We Need To Do More To Support The Rise Of Microentrepreneurs. Here’s Why.

Key Takeaways:

  • Microentrepreneurs are people who go into business to pursue a passion, to create, or to make use of a skill.
  • There’s never been a better time to do what you love and get paid. 
  • We need learning infrastructure that helps people monetize their unique abilities and interests faster.    
  • Culture has to catch up with technology; it’s time to embrace people crazy enough to do what they love.

Each year, millions of Americans go into business for themselves for the first time. Many do so because: They want to start a business; they love to hustle; they believe they’ve innovated something that could help millions of people; or because they just want to share what they make with the world. 

I was not one of those people. I got my first client in a New Orleans bar during a work conference happy hour. He’d been a mentor of mine for quite some time, and I was catching him up on my work supporting billionaire philanthropists. I pivoted to give him some quick tips to improve his new nonprofit’s chances of getting funding. Then, over his beer, he asked, “Wait, could you help me with that?” It hit me that, yes, I could. And that I could probably help other people to the same end. I could make some money, too–it seemed like a win-win. I didn’t know the first thing about starting a business beyond helping people, but I figured I could learn the rest as I go. 

“Yeah,” I said, as much to myself as to my mentor. “Let’s do it.”

Two things quickly became clear: 1) Running a business is much more than simply helping people, and 2) learning what was required to get started would be way harder than I thought. 

The issue wasn’t a lack of resources per se. There were almost too many resources. Rather, the problem was that roughly 99 percent of the essays, books, classes, or support available focused on helping people either create the next Facebook or lead a Fortune 500 company. There was little on how to set yourself up to make enough to pay your rent. Or to become what Li Jin, founder of Atelier Ventures and former Andreessen Horowitz partner, calls, “A microentrepreneur,” a person who goes into business to pursue a passion, to create, or make use of a skill. And maybe most powerfully: Can seize control of their livelihood and creative potential. 


There’s never been a better time to be a microentrepreneur

As Jin wrote this summer in her newsletter: In many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a microentrepreneur. 

The notion of the “organization man,” she writes, 

“is giving way to the rise of ‘micro-entrepreneurs,’ or free agents, creators, freelancers, and independent workers who utilize digital platforms to make a living by leveraging skills and knowledge… Accelerated by digital platforms that help surface job opportunities, facilitate customer connections, and aid in setting up and operating a business, workers are empowered to go independent and to earn a livelihood outside the confines of a traditional company.”

The numbers bear this out. According to Pew, around 16 million Americans work for themselves. And according to a study done by Dartmouth, 110 million people would prefer to be self-employed. As journalist Caitlin Dewey wrote earlier this year in One Zero, digital subscription platforms designed to support freelancers and microentrepreneurs have exploded in popularity over the last few years—and this year in particular.

Patreon,” she writes, 

“added more than 100,000 new users between mid-March and July. OnlyFans reported daily six-figure sign-ups on its popular cam site. Etsy logged 115,000 new sellers in the first three months of the year, more than double the past two years’ user growth. Teachable, which lets people make and sell online courses, signed on 14,000 new creators between March and July, and in July reported its first quarterly revenue over $10 million.”


Forced to learn the hard way  

This rise in popularity makes more ridiculous the dearth of resources and support available today for the aspiring microentrepreneur. According to Freelancing in America, a comprehensive study of America’s independent workforce, 89 percent of freelancers say they don’t feel their education prepared them for life as freelancers. And 92 percent say they wish there were more resources available on skills necessary to succeed professionally. 

Because of this resource gap, microentrepreneurs are forced to learn the hard way. Which is a damn shame because working for yourself is one of the most fulfilling endeavors a person can pursue. It’s liberating in that it offers you control over your professional destiny. Working for yourself can help you reclaim your financial peace of mind. More specifically, snatching it out of the metaphorical hands of a profit-obsessed, fickle corporation and placing it back into yours. It also taps into the core of human interest. 

As Jin writes later in her newsletter, “humans are driven by autonomy (desire to be self-directed), mastery (urge to improve), and purpose (desire to do something meaningful)—all of which independent work can facilitate.” So much so, I would add, that once you’ve tasted what it’s like to be your own boss—even now, in a period of uncertainty and tumult—you never want to give it up. The numbers bear this out, too. As stated in Freelance Forward,  a recent (mid-Pandemic) study of American freelancers, 60 percent of new freelancers agree that there is no amount of money that would convince them to take a traditional job.

It’s worth thinking seriously about how we can support these folks so that they never have to.  


Catching our culture up with technology 

The standard for “success”—the thing we encourage, explicitly and otherwise, people to doggedly pursue—should not be making lots and lots of money. 

Rather, it should be the extent to which you spend your days doing something you love and/or that makes you happy. What if that were celebrated as effusively as becoming a manager at a Big Three consulting firm? 

If we could move the culture in this way, we’d be more inclined to invest in the resources that would help people to this end—making it easier for the corporate attorney who is willing to trade-in a decade of legal experience to pursue her passion of graphic design, or for the long-suffering tech employee to take a shot at pursuing his dreams of becoming a writer, or, better yet, for every person to have a meaningful chance to do what they dreamed about doing as kids, and make money doing it.

This isn’t as audacious an undertaking as it sounds. We already have the technology needed for microentrepreneurship. We already have the desire, kindled in the hearts of every person who’s tried their hand striking out on their own. Now what we need is to develop the educational infrastructure that helps people leverage their unique abilities and interests faster. 


An MBA for microentrepreneurs? 

Imagine if there was an MBA for microentrepreneurship, or if microentrepreneurs enjoyed easier access to a humble amount of capital with which they could launch a microbusiness. As Thomas Friedman cited recently in The New York Times, it’s within our reach now to create postsecondary education that’s “a hybrid ecosystem of company platforms, colleges and local schools, whose goal will be to create the opportunity for lifelong ‘radical reskilling.’” This reskilling could include strategic and tactical steps related to setting up your microbusiness—run from your living room—for financial success.

We also need more professional pathways for the microentrepreneur, inclusive of access to mentorship. Consider the impact even of programs such as Starface U, which was created by the skincare brand Starface, and offers high-schoolers education around how to get started in the world of content creation. Participants are taught how to create engaging and  industry-standard content while simultaneously learning how to work for themselves by learning how to save for taxes, setting yourself up to work with clients, etc. Such programs educate young people on how to navigate the real world while also enlightening them to the magic of embracing their own creativity—such that they understand it as valuable—without merely using them for free labor. That’s the kind of education that can be life-changing.

So much more is needed, of course. But we shouldn’t hasten to provide it. Supporting microentrepreneurs with the kind of differentiated and specific education they need is a smart investment in our future. The economy is changing. The world is changing. And, with more avenues for the rendering and soliciting of services, art and expertise comes a universal access to those things. A world where microentrepreneurs are supported and celebrated is simply a better, more accessible, more eclectic, and more interesting world. Certainly, it’s a world that’s inspiring and enjoyable. 

Manifesting this will also give more people the chance to seize control of their own destiny and chase the kind of dreams we’re currently taught to let go of in childhood. This amounts, ultimately, to providing more people opportunities to get the most out of their lives—without having to endure all the anxiety, frustration and financial uncertainty that underserved microentrepreneurs currently put up with. 

It’s past time that we make this happen, that we invest in and embrace this more fundamentally profitable future, both culturally and technologically, so we can all reap its benefits. 

The age of the microentrepreneur is already upon us. 

Nicole Jarbo is the founder of Goodbets Group, a social impact firm specializing in startup nonprofits and mission-driven small businesses. Nicole is also a former KIPP educator, Teach for America alumna, and entrepreneur. She attended UC Berkeley for undergrad, and while there she lectured in the education department, played on the nationally-ranked Cal Women’s Soccer Team, and went on to get a master’s degree from Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.

  • Originally published December 17, 2020