He writes a weekly column, How We Work, for HarvardBusiness.org.
Peter Bregman says the best strategy in the downturn may be to create your own work. NEW YORK (CNN) — Madame Alexander was one of the great innovators in the doll industry. According to the company that bears her name, she made the first doll with moving eyelids, the first doll based on a licensed character (Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind), the first doll fashioned after a living person (Queen Elizabeth) and many others. But what’s most interesting is how and why the company got started. Beatrice Alexander’s father owned the first doll “hospital” in New York City, where broken porcelain dolls were sent to be repaired. That got her thinking. Maybe porcelain wasn’t the best material for a doll. So she sat around her kitchen table with her four sisters, and they started a business sewing dolls out of cloth. Theirs were not the only cloth dolls (Raggedy Anne was already popular), but they created a Red Cross doll, a smart choice so soon after World War I. She put all the dolls in a big suitcase and lugged them around to local mom and pop stores where she made small sales.
No bank would lend to her; she was a 20-something woman in the early 1900s, a poor risk. So she scraped together what she could and just started. Eventually, she found someone who was willing to loan her $1,600, which she paid back in half the time she was allotted.
After four years of dragging that suitcase door to door, she got her first big break: a big sale to FAO Schwarz.
Forbes magazine recently profiled the most popular toys of the past 100 years, and Madame Alexander topped the list from the 1920s. It beat the yo-yo.
There’s a lesson here for us. We’ve lost 4.4 million jobs since the economic mess started. And many of those jobs aren’t coming back. John Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia, told The New York Times, “There are going to be fewer stores, fewer factories, fewer financial services operations. Firms are making strategic decisions that they don’t want to be in their businesses.”
At this point, outplacement is just a bad bet. There is no place to be placed. Companies aren’t hiring, they’re firing.
And when eventually they do emerge from this recession, those companies that are still solvent won’t rehire to previous levels. Over the years, companies have gotten leaner as employees have gotten more productive. And they won’t rehire as much when times improve because they’ll want to keep their profit margins high. It’s quite possible that the age of big business tending to thousands of workers is coming to a close.
Looking for a job might make you feel better, but it won’t pay your mortgage. Don’t waste your time looking for a job that isn’t there.
There is another way. It’s the great opportunity of our time. For many people, it’s the only one. And it might actually make you happier than you were at the old job.
Start a business.
Wait, hold on. Before you get all angry at how out of touch I am, hear me out.
In a New York Times article, “Weary of Looking for Work, Some Create Their Own,” Ryan Kuder who started a Web design company after unsuccessfully looking for work for months said, “It’s probably easier right now to find a problem, solve it and charge people than it is to find a job.”
Easier doesn’t mean easy or painless. Any way you cut it, these are terrifying times we live in. And starting a company is a risky proposition. But this is one time when looking for a job might be riskier.
A friend of mine, Ben Dubrovsky, recently laid off from his technology job in Boston, Massachusetts, shared with me an idea he’s trying at his local synagogue. He’s pulling a group of people together to brainstorm business ideas that leverage their skills, talents, passions and experience.
“We’re not looking for a trillion dollar return. We’re looking for sustainable employment. Jobs that will give people an ongoing living, not companies as a vehicle for creating empires,” he said to me.
Then they’ll look to their synagogue community for advice, contacts or investment. Perhaps even a synagogue-based micro-finance bank where small loans could help start these businesses — businesses driven by passion.
Brilliant. Ben’s idea can translate to any community where people trust and care for each other. There are an estimated 400,000 churches in the United States.
Imagine if each one could generate 10 jobs; that would be 4,000,000 jobs — roughly the same number that President Obama is looking for out of the stimulus at a fraction of the cost. If you think that’s unrealistic, imagine we got half that. Or even a quarter. Insane? Maybe. But it just might work.
Don’t wait until you come up with the perfect idea.
You’ll be better off if you work out the kinks as you face them. Just get started. And this is the perfect time to start a new business. Marketing costs are way down because of the Internet and less competition. And as I wrote in a recent article about the new economy, small companies are replacing big ones because we trust people more than companies.
Just ask Howie Jacobson, author of “Adwords for Dummies,” who started his Internet marketing business during the last downturn.
He told me the entrepreneurs he knows all seem to be doing pretty well in this economy. They don’t have huge infrastructures to support. They don’t need to sell a million widgets just to stay in business. They’re comfortable with modest profits that sustain their lifestyles. iReport.com: How are you surviving in this economy?
Madame Alexander had a wise model for finding work. She started a business doing work she loved, with people she loved, solving a problem others were willing to pay money to have solved. It was a small company that took very little investment but gave her and others meaningful, sustainable work.
In other words, start a business in your kitchen with your sisters.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bregman.