How to be a successful small business owner in the gig economy

How I made it work as a small business owner

We’ve read countless stories delving into the positive and negative sides of the “gig economy.” Cincinnati’s Chris Varias has been living it, for years. He cobbled together a living from four very different revenue streams before finding his main niche as a bar and events-venue owner. Here, the 45-year-old entrepreneur and small business owner reveals how the path to becoming your own boss can feel like striking out into the wilderness.

You own two successful businesses in Cincinnati now, but it doesn’t seem like you took a straight line getting here at all.

Before I did anything else, I was freelancing for newspapers in Chicago, where I grew up. Then I came down here to Cincinnati to do another entrepreneurial thing, which was getting involved in some rental property. I did that, and at the same time started freelancing for the Cincinnati Enquirer. I tried to hustle as much as I could with real estate and writing, and between the two I was able to put together an extremely modest living.

Then, seven years ago, I opened a bar called the MOTR Pub with some partners, and that changed the structure of my income—that became the primary thing. Cincinnati is a place where you can get into that business at a much lower price point than, say, Chicago or New York. Me and three other guys pooled together a reasonable sum of money and were able to open our own place.

I still do real estate and I still write, but I don’t hustle with those as much as I once did. I’ve just maintained what I had already built up.

Amazing—so you still have to keep those side hustles going? Why are you still freelancing?

It’s important, that money. It’s enough work where it adds up to maybe a mortgage payment, something like that. It’s not essential, but it’s part of what pays my bills. Part of the gig economy is not staying in one lane. I’ll go from interviewing some band for the Enquirer to then going to show an apartment to being at the bar—it just doesn’t make that much sense.

In addition to being willing to do a lot of different jobs, you seem to have a pretty strong work ethic. Is that something that was taught to you growing up or something you learned along the way?

I grew up around hardworking people, and I never thought of not working. When you become an adult, that instinct becomes all about survival. Not to be dramatic, but you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to pay for this, how you’re going pay for that, especially when you have kids, like I do.

More recently, you’ve opened a larger venue that caters to music. Was there a clear path to that from the bar?

When we opened the Woodward Theater, we were just thinking it was going be a music venue, and maybe we would do a couple private events here and there. But now our bread-and-butter is private events—like wedding rentals. Which is a really fun thing about an entrepreneurial project: You might take turns you’re not expecting and find yourself in a whole new business.

Rolling with whatever comes your way is key to thriving in this new economy, but that unpredictability can be a danger, too, right?

I owned property through the Great Recession, and I made mistakes like a lot of other people did. I’ve been fortunate with the bar. I mean, it’s a struggle. You could have two really horrible months, and then you’re in big trouble, but—knock on wood—it’s gone really well.

How about those day-to-day things that everyone needs, like health insurance and retirement savings? As a small business owner, is it hard to cover those costs yourself?

It’s really hard. I pay my own health insurance, and it’s a burden. As a business, we’re under the number of employees where we’re mandated to provide insurance, but as business owners who care about their employees, we want to provide that for them, so we’re trying to figure out a way to do that.

When you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t get paid vacation days, paid sick days, health insurance, 401(k)—all that stuff is up to you, you know? When you work for someone else, often those things are covered. It’s a trade-off you need to consider for yourself.

What advice would you give someone who wants to be a small business owner or entrepreneur?

 It’s cliché, but try and do something you enjoy. I don’t value money over doing something I enjoy. For instance, this morning at 5 a.m. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and I went to the bar at 6 a.m. and got a bunch done.

I would also reach out to people in the industry you are interested in who you respect and who are successful, and get as much information as you can from them. The advice I’ve gotten in the bar business from my peers who have been at it longer—that’s been invaluable.

For me, having my stamp on these businesses is a lot of fun. That sense of ownership, creating a scene, is as important and fulfilling as the freedom or any other aspect of being a small business owner.

(Quotes have been edited for style and length.)

entrepreneur entrepreneurship freelance freelancing gig economy my financial life self-employed self-employment small business small business owner start own business startup

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