life in the gig economy

In 2011 I asked if we were in the midst of a freelance revolution.

“This transition is nothing less than a revolution. We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Now, employees are leaving the traditional workplace and opting to piece together a professional life on their own. As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this “freelance economy.” Data show that number has only increased over the past six years. Entrepreneurial activity in 2009 was at its highest level in 14 years, online freelance job postings skyrocketed in 2010, and companies are increasingly outsourcing work. While the economy has unwillingly pushed some people into independent work, many have chosen it because of greater flexibility that lets them skip the dreary office environment and focus on more personally fulfilling projects.”
The Freelance Surge is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time:

Fewer Frustrations, More Stress

I’m in my 14th year of operating solo and have watched as several of my colleagues have gone independent and I have learned from others who have been freelancing longer than me. I know that many salaried jobs can be frustrating, from my own experience, client work, and talks with friends and colleagues. On the other hand, freelancing is probably less frustrating, as you have much more control, but more stressful for the same reason.

Nine years ago I wrote an article, So you want to be an e-learning consultant?, and updated it on this blog in 2011, So you (still) want to be an e-learning consultant? In 2007 I advised those considering consulting to keep costs low and not overestimate how much they will make. I noted that many clients pay 30 days or more after being billed. Well reality is that some clients take over 100 days to pay, as standard policy.

The freelance consulting field continues to grow, so there is constant global competition. This can make it a buyer’s market. I know many free agents who have significant gaps between paid work. I am currently in a period of several months without client work. During the last recession I went over eight months without revenue. If you are going to make the move, ask yourself how long you can last without any new income. It should be at least three months.

Many people are able to succeed as freelancers with the support of a working partner/spouse. I would not recommend taking the freelance plunge as the sole income earner of a family, which I did. It adds significant stress. I would recommend cutting as many costs as possible, like car payments, before going out on your own. If your monthly bills are low, you can survive for a long time.

Build a Network

The money is important but you also need a support network. Who can you talk to about pricing, or other details you might not want to talk about in public? Find or create a community of practice. Connect with other freelancers in a non-competitive way so that you can share confidences among yourselves. My colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance have helped me in many ways over the past nine years. It’s great to have a place to vent, learn, or even share a joke, where people know exactly what you do for a living. In my small town, very few locals understand what I do professionally.

There are likely many books about freelancing. I have only read one, many years ago, Free Agent Nation, which I found useful but US-centric. I think you can learn more by talking with some freelancers, if you are considering it. The next time you are at a conference, offer to buy a free agent a drink and have a chat. They will appreciate your willingness to at least pay a token in return for their advice. This will be a good reminder, because once you are no longer affiliated with an organization, many people will ask for free advice or work for exposure. I get several requests per week. But other freelancers can help you set up methods to deal with these. Your community and professional network become your lifelines. Don’t leave your current employment without them. In summary:

  • Build relationships
  • Cut costs
  • Save money
  • Keep on learning
  • Almost forgot: start a blog

As the gig economy continues to expand, more of us will be doing the freelance thing. We can help each other out. But building trusted relationships takes time. Start now.


11 Responses to “life in the gig economy”

  1. Bruno Winck

    great points I second from my 30 years of running my business. I would add that before everything you need to have something unique and authentic to sell. without a differentiator, selling is just too hard.

  2. Mirjam

    Wow, Harold, I am really impressed with your openness. I think “being a consultant” sounds very sexy to many people so it’s great that you shed some light on the real deal. Thank you so much for sharing this in such a frank manner.

  3. Luis Suarez

    Hi Harold, what a wonderfully inspiring, courageous and rather brave blog post this is! Congratulations on the huge achievement of being an independent for that long! Well done! Here’s to many many more years of a successful career!

    It takes a lot of openness to come forward and put together this article with the good and the not so good tidbits about freelancing and still enjoy what you do. I’m getting pretty close to my 3rd year anniversary of going independent and I can only reflect of how many similar experiences I can relate to that you have shared across! I will have to think hard how I plan to celebrate it and all, but suffice to say I do very appreciate how much you have helped a bunch of us get there enjoying and loving what we do, despite the struggles. It’s been a wild ride and here’s hoping for many many more years to come!

    Role models who can create a significant impact in this world are very scarce nowadays, so thanks ever so much for being one of them! Keep it up, please…

  4. Shaun

    It is not easy being a free-lancer, but it certainly has much to offer. Thanks for more useful insights Harold

  5. William Ryan

    I am a year plus now as a member of the gig economy and all your points are so on target. The challenge I find is the support network, that need can not be underestimated but is also very hard to build and/or join I have found. One other plus I would add is the flexibility to be here for your family, it has been a joy.

    • Harold

      It was great to be home as our boys grew up. I learned a lot from them as we had lots of time to talk. One thing we did was put all desks & computers on the same floor in an open office style (I only closed my door for meetings). There were lots of impromptu conversations.

  6. Khalid Joomaye

    Thank you for this frank post. I have often thought about going freelance and your words have provided a lot of insight into making this step.

  7. Kimberly Meyer

    Thank you for the frank discussion of these areas to consider. I am working on the income to cover my transition to full time consultant. I also think that to cover those times between gigs, it is important to have multiple income streams which give additional flexibility. Many of us have a variety of skills that could be marketed if you can differentiate yourself from the crowd.

    • Harold Jarche

      Yes, multiples income streams are very important, so freelancers need to keep experimenting with new products & services.

  8. Simon Terry

    Harold. Thank you so much for the openness and the generosity of this post. This is the advice many who are starting as consultants need to here. I know your guidance made my transition more possible. We all continue the battle against exposure and treasure the chances to work together on projects that matter. I look forward to the next one. Simon


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)