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Alternatives to Traditional Jobs

Merrie B. Weiss

One of the hardest things to let go of when trying to be free is the security of a regular paycheck. This is particularly accurate when you need it to cover all your expenses, from house and car payments to credit card debt, to groceries and entertainment expenses. Many Americans' reliance on credit places them into a rut from which it is extremely difficult to extricate themselves. This in turn makes it very difficult to quit the corporate drone life in favor of creating their own income streams. If you've ever dreamed of starting a business for yourself, or are wanting to be free of the wage-slave life, consider what I have to say very seriously, and be prepared to work like bloody hell to make it happen. While that may not sound like fun, an odd thing about fun is that it can happen in the most bizarre places.

Your choices will ultimately depend on the type of lifestyle you prefer and what you're willing to do for income. Before making any decisions, I strongly encourage you to go over your current lifestyle and financial situation. Consider what you want to keep doing, and what things can be given up, either temporarily or permanently. Talk with your family. Having the support of your spouse and children, if you have them, is indispensable during the challenging times that almost certainly will come.

Income Options

When most individuals think of earning an income, they generally think of working for someone else--getting a job. While this may seem to be the traditional way things have been done, it isn't the way most Americans have earned their living through history. Their history is one of self-employment; the idea of working for others largely came after the Industrial Revolution, and didn't become the predominant way of earning a living until well into the 20th century. Although it can seem challenging to try to get out of the 9 to 5 habit, almost everyone has something they can do to generate income for themselves.

A lucrative, but quite high risk, option is to go underground--enter into the free (or black, depending upon one's perspective) market. The attractiveness of the free market may be offset by the risks it entails; this is somewhat understandable. However, even above-ground businesses are under the watchful eye of the bureaucrat, and the laws are so numerous that compliance with all is virtually impossible. While the first thoughts that come to mind with that choice are likely drugs and sex, other possibilities exist. Alcohol, gambling, and cigarettes--in essence, anything the government taxes or restricts in some way--offer possibilities for free marketeers. Certain guns, gun parts, and types of ammunition--the list is growing with every "gun control" bill Congress passes--are other options. As tempting as it might be to thumb one's nose at the state twice (ignoring their laws and refusing to pay their taxes and fees) by entering into this lifestyle, it is extremely risky. Government agencies don't like to be ignored, and if they learn about your operation they can be absolutely ruthless about busting you (think Waco). Also, you can end up facing enemies on the other side of the law: those who got there first, and to whom your operation is a threat. While the cop TV shows may not accurately portray the life, I wouldn't count on "honor among thieves" to protect myself either.

At the other end of the spectrum from the black market is to continue to do what you're currently doing, but to become a contract worker instead of one company's employee. Many types of work are possible within this framework--but opportunities for free-lance work may be limited. If a company is used to hiring technicians as salaried employees for certain tasks, they may not be willing to switch to a consultant or other contracted professional. In choosing this option, an individual may choose to remain on the tax rolls for a while, gradually under-reporting the income earned by this means in order to have greater economic freedom. If work is procured without any paperwork and on a cash basis, then it needn't be reported at all.

A very common choice is to go into business for oneself--offer a good or service that's based on something one loves doing. Here's what a Web site I visited has to say on the matter:

If you are like most people who are existing from payday to payday -- you don't have a lot of money to invest in a full-time business. No need to worry! Just use your favorite hobby as your business base and grow from there! There's no telling where you'll be at 2 or 3 years down the road. Perhaps you can even tell your present boss to "take that job and shove it." Wouldn't that be great?
This view is quite optimistic, in my opinion. It still requires hard work and careful planning to make a go of any business. You can succeed at doing this, but it shouldn't be a foregone conclusion that you will.

What can I do?

This is the first question to ask of yourself when considering income-generating possibilities. Ideas abound, if you're alert and receptive to them. Many work situations can become self-employment scenarios: typists, graphic artists, computer programmers, and the like are obvious ones. Perhaps you work in the billing department of an office--might you be able to offer your expert, personalized services to a number of companies? Or advertise in retirement communities and the like that you can help wade through all the insurance and Medicare paperwork--you may have more customers than you can handle! Offering any kind of service to the elderly--running errands for them, performing services, whatever you can do and fit into your daily schedule--is likely to be lucrative. Hobbies offer many income opportunities. If it involves making something, offering it for sale is obvious; but there are other possibilities to consider, such as teaching others how to do it, offering lectures or demonstrations, and writing articles about it to sell to magazines and the like. You can similarly turn a passion into an income stream. If you're an expert in some area, or a collector of information (or even physical objects), offer that for sale. Perhaps a food magazine needs antique salt and pepper shakers for a photo shoot--surely your collection has a pair that will suit, at a hefty use fee. Or if you know antique cars or guns, becoming a consultant to the entertainment industry can turn your avocation into income. If you feel you have a mission to help others in some way, perhaps it can lead to income streams. Health issues are always important to people; if you have special talents or knowledge, there's likely a market. Or, if you've overcome some challenge--child abuse or a physical limitation--and want to help others, writing books and giving lectures on your story and experiences can support you.

These are simply some ideas, and general thoughts on areas for you to explore. The possibilities are truly limitless, if you're willing to consider almost all areas of your life. Now we move on to the harder parts.

Questions to ask yourself

To move from dreaming into doing requires asking some tough questions. This isn't a whim--this is a long-term commitment to a different way of life that will give you more freedom, and, we hope, more pleasure in supporting yourself and your chosen lifestyle. You'll need to be brutally honest about what you can and can't do, else your efforts will go unrewarded and you'll have no idea what went wrong.

Going into business for yourself is challenging. It's difficult even if you're playing it by the numbers--trying to do it free of the ever-watchful eye of the regulators is even more so. What do you want from it? Where do you expect to be in one year--and five years--with your proposed income source?

Do you have what it takes to make this lifestyle work? Are you decisive, a doer, one who can think on your feet and not second-guess each decision? Do you have the self-discipline to see your plan through the rough spots, to do the work necessary? Are you self-confident, and aware of your own limitations and weaknesses? Can you work alone, without the "security" of coworkers and a time clock? If you seem to be short in some of these areas, perhaps a business partner is in order.

How's your idea? Anyone can generate ideas, but to make it work well, it needs to be unique in at least one way. Your idea must meet a need that others have, and do so in a way that sets you apart from your competition. If you want to make a go of selling your woodworking creations, for example, you'll need to stand out from the many other wood craftsmen already in business. Perhaps you combine wood and other materials in a unique way, or make use of rare woods; maybe you can recapture the past with high-quality reproduction work; or you can offer pieces oriented toward a particular style, e.g., mission or oriental. Other possibilities for establishing yours as a distinct good or service include: the name you choose ("Joe's Body Shoppe" versus "Muscle Car Magic"); quality of your product; efficiency of your service; pricing; or customer service. Don't make the mistake of pitting these elements against one another, say, offering unique cross-stitch renditions of family photographs--that require intensive effort, and a great deal of time--with a guaranteed delivery time of one week.

Who are your customers? Without them, the best idea and plan is for naught. Who are they, where are they, how will you reach them, and how will you convince them to give you a try? Checking into existing businesses similar to your idea and asking questions is important. So is talking to potential customers, to find out what they want and what they're willing to pay for it. Don't make the mistake of pricing your product too low to try to entice business--if it's "too low" your customers might think the product is of low quality.

What will you need to make your idea work? For some things, visibility is important--folks need to be able to see and smell your yummy gourmet popcorn flavors if you're going to get impulse buys. This specific example necessarily means some level of compliance with various government agencies--something not congruent with increasing your freedom. (In this case, perhaps working out of home with word of mouth driving new customers--and your superb product keeping them--is a viable option.) Equipment and supplies are obvious items. Even if you don't plan to be highly visible in your physical location, advertising and its associated needs must be considered. Having a professional looking Web site, with accurate graphics, easy navigation, and the like is very important--all the more so if yours is a highly specialized service or good. You need to reach as many potential customers as possible.

How will you finance your idea? It may be that you've already invested in the materials and tools needed, so that all you need is to cover marketing and other business-type expenses. These may include advertising, software for maintaining accounts and generating invoices, or packaging and costs for shipping your product. If you've decided on a partnership, paying for a contract detailing its terms and the means of dissolving it will probably be well worth the cost.

Getting word out

Once you've taken the plunge and decided to be an entrepreneur, you'll need to let your potential customers know. If yours is an off-the-books business, you'll need to be more cautious (assuming you don't want to have a visit from some government agent), but you still need to get word out. Word of mouth among trusted friends and family is a must, as is creative advertising. This includes using the Internet. Having a quality Web site and using the keywords and descriptions tags appropriately is very important; think about what words or phrases you'd use to search for your project or service and use them. Finding candidate customers on the Web and sending one e-mail describing your business, and providing your URL is another important strategy. (Sending lots of unsolicited e-mail is considered spam and will likely drive potential customers away. You can ask them to reply if they'd like to be added to your mailing list, in order to build a base of potential customers.)

Getting listed in the major search engines and directories is vital, but that's a complete topic in itself and beyond the scope of this article. Joining Internet discussion lists and newsgroups relevant to your good or service, and participating in them, is a good way to spread the word. Mention your business only when directly relevant, and do so in a subtle way--if all you do is promote your business that might be considered spam, and you could be booted from the list. Posting to relevant message boards or bigger chat rooms are other possibilities. By all means, have the URL in your sig file, and put your sig in every e-mail you send out (even if it means doing it manually for e-mailers that don't yet have that capability, such as Hushmail). Create a clever sentence or phrase related to your product and use it as a closing. These means are slower than traditional print and radio advertising, but if you're persistent and offer a valuable product, you will eventually see sales.

Working online: Is it doable?

It is possible to earn an acceptable income from online work, but there are catches to that. For example, a colleague is a writer, and does almost all her work via e-mail and the Internet. She rarely sees her clients face to face. For her, this works because she's got a proven record of delivering quality; her clients don't need to meet her in person. That may not be the case for you at present; it takes time to build a clientele, let alone the kind of trust required by such an arrangement. Other kinds of freelance work are possible entirely through the 'Net--programming and graphics work come to mind--but the competition tends to be fierce.

What about all those ads that tell you to earn money while reading e-mail, or browsing the Web, and the like? Are those legitimate? In a way, yes. Of course no one is going to pay you to read your personal e-mail. The catch with that claim is that the company wants to know your interests; they then put your e-mail address on lists for businesses related to them, so that they can send "targeted e-mail" to you. Generally, one needs to do more than read the e-mail, also; clicking over to a site is required to fulfill the deal. Pay per item is generally low; you'd need to do a lot of reading to support yourself this way. Similarly, browse-and-earn schemes are restricted to specific URLs contracted with the company. For many, you need to do more than simply view a page to get paid--in some cases, you'll be asked to complete a survey or apply for the service to get paid. Payment ranges from $0.01 per page view to $20 for applying for a service or ordering a product. They also pay for referrals, which may lead one to a dilemma: get paid more or keep one's friends? Also, the links to these pay-view pages don't always work, but the monitor does, meaning that your clickthrough registers (and you can't view the page again), but you're unable to complete the requirements to get paid.

In the interest of accuracy, I visited a few of these Web sites, and actually signed up for these services. Upon doing so (I was foolish enough to give my real e-mail address, rather than setting up a dummy account) I was inundated with other pages, encouraging me to sign up with their service. And, once you've visited such a site, your e-mail address is generously shared with other such sites. After signing up one evening, I logged in about twelve hours later to check my e-mail. I had a number of e-mails from such sites, but in all honesty, it wasn't as many as I'd feared. There's been a noticeable increase in traffic since then, but still is manageable. Most of them have remove information at the bottom of the e-mail and do honor remove requests. If one is devoted to such activities, and diligently follows up on every opportunity, I suppose it's possible for one to earn a decent income via this means. However, the more one does this, the more "junk" e-mail gets generated. In my experience, with the typical browser's connection speeds being what they are, this is a rather time-intensive pursuit of little money. And even after you've gotten yourself off the original round, your e-mail address is still out there on those targeted e-mail lists. Sigh...

Many other income opportunities on the Web appear to be variants on the multi-level marketing theme. With these, the earlier one gets in, the claim goes, the higher one's earnings potential. Such plans abound, but I've yet to personally know of anyone who's made a success of one.

Other sites offer to sell information. This is something you might consider, if you have information that others are willing to pay for. Beware, however; these sites have a bit of a bad reputation. That's because many sites of this sort aren't legitimate; the customer pays an inflated price for information that is publicly available or otherwise easily obtained. For your own use, caveat emptor on the Web as elsewhere: if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. A legitimate operator will take the time to answer questions and explain what you'll get, rather than giving you a runaround--something to remember as a potential customer and seller.

Opportunities for supporting yourself outside of the typical employment scenario abound, for those who are willing to make the effort to investigate them and act. Working for yourself is more challenging than marking time in a cubicle, and less certain, but it can be--if the match between the person and the work is a good one--much more rewarding and freedom-creating than any job could hope to be. I wish you success in your quest for greater economic freedom.

(c) 2000


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