When Every Family is a Startup

What I’m about to share is nothing new, but it is a significant societal and economic change in this connected world, and I contend that it has large and important implications for thinking about the nature of education in a connected world.

I returned from a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam a couple of months ago. While I was only there for a couple of days, I continue to think about the cultural experience. I don’t know what this says about me but I thoroughly enjoyed crossing busy streets in Hanoi. Amid countless cars and scooters rushing by, friends told me to just drop my head, step out into traffic and walk slowly but steadily across the street. Just don’t stop or change pace as someone may well hit you, they explained. Again, I’m not sure why I enjoyed this so much. Perhaps it was because I got to disregard pretty much every childhood rule that I’d ever learned about crossing the street or “playing in traffic.”

Walking or riding through the streets of Hanoi, you can’t help but notice the line of small businesses run out of the street-side first floor of each building, with families often living above. I’m certainly no expert on Vietnam, Vietnamese economics or the Vietnamese business landscape, but I was told that almost all of these are family businesses do not reach the financial threshold that requires them to go through formal processes with the government. Or some do, but they just don’t report it. If it is run by you and family, and you don’t make too much money, it is pretty quick and easy to start as many family businesses as you want, and that is a common way of life for families in a city like Hanoi. As such, one person indicated that many, perhaps even most, families living in Hanoi had one or more family businesses. It might be making and serving one type of street food. Or, it might be a simple and singular craft or service.

As other businesses develop in Vietnam, this massive family small business framework may well fade, with more people opting for jobs in companies. Again, I don’t know the Vietnamese landscape so perhaps that transition is well underway. Regardless, I’m intrigued by the parallel between what I saw in Vietnam and what is happening in the United States and the digital world at large, the growing options for work from home, self-employment, and small businesses.

Could it be that what I saw in Vietnam gives me a glimpse into what is happening in the digital landscape? The more I thought about this, the more similarities I saw between Ebay and these family businesses of Hanoi. One difference, and this is obviously a major one, is that the business efforts happening in the United States are often experimental and supplemental, offering people disposable income above and beyond what many do for full-time job. Yet, that is not true for all, and this digital marketplace has extended around the world. In fact, I just hired a person from Vietnam, another from Russia, and two more from the United States through an online service to do some graphic design work for me. There are plenty of people who have learned how to tap into the connected world to generate significant income or even a full-time salary.

The digital world, even going back to the 1990s, helped to create spaces for people to explore and experiment with self-employment, even if mainly for supplemental purposes. I remember the personal realization in the 1990s that, if I could generate any kind of website that garnered the attention of 10-20,000 viewers a month, I could create a business out of it.

Just scan what is happening on Ebay, Etsy, UpWork, Udemy, Fiverr, Patreon, Kickstarter, TeachersPayTeachers, and hundreds of other similar online services.

  • With Ebay, anyone can become a broker of used (or new) goods.
  • With Etsy, anyone skilled in a craft (or who gain access to purchase crafts so they can resell them to people in other parts of the country or world where there is higher demand) can set up a storefront.
  • With UpWork, you can be a consultant or independent contractor as a programmer, graphic designer or illustrator, administrative assistant, writer, social media specialist, editor or dozens of other areas. These people make money ranging from a few dollars an hour to well over a hundred dollars an hour, they can set their own hours, and they can do their work from pretty much anywhere.
  • With Udemy, people are designing fee-based, non-credit online courses on everything from photography to setting up a blog, and there are plenty of people who are making solid five and six-figure incomes doing it.
  • With Fiverr, people are making extra money by doing even simple tasks like writing a 300-word blog post.
  • Patreon is a digital platform that draws from a century-old tradition of sponsors or patron’s of certain people’s work, especially artists, but it extends far beyond that.
  • With Kickstarter and dozens of other crowd-funding sites, people are getting the capital necessary to produce a product ranging from a documentary to a new electronic device. Or, they are just using it to get pre-orders for products and services.
  • With TeachersPayTeachers, educators are selling worksheets, lesson plans and other products of their work as classroom teachers; and some boast of making six figures doing as much.

With modern debates about workforce development and the role of college education, these sorts of platforms offer us a glimpse into a future where most families have what many still consider a non-traditional revenue stream, even if it is a supplemental one. It shows us that anyone with valued knowledge or skill, regardless of how it is developed or acquired, has a better chance than ever to turn that knowledge and skill into an opportunity for significant income. We live in an age where it is easier than ever to create multiple streams of income without ever leaving your house. Who knows, we may well see ourselves venturing into a future where almost every family is a startup or small business. Given this emerging future, what are the implications for our schools and education system?