I had a fairly close relationship with the CEO of one of these companies. The "rich" part never happened for him, because the bubble burst, although thankfully the company is still in business.
I had a conversation with this CEO that sticks with me til this day. The conversation might have occurred after the dot-com bubble burst or maybe shortly before, I don't remember. We were talking about globalization, or something, I think. Something that polarizes people, anyway, so it was probably a pretty heated conversation. During that conversation, the CEO made this statement to me:
"[Company X, a small, but well-known software company]? They're a lifestyle company. They're never going to amount to anything but a small company. They can go on indefinitely, but they'll never make it big. My company is not going to be a lifestyle company. We're going to be bigger than that."
Well, here we are, three or four years later. I'm sad to say that the CEO's company hasn't made it big. They took quite a bit of outside investment from people who came to believe that this investment would pay off handsomely, but it hasn't, and it's very likely that it never will. And that's OK, that' just the way it goes, nothing wrong with it; can't learn without failing, gotta get back up, brush yourself off, and try again, better than to tried and have failed, and all that.
But the term lifestyle company always stuck with me for some reason. I've come to realize that the term "lifestyle company" is a great term for exactly the kind of company I always want to work for. I wouldn't work for any other kind of company, ever.
What does it mean to want to work at a lifestyle company? It means six simple things:
So, yay, good for me. I've figured out what I want to do. I even think I might be able to get away with this for a little while. But here's the issue: in ten years, the "normal" American will either work for himself in a very narrow specialized field, or he will work for a huge sprawling generalized conglomerate. There won't be much in-between; smaller generalized companies cannot and will not stay in business. (You have George Bush and cronies to thank most recently for this, by the way, by favoring in law the 1% of the population that represents those huge conglomerates. Forty years of consumerism hasn't helped either, but the last four years have accelerated the gluttony to warp speed). The large conglomerates are by definition the antithesis of the lifestyle company. Small general businesses, the usual suspects when lifestyle is involved, will be crushed by the larger ones in shakeout after shakeout.
What can we do, then, us fans of the lifestyle corporation? Well, the first thing: specialize, specialize, specialize. Do one tiny thing and do it the best you know how and make sure other people know that you're the best at it. Don't try to compete with the big boys on their enormous general turf; they can outbid, outrun, and outlast you there. But the good news is that they can't touch you if you own the turf and you water it every day and wave at people when they drive by you standing on it. It might be a tiny piece of turf, you might even have to put your feet really close together to even stand on it, but it will be your turf. They won't want it; it will be too small for them. They're so big that they might not even be able to see it.
The second thing we can do is to create opportunity through community. There is an underground market in open source software. It's the market of merit, where you can create opportunity for yourself by actually giving to a community. By giving, you actually magically create opportunity for yourself. It's actually pretty weird, but I've seen it in action. Folks in the open source world believe that "everybody does better when everybody does better". This goes for the actual business that is generated within this community too. It's very hard to explain, and it requires an almost religious leap of faith to see any benefit out of, but it indeed does exist.
The third thing you can do is to support organized efforts which make it possible to continue working at lifestyle corporations. People who want to work for lifestyle corporations need to get behind efforts like Paul Everitt's Zope Europe Association , where he is essentially almost singlehandedly creating a market where there was none there before. His market is based on government, and he represents some set of (presumably) diverse lifestyle companies. Paul's creative use of goodwill among people in this way makes him one of the most original leaders I know. We need to support people like this.
Also, vote Bush out of office. This of course goes without saying. ;-)
We don't all need to be drones and consumers. They will need to pry my lifestyle company from my cold dead hands at some point. Until then, I plan to ensure that I continue to have the option to work at one.