Lifestyle Startups — The Ballast in Our Boat

Hitting the Big Time can be so exciting — and so perilous

I came across an official concept the other day that’s quite familiar to me. It’s  the “Lifestyle startup” — where someone founds a company, a startup, in order to create the kind of life they want to live. It’s an alternative (or supplement) to the standard-issue 9-to-5 situation, where a person looks to their official employer to meet their financial and professional needs.

The startup can happen while you’re holding down a full-time job (as I’ve done repeatedly, over the past 25 years), or you can set out on your own and devote all your time to starting your new company (which I did ever so briefly in 2006). “Lifestyle startups” are commonly bootstrapped, geared more towards independence and self-sufficiency than attracting angel / VC funding. Independence is the thing.  Even at the price of having some very nervou$ months, here and there.

It’s not about necessarily making the big-time. It’s nice if you hit the payload, but that’s not the sole purpose.

It’s not necessarily about banking piles of coin. It’s great if you can do well, but it’s not only about the money.

It’s about really building something that makes the most of your passions and talents… changing the world for the better… or helping other people… or furthering a cause you believe in. Money is great and it’s essential, but that’s not the main reason you do what you do. Independence is the theme. Self-sufficiency. Self-determination.

At the same time, if you’re not making money, you’re not going to stay self-sufficient for long. So there’s a built-in imperative to work smart as well as hard — preferably a lot smarter, so you can finally have that lifestyle balance and peace of mind that eluded you for so many years.

Now, when we usually think of startups, we’ve been conditioned to think of them as money-making vehicles. You get an idea… you find the right investors, you build the right team, you (over)work like a crazy person for two years to build equity and harden the idea, you do the “dog and pony show” demo’ing your new product, you get acquired… and then you get rich.

Right?

That’s the idea, of course, but it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve been there. I’ve done a bit of that. I’ve gotten in on the ground floor of cool things, then parted ways with the gang when things veered in a direction I wasn’t keen on. I’ve started my own thing, watched it grow… and then fade away when I realized it was becoming even more of a miserable slog than my day job had been. I’ve had — and I’ve known people who had — plenty of ideas with Real Potential. Some folks I’ve known got funding and Launched. I got lucky by not connecting with investors who towered over me, beating the drum, as I pulled ever harder on the oar. (My 9-to-5 jobs provided that equivalent drum beat).

Regardless of how brilliant we may be (and we often are), there’s no way to know if your idea is really going to fly… even if it tests well at the start, Everybody In The World could change their minds next week. Or someone could come along to do exactly what you do, better and cheaper and with a lot more “pop”. The whole tech venture deal is just so precarious.

And thinking about the amazing success and growth of businesses like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and those handful of travel sites that have become coveted jewels in the portfolio, it frankly surprises me that they’ve managed to do what they’ve done, as well as they’ve done it. That’s an incredible feat, considering how very, very much can go wrong.

Far more common are the stories of flame-out, burnout, and just plain running out of money before the idea is fully baked. And everyone moving on to the Next Big Thing.

I recently read a piece by Mark Cuban about how the current tech bubble is way worse than what happened in 2000. (Almost 20 years ago, Mark’s company Audionet… er, Broadcast.com… er,Yahoo Broadcast, was the first online channel to carry Women In Music with Laney Goodman, a show I’ve helped produce each week since October, 1996. I doubt he remembers us, as he’s moved on, but it’s fun to watch him on Shark Tank, recalling some of the stories people told us about the younger, wilder version of him.) According to MC, the whole startup/money situation in 2015 is an even more hollow house of cards than it was before. Ironically, he cites his past creation, Broadcast.com as one of the prime offenders of the big-talk-big-money hype of yesteryear. Huh. Guess he knows something about that.

Anyway, while everyone is going on about whether he’s right or wrong, I’m inclined to believe he may be right — about one side of the startup story, anyway. From where I’m sitting, the Big Idea Big Money hustle has always been just that — hustle. And the folks who actually stood out in the crowd and made it work, are (and always have been) few and far between, as the rest of the crowd tries to emulate their success. For the vast majority of folks vying for fame and fortune, it’s just not going to happen, no matter who they know or how many hours they spend at the keyboard. And a lot of money is going to get lost along the way.

But there’s another side to the startup story that I believe may stabilize the Bright New Idea market — and those are the lifestyle startups. These brainchildren are started from the get-go with the intention of being stable and sustainably making a decent way of life possible for the founders. It’s not just about making a big splash with an investor. It’s about producing something with sufficient value, to actually gain traction in the marketplace.

When you’re on your own, and you have real customers on the other end, and your livelihood depends on making those customers happy, you have to put your money where your mouth is. You have to create something that will justify the expense on others’ part, or word is going to get around that you suck, and you’re going to sink. You have to course-correct, when your product of your venture is putting food on the table. You have to be True. You have to not only promise value, you need to deliver, as well.

You have to not only come up with a great idea and get it out there — you have to run your venture like the business that it truly is. If you can’t manage that, back you go to the 9-to-5 grind. And for some, that’s a pretty strong incentive to Get It Right, or Keep Trying till you do.

These kinds of startups are popping up all over the place — people I know are starting them, organizations are forming to support them, Forbes is writing about them. Google it and see. (I hear Portland, Oregon, is a hotbed for this new trend.) These small-scale ventures may not be hugely flashy and show up on Techcrunch, but they are gaining traction. And to the extent that their founders are focused on creating quality products that provide them a sustainable stream of income that’s sufficient to keep them on their feet, this might just be the ballast the tech world needs as we steer our collective ship into stormy waters.

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About Kay Stoner

I'm an independent writer, editor, and trainer, specializing in helping people get - and keep - their jobs.
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