Rise of the Independents

DHH put up a provocative post the other day questioning the societal norms of the startup culture. This isn’t a new rant for him or the 37signals crew, but he touched on a few things I thought worth amplifying. From the post:

The problem is that most “exciting new company” lore is intermingled with that of Startup Culture™. This means it’s hard to find your identity when it doesn’t match the latest company write-up of How Those Crazy Kids Turned VC Millions Into Billions!!!

Most people will look at that and say that’s not me. I don’t have 110% to give. I have a family, I have a mortgage, I have other interests. Where’s my place in the startup world. 

His point is a straight forward one. The canonical startup path is well trod. Build something, get on the VC hamster wheel and don’t get off until you’ve IPO’d or sold for big bucks to someone looking to fill a hole.

Alas, in that quest to change the world or build the coveted billion dollar company, relationships, family, hobbies and overall quality of life must be offered as a sacrifice to to the startup gods in hopes they will find them worthy and bestow the ultimate reward. 

Somewhere along the startup continuum between abject failure and Facebook, lies a different kind of business to be built. DHH continues:

Every time I see people crumble and quit from the crunch-mode pressure cooker, I think what a shame, it didn’t have to be like that.

It’s almost like we need another word. Startup is a great one, but I feel like it’s been forever hijacked for this narrow style, and “starting a business” just doesn’t have the sex appeal. Any suggestions?

Historically, people have tried to call these “lifestyle” businesses. But, as anyone who’s actually started and run a business can attest, the imagery of a leisurely lifestyle led business really does this kind of business a diservice. In the comment section of the post, othersuggestions are offered up such as “bootstrappers”. But that doesn’t resonate with me.

The term I’ve had rattling around in my head for a while now is Independents or Indie businesses.

The profile of an indie business would be similar to independent practitioners of any craft. An independent musician, for example, might eschew a major label who may force them to make compromising sacrifices in hopes of making that artist more commercially viable. Instead, the Indie musician takes distribution and promotion into their own hands. This doesn’t mean they will never sign with a label or that they wil forever be left to their own DIY devices. But that when they do pick a a label, they will do so on their terms.

Similarly, Indie businesses will be comfortable playing by their own rules even if they may fly in the face of startup cultural norms. They will chase opportunities in markets that may be small, niche or non-existent instead of jumping on the most fundable fad. They will find ways to operate outside of the traditional venture model through either small amounts of early outside funding or choosing a slower growth path and getting to profitability on the back of a terrific product and happy customers. And they will have a goal to stay independent as opposed to looking for a quick flip or speedy IPO.

I think we’re entering a golden age for Indie businesses. Some will take the shape of long term durable companies, others will take the shape of projects that spin up and wind down to meet bursts of demand or to scratch a passing itch. 

With democratized digital distribution and the rise of crowdfunding sources of capital, many companies will be in a position to stay independent and play by their own rules. And I think that’s a very important and powerful development worthy of it’s own word.