Last updated on March 3, 2019
I’m not one for public bickering, but I simply cannot let this pass without comment.
Joel Spolsky posted an opinion in his discussion forum yesterday regarding one-man consultancies like mine. Here’s the paragraph I take serious exception to:
I think that being a “one-man consultant” is not entrepreneurship, it’s not starting out on your own, it’s not MicroISV-dom. It’s just having a job. Another job like everyone else. You’re not independent. You’re at the bottom of the totem pole wherever you go. You are constantly selling yourself and trying to find the next gig. The only reason you might consider it superior to a full-time job is if you get bored easily, and you’re welcome to the lifestyle of perpetual job hunting if that suits you, but do NOT tell yourself that you’re a “startup” or an entrepreneur if you’re a one-man consulting shop.
Now, Joel is never one to shy away from stirring the pot for purposes of self-promotion, but there is a certain venom and dismissive quality to his comments that I take exception to.
I’ve heard people using a similar argument to Joel’s on subjects such as sex, race, class, politics, etc. to the effect that “people who do/have x are the real [insert some noun here], whereas people who only do/have y are only pretenders.” These kind of arguments have been used to devalue women, devalue people of color, devalue gays, devalue the poor, devalue the kid wearing the non-name-brand jeans to school, etc. I have zero respect for this kind of thinking.
Bear with me as I indulge in some of that annoying line-by-line refuting that is so popular on message forums.
First, we’ll address Joel’s claim that “being a ‘one-man consultant’ is not entrepreneurship, it’s not starting out on your own, it’s not MicroISV-dom.” I’ll stipulate that an independent consultancy is not a Micro-ISV (although many consultants use their consulting practice to fund the launch of an ISV).
According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, the word entrepreneur comes from the old French word entreprendre, which means to undertake. The full definition is listed as “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” Hmmm. Let’s take a look at your typical one-man consulting shop – it is certainly organized to some degree. The consultant himself manages both his affairs and whatever affairs of his client that he has been engaged to manage. Assuming risk? Don’t work, don’t eat – is that risky enough for you, Joel? And regarding the “business or enterprise” portion of the definition, is not the exchange of value for value the very definition of business? And if a one-man shop is not “starting out on your own,” I don’t know what is – there is nobody who can assure the singular operator’s success, save for the operator himself. In what way is this NOT going out on your own?
Joel’s assertion that “It’s just having a job. Another job like everyone else. You’re not independent. You’re at the bottom of the totem pole wherever you go” is as correct as saying that owning a small ISV is a job – it’s a meaningless comment, really. Everything anyone does for a living is a job. That’s not much on which to base this kind of attack on independent consulting. As far as not being independent, again I say that being an independent consultant is about as independent as running a small ISV – if your customers quit buying what you’re selling, you’re done. True, a business like a small ISV has a model that means money is flowing in even when you take a day off, but any smart independent consultant is going to have some sort of ongoing support contract in place for every app he delivers, ensuring a steady revenue stream when the custom work slows down. So there’s another attack premise shot down.
Regarding the claim that the independent consultant is at the bottom of the totem pole, perhaps Joel was at the bottom of the totem pole when he was at MCS or when Fog Creek Consulting was young, but I have not had a similar experience. When my clients bring me on to a project, they do not bring me on solely as a pair of hands that can type things the client’s own hands cannot – my clients want my active input on how they can run their businesses better with the help of technology. They want my input on how the technology will impact the way they manage their people, how their process will improve, what the most effective practices for getting a desired result are. I have rarely – if ever – been treated as a low-on-the-totem-pole lackey. Clients don’t pay today’s consulting rates just to get cannon fodder – they are much smarter than that. If they wanted a simple minion to serve as surrogate hands, they could get one for $15 an hour form the local junior college’s Introduction to Programming class.
Joel continues that “You are constantly selling yourself and trying to find the next gig,” which is the only truly defendable statement in the entire post. There is en element of constant selling when working as an independent, but at a certain point even an independent can find that his marketing efforts have generated enough market pressure that the leads come in on a regular basis and work is able to be booked well in advance. So now that I think about it, perhaps this element of Joel’s comments isn’t defendable after all. An ISV can no more afford to stop marketing than an independent can.
Joel’s argument against independent consultants concludes with “The only reason you might consider it superior to a full-time job is if you get bored easily, and you’re welcome to the lifestyle of perpetual job hunting if that suits you, but do NOT tell yourself that you’re a “startup” or an entrepreneur if you’re a one-man consulting shop.”
I’ll take this opportunity to remind Joel that businesses come in all shapes and sizes, from the small-town handyman in Montana to the behemoth corporation that makes name-brand products in every country of the world. That is one of the things that is so interesting and so fantastic about living in a country where so much is available to so many – the diversity of opportunities to engage in commerce, small or large. I think I can speak for every one-man technology consultant when I say this to Joel: We are in business, whether you like it or not. We provide value to our clients, whether you like it or not. We are growing, we are learning, and we are becoming better at what we do every day, whether you like it or not. Some of us will even grow up to be big businesses.
We are entrepreneurs as much as you are, Joel. We have skin in the game and we take our chances, just like you. Don’t you think it’s rather classless to tear down an entire segment of small businesspeople just to reassure yourself that you are in a “real” business and therefore better than us lowly independents? That kind of thinking is reminiscent of a small child building a fort and then tacking a sign on the front of it with “no girls allowed” scrawled in a number of Crayola colors – it is false, it is elitist, and it is exclusionary.
You’re a smart guy, Joel. You should know better.