On Self-employment

Derry Birkett
May 5, 2015 · 2 min read

I see only two ways to “be self-employed” (which, by my definition, is managing your own time, and not living off capital income or rents):

  1. Build a company
  2. Build a product

By “build a company” I mean the traditional capitalist way: build a team of people from whom you, as owner, skim the surplus labour.

By “product” I mean: design and build (yourself) a product that you sell (yourself). If you have other people involved in the design, build and direct marketing of your product, see number 1. Or even if you design it, but someone else builds and markets it, see number 1.

Frankly, it’s either one-man band or skim the surplus labour. These are the only two business “models” I can discern available. It coincides neatly with the two segments of Plato’s dissection of society: namely, Merchants and Artisans. And it is interesting to reflect that not much has changed, in this sense, since Antiquity.

People might respond: What about collaboration? But, to me, if you are delegating tasks to build your product, it is simply “outsourcing”, which is number 1 again. You are not building a product, you are building a team — i.e. a company — with yourself as a working member running more than one role (eg. developer and CEO). Here is Sam Altman’s advice about that:

“Everyone says that CEOs should spend a lot of their time recruiting, but in practice, none but the best do. There’s probably something to that”. — Startup Playbook

So, let’s say you are considering “freelancing” — or whatever your alternative is to “being employed by someone else” — I think it is a good idea to have it clear which approach you are going to take: because they need two entirely different strategies. Any mix of the two will simply dilute your focus.

If you are going to hire people, and are therefore “building a company” — focus only on being the “CEO”. Don’t try to be the designer, or developer and CEO.

And if you really want to “go it solo” — go it solo. Design, build and market the product yourself. If you find yourself hiring someone to help you out — see number 1.

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