In the May 23, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how “starting a business” can be the path from long-term unemployment to a new job.

Do you have any advice for the long-term unemployed? Since I’m not getting anywhere by job hunting, I’m considering starting a business, if only to keep myself busy! Then I remembered: You wrote somewhere that, in this economy, starting a business might be the best way to get hired. This sounds like a mental puzzle. Can you explain?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

You say this sounds like a mental puzzle, but it really isn’t. You’ve been brainwashed to believe that your objective is to find a job. It’s not. Your objective is to make money and to earn a living. Shift your focus, and you’ll save yourself a lot of agony…

What does it take to start a business? You need a concept, a business plan, the right talent, and evidence that it will work. Ask any venture capitalist: That’s what she looks for before investing.

…To get a business started, you need to demonstrate that it will produce profit. Otherwise, who will give you money? Not investors and not customers. (Whether they realize it or not, this is why employers don’t give out job offers, either. They don’t see the profit.) So, you must bust your buns to produce a sound plan. That’s really what this is all about.

…In the process of producing a plan to start a business, you’ll show how you’d “do the job.” In courting investors and prospective customers, you’ll have proved your concept and yourself. You will have gone a hundred miles beyond the typical job candidate, who sits and answers canned questions with clever answers culled from some book that lists thousands of them.

What’s this got to do with ending long-term unemployment, and getting a job?

The plan is the job. When you deliver your business plan to a savvy prospective customer, to a potential business partner, to an an investor, to a supplier, or even to a competitor, you will find that some of these folks will want to hire you to work for them.

This is how I once landed a job. I shared my plans to start a business with the president of a company that would have been my competitor. (Don’t be surprised—such discussions happen all the time. Smart executives are always glad to meet with up-and-comers. It’s their way of defending their turf.) When he saw how good my plan was, he realized I would be serious competition. Since I’d “figured out the business,” that made me worth hiring. There was no job interview, just the discussion of my business plan. I planned this from the start, but the company president never figured that out. I made a lot of money for that guy—and for myself.

(…Sorry, but you must subscribe to the newsletter to get the entire “Answer” and commentary in the newsletter… Don’t wait til next week… Sign up now… it’s free!)

(Don’t wrinkle your nose or shake your head, just because this suggestion is foreign to your notions of what job hunting is. Remember? They’re not giving out jobs. So, why worry whether this is “proper job hunting?”)

People wind up long-term unemployed in this economy for many reasons. One step out of this quandary is realizing that you must be able to show how you’ll make money and profit — so, get to work starting a business. Formulate a plan — it can be a very simple one — and shop it around. Do you really think a resume would be more impressive?

Tired of being unemployed? Hire yourself. Or threaten to. A competitor might hire you first. Can a business plan really get you hired?


  1. Excellent advice. This is what I did. I spent 9 months looking for a job and realized it was not going to happen, so I sat back and developed a business plan for my consulting practice, rebranded myself and am now thoroughly engrossed in developing my business. It’s too early to tell how well I will do financially, although its much better than looking for a job.

  2. “You need to demonstrate that it will produce profit. Otherwise [customers will not give you money].” Sorry Nick but you must be living in la-la-land. On the contrary customers (esp. corporate ones) are always happy to negotiate deals that will put you of business. Why? Because they figure that for every schmoe they drive up against the wall and eviscerate there’ll be ten more willing to take his place. That’s how the world works, man.

  3. Nick,

    Great article today about “long term unemployed” and starting a business.
    Completely agree with your straight forward logical approach.
    Landing the job should be viewed in the context of the entrepreneur selling
    the Venture Capitalist on the business plan however in this case the
    business plan is the individual’s skills and the ROI you’re putting forth is
    the compensation proposed in return for the revenue you’ll generate, save or
    some combination of the two. If you can’t justify the proposal to yourself
    before you go to the interview don’t bother. Your time would be better spent
    doing more research to find the right fit ….a company’s talent needs and
    your skills then you’ll be able to go on interviews with confidence and a
    solid game plan to demonstrate why you’d make for a very good investment for
    the firm! And just think of all the skills you’ll be demonstrating in the
    process….effective market research, identifying competitive vulnerability,
    quantifying the cost of the problem and the solution, presentation skills in
    persuasively and succinctly articulating problem, cause, solution, and

    Great stuff as usual Nick.

  4. @Olivier: I get your point, but I don’t agree with you. Just because customers behave stupidly doesn’t mean you have to follow them into the abyss. Competing on price has never been a good long-term strategy unless you have a million SKUs, wide distribution, and tons of customers — so that volatility in any subset of those factors isn’t fatal. I’m not interested in being part of “the world.” I want to be the unique “vendor” that a certain subset of customers can’t live without.

  5. “What does it take to start a business? You need a concept, a business plan, the right talent, and evidence that it will work. Ask any venture capitalist: That’s what she looks for before investing.”

    First things first, Nick: thanks for implying that women have venture capital! I actually know a few women like that, and they’re very smart and very careful.

    Having started a sole proprietorship that lasted 21 years and went through several reincarnations, I think you missed a critical first step.

    The very first thing one needs to do is conduct an honest, in-depth self-assessment to discover all strengths and weaknesses that might come into play. Then find a concept that takes the results into account, and follow up with the rest.

    The better the fit (between results and concept), the more successful the enterprise is likely to be. After all, self-employment is one of the hardest – and, potentially, one of the most rewarding – ventures, and the happiest (and healthiest) business owner is the one who has played to the most strengths and eliminated as many of the weaknesses as possible from the day-to-day operation.

    Thanks, as always, Nick for putting such great information out there and for being open to discussion on everything.

  6. @Nick You do agree with me, then. I was protesting your assumption that customers are always fair and reasonable (that’s how the article is written, even though now you are admitting that only some of them are); for my part I certainly don’t agree you should give in to such tactics but you will encounter them disturbingly often and you better have a plan.

    “I want to be the unique “vendor” that a certain subset of customers can’t live without.” Yes and likewise you also advise us in column after column to deal only with a certain subset of employers but you never address the fact that this blessed subset is a tiny minority. I am sorry but assuming ideal conditions or (much the same thing) that you can afford to deal only with the fairest of the bunch is not useful advice because it doesn’t scale: statistically only a handful of us will succeed in implementing that flight-to-the-top advice. What about all the others: should they just admit they’re losers and end their sorry lives by jumping off a cliff? They, too, need strategies; call them fall-back strategies if that makes you feel better.

    “I’m not interested in being part of “the world.”” That’s the rub indeed since most of us have to live in that world.

    Sorry for the long post but I’ve had these objections to your advice in the back of my mind for a long time and the bit about the nice customers who unfailingly have your best interests at heart (again, that’s how it came across) was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

  7. Nick,
    You held short of one important ‘how-to’. Want a job? Start a Company. When shopping that business plan, to whom do you shop it?

    Why not run it by the CEO’s of your target companies? Top 3 or 5 potential employers. People like to give advice. Even CEO’s.

    By sharing your business plan with them, you get personal contact, and completely shift the context of your meeting. If you demonstrate value, and are able to establish a working rapport with the CEO, what you’re really doing is demonstrating how you’ll create profit.

    Might you (or they) be able to convert that to creating profit for their organization? If you can’t secure financing, but they thought the plan was reasonable…how far is that from an invitation to a job?

    You obviously have to be genuine in your effort, and your approach. But it completely shifts the notion of applying for a job, if done properly.

  8. Do use some caution with this approach if you are currently collecting unemployment benefits. In Washington (the only state I’ve been unemployed in), “working in self-employment” will jeopardize those benefits, whether you’re making any money or not.
    I can imagine I see the sense in it, as the unemployment insurance system is funded only by employees, not by solo entrepreneurs, but it can be a frustrating hurdle on an already challenging path.

  9. @Olivier: I don’t pretend my advice is for everyone. My purpose is not to help everyone find a job. That’s impossible — everyone’s case is unique. But there’s a fundamental mechanism that drives every “employment.” Profit. If there isn’t any, the employment ends. Someimtes sooner than later. I’ve seen people doing unprofitable work for years — their employers don’t get it, and neither do they.

    The profit motive is what I try to teach. Not greed. Profit. You put something in, you do something to it, and something greater comes out. What you do in the middle is what counts.

    “statistically only a handful of us will succeed in implementing that flight-to-the-top advice”

    If you’re going to focus on statistics, then you will likely fail. I don’t know many worthy endeavors where the odds of success are better than 50%. (Having a baby in the U.S. is one of them.) We’re always fighting odds, so why worry about them? Find the problem, work out a solution, and go present it.

    “you never address the fact that this blessed subset is a tiny minority”

    I think I talk about that all the time, if indirectly, but it’s implied in almost everything I write. Just as there are few job hunters who will walk into a manager’s office and present a real solution, there are few managers who will recognize what that means.

    I think the Ask The Headhunter audience is small and very smart. If it were big, I’d be very wealthy.

    “What about all the others: should they just admit they’re losers and end their sorry lives by jumping off a cliff?”

    I don’t pretend I can help everyone.

  10. @J.L. Jarvis: Thanks for saying it very nicely in another way.

    @Job Hunt Guy: If your new business is making money, it’s probably smarter to feed that and grow it, than to worry about unemployment benefits. With unemployment benefits, there’s no chance for growth at all, right? And the point is to get off the dole, right? ;-)

  11. @Nick I know you consider yourself as an advisor to the job-seeking elite but in the context of this particular blog post I still disagree that statistics don’t matter. A regular employee only has to find one rare bird and he is all set for years but a business owner or consultant will, by necessity, deal with many customers over time and then statistics *will* apply. Even if he is himself a rare bird and capable of executing your strategy he will have his share of jerks and scoundrels among his customers: he can’t assume, as you did in your post, that they will all be the cream of the cream. When you deal with enough people there’s always some dross.

  12. @Olivier: I don’t consider myself an advisor to the “job-seeking elite.” I offer advice to anyone who is interested. I don’t know what you mean by elite, but I sense a pejorative tone. You’re welcome to your opinions, but please don’t put words in my mouth to make your point.

    There’s no difference between employment and running a business when it comes to encountering jerks. People encounter jerks on the job, and among their customers, and among their vendors. I’m not sure at all what your point is, except that you believe you have to deal with jerks. Everyone does. We’re all on a level playing field in that regard. No one is talking about some magic tableau where there are no jerks, and therefore certain ideas and methods for doing business work better than others.

    Statistics can be applied usefully nomothetically, not idiographically. That is, every situation and person is unique. Statistics describe a population, not an individual. You could give me a roomful of people that includes 50 jerks. I can’t reasonably conclude that a random person is a jerk, can I? It’s simply not worth making a judgment in that case, based on statistics — if what you need to do is assess that one individual.

  13. Nick, this intriguing discussing reminds me of a recent conversation that I had with a friend. He told me about a corporate guy he knew who was laid off. After becoming frustrated with trying to “find” a job, he went and shined shoes on K St. in Washington, D.C. (the business district) “He told me that he came home with $300 in cash on some days. And he routinely meets people who might be able to help him.”

    Some couldn’t understand why this man would do such work. But for me, this was an excellent example of entrepreneurship and networking rolled into one. No resumes. No LinkedIn profile. No mass-mailing of resumes. Just a hard-working attitude and a unique way to talk shop and/or meet others without pretenses.

    I’ve also never understood the phrase, “losing a job.” How can you lose what you never owned in the first place? :)

  14. @Nick I did not mean elite in a pejorative sense but it is constricting. As for “No one is talking about some magic tableau”, as I have argued that was pretty much the assumption in the original post when you wrote (without caveats) that [all] customers want you to make money. But I think we are on the same wavelength now.

  15. Nick & Oliver-is this really the place for a P*ssing Match? Oliver, we know you know big words. We get it. Nick, this is your forum, so don’t sully it with this type of nonsense.

  16. @Sherilynn: What p*ssing match? Nonsense? I don’t see anything that’s been sullied. Oliver had some good points to make and contributed to a good dialogue. As for big words, I trust people have dictionaries. I love it when someone teaches me a new word. I don’t think anyone here is trying to impress others with vocabulary.