Hanging Out a Shingle

As companies downsize, ship jobs to far-off lands, and rein in spending, the prospects for employment—not just for liberal arts majors, but for everyone—seem grimmer than usual. Many downsized professionals these days are, as they used to say in the old west, “hanging out a shingle.” The phrase refers to a time when doctors and lawyers would open a practice in some frontier town and make a simple sign for their door using a shingle.  Today “hanging out a shingle” means going into business for oneself, combining imagination and an entrepreneurial spirit to start a new venture.

One such venture I learned about yesterday is “60 Second Recap,” online synopses of books aimed at high school students, primarily, to introduce them to what they’ll find on the pages of great books.  Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, East of Eden, and Crime and Punishment are just a few of the titles recapped in 60-second video clips summarizing the plot, introducing the “cast,” featuring star characters, and more.  The goal is to connect prospective readers to the book, to whet their appetites. 

Who uses it?  Teachers, librarians, reading groups, students and, I’m assuming, people who are just curious.

Who started it?  An English major.

Why?  To help bring reluctant readers into the pages of great books because, as it says on their web site, “You won’t get non-readers to read by forcing them to read more. You’ll get them to read by opening their eyes to the marvels awaiting them between the covers of that homework assignment.”

And just yesterday, I met an enterprising individual whose business is to help families capture and preserve their own histories.  Combing through diaries, photos, vacation receipts, government documents, letters and whatever else the family has amassed—as any good historical researcher would do—he then creates and publishes the stories of many unsung heroes.  For money.

What does it take to start a business like either of these?  Imagination—that is, coming up with an idea for something someone needs.  Energy—to do the work needed to get underway and fan the embers of success into full flames.  Resourcefulness—to find one’s way through all the hoop-jumping state and federal governments require to start a business.  Nerve—to take the risks needed to start such a venture. 

Hanging out a shingle may not be for everyone.  But it is not the exclusive domain of business students or graduates of some trendy entrepreneur certificate program.  We were creating and launching new businesses in this country long before there were how-to entrepreneurship programs in colleges.  All it really takes is a genuine interest in offering a product or service that you’re relentlessly enthusiastic about.

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