you are a commodity and don’t know it

In platforms and the precariat I asked —If you are not one of the recognized best in your field, can you make a living online or are you just part of some platform’s long tail, valuable only to aggregators and their advertising revenues? As a content creator are you providing the fodder that lets Spotify, Amazon, and YouTube earn huge market valuations? Will there be a middle class in the emerging network creative economy?

Ross Dawson’s 2012 observation was that “in a connected world, unless your skills are world-class, you are a commodity”. Three things will differentiate professionals in such an economy — Expertise, Relationships, and Innovation.

expertise relationships innovation

Not only must you be competent in your field but you also need a broad and diverse professional social network, as well as something unique — that’s the innovation component. In such a connected and changing economy, a perspective of perpetual beta is required. For example, as more people take my PKM workshops, parts get copied and used by other companies. Trying to protect my intellectual property is a mug’s game for a freelancer without a team of lawyers. Instead I work on developing trusted relationships by sharing freely, such as on this blog. I also keep modifying the workshop to improve it, which makes it more difficult to copy. I stay ahead through constant change.

Now that more work is being done online, many people face global competition. Mark Ritson tells about his wife’s yoga instructor, Gary, who went online during a pandemic lock-down. He previously offered at-home personalized instruction, driving to his mostly rural clientele. When the lock-down was over he decided to only offer his services online and avoid all the time and expense of driving. But Mark’s wife now realized that she was no longer limited to Gary.

“In the old, pre-Covid world of yoga my wife was limited to Gary or an elderly woman who creaked a lot and smelled of cheese. But with the opening of this new virtual yoga window, she now has a dizzying array of practitioners keen to work with her from all corners of the globe.”

By moving his business online, Gary had unknowingly increased his competition to the entire world. And it’s not just Gary.

“All the businesses that have gone from physical interaction to virtual engagement are in this same boat. Tax advisors, lawyers, conference organisers – the list goes on and on. They all have dollar signs in their eyes as the costs to serve go down and the potential market grows by a factor of a bazillion. But those dollar signs obscure the dark side of virtual business and the sudden arrival of global competition where once only a few local players battled it out.”

I have understood this since I became a freelancer in 2003. In hindsight I was lucky that I had few local options for work so my focus has always been global. My main competitors are not other freelancers but large consultancies who are constantly mining ideas and offering shiny branded packages. I know this, and act accordingly. The Garys of the world had better do the same.

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