What big business can learn from the self-employed

Productivity, self employed, gig economy, big corporate

The focus of most big businesses is normally growth, increasing profitability and improving productivity. But does this always square with the people who work for these companies, and who want to pursue the careers and lives they aspire to?

In the UK, the trend is growing towards self-employment. Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed 15.1 per cent of the workforce (4.8 million) in 2017 were self-employed, compared with 12 per cent (3.3 million) in 2001.

Self-employed tech designer and internet consultant Paul Jarvis, who swapped a successful life in the big city to live on a remote island in Canada, does not think big business growth is all that it is cracked up to be.

Jarvis – who has worked with high-powered clients from basketball player Shaquille O’Neal to big corporates such as Microsoft, Mercedes-Benz, Yahoo and Warner Music – ditched the corporate world after getting tired of the pressures of growing his successful business bigger. “Being big is more fragile than people think,” says Jarvis, whose latest book Company Of One, questions the endless growth rates businesses aspire to. “It is because being big requires a very growth-focused business. It requires more resources, more moving parts, more everything in order to be sustainable.”


Does being bigger make you happy?

Speaking to Business Reporter over the phone from his Vancouver Island base, Jarvis says that although growth is important initially to get your company up and running, constant growth isn’t necessarily a good thing. If his business became larger than it currently is, “I don’t think I would be happier,” he says. “I would probably be less happy because it would take more time. It would be more stressful, be more responsibility, as I’d have to hire more people.”

For Jarvis, a successful working life is making his business profitable enough so he can go about pursuing the meaningful pleasures in life, and have the life he wants.

He believes smaller businesses can be more resilient than bigger ones, because they require fewer resources and have much more autonomy in decision-making processes. “I can just make decisions and run with them,” he says. “I can run a business with very simple rules, processes and solutions. It is easy to make sure things are running right. I don’t need to have an idea, then pitch it in a meeting and then have another meeting about the first meeting and run it by a board of directors.

“If I make my business as simple as possible, and because it is small I will do that, it is easy to keep track of [and] make sure things are running right. I don’t need to run a whole bunch of reports to see if things are profitable, I just need to check a few places. If we work for ourselves and not for somebody else, we are able to make the rules as they relate to the direction of our business.”


Technology and the self-employed

The growing trend towards self-employment, Jarvis believes, has been fuelled by advances in technology. The internet has made it relatively cheap to start a business, and people no longer need to be in an office to work, or invest in expensive systems to set up a business. “In the same amount of time it takes to write an email to you, I can write an email to 30,000 people on my mailing list,” he says. “I can reach people who live all over the world. I can get replies from all of them and have conversations with them, or I can put something on social media that reaches more people than just setting up a shop in my local town.”

Jarvis reckons big business can learn a thing or two from the self-employed. He’s not suggesting everyone becomes an entrepreneur, but thinks big corporations can become more agile and lean if they try to apply a more “self-employed” mindset. “To run a small business out of a house, it requires almost nothing to be profitable – and profitable businesses are sustainable,” he says.

Even by giving employees more flexibility in their hours or place of work, says Jarvis, could prove very beneficial to any business. “The more a boss gives their employees autonomy and the ability to make their own decisions, the more employees will feel ownership of their project,” he points out. “They are going to do a better job. [Businesses] will get higher-quality work.”

But Jarvis admits that, for a corporate giant, change can be scary, and not all big companies want to give their employees such freedom. Many have hierarchical corporate structures where decisions are long, drawn-out processes. For these companies, he suggests, small steps are necessary to illustrate the benefits.

“Maybe an employee can have one day a week of flexitime where they could work from home, where it does not matter what time they start as long as they do the work,” he says. “Maybe an employee works better in the morning, then takes their kids to the pool in the afternoon and continues working in the evening. They still get the work done, but they have more autonomy over their day.

“If a manager sees that, hey, this is actually working, my employees aren’t just lollygagging [being idle] around town or posting on social media all day, bosses would be more inclined to give autonomy to their staff.”


Will small be the next big thing?

As technology continues to evolve and people can work from anywhere, Jarvis thinks more and more big companies will be hiring staff with similar traits to those that are self-employed.

“If a corporate wants to retain the workforce – especially a younger workforce – then it will have to look at the traits of being a company of one,” he says. “Bosses will be more inclined to want to give autonomy to their staff. That is going to retain them more. Nowadays people want to feel fulfilled in their work, and if a corporate job isn’t giving that to them they may start to look elsewhere.”

Another skillset big corporations are looking for that’s second nature to the self-employed is problem solving. “The reason I make money in my business isn’t that I can do tasks,” he says. “It is because I can solve problems for businesses and solve problems in a way that is valuable enough for them to want them to pay me money.”

The way we work is inexorably shifting towards a more dynamic, flexible model, but it’s one that larger companies might do well to pay heed to if they want to attract and retain the best people.

© Business Reporter 2021

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