Someone I recently met said the other day that they would love to pick my brain about how to start doing what I do, which is to cobble together a living on my own terms, by hustling at a bunch of complementary ventures. I told that person to give me a call, that I'd be happy to chat about my approach to business and earning a living, but it got me thinking about the topic in general and what advice I would give someone like himself, looking to start something that they could someday transition to, away from their current work. There are lots of pieces of this, but the thing I kept coming around to, the key, if you will, to the whole thing, is to figure out what your unfair advantage is.
Notice I didn't say passion. Nor did I say calling, or knack, or even opportunity. These are all good things to have, but they are not, in my opinion, as critical to the success or as defining of the direction of your career as determining your unfair advantage.
Your unfair advantage is what you have going for you that most people don't. Maybe that's lots of free time. Maybe that's some money to throw at this thing, or just financial security. Maybe it's a LACK of money or financial security. It can go either way. Maybe it's being the best at what you do (or really good, for all of you who dislike that kind of metric). Maybe it's just being FIRST. Maybe it's that you don't have kids or other expenses, whether by choice or chance. Maybe it's that you have kids to support and expenses to meet. Maybe it's your location in a city where things are popping or in the country where living expenses are low. Maybe it's your previous skillset or knack with understanding how people tick. Maybe it's your parenting or just who your parents are. Maybe it's your network of friends. Maybe it's your ability to express yourself.
Your unfair advantage is unique to you. There is no moral righteousness about it, and it's not worth wishing it were different. It's not what you have for your unfair advantage that matters. It's what you do with it.
The reason knowing your unfair advantage is more critical to success than, say, passion, is because a love of what you do doesn't help the bottom line turn out differently. You are looking for an in, a way to attract and connect with customers, a way to serve their needs (whatever that is) and a way to establish a reputation. You are looking for a way to make the math work in your favor. But for what? Your unfair advantage might have something to say about that.
Imagine you were really into coffee, and dreamed someday of doing your own thing, something to do with coffee. Let's say you are also a rock climber and live and understand that itinerant rock climbing lifestyle. Your unfair advantage, then, is that combination, and it is the obvious thing to do to start a little food truck (or VW bus, and yes, I know this has been done, that's why it's a good example) that you park at the logical place to serve coffee to all the rock climbers as they are coming on or off the wall. Get it? The unfair advantage over everyone else who wants to do their own thing with coffee is that you have the vantage point to see that this would be dope and to have the cred and knowledge to do something about it.
I have several unfair advantages. The easiest one to grasp and the least braggy is my access to premium quality wood. A year and a half ago, a tornado tore through my neighborhood, just as I was starting out carving professionally, dumping about four acres of forest to the ground just out my back door. For me, it is an hour's work to buck up and move into storage a ten foot length of veneer quality cherry, and there's a lot where that came from. So for me, selling blanks is an obvious move (although when I started selling them it was not my own idea and it was not obvious that there would be demand).
Another unfair advantage I have is my location in New England, 3-4 hours from a number of cities, ten minutes off a highway but in a lovely bucolic setting. This was also not premeditated, but it has made it much easier to have students come to me than if I lived in a more rural (or just less central) part of the country. Under those circumstances, I'd probably take my teaching to the masses instead of having people come to me.
Another unfair advantage is that I'm self-employed at this point, although I wasn't always and know what it is to sell your time and autonomy for money. Working for myself entirely means that I am free to schedule things as works for me, although I do need to be mindful of the needs of my wife and children. It could be your unfair advantage, however, to be employed, with the stability and predictability that brings. Unfair advantage is a mindset.
The point is, wherever you are, whatever you have going for you, there are logical choices you can make that will allow you to work for yourself doing something you love. You won't love all of it, all the time. You will probably be surprised at what you are actually doing (never in a million years did I think I'd be doing my particular mix of work). But you can shift things, bit by bit, in the direction you want to pursue. It takes time to get where you want to be.
And so if I was just dreaming about this sort of thing right now, I do what honestly I do every day, on some level: take stock of who you are. Think about where you live, what your strengths and weaknesses and propensities are. Think about how you want to spend your time, and how to serve someone else's needs. Think about how you will convince others you have what they need. Think about what you need to support in your life, and who. Think about what you've got going for you that few others do.
And then leverage that sucker for all it's worth.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.