Overthinking Steve


The poster invites us to learn how to set up our own business during a two day event in Berlin. Just like Steve. Steve is a beautiful young man with a confident smile and great hair. He looks out towards his future. Someone changed the phrase “start up like Steve” to “end up like Steve”.

What triggered me to take this photo had something to do with running your own business as a choice versus starting a business as a necessity. Let me try and untangle my thoughts.

I’ve been a freelance writer for over two decades by choice. I chose not to have a regular wage, to forego the security of getting paid for sick days or holidays, and to work from home or a flex desk and not be surrounded by the same colleagues every day. In the Netherlands, this has become a bad thing. Politicians, unions and “opinion makers” in the media call us vulnerable and parasites, demand we insure ourselves the traditional way, set up a pension the traditional way – and then reduce our rates and tax benefits. There is a trend to “unentrepreneur” us. The weird thing is that at the freelancer’s image drops, startups have become the innovation fantasy of large organisations and public officials.

Side note. I am used to people being confused about freelancing as a way to earn money. I have been asked if I can make a living writing, or what my husband does to allow me to do the work I love. Once, on a business trip, a man in a suit asked me the “does it earn you a living wage”-question, and he got angry when I replied “I just bought a house in the center of Amsterdam, so yeah”. He refused to speak to me after that.

Back to the poster. A start-up used to mean a young business that wants to earn money with technology, Silicon Valley style. Over the last 10 years though, the term ‘start-up’ has been transformed to mean a any technology-driven business run by young people who are not on the payroll. I once asked a prominent public figure the difference between freelancers and start-ups. He said that freelancers cannot innovate, they just do the work that’s already there. Secretaries, hairdressers, copywriters…. He genuinely believed we were glorified temps. Poor man. And poor us, because that way of thinking put recruitment in the hands of purchasing managers that drive down our rates.

The sad thing is that the meaning of “start-up” is shifting once again. Starting a business has become a necessity for a lot of people, because it is so hard for them to get the actual jobs they do want. Sure, young people can get traineeships: working for pittance for a year or two as a reward for finishing years of education. And even if they do get a job, employment contracts are for 6-12 months only. Setting up business is more often than not a last attempt to earn anything at all, to work on skills and build some continuity. More often than not, a start-up now is what you do when you can’t get the job you wanted.

And that is what this edited version of the poster means to me. Setting up your own business should be the end of your goal, not the beginning. A choice, not a necessity. A thought increasingly alien in our Dutch society, that only values Ltd. companies and multinationals.

Yes, I’m probably overthinking this. Perhaps whoever wielded the black marker meant setting up your own business will be the end of you. Perhaps. Regardless, I wish you all the best, fictional Steve. Hope you’ll do well in whatever you choose.