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Success At Work

The independent entrepreneur

The independent entrepreneur by Larry Smith

What is the difference between being an entrepreneurial employee and an independent entrepreneur?

Both entrepreneurial employees and independent entrepreneurs use their resourcefulness to find opportunities and solve problems. But independent entrepreneurs create their own ventures in which they develop and provide solutions to a selected problem. The solution takes the form of either a product or service.

A Venture can have either a commercial or charitable purpose.

If the venture is intended to be commercial, the solution is sold for a profit. If the venture is intended to be a charity, the solution is either given away or sold for less than the cost. Donations are used to fund such charities.

Why might someone decide to be an independent entrepreneur instead of an employee?

There are two primary factors that encourage people to create an independent venture and not become an entrepreneurial employee. Remember, however, that being an “ordinary” employee puts you at risk.

  1. Reason 1:

    The independent venture of creating a solution for the identified problem appears to be both desirable and feasible.


    The solution to the problem may be most easily realized by an independent venture because it appears too innovative to easily fit into the priorities of an established organization. In other words, the solution could be difficult to pursue within an organization; meanwhile, an independent venture would have the freedom to move into unexplored areas. Additionally, even if an existing organization wanted to develop a similar solution, it is likely that an independent venture would be able to move faster.

    Individuals are also encouraged to pursue an independent venture when it appears to be financially feasible. This means that an individual, or team of partners, sees themselves as capable of raising the amount of money (or capital) the venture needs for start-up. Feasibility is reinforced yet further when it seems practical to be able to acquire whatever specialized knowledge or skill is needed, and that marketing the solution won’t require a massive effort.

  2. Reason 2:

    Some people choose to become independent entrepreneurs because they seek more freedom and greater responsibility than they believe would be available to them as an employee. They tend to value personal accomplishment very highly, want immediate feedback on their efforts, and have a relatively high tolerance for risk. This set of personal preferences prompts many individuals to seek out problems that could serve as the basis for a venture.


We must acknowledge that it is demanding to be an independent entrepreneur. They must set their own goals, tasks, and plans. They must conduct research and development, find and persuade investors to support them, build a team, execute their plan, and revise as circumstances change. They must be both creative and practical.


Hundreds of ground-breaking start-ups have been launched as a result of the University of Waterloo’s exceptional entrepreneurship ecosystem:

  1. the creator-owns intellectual property policy;
  2. the experience-rich learning available through the world’s largest co-operative education program of its kind; and
  3. a culture and philosophy that embraces ingenuity, progress, and risk are just a few of the reasons why Waterloo is a global entrepreneurial leader.

There are many resources on and off campus to guide independent entrepreneurs in learning how to be successful in building and unveiling their ventures. There are many undergraduate courses, undergraduate and graduate programs at the Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre and a wide variety of programs such as St. Paul’s Greenhouse and Velocity. For a full guide to inspire and discover the full spectrum of support available, check out Entrepreneurship at Waterloo.

Another great place to begin your learning is the BE A STAR resource by Larry Smith, the Director and Founder of The Problem Lab. It is a series of instructional tools for career mobility, drawing on scholarly research, logic, and the experiences of Waterloo alumni.

The Subject Guide for Entrepreneurs offered by the Library is also a comprehensive resource for anyone with an entrepreneurial interest. It links to powerful research databases, and suggests programs, patent searching tips, and ways to acquire funding and mentorship.

If you are a student curious about independent entrepreneurship, it is also advisable to get actively involved with FEDS Business and Entrepreneurial clubs. Join an existing group or create your own to grow your contacts, increase cultural awareness, and build your skills in communications, relationship-building, and leadership.

Last, but certainly not least, the Student Leadership Certificate Program, offered by the Student Success Office is an experiential series of workshops designed to help you explore, enhance and apply your leadership capabilities on campus and within the community.

What is a common source of risk for an independent venture?

It is easy for a new venture to find itself in a “swamp”, with just enough customers to survive, but not enough to thrive. If a commercial venture is trying to solve a modest problem, one that customers would like to have, but do not want urgently, sales are often slow to achieve and profits are elusive. The same issue affects a charitable venture where the “cause” attracts only minimal resources in the form of user fees or donations.

Even if you execute brilliantly the solution to a modest problem, you will only have a modest venture. And modest ventures are always at risk. They are inherently harder to finance. Most importantly, modest ventures steal your life, preventing you from finding the better opportunity that you did not have time to discover.

By contrast, a venture that has a practical solution to an important problem will tend to find many sources of help and may gain the attention of the marketplace quickly. The world sees that the venture has the potential to grow in scale and consequence. The exceptional commercial venture is more profitable; the exceptional charity gains more donors or supporters.

The nature of important problems is discussed on the next page in this subsection: What is the problem?

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University of Waterloo

Centre for Career Development