Time to play offense?

If you’re a small business owner or a manager in a larger company, this is the question you should be asking yourself. Many of us had to make tough decisions at the beginning of the recession, and now with a possible recovery on the horizon we need to re-examine those decisions.

It may not feel like it yet in your town or in your industry, but there are indications that things are getting better. After a year or more of hunkering down, it is probably a good time to consider what the recession has done to your business and your industry. At some point, whether now or in a few months, business owners are going to have to switch from playing defense to playing offense.

For many of us, hiring freezes, layoffs, salary reductions and furloughs have helped us survive, but they have probably caused collateral damage to the psyche and bank accounts of our employees. Most of them went along with the program because they understood and because they had few options. But those options are coming. More companies are going to start to hire again. This should mean several things to business owners.

I suspect that many entrepreneurs have figured this out already. You have to be nimble in business, and making quick adjustments is critical to success.

This also bodes well for anyone looking for a job. Circle back to the leads you followed six or even three months ago and see if their situation has changed. You might find opportunities where they didn’t exist before as more companies start to play offense again.

In defense of the emerging freelance economy

As technology becomes cheaper and more powerful, an entrepreneur can have a very profitable business without having any employees. This has always been true for many professionals, but now it applies to many more people. For example, many lawyers had to rely upon secretaries in the past. Yet now you can learn how to use a powerful word processing program and there’s no need for staff. With today’s tough economic conditions, it’s likely this trend is accelerating, as many people are finding ways to pay the bills by offering up their services on an independent contractor basis in lieu of finding a new job.

As pointed out in Forbes, this new trend is making it more difficult to get accurate employment statistics.

Steinberg works 30 to 40 hours a week. But along with millions of other contractors, she may not show up on the radar of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles unemployment statistics by surveying households and counting pay stubs. No one knows how many freelancers, part-timers and consultants there are–the Government Accountability Office took a stab in 2006, guesstimating that the group made up 30% of all workers–much less how many escape the notice of the BLS. “It’s difficult to track, and is often misclassified or not accounted for by the Department of Labor,” says Sarah Horowitz, director of the Freelancers Union in Brooklyn, N.Y. One thing is certain: The shape of the so-called informal economy is changing.

For some, this obviously involves unreported income, yet I suspect that’s not true for most of the new entrepreneurs. Many of them want to work at home, do something they love or want the freedom of being their own boss. In many cases they are selling goods and services that aren’t purchased on a cash basis, so hiding income really isn’t an option. Also, many people want to have a legitimate business that they can grow, and worrying about hiding income from the IRS is not part of the plan.

Some like Scott Shane are concerned by this trend.

Myth: The total number of businesses created is what matters, not the types of businesses that are being created.

Reality: I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in what entrepreneurship in America is becoming. Over the past decade, we have been creating more non-employer businesses and fewer employer businesses per capita. (Employer businesses are companies that the Census Bureau reports have at least one employee; non-employer businesses have no employees.) As a result, the employer business share of the total businesses has slipped four percentage points since 1997, from 26.4% of the total in 1997 to 22.4% in 2007 (see figure to the right). Moreover, there is nothing in the data to suggest that this trend is going to reverse itself anytime soon.

Why am I concerned about this trend? Non-employer businesses aren’t the source of job or wealth creation that employer businesses are, which means the U.S. economy doesn’t benefit as much from them. By definition, non-employer businesses don’t create any jobs, and their sales and profits are quite low. So low, in fact, that the Census Bureau’s 2002 Survey of Business Owners indicated that only 44% of non-employer businesses were the primary source of income for their owners.

To boot, non-employer businesses’ are becoming less substantial over time. According to Census data, the average revenues at these firms have declined about 12% in real terms since 2000, when they were less than $50,000 per year to begin with.

Of course you’d rather have businesses that hire plenty of employees, but that doesn’t mean one-person operations don’t have a net positive effect on the economy. First, it provides a lucrative and appealing option for many people. It offers them a lifestyle that they might not be able to achieve working for a company, and it allows many to do something they love as well. That’s a good thing. Also, these small business offer services that other companies value. In many instances they can offer better services for a better price as they don’t have overhead and can be very efficient with today’s technology. Again, more efficiency helps the overall economy and lowers prices for everyone.

Small operations also unleash creativity, as people working for themselves are very motivated and aren’t constrained by the bureaucracy of a larger organization. Imagine where the Internet would be today without these types of entrepreneurs.

Finally, some of these one-person operations will grow and perhaps lead to larger companies with employees, or at least relationships with other service providers.

We should focus on measuring this trend better, but in many ways this can be a net plus for the growth of a modern, dynamic economy.

Get ready for your tryout

If you’re looking for an executive position, don’t be surprised if your prospective employer wants you to go through a “tryout” or trail period before committing to a permanent position. BusinessWeek reports the practice of hiring executives on an interim basis is becoming more common.

At one time or another all executives have experienced that special horror—the moment when they realize they’ve hired the wrong person. For Justin Moore, the revelation came during his chief financial officer’s first week on the job. As Moore, CEO of Axcient, a data storage company in Mountain View, Calif., was scrawling out scenarios at the whiteboard, he started to feel as if he were pulling the new guy up a hill. “I was constantly having to lead him into a high-level discussion and say, ‘Come on, get high-level again. Let’s think more strategy here.’”

Moore had an out. Like a number of executives, he has scotched standard operating procedure in favor of a new hiring strategy: trying before buying. Once Moore finds a potential candidate, he auditions him or her before making a permanent offer. Sometimes tryouts last weeks, sometimes months. Why get married after only a few dates? “It’s foolish of any of us to think our interview skills are so great we can predict how well someone is going to work in terms of the dynamics of a team,” says Moore.

The idea of interim executives also has some benefits for the employee. In today’s world of instant information, you can wait to update your LinkedIn profile until the job becomes permanent.

Cool site: 1st Job in Sports

For many sports fans, the idea of working in the sports industry is very appealing. With today’s tough job market that dream might seem more difficult, but opportunities exist out there for those who are willing to start at the bottom and work their way up.

1st Job in Sports is a cool site devoted to sports jobs. We noticed that they have a number of internships available with various sports teams.

Unfortunately, the site requires a membership fee. That of course makes it more difficult, as it would be much more convenient if they had a free option for some of the features. That said, if you’ve thought about working in the sports world, this is a good place to start.

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