The art of tinkering6 min read
Tinkering with ideas for new products and services can be a great way to explore whether self-employment is a viable option. Disabled people may find this type of employment is worth considering as, according to Statistics New Zealand, nearly a quarter of working disabled people are already self-employed. Jenny Douché, National Manager, Business Innovation, CCS Disability Action shares her view on the ‘art of tinkering’ on what can be a tumultuous, but also very rewarding, pursuit.
I’m not a disabled person, but I think self-employment can transcend disability. Businesses can be designed to fit an individual’s capabilities, skills and desires, and critically, their dislikes. Let’s face it, we all have things we don’t like doing, and self-employment can allow those tasks to be minimised.
My first business was making leather belts and clothing, then photographing pets, followed by publishing books, which included a very successful book series on smart animals, called Smarter than Jack, created in partnership with animal charities around the world, and a couple of business books. The publishing business was a bit more serious in scale, and involved angel investors and a subsidiary office in Canada. Now I’m tinkering away in my spare time making leather bags, but this is just a hobby. I’ve either been working in, or supporting, new businesses my whole career, it’s something I love.
Self-employment to me represents the chance to follow one’s passion, it’s about opportunity and freedom.
Self-employment to me represents the chance to follow one’s passion, it’s about opportunity and freedom … and lots of far less-appealing stuff, some of which I’ll touch on below. I’ll stick with the positives for now.
Many, well probably most, people’s lives are quite constrained. Constraints can include financial pressures, access barriers, societal expectations, and also constraints that people unconsciously or consciously place on themselves.
Self-employment allows people to imagine a future that is undetermined and unimpeded; they can potentially create what they want, when and how they want it. For some people this is exciting (and terrifying), for many others it’s just terrifying. I’m in that first category, driven by the excitement of creating and tinkering with things, but also somewhat terrified at the same time.
Another thing I love about self-employment is that often there is little opportunity cost, especially in the early days. I’ve been tinkering with my leather bags in my lounge in the weekends. I’m refining designs and construction techniques, trying them out, showing friends and family, refining them, all while not having to pay any fixed costs. I’ve been getting frustrated along the way when I haven’t been able to get things looking professional enough or source the right leathers. I’ve got no idea where this hobby will go, but that’s the fun of it.
The ability to tinker with self-employment means that people are not usually giving up much, if anything, to try it out. If someone has a bit of spare time on their hands, maybe they’ve got a part-time job or no job at all, then they can take time to dream and experiment. Perhaps they enjoy crafting; they can make things and show them to potential customers, ask for feedback, and make modifications. Perhaps they enjoy giving people advice on interior design – and other people agree that the advice is good! Maybe they’re an IT expert and know someone who is creating a new business and needs a business partner. In business start-up land that’s what they refer to as lean methodologies – the cycle of building, measuring, learning and adapting. Of course, at some stage people need to get beyond the tinkering stage, but by then, they’ll likely be ready, and hopefully a bit less terrified.
It helps to think about Thomas Edison and his 1,000 or so attempts to make a working lightbulb, and about James Dyson’s over 5,000 attempts to make his bag-less vacuum cleaner.
As alluded to above, being self-employed can be overwhelming; one can be consumed by a fear of failure or not measuring up – perhaps they have imposter syndrome. These feelings are often not helped by the media, especially social media, which is full of stories of business success, but few of failures. After all, no-one wants a story written about their business that portrays it in a bad light. In these media stories we don’t generally read about the struggles, and about the hours of effort trying to get something to work as intended. As a result we can compare them with our own lived experiences and feel like we’re failing because we’re making mistakes. Self-doubt can pervade. I try to read between the lines in the media stories and imagine what really happened – and I also find it helps to think about Thomas Edison and his 1,000 or so attempts to make a working lightbulb, and about James Dyson’s over 5,000 attempts to make his bag-less vacuum cleaner. That’s an awful lot of tinkering – we certainly don’t think of them as failures.
Another challenge with self-employment is that people often have to do everything themselves – that means doing things that they don’t feel competent doing, such as creating a website, contacting people they don’t know, doing accounts, creating processes and invoices, in fact pretty much anything admin related. Let’s face it, nobody goes into business with a dream of doing admin – they go into it because they are passionate about bringing an idea to life.
In the early days of my publishing business I didn’t enjoy or feel I was particularly good at doing the accounts, invoicing, and updating spreadsheets. That feeling of being less than confident impacted how I felt about the things I was actually good at, such as creating innovative business models, and forming partnerships with animal charities and with investors, and my huge urge to make a difference in the world. When the business started to expand and bring on new staff I could off-load those tasks I didn’t like, and all of a sudden I actually believed that I was quite capable. Being part of a business incubator, and getting great professional advice, also helped significantly.
Lack of money is normally an issue too for new entrepreneurs. Money has to be spent very carefully and on things that people are reasonably sure will make a direct and positive impact on the bottom line. That may be for the development of a prototype, manufacturing equipment, raw materials or software development. One thing people generally don’t do is spend money on their own skill development or for business advice and mentoring. That’s where CCS Disability Action’s My Business programme comes in – it gives access to business supports that people often wouldn’t justify spending money on, or even know about. The programme can do this by providing advice, connections and funding for a huge variety of existing business services – ones that could make a big difference to their success.
Despite the inevitable roller coaster of emotions, self-employment can be magical. It can be ideal for people who want to explore a passion and who have time to tinker – remember nearly a quarter of working disabled people are self-employed.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes.
Every child is an artist,
the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.