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The Rise Of The Micro-Entrepreneurship Economy

Are you making money renting your apartment on Airbnb? You’re a Micro-Entrepreneur. As more and more services let people monetize their own assets and knowledge, it’s creating a new sector of the economy.

Years ago, Russell Howze was working as a creative at an advertising agency in Atlanta when he got laid off due to budget cuts. He then spent years piecing together work through various corporate jobs, until he decided to follow his heart. He founded a nonprofit organization for artists, and now supplements his income running street art tours through Vayable, the company I founded, in his extra time.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

The first part of this story is one that has come to define the reality of so many in the wake of the recession. But the second part—where the discontented worker leaves behind the "security" of a corporate job in favor of his or her passions—is a new and growing behavior in post-industrial countries, particularly in the United States, Europe, and Australia.

The media has named the growing trend toward micro-entrepreneurship "the Rise of the Creative Class," "the Gig Life," or "the freelance economy." All of those refer to the nearly 4.1 million workers (that’s 14 out of every 100 workers) who were self-employed this past year, according to the Office for National Statistics, and millions of others currently supplement their income with freelance work. While the trend has been spotted before, there’s one stark difference between micro-entrepreneurs today and the "Free Agent Nation" citizens of the late '90s: technology.

Data on self-employment and freelance is limited because labor reporting has yet to adapt, but one indisputable metric is the rise of micro-entrepreneurship platforms and its contribution to a Do-it-Yourself Economy. During the past year, startups such as Airbnb (vacation rentals), Taskrabbit (home services), Uber (car service), and Etsy (handmade goods), have catapulted from niche use to household names. And a handful of newbies including Skillshare (education), LooseCubes (co-working), Getaround (cars), RelayRides (cars) and my company, Vayable (tours and activities), are also growing month over month.

What defines this new economy is that it’s built on the empowerment of individuals and the technology that enables this. It’s allowing individuals to create their own jobs. It’s a celebration of life and time, and a shift in perspective of money. Technology now provides an opportunity for people anywhere in the world to monetize their passions. And it’s not just the artists and under-employed flocking to these platforms, but professionals who seek a higher quality of life, greater flexibility, and more time with their families.

There are five main reasons that I think make micro-entrepeneurship so appealing:

  1. Flexibility: The ability to focus on what’s important (family, health, self-care) is not only about have having more time, but also about having more flexibility in your schedule.
  2. Following your heart: The opportunity to spend more time doing what you love.
  3. Making money: Being able to cash in on the goods, knowledge, places, skills and passions that people already have.
  4. Enrichment: Many people, especially those who have been in the workforce for a long time, are looking for new, sustainable ways to enrich their knowledge, skills and experience in life. Those who are retired or unable to work full-time love an alternative way to stay active.
  5. Creativity: Being your own boss means being the visionary behind your own business, rather than merely following marching orders.

The value proposition of self-employment is so compelling that it’s precisely what drove the corporates-gone-creatives entrepreneurs behind the aforementioned companies to empower others to strike out on their own, while providing a business structure, resources, and guidance through the platforms that are otherwise unavailable to the self-employed trying to do it solo.

But of course, as in every economy, the growth and survival of micro-entrepreneurship will be determined by the market. Do customers have a palate for the smaller, more custom, and unique experiences that these platforms offer? So far, the verdict is a strong yes.

As our appetite for labor swings away from the corporate culture and structure, so does our taste in buying. Customers use micro-entrepreneurship platforms for many of the same reasons that the entrepreneurs themselves do:

  1. Price: Buying from individuals on these platforms often means getting a much better deal than buying from a large company or professional service.
  2. Flexibility: Customers crave greater personalization and customization in goods and services than ever before. They want to choose when they get it, how, and for how much. These platforms accommodate individual needs much more than old ways of buying.
  3. Ease of use: One of the top reasons people like these platforms is because they make it easy to search, find, and purchase exactly what you’re looking for in once place. And user-friendly design makes all of these platforms easier to use than many e-commerce sites.
  4. Authenticity: Buying directly from the individual artist, homeowner, painter, or food enthusiast often provides greater quality and the confidence that you’re getting the real deal.
  5. Unique experience: Transportation, accommodation, getting groceries, and visiting local sites are no longer commodities but memorable, enriching experiences that last forever.
  6. It’s good for the world: Responsible commerce is important to a growing number of consumers, and with these platforms they have the satisfaction of knowing that money goes back to small business owners and the local community, thereby fueling the economy and reducing waste.

Certainly the move away from the 9 to 5 and toward self-employment invokes a host of ideological, political, and social enthusiasm that have helped give rise to a movement. The Occupy Movement and a growing mistrust in government further swells the fervor around a new economy, amplifying the message that change is imminent and necessary. But the reason micro-entrepreneurship platforms are growing in size and variation is because it’s an economic imperative.

This new freedom economy is working because it’s good for economic growth, and it’s growing because it can lead to better lives. But this technological revolution that enables greater autonomy and flexibility will also require a humane infrastructure to survive.

What’s necessary to make a DIY economy work:

Trust: Trust in big business has been on the decline, but the collapse of the financial sector may have been the final straw for many (especially those who lost their jobs). As we shape the freelance economy, building and maintaining trust between buyers and sellers is critical to the success of its growth.

Collaboration: Even employees of large companies cannot always depend on them to provide for benefits, quality of life, and ensure that basic needs are met. Instead, we rely on each other, on our community. As the DIY economy grows, we will need to work with government to ensure that policy and practices take basic needs such as health care, disability, and retirement into consideration

Accountability: New forms of accountability are required, instead of outdated accreditations, licenses, degrees, and other credentials that are increasingly losing relevance. People will accredit one another through reviews, repeat business, and other forms of reputation tracking and social buying.

Security: Both online security (secure payments, personal information) as well as offline safety are imperative to empower the growth of micro-entrepreneurship.

Technology: This is really at the heart of the freelance economy. Continuing to fuel technological innovation and creative application of technologies is the most important thing for future growth and sustainability.

New companies that empower individuals to become micro-entrepreneurs not only stimulate the economy by creating new revenue streams and disrupting outdated models of business, but provide individuals access to more fulfilling, rewarding, and authentic lives. As my late grandmother used to say: "Life is how you spend your time."

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  • barryblack

    The Micro-Entrepreneurship Economy is a fancy description of a shadow economy better known as the Black Market assembled to resist outside entanglements such as taxes!

  • Nick Barron

    It's such an exciting time, especially for those willing to put the time into being a micropreneur. Serving this movement is part of the inspiration behind my business. I know these entrepreneurs need professional services and products from others to help legitimize and grow their businesses. Often they can't afford them. Swapel makes that possible. Great article!

  • Louise Mandar

    I'm loving this rise of micro-entrepreneurship. What a better solution to today's economy, green concerns, unemployment. Aren't we sick of the corporate world and the cookie-cutter lifestyle? At the risk of sounding "preachy", it really puts the power back in the people. And it really brings back value into the world. I think it truly is the answer to state of things right now...

  • The Evolve Team

    Great article -- falls right in line with the growth of the "Sharing Economy." With people making money off of their assets (everything from bikes to cars to vacation rentals), there is definitely a level of trust and accountability that must be established. The good news is that due to the transparency of this new trend, only the trustworthy will succeed. 

  • WomenOutsideTheBox

    Great article.  I'm organising a festival of female entrepreneurship Women Outside The Box launching in Bristol UK which is about celebrating the microenterprise as a viable way of multitasking one's life, family and business.  You don't work less.  But you work happier.  And you can be there for the school run and work in your PJ's when the kids are in bed if that fits your life.  This used to be thought unprofessional.  But if we want happier lives, emotionally strong children and enough money to survive or prosper, this is going to be the way work evolves this century - and no longer just for women.

  • hiimjosephwagner

    This is a good article to document the shift to micro-entrepreneurship. When I think about this revolution I think about the book The Long Tail, search technology has made the breakthrough into a micro-entrepreneurship economy feasible. Not everyone will make a million dollars, but the benefits to self-employment in a down economy are self evident. 

    I think one of the most powerful things about micro-entrepreneurship is that it doesn't have to be a full time job as well, it allows people to, well put their eggs in a few different baskets. :)

    Good post

  • Picky_eater

    Not so sure about the maths: 4 million is 14% of about 30 million.  I think there's more workers than that.

  • JW

    Nicely put, Jamie. All of this acknowledges the inherent challenges of taking the ol' "personal branding" mantra to its next logical level. That said, the risks of a DIY economy for those of us well past 30-ish (the ones that subscribed to the whole Tom Peters "Brand You" thing back in the day) form unique constraints to "monetizing" our hard-earned experiences. How do apply "value-added" to many, many years of corporate slogging? In my case, I've probably following more of a millennial career arc than most people my age (i.e. well past 30-ish) so change doesn't scare me (even when forced upon me). I started consulting a couple of years ago specifically to pay the bills by leveraging my own legacy of smarts. Not easy, not yet financially rewarding, but necessary even as I get closer to returning to "full time" status. I especially appreciate the "authenticity" part of it, doing what I'm best at doing, and trying to show others that it's worth paying for.

    Anyway, I like the tips and perspective, and will hereafter proudly stamp myself a micro-entrepreneur. Has a nice ring to it.

  • Collaboration Soup


    Thank you for a great article. I am a great fan of Airbnb, as host and guest, and the movement of the sharing economy. Did you know that Time/CNN named this movement as one of the 10 ideas that will change the world? As a collaboration specialist and consultant, I am excited to help good people do great things together and enhance the personal, interpersonal and procedural skills and traits of collaboration.We're all in this together!

    Paula Vigneault Collaboration Soup

  • kollageklub

    Great article! Thanks for writing this!

    I think alternative currencies, more specifically web-based ones, that use social commerce to bring people in local communities together in an interdependent way, is the foundation for the "freelance economy" to really scale.

    That is the mission behind our startup, Producia.

  • Rentini Travel

    This is very well written article! This movement and these ideas are clearly in motion within our current society and it's amazing how people are taking advantage and thinking outside the box. As much as we admire AirBnB and other big players, we wanted to take the process into our own hands. This article essentially summarizes why we here at Rentini (and seemingly most start-ups) do what we do - We collaborate together with technology to create a unique and simple way of facilitating vacation plans and rentals, in an effort to make it as cheap and easy as possible for all parties involved. The values listed here are definitely something we take pride in!

  • Matt Saunders

    Another great platform worth looking at in reference to this article is Zaarly.

  • TrustCloud

    Interesting article. Agreed that trust is going to be mission-critical moving this all forward.  We think a TrustScore is the simplest way to bridge the gap.  

  • Miles F. Spencer

    Hey- great post Jamie- really liked how Web 2.0 is bringing community and trust back into the equation. I'm an angel, and I've looked at several options for investing in the sharing economy, and I have made two conclusions/investment thesis (sp?): 
    1) the company that solves trust will allow the sharing economy to scale2) the company that gets traction with a Ning-like solution for an community to get sharing quickly will have a big leg up.I wrote about it a little on my blog., great post.