Llewellyn King: The individual as microbusiness


The genius of Uber is dumbfounding. I’m not talking about what it pays its drivers (not enough), whether it’s putting taxis out of business (it is). I’m talking about the sheer brilliance of unleashing the value stored in the family car. Likewise, Airbnb which isn’t denting the hotels, but is causing tax collectors to go apoplectic.

These Internet companies are unleashing the value that families have had hidden in their driveways and spare bedrooms.What’s next? Your guess is as good as mine. If your guess is right, there are folk over at Google who’d like to talk to you.

Airbnb (which connects people looking for accommodation with those offering it in their homes) may be a tad more exciting than Uber (which puts private car owners in the transportation business) because it is catering to a specific traveler market. Hotels have become so unpredictable in their opportunistic pricing that private travelers are happy to leave them to business travelers who are less price-sensitive.

Then there’s GrubHub, which offers free online ordering from thousands of delivery and takeout restaurants. It may well be the next big thing in the market.

These are three examples of how the Internet, which giveth and taketh away, is reordering the economy. They’re beacons for how the economy might replace the jobs that are being lost to computers. They also offer extra income or full employment for people who don’t have marketable educations: driving a car and keeping a pretty home don’t require college degrees in science.

The nature of work is changing, and one of the consequences is that more of us are becoming self-employed: private contractors.

The Internet enables a large number of artisan skills to be marketed. I’ve just found an online advertisement for a dressmaker. Long before Walmart and “Project Runway,” dressmakers abounded. Women would ask their neighborhood dressmaker to “run up something” for a special occasion or whatever. Mass retailing, plus the difficulty of marketing beyond word-of-mouth, pretty well ended that, but it may come back. Now you may live in Atlanta, but you can order a bridal gown from an Etsy dressmaker in Seattle.

The Red Truck Bakery & Market, housed in an old gas station in Warrenton, Va., sends its Meyer Lemon and other goodies across the country. Artisanal baking meets the Internet.

Years ago, a friend of mine developed a knit teddy bear. It was a beautiful thing; tactile, safe for small children. I don’t recall whether my friend had gotten around to naming her stuffed bruin, but he was a darling -- although I don’t know why stuffed bears have to be male.

Anyway the said unnamed, unsexed, stuffed bear didn’t make it into many young arms because of marketing. The big retailers didn’t want it. Things are very competitive in Bear Land, and Paddington Bear and company don’t want other teddy bears crashing their picnic on the store shelves.

That was more than 30 years ago. Today, Bear X could be sold on the Internet. Now I’d wager the big chain retailers would come begging -- offering the little thing a whole shelf for itself.

The miracle of today is that it could happen differently. The concomitant fact is that we’re going to need more cottage industry and more self-employed contractors because the jobs of yesterday are disappearing, and the companies are less and less inclined to hire permanent staff.

Years ago, the jewelry business moved offshore; now it’s moved to American homes. It’s possible for a creative person to make jewelry at home and sell it online.

A new age of self-employment is at hand. Recently, I’ve worked with two inspiring millennials. One is a gifted and filmmaker, and the other a computer wizard. Both are making a living, and neither has given any serious thought to getting a job in the conventional way.

It’s not the age of small business, but microbusiness: the individual with something to sell, whether it's artisanal furniture or a skill. The millennials seem to know this instinctively, the rest of us are learning it.

Want to hire a veteran journalist who works from home? Call me.

Llewellyn King (lking@kingpublishing.com) is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS.  He is a long-time  entrepreneur, publisher, editor, writer and international business consultant.