Creating a Life While Making a Living

For those who feel life is about more than just making money, the one-person business is an exciting business form. It is business as lifestyle—business as a statement about who you are and what you value.

Between 1970 and 2020, the numbers of one-person businesses grew gradually until the 1990s then experienced a gradual annual decline from the 1990s to 2020.

Because of driving forces like cyclical recessions, the development of the “gig” economy, and, most recently, the impact of the pandemic, the number of one-person businesses is again on the rise.

In the 1990s, the American Home Business Association claimed at least 13 million home-based businesses, representing 11 percent of the workforce at that time. Also in the 1990s, Entrepreneur Magazine estimated 18.3 million people operated businesses from their homes. Neither of these figures includes one-person businesses with premises outside of the home. Another 1990s report from the IRS revealed more than 14 million “sole proprietors” filed Schedule Cs. 

In recent years, the media has pointed repeatedly at research findings showing that self-employment is growing at a faster rate than wage-and salary-paying jobs. As early as the 1990s, government sources were estimating that at least one million businesses were started every year. 

In 2010, the most recent year for which there are trustworthy federal census numbers, the U.S. Census Bureau reported more than 22 million one-person businesses. These are what the Bureau calls “non-employer businesses” because they have a single owner, but no paid employees. The Bureau reported that these 22 million enterprises were generating about $950 billion per year in revenues.

To put this massive change in historical perspective, it’s important to remember that individual business ownership was in fact the early foundation of the U.S. system of private enterprise. Then, as more and more people began to depend on working for others for their livelihood, self-employment slowly became a dying lifestyle. Joining an existing business or corporation became the clear choice for most Americans.

By 1970, less than 7 percent of the population was self-employed. In contrast, by the early 1990s, the number of self-employed had nearly doubled, with the ranks of the one-person business included, to about 20 million. 

By 2015 the number of self-employed had dropped to about 15 million or 10.1 percent of all U.S. workers. Still higher than the seven percent of the 1970s.

Between 2015 and 2020, self-employment levels dropped even further to just under 10 million.

Since the pandemic got going, though, self-employment has been growing at a rate of about 10% per month, reaching 10.3 million by the fall of 2021.

Without fanfare, the one-person business quietly became and continues to be one of the most significant social revolutions in America in the last half of the 20th and first two decades of the 21st centuries.

Experiencing a rapid growth rate in the 1980s and 1990s, then declining in numbers until 2020, this form of enterprise is once again growing in numbers.

What's the Attraction?

People who brave the relatively uncharted world of the one-person business are looking for many things—among them a greater degree of personal autonomy and self-expression than is possible within other career structures. They desire to be their own bosses, without the responsibility of overseeing others. This autonomy offers them the opportunity to restructure their lives in an inventive way and, at the same time, maintain their personal independence.

Running a one-person business is not only flexible, challenging, and creative, it is also a liberating and effective way to respond authentically and gracefully to the changing face of life in these times. It also seems that a growing number of people are sick and tired of just living for the weekend, for two weeks of vacation with pay, and for the increasingly ephemeral promise of the good life after retirement.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the family of one-person-business options is the incredible range of lifestyles and goals it embraces. While some, for whatever reasons, want a lot of money, others prefer few possessions and a simple lifestyle. Some work only to make a living; others view work itself as a positive value. Whatever style of life you prefer, it can be supported by running a one-person business.

Running a one-person business is about creating a life while making a living.

From the owners of such businesses we often hear a startling fact: they don’t want their businesses to grow large and they are not interested in becoming wealthy.

“Wealth is not the goal. All the business books are filled with the same few examples of highly successful (read ‘rich’) entrepreneurs. Less than 5 percent of us will ever become really affluent. Most of us have to be happy just making a living. It’s the quality of the process of making a living that counts—and it’s the chance to define ‘quality’ for yourself that’s critical.”

Robert Kourik
Master Horticulturist, serial entrepreneur,
one-person business

Why Fly the Corporate Nest?

“As a society, we’re gradually starting to view ‘work’ not as a single place of employment, but as a series of engagements or projects.

“The millennial generation in particular views the traditional aspiration to a corporate job in an office as something more like a satirical sitcom, à la The Office, than something they wish to strive for.”

Paul Jarvis
Company of One:
Why Staying Small is the Next Big Thing for Business

Since Running a One-Person Business first appeared in 1989, the very way business is conducted has been in constant flux. In an article from the 1990s, USA Today reported that U.S. employers were laying off workers at the rate of 2,200 a day. Salaries were being frozen, health benefits were scaled back, pension plans have proven shaky. The 20th-century version of the “American Dream,” which included the security of life-long employment by the same company, has almost completely disappeared from American culture.

Big corporations have shipped jobs overseas and the employment culture of most companies treats workers as easily replaceable cogs in giant global mega machines. Benefits have shrunk or completely disappeared, and retirement plans have gone bankrupt.

As an unavoidable consequence, a whole new expectation of a career track made up of a series of short engagements at multiple companies has become the norm.

The smart have adopted “intrapreneurship” as a replacement for old-fashioned employee loyalty. Intrapreneurship is an entrepreneurial mindset within the employment venue. It sees each individual as a “one-person business” within a series of employment gigs. Companies encourage it because it fits their expectation of interchangeable wheel cogs. And it can, if done right, be a superior survival strategy for employees.

This trend toward intrapreneurship can be indexed by the growing number of books with titles such as:

  • You, Inc.
  • Creating You and Company
  • Company of One: Why Staying Small is the Next Big Thing for Business
  • Intrapreneurship; The Greenhouse Approach
  • Cultivating Intrapreneurship
  • Intrapreneurs: Who, What, How, Why
  • Intrapreneurship: Ignite Innovation
  • Winning at Intrapreneurship: 12 Labors to Overcome Corporate Culture and Achieve Startup Success
  • The Brand You 50 (Reinventing Work): Fifty Ways to Transform Yourself from an ‘Employee’ into a Brand That Shouts Distinction, Commitment, and Passion!

The major weakness of this mega-corp strategy, however, is that it creates a vision of and yearning for self-employment. Without old-fashioned employee loyalty, companies live with the uncertainty of their best workers moving on to better jobs or their own entrepreneurial adventure. This trend can be indexed by the growing number of books with titles such as:

  • Breaking Free: How to Work at Home with the Perfect Small Business Opportunity
  • Breaking Free: How to Quit Your Job and Start Your Own Businesses
  • Break Free from Corporate: Be Your Own Boss
  • Zero to Sold: How to Start, Run, and Sell a Bootstrapped Business
  • Earn Your Piece of the American Pie: Start Your Own Business

It’s now a common belief that job security has deteriorated over the last several decades. Younger workers no longer even think much about it. Instead, they focus on their own career needs and the charting of a path through several companies to achieve their goals.

One media outlet recently ran a story on one job applicant fresh from college who got six employment offers within a 72 hour period—each slightly better than the previous one. He agreed to take each job but in the end, let the five losers know that he wouldn’t be accepting their offers after all—with no apparent qualms about making and breaking his employment agreements. This would have been unheard-of behavior in the WWII or early half of the Boomer generations.

There’s been a growing discomfort among workers with the disparity between what they feel is important and the work that they do. This has come to a head with the experience of the COVID pandemic. In September of 2021 alone, 4.4 million people quit their jobs. That’s 4.4 million beyond those that lost their jobs because of pandemic restrictions.

There are currently widespread reports of worker dissatisfaction with what jobs have to offer—beyond benefits and wages or salaries, to include meaning and sense of making a contribution.

More and more people are searching for ways to integrate their work with the rest of their lives.

People are even willing to give up the security of a steady paycheck in exchange for more control over their life and work.

Why the Book Running a One-Person Business?

Running a One-Person Business is for you who are daydreaming about the possibility of running a sole proprietorship or who are working for someone else as you make a transition to becoming your own boss. It’s also for you who are knee-deep in the first year of being your own boss and for those who are old hands at it but who need specifics and refinement to help you remain a one-person business. This book is for all of you who suspect or already know that

It is possible to create fulfilling work and integrate it with all that is important in your life.

The one-person business has distinct characteristics that make it very different from other businesses. So we decided to fill the void with a book liberally sprinkled with both nuts-and-bolts practical advice and words of inspiration from people who were actually running successful one-person businesses.

We continue to refine and hone our knowledge and to listen to and learn from our students, clients, and the diverse community of one-person businesses. For nearly five decades now, we have had the privilege of advising hundreds of one person businesses from around the world. We’ve also experienced the deeply meaningful adventure of teaching thousands through our writing, lectures, workshops, courses, and webinars.

To write Running a One-Person Business we conducted in-depth interviews with successful one-person businesses. This gave us the chance to delve into the highly effective systems and practices that these businesses had worked out over the years. Like all the one-person businesses we have known, those we chose to examine more closely were run by individuals whose incomes varied as widely as their goals and lifestyles. They represent a variety of fields and live in different pats of the U.S. and overseas. In our discussion with the interviewees, we captured many insights about the real meaning of success and how it relates to social issues.

In Running a One-Person Business we show how to incorporate personal and social needs gracefully into the whole business picture. We also show you how to apply sound business practices, such as the diligent use of effective record-keeping systems, regular activity measurements, and careful planning of daily work strategy, to the management of a one-person business.

Although we wrote Running a One-Person Business primarily as a practical guide, it seemed to us that all really good “how-to” books give the reader confidence—a sense of “I know that” or “I was on the right track” and “I am not alone.” We don’t deny the fragility of one-person businesses. In fact, we stress just how difficult running one can be and spend considerable time explaining what it takes to succeed and what to do if you find yourself short of the prerequisites. In addition, we suggest many ways to reduce the inherent risks—experiences drawing from our own work and the work of our colleagues and interviewees.

Our hope is that this book will allow you to determine if the one-person-business form is for you, and, if so, to run your one-person business in an efficient, profitable way while remaining true to your social and ethical values.

Remember, as the owner of a one-person business, you’re part of a growing group of entrepreneurs who can act as a positive social force. You can’t be fired and, once you’ve learned to make your business work, you can be secure enough to take strong moral, ethical, political, and environmental stands, if you choose.

Running a one-person business can provide you with a decent living, make your personal life more meaningful, and give your social and civic life a level of excitement and interest that working for someone else seldom delivers.

Welcome to the growing community of one-person business owners! You represent both a vital force in American business and one of the most significant social revolutions occurring today!

Based on “Introduction: Business as Lifestyle” in the 1994 Second Revised Edition of Running a One-Person Business. Updated 2021.