Comment: On unsexy business

Why do so many would-be business owners choose a path of extraordinary risk?

Right now, thousands if not millions of founders are sacrificing their savings, social lives and mental health on the distant, glimmering hope that their business idea is a billion-dollar one. A handful will be correct (congrats!). Others have the privilege of a financial cushion or connections to bounce back from failure. But the vast majority won’t be so lucky.

This isn’t a knock on entrepreneurship, of course – setting off on your own and building something new is what Courier is all about. This is a critique of a type of entrepreneurship that rests on the belief that you need a sexy, world-changing idea. Because, really, you don’t. In reality, most businesses aren’t about overturning empires, tearing up industries or inventing new ones from scratch – they’re about providing a simple product or service that people want.

Landscaping, air-conditioning repair, moving services, pressure washing, rubbish collection, house painting, car detailing, even graffiti removal. These service-based businesses aren’t going anywhere. They’re the sorts of companies that Nick Huber, a business owner in Georgia, US, calls ‘sweaty startups’. Nick, who founded a pickup and delivery student storage company as a university undergrad in 2011, has since grown the company, grown rich and fostered a community of fellow sweaty startup adherents through his podcast, newsletter and Twitter (@sweatystartup). A Reddit group of more than 40,000 has even popped up where members trade resources and tips for launching such businesses. 

Of course, this isn’t revolutionary – but that’s the point. Almost every town is full of wealthy people who have made a healthy living simply by providing a product or service that people in the local market need, and then showing up consistently and reliably to execute it. Many of these businesses are making millions a year, but you’d never know it. The idea, Nick says, is looking at a big pie and figuring out how to carve your own piece. Sometimes that even means forgoing starting a company altogether, and instead buying one and improving it – adding a dose of tech or an edge to make it better than the competition. As ever, execution is more important than the idea.

All this might seem boring, but it’s no less rewarding and could result in real (and not just paper) wealth. Along with pressing the brakes a bit on reporting huge venture capital raises in favour of stories of business owners who saved and bootstrapped their way to success, we’re also committed to reporting much more on the unsexy (and sweaty) startups out there – those that forgo rocket ships for slow, steady growth.

This article was first published in Courier issue 41, June/July 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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