Starting Your Own Business Without the Fanfare / by Matthew Cook

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I started this article on one of my recent trips to Charleston, SC. I’ve got several of these rambling personal blog posts stored up that I haven’t been publishing. I’ll start putting some of them up now and again. Keeping a good blend of casual thinking and professional thinking is my goal–so here we go.

Talking about starting your own company in tech is a hot topic right now. There’s a lot of excitement and jittery nerves around the start-up scene as we experience a bit of a tech boom here in The States. Lots of quoting Steve Jobs, and lots of dreaming big. It’s fun, it can be intoxicating, and (as is often stated) one in a million make it big. It’s fun to watch, it’s fun to read about, and how can you not like Steve if you’re young and love tech? I want to talk about those of us who live in this start-up world as individuals but aren’t really part of it. 

For all intensive purposes, I’m a business owner. I’m an independent contractor working as an LLC that I run all of my income and liability through–waiting for my paperwork on that LLC. I provide a service to clients that they need, I pay myself, and I cover 100% of my own taxes. However, I don’t have employees, I don’t have investors, I don’t have a product, and I don’t have wild ambitions for scale. There are lots of people who work this way, and I think we’re an over-marginalized piece of the tech start-up scene. We sort of fit into the Independent Small Business Owner category, but we also fit into the Independent Contractor category as well as the broader Entrepreneur moniker. 

We have all of the financial burdens that come with being in the start-up world, but none of the fanfare; sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s terrible. Forget investors, forget products, forget incubators, and forget imagining your company as the next Apple or Facebook. We’re gloriously and terribly alone except for the clients or fellow industry lone wolves we call friends. I like to make my own category for what we are.

We are the wheels in a lego box. You never know what you’re going to build when you pull out the huge bin of pieces, but wheels are a safe bet. After all, unless it’s a fort, you’re going to need to go somewhere, right? I like thinking of people like us as the unused building blocks of the start-up world that everyone needs.

Who we are and what we do are the individual pieces to larger teams that can make amazing things and go to amazing places. For now, I’ve chosen to stay small and touch as many things as I possibly can. I know great men and women who have decided to become a cornerstone in a larger structure, and I know some who are intentionally and chronically that lone set of wheels. 

For me, I know I can’t stay alone long term. At some future point I’ll either take a stab at building my own thing, or I’ll go W-2 (again). I’m looking at a BLS.gov graph that shows the success rate of small businesses by year. As it declines from 100% to around 20% over a 17 year span, I’m sitting here wondering how long my “business” will survive. I know it’s an imperfect comparison, assuming I’m not actually an accurate sample for that model, but it’s definitely a driver to be a building block or a set of wheels rather than a cog in the machine.  

Where I’ve landed for now is that I know I want to do my own thing. That means a lot of working with SuperFriendly while finding my way with Arbitrary and the odd side project. There’s a ton of power in staying independent, but I feel an impending sense of eventual marginalization. I can’t stay here forever or I’ll never accomplish anything bigger than what I can do alone. Eventually I want to either start my own thing for real with scale, fear, and huge potential; or I want to officially hitch my wagon to a business/product I believe in and can push forward.

Oh, final note. I changed my hairstyle again and started running