Entrepreneurs and innovators are supposed to be happily self-directed. Instead, the same sad story is popping up in many parts of the world. People who left corporate jobs for the joy of entrepreneurship are working harder and feeling less joy. Although they're no longer wage slaves, they still feel captive to the fortunes and whims of big companies. Their establishment customers might delay payments, back out of commitments, and generally squeeze suppliers.
My advice to them, and others feeling similar economic angst, is to try one or more of these strategies for getting back control over your destiny.
Own a big idea. Stand for something important, even if you can't execute fully yet. After all, it takes as much effort to dream small as to dream big. Articulate the larger purpose the enterprise serves, and become known for the idea, not just specific products currently offered. Speaking out primes the market, builds anticipation, helps a radical idea sound familiar, and for those whose name becomes associated with the idea, thought leadership offers entree to circles of potential future backers and supporters. A former financial executive co-founded a venture for college affordability using a unique community-based equity contract model. Discouraged by the difficulty of finding enough pilot test sites that honored their initial commitments, he realized that he should be jumping into the news about the college loan crisis. He now writes and speaks without waiting for the results of his pilot project.
A big idea with a noble purpose also helps people to think beyond the current turmoil to imagine a more appealing future. This keeps an entrepreneur going during challenging times. The founder of a health-oriented app business stays motivated, despite setbacks and dead ends, by participating actively in forums dedicated to the health problems his business is aimed at solving. This lifts his spirits and inspires talented people to join his team.
Build collective clout. Some things that are hard to do alone can be easier if small-sized groups join forces. Artisans' cooperatives help market products from diverse artists. Such small alliances can become big economic forces that ensure the prosperity of their members. Agricultural cooperatives such as Land of Lakes and Ocean Spray offer big brand names and wide distribution to their farmer-members. New Zealand's Fonterra, formed in 2001, is the world's largest dairy exporter, uniting over 10,000 small farmer-owners. To call attention to the role that cooperatives play in mutual help, the UN declared 2012 the International Year of the Cooperative.
Together, it's easier to get attention, bargain for better prices, and find information. Following Hurricane Sandy in the U.S. East Coast, FEMA and the SBA joined forces to communicate assistance available to small businesses in disaster areas, a welcome contrast to the usual way every small business owner wades through the bureaucracy - alone. But rather than rely on occasional aid, members of collectives can help one another with shared services and mentoring. The Commonwealth Institute provides peer support for women entrepreneurs in Massachusetts (where I was a founding board member) and South Florida.
Find new uses for old assets, or someone who can revive them. That might mean starting a sideline business, finding buyers for underutilized assets, or merging. Why did Lucasfilm sell Darth Vader to Mickey Mouse (as the Wall Street Journal cutely put it)? The Disney deal guaranteed George Lucas a cozier retirement at a tough time for movies, but it also kept his idea alive. He could recycle the 1977 Star Wars movie and ensure its survival in sequels, spinoff products, and theme park rides.
As we know from yard sales and e-Bay, anyone's aging trash can be someone else's treasure. Waste-to-wealth is a relatively new insight in manufacturing, where byproducts can be as valuable as the core product, such as cement made from steel manufacturing waste that HBS professor Deishin Lee examined. According to Gail Baugh, president of PeopleWearSF, an alliance of sewn-product-industry professionals, the apparel industry can use many discarded materials for textiles. I've seen rubber tires used in dresses and outdoor furniture. Recycle-and-reuse strategies work for services too. When her main line of business slowed, an entrepreneur in a corporate support field rekindled her joy by creating a sideline business selling materials previously custom-developed for clients.
Taking back control is a positive step that restores a sense of joy, builds reputations, and can unlock new opportunities. But these three strategies have another virtue. They might tilt the balance of power just enough to make it harder for customers to delay payments or back out of commitments. That would be a joyful day.