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Monday, July 6, 2009

The Return of Cottage Industry

In the Great Recession, resources like Craigslist, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, flyers on telephone poles and under windshield wipers, blogging platforms, slapped-together DIY business cards, and concepts like guerrilla marketing are fulfilling the same purpose as did the storied fruit stands of The Great Depression.

An article originally published in the Hartford Courant reports figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating that self-employment nationwide jumped nearly 2.5 percent in just one month this year (February to March 2009).

Annualized, that would be a 30 percent increase. And with about 3 percent of the entire U.S. population self-employed, we’re clearly looking at a small but significant portion of all working adults and an important factor in the entire economy.

Of course, many of these so-called microbusinesses don’t offer the excitement of a high-tech startup and may involve work that some might consider mundane, such as cleaning houses or mowing lawns. But the trend highlights a distinction that is especially important given the dismal unemployment figures just reported for June: while jobs may be scarce, there is always plenty of work.

Behind this distinction is the fact that the current recession was created by a crisis of big banking, big finance, big business and, arguably, by a failure on the part of big government to regulate them in the right ways. And while the resulting contractions of credit, home prices, consumer spending, and employment have affected businesses large and small, it’s important to take a look at the real, physical world around you. It hasn’t changed in much, has it?

The crisis made some jobs go away, but it didn’t really make work go away. There is still plenty of work to be done: plenty of houses that need to be cleaned, painted, or repaired; lawns that need to be mowed, watered, and fertilized this summer; leaves that will need to be raked and gutters that will need to be cleaned this fall; snow that will need to be shoveled this winter; restaurant menus that need to be designed; documents ranging from resumes to press releases that need to be skillfully written; hardwood floors that need to be skillfully installed; cracked windshields that need to be repaired; carpets that need to be cleaned; errands that need to be run; new entrepreneurs who need to be coached; passengers who need rides to the airport; senior citizens who need transportation to medical appointments or grocery runs made; students who need to be tutored; driveways that need to be resurfaced; music lessons that need to be taught; babies that need to be sat; content that needs to be search-engine optimized; dogs that need to be walked; poop that needs to be scooped; weddings that need to be sung at and photographed; digital videos that need to be edited; hair that needs to be braided; Web sites that need redesigns and fresh, well-written content; computers that need to be troubleshot; and so on.*

The list could go on and on, but you get the point, don’t you? There’s a difference between jobs and work, and there’s no real shortage of the latter. A suddenly unemployed or underemployed desk jockey might feel loathe to take on some of the categories of work listed above. But it’s worth considering that business savvy acquired in corporatedom, combined with the low-cost, technology-driven marketing resources available today, some persistently applied guerrilla marketing principles, and an abundance of willing workers on the labor market, could grow a one-person operation based on some forgotten skill into a lucrative small-to-midsize business, especially once the recovery begins.

Will this be a good thing for the economy in the long run? It’s hard to imagine why it wouldn’t, especially if it also facilitates a transition back to an increasingly localized business, economic, and financial base, with fewer “too big to fail” entities -- which, in turn, could leave the population as a whole less vulnerable to the booms and busts of global business and finance.

And, driven by necessity, it will probably happen independent of, in spite of, and under the radar of the noisy debate over the appropriate role of the federal government in setting the economy back on track.

*The services listed above are for example only and, of course, may involve varying startup costs and, in some cases, regulatory or licensing requirements. Check with your relevant local government agency, such as a state department of labor and industry, before taking the plunge. Sphere: Related Content

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