You'll Never Really Be Your Own Boss

A little while ago I was thinking about what it is that makes me want to run my own business, it’s a question that often plagues me during the dark, uncertain times - “Why the hell am I doing this?” Usually I settle on the same few reasons:

  1. For the challenge - If I’m not challenged, I’m bored. I’m not sure if that’s a strength or flaw in my character, probably a bit of both, but it’s how I’ve always been. Freelancing was getting less challenging, and therefore more boring. Firing all my clients, and trying to make a living from BugMuncher before my savings run out is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever set myself. And I’m definitely not bored.
  2. To invest in my future. As a freelancer I was selling my time, a resource which is decidedly finite, and only really valuable to me. Come retirement I wouldn’t be able to just sell my business, as I am the business. To have something of value, I’d need to grow the business into an agency. BugMuncher however, has its own inherent value, so I’m building something that will hopefully allow me to retire comfortably.
  3. Freedom - to be my own boss. Ah, that old chestnut. To be in control of my own destiny, to be in command.

It was that third reason, to be my own boss, that got me thinking. Before BugMuncher I was a freelancer, and for most of my adult life I’ve been working for myself. But am I my own boss? Is anyone? That was when I realised that unless you’re retired, you cannot truly be your own boss. It’s not as bad as it sounds though, I’m not saying the dream is dead, and that everyone trying to be their own boss should give up and get a job in bank or something. Instead, just realise that entrepreneurial dream is the polar opposite of what most people think - You’re not trying to be our own boss, you’re trying to have as many bosses as possible. This simple change in wording has altered how I how I think about running a business.

What is a boss?

If you’re in full time employment that’s a question you’re unlikely to pose - you know exactly who your boss is, there really shouldn’t be any confusion. Step away from that world though, and into the realms of self-employment and running a business, and the lines begin to blur. So who are your bosses? Like so many questions in life, the answer is to follow the money.

The simple rule is If someone is paying you, they are your boss. It’s not all about the money though, really there are three main characteristics that make someone your boss:

  1. They make the decision to start working with you - in employment terms they hire you, and start paying you.
  2. They can tell you what to do.
  3. The can choose to stop working with you - ie: they can fire you.

Once upon a time I was a full time PHP developer, employed by a small-ish website design company. I had one boss. That boss chose to hire me, told me what to work on, and when to work on it. All my money came from them, and ultimately they could fire me.

Then I quit my full time job and became a freelancer, I thought I was becoming my own boss. I now realise I didn’t become my own boss, I actually took on more bosses. Every client was my boss. The main difference was they only had influence over the work I did for them. If one of those bosses fired me, I didn’t lose all my income, thus I had more job security than someone working full time for one boss. Through my years as a freelancer I probably maintained an average of 5 bosses (clients) at any one time, meaning each of them on average only had 20% of the influence over my time and money.

Currently with BugMuncher I have 22 bosses. And while it hurts when ever one of them fires me (cancels their subscription) I know it’s only a small dent in my income. Each of BugMuncher’s customers can to some extent influence what I do with my time. If one of them emails me, I’ll respond as soon as I see it. If a bug report is submitted, fixing it becomes a priority task. My BugMuncher bosses can also influence my work day through feature requests. Currently, with only 22 customers, I strongly consider every feature request I receive, although ultimately I have final say in which features I work on, and when. But as BugMuncher grows, I’ll have to start only considering feature requests that have been requested by more than one person, otherwise there’ll just be too much for me to deal with, which would ultimately make things worse for all my customers.

Just looking back at my own history, it can clearly be seen that more bosses is better. Going from 1 to 22 bosses puts me in a much stronger position, having one boss is really not optimal - if they fire you, you lose all your income. All of your tasks come from them, if you don’t like a task you’ve been assigned, your options are limited.

This way of thinking works with all businesses - if you run a shop, be it online or real-world, brick-and-mortar, every one of your customers is your boss. Buy choosing to buy from you they are both hiring and paying you. If what you sell them turns out to be shit they can fire you, by vowing to never by from you again, and possibly asking for a refund. You may be thinking that your shop’s customers can not tell you what to do, unless you allow them to request special items be ordered. However, the quantity of a product you keep in stock will depend on past buying trends, so if a product starts selling very well, you’re going to order more of that product for stock.

This is a great example of how as you get more bosses, the ability for an individual boss to control how you spend your time trends towards zero, at which point it takes multiple bosses together to have an impact. It’s exactly the same with BugMuncher, and how I’ll handle feature requests as my customer base grows.

Letting go of the desire to “be my own boss”, and instead thinking of each and every customer as my boss, has helped me focus on what’s important. The end result is the same, growing BugMuncher, but I’m no longer wondering when will enough be enough? When will I have the freedom that I crave? Now I know the answer is never, or at least, not until I retire. It sounds a little depressing when I write it like that, but it’s really not. It’s liberating. By eliminating that ever-moving goalpost from the horizon I can really focus on getting shit done. And while I’ve always prided my self on my customer support with BugMuncher, a little reminder that every customer is my boss, that they pay me and can fire me, will ensure that I don’t get complacent.

Even if you run business with millions of customers, they will always be your bosses. Your bosses will always be able to hire you, pay you, fire you, and influence how you spend your day. You will never really be your own boss, so having as many bosses as possible is the next best thing.

Now go, acquire more bosses, as many as you can, collect those bosses like they’re pokemon.