What Motivates People To Start Boring Businesses?

Why? Why?

I wonder what motivates people to start companies that make or provide boring stuff. What causes a person to devote decades of their life to an organisation that manufactures soap or installs archive shelving? It doesn't surprise me that people take boring jobs: everybody needs a job and most jobs are boring. But what makes a person suddenly think "What I really want to do with my life is run a squeegee company"?

Maybe what they really think is "I want to make more money and avoid taking orders, and the only business I really know anything about is the squeegee business. I am resigned to the fact that I must spend my life doing boring things. Instead of just working at a factory that makes squeegees, I'm going to start a factory of my own. It'll be boring and pointless. But I will make more money, and I will have no boss."

My incomprehension is probably typical of Swedish middle-class culture. I don't particularly need money, because I despise conspicuous consumption and most of my family's needs beyond housing and subsistence are covered by the public sector. My kids don't have trust funds, for instance. Uni tuition is free and state study loans are favourable. My main career priorities are fun, intellectual satisfaction and academic recognition, neither of which a chain of stationery stores would be likely to provide.

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I recently bought a very nice squeegee to replace my old unambitious (and dried up) model. Happy that there are people out there who dedicate their careers to inventing a better mouse trap!

Maybe different people find different things boring?

I know quite a few people who'd consider spending days on end brushing away dirt in a trench to be utterly soul-killing, for example, yet you seem to enjoy it... :)

What you miss - and many people realise - is that pretty much _any_ job has its fun parts and its boring ones. Being a circus artist still entails cleaning out elephant poop; being a sewage worker means knowing secret tunnels and passages. Both work in tight-knit groups of people that become your friends over the years.

What makes a job good or bad is the people you work with, the atmosphere, the control you have over your tasks and responsibilities. The contents of the job is almost entirely irrelevant. And if you're the boss, you are the one to decide on all those things that make a job good.

And it's much easier to make a living in a field if it seems boring or low status (so few people want to do it); or difficult or restricted (so few people can do it). If you know you can be happy in any job, and you need to decide what will most likely be a success, do you a) start a boy band; b) a Spanish sunken galleon recovery service; or c) a squeegee manufacturing business?

The possibility of being one's own boss is a powerful lure for many people, enough to take the risk inherent in starting a business. The money is nice if they get it, but that tends to involve a fair amount of luck.

I know some people who play the venture capital game in the US. Even the most successful ones expect to lose their entire investment nine times out of ten--the one that succeeds more than makes up for the others.

Having a social safety net may actually encourage people to take such risks, because they know they can afford to fail. In the US, bankruptcy laws are structured to allow business owners to walk away with their personal finances mostly intact if the business fails (this provision is sometimes abused: see Trump, Donald). Countries where you can expect to lose everything if the business fails are likely to see much less risk-taking.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Jul 2016 #permalink

Hey, I've thought about that many times, and I probably reach a different answer every time.

I think your reasoning is leaving aside other factors, both economic and motivational.

On the one hand you can also be motivated by factors such as having a better squeegee design, no manufacturer wants to try your idea and you want to prove it, or the easiest path for you to grow (which depends on many other factors) and potentially make more money is to start your own factory.

The economic factors have to do with high demand (you can benefit from it) or high prices (you can compete with a lower price), or even a need (you think you can satisfy it).

It is not like you get swamped by the thought of doing a boring thing, but rather that you face interesting challenges and opportunities, and then you take risks to solve a problem, it turns out one of those risks might be ending up doing a boring thing, but that might be the least of them. Many are not successful, but many more will never try. I'm definitely grateful for all those who have tried.

By Edgar Acosta (not verified) on 28 Jul 2016 #permalink

As the sewage treatment engineer once said to my undergraduate class during a visit to a sewage treatment works: "It might be shit to you, but it's my bread and butter."

In truth, sewage treatment processes are technically interesting and challenging, although the subject matter is stomach-turning. The reality is that one of the major contributions to increased life expectancy is modern sanitation; probably far more than modern medicine. People, real technical experts, definitely need to be engaged in it. It's just not a subject for interesting conversation around the dinner table. To my surprise, it was one of the subjects that I found to be the most technically interesting as an undergraduate.

One of the hardest things to do is to design a sewage treatment plant for an international airport - the designer needs to design for the greatest range of pathogens and parasites imaginable. It is widely regarded as the most difficult challenge in the field.

But you don't hear 10 year old boys saying they want to get into sewage treatment when they grow up. No, they want to be like Indiana Jones. But if they want to make a real contribution to societal well being and keeping the environment liveable, the reality is they would do far more good being involved in sewage treatment.

You need to be crazy to start a small business in Australia. 90% of new small enterprises go bankrupt, and there (unlike the USA) bankruptcy means losing all of your personal finances, without the safety nets that exist in Scandinavian countries. (If the Trumpeter conducted business in Australia the way he has in the USA, he would be in prison by now. But of course, he would be mindful of the relevant regulatory system, and would not do so.) When asked why they want to run their own small business, the overwhelming majority of people say they want to be their own boss. Almost none say they want to do it to make lots of money; the reality is that very few do make a decent living out of it.

I don't know, but imagine, that people who invent better squeegees are frustrated window cleaners who think "I can come up with something that will do this better and easier." If they do so, and subsequently make a handsome living manufacturing and selling their invention, no doubt they have a real sense of achievement. Having spent far more of my life than I ever wanted to cleaning my mother's windows, I thank them.

By John Massey (not verified) on 28 Jul 2016 #permalink

I have just been reminded of 'Sturgeon's Revelation', now commonly labelled 'Sturgeon's Law', which states that "90% of everything is crap." By 'everything', it means all things produced by humans - arts, science, manufactured goods - literally everything. By 'crap' it means rubbish of no worth to anyone.

Theodore Sturgeon, an American SF writer, apparently originally stated this in defence of the Science Fiction genre, against critics who stated that 90% of SF is crap. His response was that 90% of everything is crap, and in this respect SF is no different as a field of human endeavour from any other.

Which, if true, and I incline to believe that it is not too far of the mark, most of what most people do is crap, and not worth doing; further, the world would be a better place if they didn't bother trying to do it.

But then, if not producing crap, what would they do?

I was further reminded of the stark contrast between supermarkets in America (which are mind-boggling in terms of range of products and consumer choice) and to a lesser extent in Australia, and those in Sweden where, Martin informs me, the shopper might be presented with a choice of perhaps five different kinds of hair shampoo, rather than the vast array presented to the shopper in America or Australia.

My first experience of an American supermarket is when my wife and I were holidaying on the Hawaiian Island of Maui; we had rented a car, and were driving ourselves around. My wife said she needed to get some stuff, shampoo or whatever, so I drove her to the nearest supermarket, a huge barn of a place, and the first thing that hit my astonished gaze was a whole long row filled with nothing but different kinds of breakfast cereal. It was truly astonishing. I have never seen so many different brands and varieties of breakfast cereal in my life. I have little doubt that, in terms of food value/good nutrition, the large majority were little better than 'crap in a box', but what they are doing is catering to customer demand. Or do they create the customer demand by dreaming up ever more types of stuff to pour milk on and eat for breakfast? I suspect it's a circular argument.

Meanwhile, I see that Swedish company IKEA has just had to remove four different kinds of chocolate flavoured spreads for putting on bread from the shelves of their stores in Hong Kong because they lack the required labelling warning people of possible nut allergies - so Swedish companies are not totally immune from this relentless drive towards more and more diversity in consumer product lines. First there was Nutella, and then...

Like Martin, I am also disdainful of conspicuous consumption, and this consumer demand for ever more diversity in consumer goods seems to be a part of that. 'I feel better because I use this special shampoo that...blah blah blah whatever...' Well, not me, because I don't have enough hair left to give a damn. But it should be possible, in the best of all possible worlds, to come up with, say, half a dozen different kinds of shampoo that suit everybody's requirements (dry hair, oily hair, in my case no hair, or whatever) and cut out all of the waste involved in churning out ever more different kinds of shampoo with ever more dubious claims about prevention of hair loss, restoration of gleaming shininess, and whatever else the shampoo manufacturers claim.

Slightly strangely, Hong Kong people went through a phase of conspicuous consumption, and then grew out of it. From the early 1970s through the 1990s, Hong Kong changed rapidly from Third World grubby working class to First World wealth and modernity, and evolved very demanding consumers with newly acquired amounts of disposable income. At first, this spawned an era of conspicuous consumption; but then, people seemed to get over that, and now regard conspicuous consumption as something disgusting. Wearing designer label clothing and carrying a designer label handbag went from being highly desirable to being spurned as tasteless showing off in a relatively short period of history. In an odd way, I think piracy and fakes helped with this process - when you could not tell whether someone was carrying a genuine Gucci handbag or some cheap knock-off, the perceived social benefit of paying for the genuine article fell to zero, because everyone would assume you were carrying a cheap fake.

The change to spurning conspicuous consumption tracked the increase in environmental awareness pretty closely. Concern about the environment definitely played some part in this demolition of culture of conspicuous consumption.

By John Massey (not verified) on 29 Jul 2016 #permalink

By the way, if you ever do go to Maui, do yourself a favour - rent a car and drive up Haleakalā. It's an absolute blast. Inside the crater looks like some hellish vision from another planet. But take something warm to wear while up there, and walk, don't run - there is not too much oxygen up there.

By John Massey (not verified) on 29 Jul 2016 #permalink

It appears that someone from Hudiksvall has been trying to research me on the Internet, using Swedish Google.

I am here. If you have questions, ask.

By John Massey (not verified) on 30 Jul 2016 #permalink

What makes you think that squeegees are boring? It sounds like a fascinating business. There are squeegees for use at home, squeegees for professional window washers, squeegees for chemical control, and probably for a lot of other things I don't know about. The science of how they work is pretty amazing given how little we know about water.

Boredom is where you find it. I remember reading an interview with an East German physics PhD who was hired by P&G shortly after the wall came down. He had never heard of P&G or disposable diapers, but he built an interesting career out of it. He probably learned a bit of chemistry too. Kolmogorov, the Soviet mathematician who axiomatized probability, did important work on lubrication for various state enterprises.

Soap making is surprisingly tricky. I know people who make soap for sale at fairs and markets, and getting something useful and aesthetically satisfying can be tricky. An artisanal soap maker can afford a few flaws in the product, like bubbles, for example, that a large scale soap maker cannot.

Installing archive shelving is pretty amazing. I mean, who installs archive shelving? Libraries, museums, collectors, sellers and probably others. They have space constraints, preservation and access requirements, environmental constraints and a budget. Sometimes the constraints might seem contradictory. The University of British Columbia has their specimen archive shelves on public display, so they need to be accessible, but impervious to visitors.

It's hard to get bored if you use your imagination.