My first real experience with a small business start-up was in 1991. I had recently graduated from college and my boyfriend at the time was starting a weekly newspaper. I helped him out with about two other folks—a key person being our tech guy, who put the whole paper together on a Mac Quadra (if memory serves me right) which had something like 4 MB RAM and 25 MHz processing speed.
The things we could do with this computer were mind-blowing for us. Our ability to format text, manipulate photos and create graphic artwork on the computer made it possible to start an actual newspaper on a shoestring. Just a short 10 or so years prior to that, the equipment, specialized labor and time necessary to start a publication of any sort would have required major start-up capital and significantly more risk. In the 1980s and 1990s, technology was having the same effect in an increasing number of businesses, fields and industries—and within a short decade or so, every industry and business had been radically transformed by technology.
Perhaps the biggest and broadest transformation that we’ve seen across the whole spectrum of small business is that technology has made it significantly cheaper and thus easier for just about anyone to start a business. In business-speak, this is called lowering the barriers to entry. Barriers were knocked way down by personal computers that allowed regular folk to do things like manage business finances with simple software, or produce professional marketing materials at a tenth of what it used to cost. Then the Internet came along with a slew of new possibilities and business models that just smashed the barriers to bits.
Now, let me say that I do believe some barriers can be a good thing. Some of those “new business models” brought about by the Internet were, shall we say, less than financially sound. Sometimes I think the bar is now set so low that it’s a real challenge to rise above the mud. As a consultant, coach and small business educator, I see plenty of would-be entrepreneurs who really should keep their day jobs: either their business ideas are wack, or they just don’t have the skills or temperament for self-employment.
The reality is that while it’s easier to start a business, the elements necessary for success haven’t changed that much. While there’s a ton of great information and resources out there (like Nolo books and software, and government agencies and nonprofits that teach entrepreneurship skills), too many overeager entrepreneurs don’t take advantage of them, and suffer the consequences of watching their ventures go down in flames.
But with those warnings in mind, I am absolutely in love with how technology has brought self-employment within reach for just about anyone. I myself am one of the many free-spirited folk who are self-employed less for the financial rewards and more for the flexibility, creativity and freedom it affords us in our personal lives. And when my students and clients are able to take the leap and actually launch an idea that will help them find personal and/or professional fulfillment—well, it just makes my heart swell.