Generational shifts tend to go unnoticed while within them. To my mind, we’ve just witnessed one such innocuous shift — the next generation of Independent Business Owner (IBO) is already here.
And while each IBO is leveraging and exploring the new digital landscape uniquely, these are 17 defining qualities that have emerged as consistent across the new cohort.
It’s a digital world of work. Even if you run a brick-and-mortar business, it has a digital presence that matters. For many of us who are not programmers, this was at first intimidating. Suddenly, firm footing had been pulled out from beneath us and replaced with bits and bytes. Like living in a foreign country and fumbling through a limited vocabulary at checkout, we were given new tools that we didn’t quite know how to speak to, manipulate or control.
The no-code movement challenges this dynamic. It allows traditionally ‘non-technical’ people to interact more closely with (and customize) software that powers their business. This next generation of business builders and owners have always understood that compute is key — now they can’t believe their luck that the software playground has been unlocked for all to enter.
One piece of the no-code story is the new ways in which individuals can facilitate communication between their favorite applications. The number of public APIs is increasing rapidly as companies realize that building a piece of software that doesn’t play with others is to create an unnecessary silo.
This growing availability means there is high reward for learning how to take the best bits from a wide-range of software solutions. Successful IBOs are able to build tool stacks which leverage the expertise of specific software tools, while crafting and overseeing the larger workflows being deployed.
Data has always been important. We just happen to have exponentially more access to it than ever before. Appreciating this fact means not simply looking over your various dashboards each morning — it means setting clear objectives for what you want to get out of your data collection, then following through on the analysis.
Most SaaS tools already have some analytics or reporting functionality built-in — modern IBOs don’t let this go to waste and learn to filter these reports toward specific outcomes and objectives.
Modern independent business owners are sensitive to repetition. The intuition being that if it feels repetitive, there’s a chance it can be automated away — and that this is a welcome opportunity.
They also understand that automation doesn’t mean ‘mindless’ or ‘easy’. There’s such a thing as unnecessary or ineffective automation which wastes time or confuses simpler processes, rather than helping.
Being automation aware means understanding the value of automating repetitive tasks, while appreciating the effort that’s needed, upfront, to build effective systems and workflows.
Not that they will only ever reach 1,000 people. Nor is it to say that they are so niche as to be solving only obscure, uncommon problems.
Rather, the economics they are shooting for are simply more modest. They are not bound to the ‘unicorn or nothing’ mindset which plagued a generation of entrepreneurs. Instead, they are far more content to understand their minimum viable audience deeply, serve them better than anyone else, and make an honest living providing a real service to a dedicated group.
One temptation with powerful tooling at your fingertips is to recreate everything from scratch. To design a totally novel marketing funnel. To reinvent the website. To discover a new accounting or data collection system.
Modern IBOs understand that they are focused on solving a specific problem set, and that there are real hours to be saved by leveraging the excellent thought which has already gone into existing models robust enough to survive.
This doesn’t mean they take the first template they come across. Instead, these business builders prioritize scanning and modelling existing success frameworks, over and above rebuilding everything from scratch.
(A slight point of nuance here: bringing on-board a template or pre-built framework is not the same as blindly accepting it. Typically, they will need to explore enough to understand how it works, in its most basic building blocks, before integrating into the business. Fortunately, understanding how something works is quicker than building it from scratch).
Modern IBOs are willing to spend time upfront in building a product or delivering a service that actually works — rather than spending on distribution pre-product. It is a posture of generosity; and often generosity at a frenzied pace.
The costs required to prototype and distribute an idea are approaching zero. The time needed to find true product-market fit, however, is still significant — and perhaps always will be. Rather than becoming beholden to optimistic roadmaps and upcoming investment rounds, this generation of IBOs are leaning into rapid, local, and small batch iteration without expectation of anything but validated learning.
The difference between a community and a customer base is shared purpose. That sounds a bit rich, but I believe it follows the same line as Joscha Bach’s concept of ‘love’ as being the mode of non-transactional interactions. It is about identifying with a wider boundary of agency, and acting in the interest of that common boundary rather than locally to one’s own immediate interests.
Customer bases have transactional relationships with businesses. They expect something from the business, and are willing to pay in return. Communities share a purpose with other community members, and businesses that create strong communities do so by setting the framework or infrastructure for facilitating such pursuit of shared purpose. In well-functioning communities, a member’s experience gets better the more they contribute. Not so for customer bases.
Modern IBOs understand this, and are freed to create such spaces by authentic direction-setting (see point 16), which allows them to set and pursue higher order visions that many can adopt and share.
We’ve heard enough about remote working. We know it’s possible. We know it has genuine setbacks and excellent advantages at the same time. But there’s a difference between working from home and setting your own schedule.
Setting one’s schedule means leveraging the fact that we each have subtle and unique preferences for how and when we work. For this reason, modern IBOs prioritise personal sleep, health and activity rhythms above standard advice or norms. They workout when it makes sense for them, eat when it won’t disrupt a positive workflow and develop habits that reinforce those routines which work best for them.
Independent Business Owner is only a statement about ownership — not an indication of ‘going it alone’. Hiring contractors and assistance is common, and in 2021, finding short-term, high-value talent is more accessible than ever before.
Modern IBOs tap into freelance marketplaces, understand how to identify and screen talent and are willing to give people chances to work on the business with a diverse set of opinions. Often, these relationships are cooperative — with a genuine mutual respect for each party’s respective expertise — rather than hierarchical.
There is a strong tendency to pay-it-forward in the digital IBO world. If a tool or service has been vital to one’s own success, you’re happy to go out of your way to leave a positive review, recommend it to other users and perhaps even post publicly about how much it’s helped your business — without being prompted.
This goes for helping out other aspiring business owners, also, and many put out more free content and resources the more the business grows and succeeds. Perhaps this is simply a feature of any early stage, successful population, and maybe the generosity of this cohort won’t last — but for now, giving back to the community is a welcome rite of passage for most successful IBOs.
This generation of business owners also understands how to effectively shop for available tooling. They are able to identify the key features and functionality they need, and aren’t afraid to be patient in auditing solutions (and changing their mind as needed).
Since it is common practice for SaaS tools to offer flexible, monthly payment options — and often full-feature free trials — modern IBOs take full advantage of this odd position of buyer power. To settle for something which isn’t meeting your business needs would be to waste this luxurious oddity of the current SaaS tools landscape.
Modern IBOs see the ‘competitive landscape’ as non zero sum. The only game in town that’s worth competing on is personal productivity. Increase personal output, quality of services delivered and the targeting of one’s offerings and the total amount of positive change increases — across the economy. The duplicability of the digital space breeds this expansive mindset, where previous IBOs were faced with very real territorial and zero-sum dynamics.
There’s plenty to be said about the future of education. All I will say is this — modern business owners aren’t afraid to take their education into their own hands. And the vast majority of learning happens without certification.
It is about solving real problems, building real skills and turning those skills around to better serve customers. It’s not about signalling. Not about ‘networking’. Modern business learning is about upgrading one’s toolkit, and there simply isn’t enough time for educational pretence.
Independent means if you go down for two weeks, the business goes down. Taking care of your own health and wellness has always been a priority for IBOs, but when it comes to the emerging digital landscape — and the fact that most productivity is screen-facilitated knowledge work— this means that a new awareness for how to prioritise mental health and digital hygiene has emerged.
Rather than being considered an especially ‘aware’ or ‘grounded’ person, modern IBOs understand that taking personal time, entering Non-Sleep Deep Rest states to refresh and making room for social connection (especially when working alone) is simply par for course — the minimum maintenance needed to sustain oneself and one’s business.
Perhaps the most exciting quality of modern IBOs is the consistent tendency toward shaping purpose-driven businesses. To arrive at a mission that actually means something to them, beyond paying the bills.
When no one is forcing you to work, but you grind nonetheless, developing your own motivational structure is essential. Unless this motivational structure is primarily intrinsic, it unlikely to sustain over time.
This is purpose-setting, and modern IBOs are on a path of iteratively defining and redefining their mission with each milestone reached.
Often, modern IBOs come without decoration. What you see is what you get. They’ll talk about their family openly, about their struggles, about how the business is doing, what their goals are, who helped them, who let them down.
It isn’t a corporate ‘brand’ being crafted with every interaction — it’s a person, moving closer and closer to an alignment of motivated movement and real-world influence (change-making).
More than anything, this is what makes the new generation of IBOs so inspiring. Authenticity breeds accessibility — and for those watching on at a distance, it is often those displays of human fallibility which make the crazy notion of pursuing something for themselves feel possible.