more art than people on your home turf do. Even as a blogger, a significant amount of my income is derived from non-US sources. That’s the nature of the web – a market without borders.

Free and Cheap Marketing

Every business needs to market, otherwise there is no business. But marketing can be the mortal enemy of a small business, especially a start up. Advertising in the traditional media (TV, radio, mailers and print) is expensive. The big players can and do play that game, and play it well, which lowers the probability that your own marketing will be effective among the din.

Marketing on the internet is far cheaper (and often free) than it is in the traditional media. You can place ads on large websites for less than the cost of advertising in a local newspaper, or you can market for free on the social media, like Facebook and Twitter. Just having and growing your website or blog is a form of advertising.

Networking Gets Larger – and More Important

Networking opportunities are wide open – people are helping people on the web. Most web businesses are small, often one-man or one-woman shops, so you can market your products through another online business while they market their product through yours. You can also swap business strategies and gain access to valuable information.

Networking is the life’s blood of the internet – which is why it’s called the “web”.

More Product Lines to Sell

Product lines are available to us that once were known only to “insiders”. Everything is being sold on the web and that presents some opportunities. Many companies will offer affiliate sales arrangements, in which you get paid a commission to sell their products. And since it’s what they do, the process of signing up is usually pretty simple. It goes without saying that any sort of import/export business will be easier to build, since it’s all done online.

Online Sales Are on the Rise

Online sales of nearly every product or service you can imagine are rising steadily. What this means is that the resistance to buying online is much lower than it was just a few years ago. More people being more willing to transact business online is a win for the small business owner. Where you once needed an attractive storefront or office suite to get people to do business with you, now all you need is a good website.

Thousands of people are now operating online stores and making a good living doing it. If you’ve ever had an idea to sell a product, the internet has made it more doable than ever. Best part: online stores don’t require tens- or hundreds-of thousands of dollars to start. A few hundred dollars and a good product or product line may be all it takes.

Inexpensive Staffing

Next to marketing, staffing is usually the most expensive outlay for a small business, but the web can even help you with that. You can find inexpensive outsourcing help with virtual assistants (VAs) – no need to have formal employees. VAs can perform everything from simple administrative tasks to complicated computer applications, and they usually cost no more than a few dollars an hour. There are talented people in less developed countries who are willing to take on some of your work for not a lot of money. That means no W2s, no employee benefits and no employee lawsuits. They’re out there on the web, waiting for work.

Building a Portfolio of Businesses – a Major Component of Self-employment in the Internet Age

Blogging Your Passion 101
Blogging Your Passion 101

If you can start one business on the web, you can add a second, a third, or as many as you want. You can enter one business and move seamlessly to another – everything just works faster on the web. Web entrepreneurs are a growing phenomenon – once you overcome your apprehension about the web, the sky is truly the limit. This adds an income diversification that a traditional job can never provide. I’d take that over employee benefits and a loose promise of job security any day!

Servicing the Online “Establishment”

As more businesses develop on the web, so do the opportunities to provide support services for them. If you have computer-, social media-, marketing-, writing- or administrative-skills, there are internet businesses and blogs who could use your services. For example, blogs often use outside services to write articles, manage content, social media marketing and technical support. Any such niche could be the beginning of a new online career if you have such skills.

Free, online training

Information on any business you can think of is no farther away than a Google search (YouTube is another excellent source). In truth (meaning, they’ll never tell you this in college business programs), most businesses are “seat-of-the-pants” affairs – you learn by trial and error. If you’re tooling along in your business and you hit on a snag, you can usually find the answer somewhere on the web. It’s been said that because of the internet, the average person today has access to more information than kings and business tycoons had 50 or 100 years ago. Use that to your advantage.

Start small, grow large

Here’s one of the best parts of working on the web: you can start as a side business until you grow into full-time. That means you can plunge into an internet business without having to quit your job, and you can continue doing so until you’re ready to take it up to full time. This lowers the risk of starting an internet business substantially.

This is possible in large part because internet businesses are talent driven, not capital driven the way so many bricks-and-mortar ventures are. You don’t need inventory, employees or even office space, and as discussed above, marketing is incredibly cheap.

All of these advantages make a strong case for the unemployed, the under-employed, the disenfranchised (that was me five years ago) or even the currently employed but dissatisfied, to consider some sort of internet-related income generating venture. And because doing it doesn’t require much money, you can try, fail and try again all you like – until you get it right.

This is after all, a new age – he Internet Age.

Have you thought about starting some sort of internet-based business? If not, what’s holding you back?

( Photo from Flickr by ivanpw )


12 Responses to Self-employment in the Internet Age

  1. Although I haven’t quite figured out how to profit from it, I find the idea that we can reach customers from all over the world from anywhere in the world absolutely fascinating. In the mean time, I’ll work on creating customer relationships with folks in my home country and as many English speaking countries as possible.

    I’ve used Odesk to hire virtual assistants with mixed success, but I’m going to keep at it. Eventually, I hope to find reliable contractors who consistently deliver quality work at an affordable price. There’s so much I’d like to accomplish, and I’m under no delusion that I can do it all myself.

  2. Hi Shawanda–I don’t know that you can start out to develop foreign customers, it’s more that you sell a product or service, and they’re just kind of out there. There are no borders with the internet (well, maybe China), and that means money can come from all over.

    I’ve heard much about Odesk, but I know several people who have used them with decent results. But you keep trying until you find what you need. That’s quick and easy on the web.

  3. I cant imagine how my life would be without internet, I lost my job during the recession and since then I have been on the internet making money, I have never tried applying for job vacancies. I got started after doing some research and it kicked off well for me I must say. Self Employment online is fun.

  4. Hi Mike–Yes, self employment online is fun, but I think the freedom, portability and potential to grow your business are equally important. I haven’t found it to be an easy climb, but it’s certainly well worth the effort. It’s still an incredible feeling to realize I’m actually doing this and making money, which makes it feel new every day. It’s one of those businesses where can wake up and say “Where do I want to go today?”–and you can start to work to make it happen.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    Great post! (I just found your blog via Biz Sugar).

    Not only has the Internet greatly lowered the barrier of entry for someone to start a small business, it has also revolutionized the way entrepreneurs can communicate. For example, virtual phone systems and online meeting solutions allow small business owners to enjoy features that once were only available for thousands of dollars. Instead of needing a Fortune 500 sized budget, small businesses can take advantage of sophisticated technologies for pennies a day.

    This means that a typical small business (think bricks and mortar store) can use technology to better communicate with their customers, market themselves to a wider audience, and overall get a leg up on their competition. The Internet and cloud-based services make this possible! Then you factor in all the possibilities of online businesses and your head can really start to spin.

    Yes, the Internet has brought many great things to entrepreneurs, especially the ability to start a company with just a web-connected computer. Once someone tastes the freedom of entrepreneurialism, all of the hard work required, and ensuing headaches and stresses, will be worth it.

  6. Hi Marshall–We hear so much about how the internet is revolutionalizing business–mainly big business of course–and sometimes it can be a bit intimitading to us “little folks” out there. But the truth is the internet, and technology in general are benefitting small businesses even more. With technology and the internet in particular, the small business can function like a big one. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to match the resources available with what it is you want to do.

    I think the web is bringing us back to cottage industry, only it won’t look at all the way it did 100 or more years ago. It may be our best hope for a steady income in the future. The bonus of course is that many of those small businesses will turn into big businesses, if the owners can truly grasp the magnitude of what can be done.

  7. Great information shared!!Having more than 2 billion Internet users world over, the Internet has emerged as an important commercial platform for business transactions besides being the first choice for information research and self employment.

  8. “Talent driven, not capital driven.”

    I love that line. So true.

    And I’m just now looking into VA’s. I know how to do everything myself but I need to focus my time on the important stuff. They can do the rest just fine.

  9. I like your point about the free online training. There is almost too much of it now, though. It can be a bit paralyzing, thinking that you need to learn everything before you try your hand at something.
    Just me beating myself up over here for not doing everything perfectly?
    haha… I’m trying to be more “just jump in and do it” so that’s why that part stuck out to me the most.

  10. Hi Anne – I fully get your point. You should take advantage of training, of course, but not OD on it. At some point you just have to “pull the trigger”. Nothing will ever be perfect, and you can waste a lot of time trying to get it just right. But even that won’t guarantee success. You’re right about “just jump in and do it”.

  11. I love being able to slowly ease my way into internet employment and online advertising. The internet world is booming and leaves so much room for people to grow and improve.

  12. Amen Alexis, while so many other career fields and industries are barely hanging on, the internet universe is busy blazing new trails. I feel completely blessed to be a part of it!

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