The Thagomizer

Hustlers Gonna Hustle

By January 28, 2013 4 Comments

I was in Washington, D.C. last weekend, channeling Shannon McGarry’s rage while I searched for a public restroom, when I remembered I was only a few blocks away from the National Mall. There the large behemoths of the Smithsonian Institute sit, forming an oasis of free in an otherwise costly city. I slipped into the Museum of Natural History, knowing I could catch a sight of a thagomizer while taking advantage of the public facilities.

I must have had a radiant glow when I left the museum, having both relieved my bladder and my deep desire to walk among the dinosaurs. My large smile happened to catch the attention of a woman who stopped me. “Hello! I’m with the fun police and we’re just giving out stickers to thank people who are smiling today,” she told me. Now of course this was a hook, a single phrase that would get me to stop the linear progression of my day to chat with her about whatever she was selling. In this case it was a donation to a soup kitchen that provides healthy food to people who are homeless in D.C.

While we talked at length about nutrition and fighting food insecurity – another passion of mine – a truck rode up on the grass behind us. “What are you selling?” the man asked loudly and gruffly to my companion. “I’m just giving out stickers. I’m not selling anything,” she replied. “I don’t know why they’re hassling us,” she said exasperated when the truck pulled away, “You used to be able to do and sell anything you wanted on the mall. You’d see people out here just playing or picnicking, just living, you know? You could buy food, an umbrella, a fan, now none of that’s allowed unless you go into one of those.” She gestured to the institution I had just come from where you can touch a meteorite for free but fries and a hotdog would set you back ten dollars.

Her comment touched on thoughts that had been rattling around in my head for some time. I think in order to transform our economy we have to make it easier for people to exchange. Many of the companies and organizations I discussed in my last post on the sharing economy do just that, but we also need to make it easier for people to buy and sell as well. We need to make it easier for entrepreneurs.

I’m not talking about the same entrepreneurs as our politicians always reference. I’m not talking about the next Bill Gates or Henry Ford. The entrepreneurs I’m talking about are not held in such high esteem; in fact they are often held in contempt, banished from well -to-do places. The entrepreneurs I’m talking about already have another name: hustlers.

In many communities “hustlers” are defined as people who make a living doing something illegal or shady, but I define them as the ultimate go-getters. These are the people who are coming up with enterprising ways to make a buck or two. I think of hustlers as the people who are selling bottles of water at the side of the road, snowballs on a hot day, or candy in a school cafeteria. I think it is also what Girl Scouts do when cookie season comes. It’s the building blocks of entrepreneurship.

But cute Girl Scouts are rarely hassled for their hard work, while many local governments are making it harder and harder for people to start their own mini businesses.  Laws and regulations limit how and where people can sell and tend to favor much larger brick-and-mortar businesses. For instance if you wanted to sell a bottle of water legally in Baltimore you would have to get a business license, then get a license to sell on whatever street you are selling on, followed by a license from the department of health (even if you are not selling food). If all goes well, your licensing will cost you at least $300 and that’s before you can even go out on the street.

Now I know what some will say that doesn’t seem like a lot, that it’s the cost of doing business, that we have to tax them somehow. But let’s go back to the Girl Scouts. Now imagine if the government required each of these young female entrepreneurs to fill out copious amounts of paper work and pay $300 to sell their Girl Scout cookies. Plus they’ve got to pay the whole sale value of the cookies up front. Imagine how many of these micro-businesses would be stopped in their tracks.

With unemployment as high as it is, would it really be terrible to let people create their own jobs? For a relatively small investment and perhaps a little training we could have our neighborhoods thriving with business. Just like the food truck boom has made it easier for people to start their own culinary enterprises, a hustler boom might allow us to take retail to the streets.

Imagine a real-world, more-inclusive Etsy existed on our city streets.  On your way back to work you could get produce for dinner, a gift for your Aunt Sue’s birthday, and your neighbor’s amazing handmade soap. What if all anyone needed to make extra money this weekend was a table, a chair, some baking supplies, a well-walked street, and their grandmother’s cookie recipes? What if we rewarded those people who took such an entrepreneurial initiative instead of stopping them?

Let’s go back to the National Mall. You already have hustlers on the fringes hawking Obama shirts or people in carts selling hot dogs, but what if you could encourage an even greater range of entrepreneurship there. Instead of using regulation to impede all sales, we could use regulation to help micro-enterprises flourish. Sure it would curb the Smithsonian’s DeBeers-esque monopoly on food and tchotchkes but it could employ a greater range of people. What better place than our nation’s capital to play out America’s true favorite pastime: entrepreneurship.

Author Robyn Stegman

Robyn Stegman has always been active in her community and has had the chance to try her hand at many different aspects of social change from preserving historic documents at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library to founding Geeks for Good, an organization that matches nonprofits with tech savvy volunteers. Over the years she has worked with 21 nonprofit organizations to create new websites, marketing materials, campaigns, and programs that help build relationships, empower changemakers, and create strong, vibrant, communities.

More posts by Robyn Stegman

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • What a nice vision of entrepreneurship — simple and right up close to the community served. Yes, rules and regs are in place for a reason (to protect people), but, it does come at the expense of micro or smaller enterprises. It is eye-opening to the uninitiated how expensive starting a brick-and-mortar business can be, and, yes, it can be prohibitive and exclusionary.

    We own a neighborhood grocery. We were/are frugal and our start-up costs clocked in at around the price of one or two luxury vehicles (depending, of course, on what you define as “luxury”). Many people would prefer to spend that money on a luxury item — even one that depreciates — versus the risk and hard work associated with starting a business and the unknown return on investment, either for themselves financially or for their community at large. That’s expected.

    Is it helpful to further distinguish between “micro” and “nano”? I think what you define as “hustlers” would fit the latter — virtually no start up costs or taxable hard assets but absolutely essential to our local economies. I wish more people would just “do it” and start where they are able…yes, physical storefronts are necessary, but so are economically healthy populations who can patronize them.

    Thank you for including my site in the link above!

  • I think your comment is spot on, Katie! Whether micro or nano, grocer or hustler, we’ve got to start making it easier for people to create their own economic way and then we’ve got to go out and make “it” happen, whatever our entrepreneurial vision might be.

  • Juliet Jones says:

    Great insights; I really do believe everyone should have to try opening a business to see how much paperwork (albeit more online now, if you know how to use the Internet) and license fees are required. Some cities have fairly large tax exemptions for small business income but the annual license fees are still high – and this all assumes people are savvy enough to negotiate the Internet and paperwork. Becoming self-employed should be easier – like signing up for a social media account. 🙂 And someone will likely say something about food sales and public safety, but given our industrial food supply – red goo and peanut recalls to name a few issues, that seems like a specious argument to me….

  • […] But one of the major problems I have with this, indeed really the only reason I still carry cash, is the cost to small businesses. One of the valuable qualities of cash is that it can be exchanged anywhere. You can use it to pay for a hot dog on the street, for admission at the door of a concert, or for your baby sitter when you return home that night. Most of these vendors aren’t going to carry around a credit card machine anytime soon. At least in America, accepting credit and debit cards means paying fees on every transaction and buying technology to process it. If your income is limited to electronic payments it can cut out microentreprenuers like my beloved hustlers. […]

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