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The British Are Now a Nation of 'Side-Business' Shopkeepers

04/12/2015 22:45 GMT | Updated 03/12/2016 10:12 GMT

The phrase 'a nation of shopkeepers' to describe Great Britain is commonly (and incorrectly) attributed to French empire builder Napoleon Bonaparte when, decades earlier, it was Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations magnum opus, who coined the phrase.

While Napoleon was mocking Britain's lack of preparedness for war, Smith was describing and defining an economic philosophy based on, among other things, the value of micro-entrepreneurs to the macro-economic health of the free market.

We all know what happened to Napoleon; Adam Smith would appear to still be with us.

Fast forward several centuries and it seems that we are all a global community of online shopkeepers, albeit alongside our regular employment. Some of us have several businesses at one time, a trend that will continue over the coming years.

Perhaps that's inevitable. The proliferation of smartphones and mobile connectivity means that more of us congregate online and at the same time there are no shortage of service providers making it easy for us to capitalise on our growing digital appetites.

Digital technology is lowering the barriers and risks to setting up a side-business. Micro-entrepreneurs can get up and running at a fraction of the cost and complexity that existed even five years ago.

The rise and rise of small-time sellers on ebay, Amazon and etsy is well documented; some of them should have their own queue at the Post Office when dispatching their goods. More recently the poster boys of the sharing economy Uber and Airbnb have given users the simple means to set up 'on the side'.

A recent report by ecommerce platform provider, SelzThe Side Business Phenomena recently surveyed working-age adults in the UK, US and Australia and found that an average of 16% were actively engaged in a side-business.

Moreover 42% of those surveyed said that were 'thinking about' setting up a side-business and almost six out of ten people were either 'working the side' or thinking of doing so.

The rewards and market are certainly there. Side-business owners are working on their projects an average of 14.5 additional hours per week and earning an average £16K per year in additional income, while 12% of the respondents are adding more than £49K to their annual income.

While selling singular things peer-to-peer such as a car ride or a bed for the night are on the micro side of such businesses, the most entrepreneurial are selling things that are scalable - such as digital products and services - and unlocking more revenue.

"One of the clearest trends we're seeing is the productisation of services, where the resulting product is digital. For example, a nutritionist who once provided face-to-face consultations can now turn their experience into an eBook or a tutorial video.

"This massively scales the addressable audience for these entrepreneurs and blurs the line between services and purely digital products," said report author and Selz CEO Martin Rushe.

What's also interesting is people's motivations. Adam Smith maintained that it was the economic self-interest of the emerging middle class - the shopkeeper - that was helping to drive the nebulous free market.

Nowadays it seems that it's equally likely that people are motivated to set up as a micro-entrepreneur because they want to do something that they love; class is immaterial. When questioned about motivations to start a side-business, the most frequent answer in the survey (57%) was 'to make more money'.

But money wasn't the only reason, with 45% specifying 'to do something that I love'. In other words, personal fulfillment is closing in on the simple and singular pursuit of generating more money - the daily grind.

"I believe people are increasingly finding the promise of happiness through material wealth doesn't deliver. Working in the Rat Race so you can buy more stuff hasn't made us happy. Whereas doing something you enjoy, which engages and fulfils you, does," adds Selz's Rushe.

People no longer expect to be in the same job for years, let alone for life. At the same time, work patterns are changing. Technology has no doubt freed up the way we choose to work. New mobile technologies mean that large sections of any given industry are always connected and able to work flexible hours or on flexible contracts.

Cut that flexibility with the opportunity to set up a side business and perhaps in the years to come, personal entrepreneurialism, which balances making money with personal fulfillment will be the defining trend of modern work patterns.

Napoleon, and Adam Smith for that matter, would surely approve.