Discover more from Terri Lonier’s Working Solo
Working Solo @ 30: A dozen shifts in Solopreneurship since the 1990s
Curious how solopreneurship has changed since its beginnings 30 years ago? Join me on a flashback tour in this week’s issue.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of my first book, Working Solo. Join me on this trip through the past to see how being a solopreneur in 2023 is different from being one in 1993.
Home office vs home is your office
In 1993, “home office” was shorthand for the headquarters of a major corporation. When folks learned I was working from a spare room in my home, they were intrigued, then later jealous. Today, working remotely is part of many job negotiations, and many solopreneurs lead nomadic lives, working from anywhere.
The Web, from interesting to essential
The World Wide Web was in its infancy in 1993. Search engines were years away (Google would arrive five years later). Most of the web could be explored in a weekend with Mosaic, the first popular web browser. Internet bandwidth was limited, so most sites only used plain text and links. Today, a web presence—whether a website or on a social platform—is a baseline requirement for solopreneurs.
Access to information, from restricted paper to a digital flood
Analog reference material ruled in 1993: archives, libraries (with their card catalogs), printed directories, and more. Reading books was the main way people learned. Nowadays, we’re flooded with information, from Wikipedia to blogs, full digital libraries and archives, online courses, and millions of how-to YouTube videos.
Floppy disks to the cloud
Data was stored on 3.5-inch disks (encased in a hard plastic shell, although called “floppy” from their flexible 5.25-inch predecessor). We shared data by walking disks from computer to computer (“sneaker net”), passing disks along, or sending them through the mail. Hard drives over 1 GB were rare and cost over $1,000. These days, we don’t think twice about having unlimited cloud storage or automatic backups. And today, you can buy a 128GB thumb drive for $12.
Analog marketing to digital outreach
Back in 1993, marketing meant things like direct mail, printed brochures, and local ads. Imagine waiting days for your message to be delivered! Digital marketing today includes options like email campaigns, newsletters, social media ads, and more, all of which are sent instantaneously.
E-commerce, from a local to global marketplace
In 1993, it was thought to be crazy to type your credit card number into the Internet. Trust a stranger? Jeff Bezos was dreaming up Amazon, which he would launch six months later, and eBay would follow in 1995. In contrast, Forbes reports that more than $6 trillion will be spent online in 2023, and more than 1 in 5 retail purchases will be made via the Internet.
Networking, trading handshakes for digital connections
Back in 1993, most professional connections were made at conferences and meetings. You would trade business cards and then staple the ones you collected to your office's Rolodex contact cards. AOL was thriving, cluttering our mailboxes with hundreds of floppy disks and CD-ROMs pitching to join the network, but it was seen as a non-professional venue. LinkedIn wouldn’t arrive until 2003, Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, and Instagram in 2010. Today these digital forums and other virtual events make networking accessible to solopreneurs anytime, anywhere.
Collaboration, from drawn-out to instant
In 1993, collaboration relied on phone calls, faxes, and in-person meetings. Fax correspondence required that the other party have a fax machine, which was just gaining popularity, and basic units cost around $300-$800. In contrast, collaboration today can happen on a global scale in real-time, over video platforms like Zoom or Google Meet, using digital whiteboards like Miro, via the exchange of marked-up digital files, and more.
Funding options expanded
If you wanted to fund your solo business in the early 1990s, it was largely out of your own pocket because bankers didn’t put much faith in the self-employed. (And if you were a female solopreneur, a husband or other “responsible” male often had to co-sign any loans or credit lines—really!) Today, while most solopreneurs still self-fund their companies, they can also explore crowdfunding, Kickstarter, and other online lending sources.
Software vs platforms
In 1993, we bought software at retail stores in shrinkwrapped boxes containing floppy disks or CD-ROMs, then installed it on our computers. Today SaaS (software as a service) platforms give access to powerful digital tools for free or for a monthly or yearly subscription, with updates to the latest version automatically delivered online.
Programming vs no-code tools
Software programmers in the early 1990s wrote code primarily in C or C++, battling slow internet speeds, restricted bandwidth, and minimal graphic capabilities. Today, no-code tools and clever prompts in AI tools enable even those with limited programming knowledge to craft applications and sites in minutes.
Since we had a limited geographic reach in the early 1990s, finding other solopreneurs was difficult. Email was just growing in popularity, enabling tech-savvy solopreneurs to stay in touch with those we met in online forums like CompuServe, or at conferences or workshops. Today, one of the joys of working solo is being able to connect and collaborate with solopreneurs from around the world.
It was in this social, business, and tech environment that the world of solopreneurship was born. By 1993, I had worked with personal computers for more than a decade, and I saw their potential for individuals like me who wanted to work independently. There also were few guides or other resources to help people start and grow a solo business. In 1991 I outlined a book for creative self-employment, which became Working Solo, published in October 1993. A movement was born—and so much more.
Was it better to be a solopreneur in the early 1990s than today? Without a doubt, I say no. It’s much better today.
Now, I have no regrets. It was thrilling to live through the early personal computer era, with tech breakthroughs inspiring us with exciting potential. But working solo is much more accessible these days. Solopreneurs can learn, connect, market, and thrive in a fully connected digital environment.
While much has changed in the last 30 years, the core principles of working solo have remained. That’s the topic I’ll explore in next week’s edition.
Thanks for being a reader and joining me on the solopreneur journey!
Did I leave anything out? Would you rather have been a solopreneur in past years or now? Which of the 12 stood out to you most? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.