Self Employment for Bohemians


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I was fifteen minutes from reporting to my first day of work as a minimum wage dishwasher early one evening in June, 1979. It was my first summer living out of my mom and dad’s house. Things had started well enough—my intention was to sell wholesale T-Shirt printing services, pumping out the jobs myself on a freelance basis.

The first week, I sold a gross of shirts to a local pub, making a gross of dollars. Considering that rent for my summer sublet was all of $60.00 per month, I felt flush! But I hit the wall after that. Despite hanging flyers all over Amherst and environs (including the enormous University of Massachusetts campus), the fact was that my client base (dorms, student clubs, and the like) had departed for the summer and no one was buying. Having spent most of my last $20.00 on a book that caught my eye (I’d convinced myself that this was practical through some alchemical equation), I was ready to throw in the towel, and signed on for a dishwasher job on campus.

UMass hosted an odd assortment of conventions, seminars and crackpot camps in an attempt to pay the bills over the slow summer season. I was to be washing dishes in the campus dining commons for a group of several hundred Transcendental Meditation practitioners from the west coast who were convening a seminar on levitation. I did mention it was the Seventies, right?

I was filled with despair at the bleak prospect of washing dishes. I’d done my time as a dishwasher at a fast food steak house in high school where I was required to wear a polyester cowboy outfit. I had no desire to return to the low rent glory of the dishwashing pit.

At fifteen minutes to the 7:00 pm diswashing shift, a bolt of lightning struck. Of an instant, a fully formed scam literally sprang out of absolutely nowhere and announced itself to me. The underlying message was clear: YOU ARE NOT TO REPORT TO THE DISHWASHING JOB!

I’d recalled that an acquaintance, Sue, who worked in the campus center building, had mentioned to me that she had a list of groups who were holding events in the concourse of the campus center that summer. Sue had actually produced a list of the events for me. She assured me, if I was to set up and sell T-Shirts at these events, she would look the other way; not charge me for the space. It seemed risky and a bit scurrilous, and I’d forgotten about it until fourteen minutes to dishwashing.

It was a Thursday evening, and that very weekend, the New England Camera Club was hosting their annual convention in the campus center. I determined that I would grace the show with their official (bootleg) t-shirt. The first problem to conquer was lack of capital. I knew where I could score some blank shirts for a dollar a pop, which I could print and mark up to the princely sum of four bucks, but since I was down to $3.00 on hand, it didn’t seem much of a plan. If I had a hundred bucks, I could buy a hundred shirts and turn it into four hundred over the course of the weekend, enough to finance a month of summer living!

Did I mention it was the Seventies? Very fortunate, as it turns out you could hitchhike anywhere in New England back then within the course of a few hours, a day tops.

I elected my mom as financier and was on the road by five minutes to seven with my thumb up. As my folks lived about 70 miles away, I figured I’d get there just before the summer night settled in. I got a ride out of Amherst towards the western burbs of Boston just about the time my dishwashing shift supervisor probably started wondering where the hell I was. Okay, so mom definitely raised an eyebrow at the plan, but recognized my desperation and fronted the bucks. By early Friday afternoon, I was back in Amherst at my drawing board putting together a cute little cartoon logo featuring a guy who had a camera for a head. Somehow I managed to rustle up the blank shirts and get them all printed by eleven that evening.

The next day, I set up bright and early on the campus concourse with a table that Sue scrounged up for me (she was slightly horrified that I’d actually taken her up on her offer!). By noon I’d made Mom’s stake back, and was up to $250.00 by the end of the first day. By just past noon on Sunday, I hit about $430.00 (having managed to get the shirts for .89, I had a few over 100 pieces).

At that point, an obnoxious fifteen year old (who had been flirting with me earlier) returned. With an attitude of scorn and derision, she asked if these were the official New England Camera Club T-Shirts? I said that indeed they were! A pale and disheveled fifty year old sad sack with caved in shoulders stepped forward and introduced himself as the president of said club. I handed him the four remaining shirts, and barked “Here’s your cut!". I was breaking down the table over his protests and briskly walking it back to the storage bay that Sue had plucked it from the day before. Table tucked away, I smiled at the Pres. and thanked him profusely. Then I turned on my heel and ran close to four minute mile pace back to my flat, a remorseless 22 year old flush with success!

Now I admit that I’d pulled a fast one on that guy, but I am hardly the only college kid to ever make a quick bundle of cash bootlegging a few T’s. The moral of the story, such as it is, goes like this: If you’ve got the BoHo self employment stuff, you know it, because you have an anecdote or two a lot like this. Normal, sensible, thoughtful people do not take risks like this, they do not engage in such brazen behavior. They want “security"! You and me, we’ll take the risk any day… for those who prefer the living death of the secure government job and pension, they can have it!

Is BoHo Self Employment for You?

Are you an insubordinate scalawag who hates being a cog in a hierarchical organization? Do you enjoy simple accounting? Then BoHo self employment may be the designer lifestyle of choice for you.

I was a paperboy from the age of thirteen until I was fifteen. I wasn’t particularly ambitious about adding new customers, nor was I the best accountant/enforcer I coulda been, but I was conscientious and punctual about getting slightly over forty households their morning Springfield Union for two years.

I really enjoyed the earnings—at first, it enabled my Marvel Comics habit, which transformed into an album buying binge when I got a bit old for superhero comics. Finally, at the grand old age of fifteen, the gig supported important early forays into the enticing worlds of beer and weed! I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but apparently having a paper route is a good indicator that you may have the right stuff for entrepreneurship. That may well be true, but the ultimate test is probably more like this: Have you ever been hired for a job (probably one you desperately needed) only to find yourself really depressed at the prospect of looming indentured servitude? Yes? Now there is a swell indicator that you have the right stuff for entrepreneurship!

Okay, that’s only part of it. Where lies you passion? Do you obsess over something that can translate into a product or service? Can you see yourself building a business around this passion, this obsession? If you have an intense focus, if you naturally bend your will to doing something about it, bingo! You are ready to put yourself in the driver’s seat in your life. Lemme warn you though, you are in for one hell of a bumpy ride. You gotta want it BAD! You will know: You are literally compelled to work for yourself.

Seriously, it is easier for most normal humans to just get a job and have a hobby on the side. Stare yourself down hard, look in your heart and do a gut check. Ready? OK, let’s go! Disclaimer! I can only tell you about my experience, what has worked for me. Take what resonates with you and dump the rest. I am no business genius, but I am very canny about producing an income for myself. I have been able to do so in adverse circumstances. In the midst of the devastating recession of the early 80’s, fresh out of college with an ART degree (not a lot of hiring going on there!), I created a job for myself out of thin air (more about that in a bit. ) Right now, at the age of 47, I’m running a business that grosses about $130,000 a year. It pays me about 35K, and my two part time workers last year made a total of about 21K between them. Mind you, I’m working an average of about 30 hours a week… part of my pay I take in TIME. Say what? That’s right, I pay myself in time to do what I want. That’s the BOHO part. According to my handy American Heritage Dictionary, Bohemian is defined thusly: “A writer or artist who disregards conventional standards of behavior".

I’m an artist as well as a businessman, so I’ve always been willing to trade potential earnings for time to do what ever the heck I want. In my case, I write and draw “literary" graphic novels. Yes, I make some money from the comics too, but not enough to keep the wolf away from the door. I’ve managed to keep myself employed during three serious economic downturns since I got out of college. I’ve been able to buy a house (I went in on it with my wife and sister in law, a very economic way to buy real estate). By virtue of re-investing a lot of my earnings back into my business, I pay pretty darn low taxes.

I’m no Donald Trump (thank god!), but I’m reasonably content with the job I’ve created for myself.

Steve Lafler is a self employed cartoonist and screen printer. His most recent graphic novel is SCALAWAG, from Top Shelf Productions.


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