A portfolio of micro-ventures

If there’s one thing public policy at all levels of government doesn’t really understand, it’s the notion of the micro-venture. Neither do human resource departments.

Yet micro-ventures — from intermittent pop-up shops, to hobbies turned into product lines, to from-home work, to coding for a smartphone app — are an increasing part of the work world.

In fact, a growing number of newly-minted graduates find themselves moving from and through micro-ventures and never actually establishing a “career” in the traditional sense. In this, they’re joined by parents trying to return from home care to the work world (and discovering no one finds their gap compelling) and all those forcibly early retired trying to make a second life (since they’re not able or ready to actually retire).

Trying to fit this into a standard one or two page résumé is almost impossible. It doesn’t take more than a year or two before a micro-venture life takes up all the room, and its endless overlaps make the story hard to sort out.

Hand that résumé off to one of those websites that “helpfully” parses it for you, and you have an unholy mess on your hands. That’s because the program that reads your file wasn’t designed for any sort of situation that wasn’t linear.

So what is a micro-venture? Simply put, it’s a venture that involves not more than a handful of people — often, it’s a solo affair — and it’s probably located in low commitment spaces. From the consultants for whom “that table in the corner” of a neighbourhood coffee house is their true office to those working from home (often in violation of zoning and business licensing rules) to those who spend a year crafting items and then renting a pop-up space just for one weekend to sell them, micro-ventures come in all shapes and sizes, but mostly under the scale required for a small business.

Most micro-venture types actually have a portfolio of things on the go. I, for instance, have PDD, but I also have relationships with three companies (all of which I am a part of the team, but not on payroll), do some independent consulting, have two different paid writing assignments, and submit other articles on spec for paid publication.

Now, do I want one business — or are these separate ventures? Do I then need multiple business numbers, need to file multiple GST/HST and other tax forms, have multiple business licences? Or do I try to cram all of this activity under one roof.

Before you answer, remember the magic number: $30,000. Below $30,000/year in any venture, you don’t have to worry about the GST/HST. No filings, no collections, nothing. Running six independent proprietorships (under law) none of which hits that magic number makes a raft of paperwork go away.

And let’s face it: in a micro-venture world, you don’t have staff to do it. You probably can’t afford a lot of professional services to take the place of that staff, either.

When you make $250,000 from self-employment, spending $10,000 on accounting and tax services makes perfectly good sense. But you don’t get $1,000 accounting on $25,000 brought in, nor — frankly — do you have the $1,000 to spare out of $25,000. That’s because all your other costs don’t shrink proportionally.

Is it any wonder so many these days decry government burdens? What’s easy to take with one business of size, or in a salaried position, is a true burden on someone managing a portfolio of micro-ventures off a corner of their kitchen table.

So an awful lot of micro-ventures go “off the record”, simply to save on unnecessary paperwork. (I remember, living in Vancouver, making my consultancy “legal”. I didn’t begrudge the $149.00/year the city wanted for a business licence. I did begrudge the regulation that said it had to be at an address other than my home. I rented — at $269/month — an “office service” for really no other reason than to have a “business address” to fit their regulations. Talk about encouraging people to fly under your radar!)

Still, portfolios are becoming a bigger and bigger part of working life. They point out that although jobs may be in short supply, work is plentiful. They point out that there’s more to bringing in the necessary to house, feed, clothe and entertain a family than a career.

Micro-venture portfolios come with one big plus, in this economy. You don’t have all your eggs in one basket.

That’s important. Think about how many major corporations are stretching their accounts payable these days (P&G announced recently that no bill would be paid until it had ripened by at least 75 days — if you’re an independent or small business supplier to a company like that, you’ve essentially been turned into their banker, all for the benefit of P&G management bonuses and shareholder dividends. It’s hard to lay down outstanding invoices at the checkout in Safeway and get groceries in return.)

Elements of your portfolio may come and go; you may get stiffed or slow paid here or there; but you don’t risk everything. That’s a form of security no paycheque, no title, and no single venture can bring you. It’s more robust, even if it’s harder to describe to anyone.

If you’re hiring, don’t look down your nose at a micro-venture CV. (Don’t even do it if you bump into your portfolio neighbour at a BBQ — just because they don’t have a title for you to glom onto, doesn’t make them a loser.)

Micro-venture portfolios are one emerging answer to how we manage risk.

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