By | Abhijit Bhaduri |Keynote speaker, Author and Columnist
The Freelance Economy (popularly called the Gig Economy) often brings up associations of ride-sharing, delivery, and click-work. The labor sharing platforms are portrayed in public debates as an expanding source of “real or potential exploitation, undermining the job and social security infrastructure.” Is this the new future of work? Call it being self-employed or a freelancer or gig worker, there are many new options emerging in the labor market. Here is how to thrive in the new world of work.
BCG released a study in January 2019 and found that there is a thriving Freelance Economy that is far more nuanced. The freelancers find gig work as a path to greater autonomy, more flexibility in choosing when and where they work. A lot of gig workers describe freelancing as a way to do more meaningful work. For employers, gig platforms “increase access to new, high-tech skills and sorely needed workers of many types who are difficult to source through traditional labor markets.”
All freelancers are not equal
The report goes on to say that corporate adoption of gig work is expected to rise in every industry including B2B and retail sales and education—not just in mobility, delivery, IT, and data processing. Already freelancers with high end skills like software design and management make up half of the marketplace. In the case where the platform (think Ola, Uber, Swiggy, Zomato, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk etc) negotiates the payment for the skill, the individual gets less. These workers are often the ones that are most visible in the media or around us.
When the individual negotiates the payment directly based on their expertise, they make more money. The platform like UpWork and LinkedIn become merely meeting places. Digital Nomads and fly-in experts use the platforms to get discovered. By showcasing their expertise and their reputation across the network they get discovered by the buyers with deep pockets. The more in-demand their expertise is, the higher the premium the buyer will pay.
Even when freelancing is the primary source of income, the experts report higher happiness and satisfaction levels with their work than people in traditional full-time employment, despite the fact that they were more likely to work more than 45 or even 60 hours a week, and to earn slightly lower salaries. Ravi Venkatesan, the ex-Chairman of Microsoft India uses the term hyper-development as a requirement for success. “The businesses often grow at a rate faster than the rate at which people build the leadership muscle. This leads to the risk that your job may outgrow you.”
What stops you from being a freelancer
I had asked people on LinkedIn what stops them from becoming a freelancer. They shared what attracts them to this new world and what their apprehensions are. (Read their responses – Click Here)The prime reasons for wanting to be a freelancer are all the flexibility to choose when and where to work. Doing work, they find meaningful is a huge attraction to become a freelancer. But what keeps someone from taking the plunge. I asked people on social media to tell me the top three reasons that stopped them from chasing their dreams. 
Here are two real stories that I am sharing:
Case 1: Engineer Photographer
A BTech in Chemical Engineering from IIT wrote about pursuing a side gig as a photographer. He spoke about enjoying his day job as an engineer where he has got promotions and recognition. He does not enjoy learning new stuff anymore (in engineering). He has won prestigious awards as a photographer besides the money and fame it brings. He wants to spend more time with his 8-month old daughter and worries that he may find hard to cope with travel and long hours that photography demands. He wants to an MBA but worries that would deplete his savings.
Case 2: Content Writer
She is passionate about creative writing. She is currently in an office job that she does not like. Her three reasons for not becoming self-employed is that she is unsure what kind of work the clients offer and how they will find her. She is not sure how to tell the potential clients about her writing skills. She is also unsure about if she can “manage the tax filing, accounting, cash flow etc”. She has never had to do this. She summarises it by saying “I am afraid of the unknown”.
Many people shared the anxiety of not being sure of managing their current financial commitments should freelancing not give them the minimum needed to pay their mortgage and loans.
Three kinds of barriers to overcome
To take a plunge, there are three kinds of barriers to overcome. I spoke to Deepak Jayaraman who runs a fabulous podcast called PlayToPotential where many successful freelancers offer advice on how to get started. There are three kinds of preparations freelancers must do:
- Information: Lindsay Adler is a fashion photographer. I met her at the recent photography conference called PEP2019. She always wanted to be a fashion photographer. She studied the kind of photographs the big buyers of fashion photography were looking for. Then she shot her own portfolio of images that the top buyers would be interested in. She sent them her portfolio and was soon hired by one of the big cosmetics brands for her first breakthrough work. You must understand basic of finance and taxation. Not knowing the importance of cash flow has made many freelancers go bankrupt. If you don’t know these, work with a professional while you learn.
- Skills: The freelance economy is all about expertise. Having niche, cutting edge skills is really your entry point to the marketplace. The most successful people have great skills. They are constantly learning new skills and techniques. Think about the ABC of freelancing says Joshua Karthik who along with his brother Joseph runs Stories – arguably the most successful photography boutique in India. ABC stands for Art, Business and Craft. 90% of success lies in giving the client what they are paying for and in time with a smile. Once you do that, you earn the indulgence of the client to innovate and do things in a unique manner. Reputation is everything as a freelancer.
- Dealing with emotions: Giving up the security of a salary and embracing the uncertainty can be paralyzing. Medical professional turned mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik says that it is important to be “secure Lakshmi before you pursue Saraswati”. Knowing that you have an option to fall back on a financial cushion should the freelance opportunity be slow to take off can address your anxiety. The extent of the financial cushion depends on your own risk appetite.
For every freelancer who plans out everything, there are equal number of successful freelancers who have simply jumped in and learned on the fly. Eventually self-awareness is the first step towards success in one’s career. Find a mentor and a set of advisors matters. A famous sportsperson says he needs three coaches – one to improve his skills in sport, one to teach him how to run a business and one to be a life coach.
Here is a visual recap of some key ideas:
What is your advice for someone who is hesitant to become a freelancer?