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The futurist: Workerless businesses – an explosive new trend

Thomas Frey //July 19, 2012//

The futurist: Workerless businesses – an explosive new trend

Thomas Frey //July 19, 2012//

When Chris Anderson released “The Long Tail” in 2004, the world was suddenly awakened to the potential for niche markets that appeal to an increasingly diverse consumer marketplace.

In business terms, it gave rise to the notion of online businesses selling relatively small quantities of unique products, yet generating enough income for a person to live without a job.

In 2007, Tim Ferriss pushed this idea several steps further in his book “The 4-Hour Workweek.” Not only can people create their own niche businesses, but they can build it up to something quite profitable and start regaining their freedom.

In 2008, I wrote an article on “The Empire of One” about one-person enterprises that were being enabled by the rapidly evolving communication structure inside the Internet.

In 2009, writer Tina Brown coined the term “The Gig Economy” as she noticed a growing number of young people (one third of her survey group) were working multiple jobs and as freelancers.

Combining the growing freelance mentality of young people with the relative ease of launching a niche online business, and we have an explosive trend driving us towards a future of “workerless businesses.”

Forced Entrepreneurship

Whenever the economy takes a nosedive, it is typical for people to begin to dance with their “inner entrepreneur” and brainstorm ideas for launching their dream business. But today’s business climate no longer allows for people to wait for the ideal time or prefect conditions to make it happen.

When nothing else is working, they decide it’s time to blow the doors off their “comfort zone” and enter the “entrepreneur zone.”

To be sure, starting a business during a recession is not a bad thing. In fact, more than half of today’s Fortune 500 companies were founded during a recession or bear market.

Forced entrepreneurship often starts with project work, temp jobs, consulting gigs, or other opportunities for making money. Sometimes the work is done as a trade-out to just get a foot in the door. Very often one opportunity will lead to another, and a patchwork business plan begins to form in the person’s mind. Formal business plans are rare, but the key metrics for managing the operation begins to crystallize in their head.

The Internet is now enabling people and ideas to connect in ways never before possible. The business models that eventually spring to life often have little, if any, resemblance to their original idea for a dream business. But the fluid nature of the startup world is more than enough to keep them engaged.

To succeed as a forced entrepreneur, bootstrapping is king. They quickly learn to never spend a dime unless it is absolutely necessary. Their skills, talent, and ideas become a form of currency that they can exchange for equally valued goods and services.

Building an “Empire of One” Business

An Empire of One business is a one-person (sometimes married couples) business with far reaching spheres of influence. Typically the business out-sources everything – information products marketed and sold online, or products manufactured in China or India, sent to a distribution center in the US, with customers in the UK and Brazil. Manufacturing, marketing, bookkeeping, accounting, legal, and operations are all handled as part of “the gig economy.”

Yes, much of this has been done before, but a person’s ability to leverage people and products across country lines in a below-the-radar fashion, and still maintain control of a vast and virtual empire is refreshingly new.

The Empire of One business model is one with great appeal to former corporate executives with global contacts and good ability to manage things remotely. With improving economies and Boomers searching for meaning and significance in their lives, we are about to see an exponential increase in these types of businesses in the years ahead.

A Few Statistics

According to Gallup, 32 percent of Americans aged 18-29 are underemployed or unemployed.


Job posting trends on

Elance, a site at the heart and soul of the gig economy, helping freelancers find their next gig, has seen dramatic increases in projects in turmoil-countries like Greece (up 122 percent), Spain (up 142 percent), and Egypt (up 147 percent) over last year.

A recent survey by The Guardian showed that out of 112,179 vacancies advertised in Brittain in February 2012 only 52 percent were for long-term positions.

In Dec of 2011, the Guardian reported an additional 166,000 Brits became self-employed over a three-month period, an increase of 4 percent. This meant that a total of 4.14 million people in Brittain were self-employed, the highest since records began.

Going from Freelance to Empire of One

Transitioning people from doing piece-meal freelance work to running their own stable of freelance workers is still not well-defined. But the first step is finding a niche product or service to work with.

People typically do a lot of soul-searching to uncover something they’re passionate about, and somehow stumble upon their core concept.

Recently, a seasoned entrepreneur and good friend of mine in South Dakota told me about one of his recent ventures.

“I had a good opportunity to go into the specialty tire business and the numbers looked great. It had a tremendous upside,” he said. “But then it occurred to me that if I owned a tire business that I’d have to spend lots of time talking about tires. I don’t like talking about tires. It’s not a subject that interests me. I love talking about fruit and ice cream (other businesses he owns), but I really don’t like thinking about tires.”