It’s a familiar moment. It’s the moment I tell someone that I work for myself.
“Do you have a startup?"
No. I am building products though.
“Is it a consulting company?"
“Do you have employees?"
Nope. Just me.
“Oh. It’s a lifestyle business.”
The last response is done with the side tilt nod, the same one reserved for bad news. A pity nod. That somehow my business isn’t real because it's not cool. They assume I’m a low-cost freelancer beholden to whatever company will pay my meager fee.
I got the pity nod a lot when I lived in a startup town. It pissed me off. It still does.
Working for someone else isn't for me and I don’t want to build a huge business with employees. I wear my independence with pride.
One of the biggest work trends in the past ten years has been the rise of alternative employment, particularly having a business. Having a startup or running a consulting business often confers more perceived prestige. It's as if there's something wrong with having a business that supports your lifestyle rather than consumes it.
Perhaps because it isn't considered cool, the term lifestyle business became derisive, almost an insult. If other businesses were defined like that of lifestyle, they might be called a vanity, grind, greed or “fairy tale” business.
And, running a startup or a consultancy actually offers little true freedom.
When you have a startup you're beholden to your investors. The pressure to deliver, even when most fail, is sky high. 100 hour weeks with little cash in the bank are pretty much a sure thing with a startup.
Having a consulting business isn't much better. You have to sell enough business to feed your employees — and manage them too. When a slump inevitably hits those margins can become razor thin. Time away becomes scarce and filled with never ending, last minute emergencies.
When we think of lifestyle businesses, a common image is the geographical and schedule freedom with the ability to work wherever and whenever you want. But geography and schedule are just two of the many benefits that come with having this kind of business.
You can use your best skills rather than trying to become well-rounded. Being an expert allows you to serve your clients exquisitely, letting go of work that doesn’t come naturally. It’s not that you don’t work hard to build your skills. Smart independents actually spend up to a quarter of their time leveling up key expertise.
Freedom from face time. When I worked in offices I hated having to demonstrate to people that I was working. Preening around like a circus act proving your worth is downright demeaning. This is true even for remote work. Perception management occupies a great deal of time when you work for others. You can use that extra time to build a product so you have repeatable income.
There’s also client freedom. You can pick and choose who to work with. Gone are the abusive bosses or no say in the clients you work with. If a client steps over a line or even isn’t a good fit, you can fire them.
Having a lifestyle business gives you financial independence — with more freedom. You're not dependent on a company for a paycheck, beholden to whether they deem you worthy for a raise or a promotion. It’s true that it takes time to get this freedom—especially when you’re starting up as an accidental business owner as a result of a layoff. Once you find your rhythm with the business, the upside is huge. When done right, most independents gain a significant pay increase.
Finally, working for yourself teaches you how to run a business. It gives you skills you’ll always have — like being able to find and deliver your own work. Being empowered to take care of yourself no matter what, is powerful.
You don't need a startup, even this VC agrees, You’re either venture-backed or a lifestyle business: The big lie.
Wear the lifestyle business badge with pride.