Are small businesses the future? I ask this as I have just returned from a meeting of a project called the Power of Small at the Royal Society of Arts, designed to research the growth of small business and find out what is driving it.
The RSA's figures say that 14.3 per cent of the workforce is now self-employed, the highest figure on record. While naysayers attribute the growth in small business to desperation caused by unemployment – the sacked car-factory worker is cleaning windows to make ends meet – the RSA says that, when asked, more than 50 per cent of small-business owners claimed "freedom" as their central motivation, not money.
One journalist at the RSA meeting defended the multinationals by saying that they pay higher wages and offer more security than small businesses. But this merely utilitarian view ignores the fact that people crave adventure and romance in their lives, and that such commodities are rarely on offer from the corporates, unless you count going on a bonding bungee-jumping weekend.
Though I would not want to romanticise small business too much. We've been running the Idler Academy for more than three years now, and it ain't easy. And when I talk to other owners of small businesses, such as pub landlords and shopkeepers, their grumbles are the same: VAT, PAYE, rent, business rates, website maintenance, the non-stop pressure to sell products and find new customers. Add to that the small returns typically on offer, particularly during the first few years, and you wonder why you bother. Surely it would be easier to get a job at the council, turn up every day and take the salary.
But the grumbles of the small-business owner are of an existentially different nature to the grumbles of the corporate-wage slave. "It's a nightmare, but it's my nightmare," is one common comment. The small-business people have taken responsibility for their lives; they do not seethe with powerless resentment. And crucially, they enjoy the process of their work, not just the financial outcome. It's the satisfying feeling I get when I see 20 happy people leave our shop after a talk.
According to the RSA, running a small business is particularly attractive to young people, women and the over-55s, and these are the groups we see most at Idler Academy events and courses.
One central driver behind the rise in entrepreneurialism has been the internet. I have blamed the net for hollowing out the old middle-class professions such as journalism, photography and music while sucking money up towards an elite of Aspergic geeks in Silicon Valley, but it has also encouraged enterprise: individuals sell stuff on eBay and rent their spare room on Airbnb to make extra cash. We are perhaps returning to an economy characterised by mixed work: instead of one steady job for life, we can pursue a number of activities at once. To me, this is vastly preferable to the dream of "full-time full employment" dreamt of by Tony Benn and now promoted by George Osborne.
While the internet may be dominated right now by a handful of giants, I still believe in its democratic power. That's why we are starting to film our courses and sell them online.
Above all, small businesses are fun – to run and to work for. They can operate like a family, and are particularly enjoyable when the business is pursuing meaning and an idea rather than just profit. They are full of vitality. Friends in corporate jobs, on the other hand, complain about the mix of boredom and stress they suffer. One successful entrepreneur told me about a dinner party he'd been to recently. The lawyers and bankers there, while they might own a house in St John's Wood, seemed consumed with self-hatred. "Posh drudgery, just posh drudgery," he said.
After three-and-a-half happy years in this spot, this column is coming to a close. I hope you have enjoyed my idle thoughts and ruminations. If you would like to receive my free weekly newsletter, "Hodgkinson's Register", a mix of comment and naked marketing of the books and courses offered by the Idler Academy, sign up at idler.co.uk. Till then, goodbye!
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'
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