Making It As A Freelancer

The Freelancers Union and GCUC report that one reason that people like freelancing is because you get to work on what you want to work on, when you want, how you want.  Gig workers are free to pick their gigs, and coworkers pick their own work environments.

But gigging is hard, and, frankly, even the glass-half-full surveys of freelancers and coworkers show that the pay is short, and the hours may be long (assuming you can get the work).

Looking closely at the surveys over the years, it is clear that many of the respondents were enthusiastic newbies, happy with their first experiences. (We were all rookies once! : – ))

But I have long questioned how viable gig working will be for the long run, for a whole working lifetime.  (I discuss this in my book, “What is Coworking?“)

For this reason, I was interested to see several posts from experienced freelancers, who have rather more sanguine view of gig working.  It’s not all roses and unicorns.

To be sure, these senseis want people to freelance.  But…they have some important things to tell you.


First of all, Hannah Edmonds posts yet another discussion of time management.  (This is a perennial topic for freelancers and coworkers.)

Everyone has trouble managing their time.  One good thing about working for an organization and having a boss is that these things provide structure and other people to help enforce the structure. However, an independent gig worker is on her own [1].  Edmonds points out the need to structure your gig work, and offers tips on how to do it. This takes self-discipline, which I, for one, am not that good at.


Sensei Tyra Seldon has more tough advice:  freelancing isn’t meant to be free  [3].  In particular, gig workers need to know the value of their work, and need to charge appropriately.  Anyone who has worked with Sensei Seldon knows that she is very clear about terms of payment, and demands appropriate professional levels of compensation.

She tells us that this is “what 10 years of freelancing taught” her:  talk about money clearly and demand to be paid.  Say “no” if necessary.

I’ll note that this is another good thing about working for a conventional organization:  someone else sets the terms and compensation, and there is a contract that defines it.  There is no need to negotiate every piece of work separately, so there isn’t a need to explicitly worry about the value of each piece.

Gig workers have to make demands and get paid.  That’s not all that fun, but it is for sure necessary.


What does this mean?

Sensei Naomi Nakashima tells us that she had to learn “that it’s not enough to love what you do” [2]

It no longer felt like I was getting paid to do something I loved, it felt like I was barely scraping by. I felt underpaid and undervalued (because I was).” (From [2])

What she found is that, however much she liked what she was doing, it was necessary to earn enough to actually live.  She recounts how one of her clients refused a patently absurd low bid from her, and told her “no matter how much you love what you do, if you’re not making enough to live on it, you will end up resenting it.”

Think carefully about this.  She is telling you that getting paid isn’t just necessary for survival, it is necessary for your sanity and morale.

Sensei Nakashima’s suggestions are good advice for any job, freelance or other. I can testify that poor pay and lousy work will definitely make you hate any job, no matter how cool it might seem on paper.

She elaborates:

1) It’s not enough to enjoy what you do – you also have to enjoy the project you’re working on.

2) It needs to do more than just pay you – it needs to be worth your time.

3) It’s not enough to simply work on clients’ projects that you love – they need to help further your career in some way. (summarized from  [2])

I would say that #2 is the crux of all of this.  Freelancing might seem like a great thing, but it really must be worth your time or you’ll never survive.  This isn’t even a matter of money (though Sensei Seldon is right that you need to be paid), it’s a matter of life and death.  You only have so much time, you can’t really throw it away doing things you hate.

I would add a further bit of advice.  My own experience has shown me that the most important thing is who you are working with.  Working with good people is generally worth your time, even if it might not be perfect for other reasons.  (For example, I’ve been very happy doing unpleasant (but important) work with people I really care about.  I’ve also been happy working with good people, even when it didn’t particularly advance my career.)

I think this is one of the reasons why coworking is so valuable to many freelancers.  If you find a good coworking community, everything will be so much better because just showing up and doing your work with good people will be worth your time.


Gig working isn’t easy, and it’s not guaranteed to make you happy.  I doubt that you will get rich (at least not from the gigs).

But these experienced freelancers are here to tell you that it can be a good life, if you are disciplined and take care to do work that is worth your time.

What is Coworking?  It can be an opportunity to work with good people all the time.  And that’s a really good thing.


  1. Hannah Edmonds, How to keep freelance work from eating up your life, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/23/how-to-keep-freelance-work-from-eating-up-your-life/
  2. Naomi Nakashima, How one freelance writer figured out that it’s not enough to love what you do, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/30/why-its-not-enough-to-love-what-you-do/
  3. Tyra Seldon, Pay now or pay later: what 10 years of freelancing taught me, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/17/what-10-years-of-freelancing-taught-me-about-payment/

 

“Freelancing in America” Report, 2019

It’s time for the annual “Freelancing in America” survey from the Freelancers Union*! [2] As in previous years, this is a survey of 6,001 (why not 6,000?) workers. Anyone who report any kind of temporary employment, including moonlighting, is counted as a “freelancer” in this survey. Notably, 28% report that they are full time freelancers.

I have criticized earlier iterations of this survey (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015), and most of my earlier points apply to this year’s study.

This study estimates there are 50 million freelancer workers in the US (by their expansive definition of “freelancer”), which is up slightly from 2018, and roughly the same as 2017. Similarly, the percentage of “full time” freelancers remains unchanged. Regardless of the headlines, this study shows freelancing is not growing.

I think it is important to view these numbers in the context of the historically high employment rates in the US in the past several years. There have been plenty of opportunities for employment conventional and freelance. In an economic downturn, we can expect the number of “involuntary” freelancers to increase dramatically.

Many of the other findings document the work life of freelancers. Many freelancers work remotely, especially technical and media workers. This location flexibility is desirable for workers, and one of the reasons people choose to freelance.

The report finds median hourly pay of $20 over all, $28 for skilled workers. This is shockingly low, especially when this has to cover overheads, insurance, etc., and even more because most freelancers are not full time.

The survey notes that, even in this hot job market, Freelancers feel insecure, and many are preparing for a future downturn. Like all workers in the US, Freelancers have trouble getting health insurance and have troubles with debt and lack of savings.

For the first time this year, many of the issues raised reflect the reality that a freelancer is operating a small business. A proportion of their time is not billable, and they desire more education and training for the skills needed to operate such a business.

On that last point, I certainly agree. For several years, I have been trying to figure out how such training—and, indeed, awareness of freelance careers—might be introduced in local high schools. Introducing anything to high schools is difficult. Sigh.


Nit Pick: The survey makes the irritating claim that Freelancing amounts to 5% of the GDP (basically estimating the total wages of “freelancers”), which they then compare to “Construction” or “Transportation”. Look, “Freelancing” is a type of employment contract (actually, multiple types), not an “industry”. For that matter, some freelancers work in construction, etc. This is a pointless and misleading number.


The bottom line is, according to this survey, Freelancing has not grown in the past three years. Freelancers say that they like Freelancing, and choose to do it. However, in many sectors, especially media and entertainment, Freelancing seems to be the only option available for workers. And the Freelancing life may be flexible, but the pay is shockingly low, and the future uncertain. In this good economy, work is plentiful, but that can and will change.

This is a distinctly mixed picture, and remember that we are in a moment of peak employment. The next downturn will see gig workers rapidly losing hours and pay, much faster than conventional workers.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The Freelancing In America study shows that the U.S. independent workforce is a political force to be reckoned with, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/03/the-freelancing-in-america-study-shows-that-the-u-s-independent-workforce-is-a-political-force-to-be-reckoned-with/
  2. Upwork and The Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America : A comprehensive study of the freelance workforce. 2019. https://www.freelancersunion.org/resources/freelancing-in-america/

 

*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.

 

Freelancers Moving Back Home? A “Brain Gain” For Flyover States?

In the past, I have noted the potential for coworking spaces outside major cities and generally in what the US calls “the flyover states”, outside the dominant cultural centers on the coasts.

This month there have been a flurry of articles about a “brain gain”, reporting that people are moving to out of the way places, including small towns [1, 2].  This counters the dominating narrative that all the kids leave for the big city, and that small towns are dying.

OK, there is some hype here.  A handful of people moving into a small town is a big deal for that town, but it’s just a trickle compared to the flood pouring into NYC, LA, and the Sun Belt.  Plus, it never was the case that everybody was leaving, or even all the “best”.  So, it never was quite the way Girls portrayed it.

(And, knowing local Chamber of Commerce folks, I know that there is some motivated storytelling going on.)

But overall, this is plausible and even a good thing.

In the “Future of Work”, many workers can work from anywhere, so long as there is decent connectivity.  And, as I have pointed out, depending on how you want to live, the standard of living can be way better outside a metropolitan area.

Earlier I discussed a recent survey of Freelancers in NYC, and pointed out that the survey focused on Freelance workers who live in NYC.  The survey implicitly assumed that these workers also work in NYC, which, of course most do.   But many of them probably have remote gigs and they probably collaborate (and compete) with Freelancers who live elsewhere and work in NYC.  These variations on life and work were not really explored by that survey, which aimed to boost living the La Vida Giggada in NYC.

The fact is, if you are successful, you can move out of the city and keep working.

And when you do, you might well want to have a local coworking space in your new location.  It will be filled with other “freelancers in flyover land”.

So yeah. It’s not just me.  It’s a real thing. I know dozens of people who either never moved to the big city or came back to make a good life.


  1. Sara Millhouse, Brain Gain: Professionals Find Niche in Rural Upper Midwest, in The Daily Yonder: Keep It Rural. 2018. https://www.dailyyonder.com/brain-gain-professionals-find-niche-rural-upper-midwest/2018/05/30/25657/
  2. Sarah Smarsh, Something Special Is Happening in Rural America, in New York Times. 2019: New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/opinion/rural-america.html

 

Report on Freelancing in NYC 2019

The Freelancers Union* has released a new survey of “Freelancing in New York City” [2].

The headline number is that 34% of workers in NYC “is freelancing”.  Wow!  (That would be over a million workers.)  The study finds that in “media and entertainment” 61% of workers have freelanced in the past year.

The report touts the Big Apple as an especially favorable environment for freelancers, for the same reason as it is favorable for all workers (opportunity, professional networking, etc.)

So what does this all mean?

First of all, this is a web survey, which means that it is pretty difficult to assess how representative it might be.  I tend to be skeptical of the reported margins of error, given the format of the survey.  Granted, the target group of the survey is comparatively likely to be reached and sampled by this methodology, but who knows?

This study surveyed 5,000 residents in NYC who work in the greater NYC metro area. Within this NYC worker population, the study looked at those who freelance (N=1728) and media and entertainment workers who freelance (N=432). The study was fielded from March 22, 2019 to April 18, 2019. Margin of error for each audience group are as follows: NYC Workers Overall: ±1.3% at the 95% level of confidence. NYC Freelancers: ±2.3%, NYC Non-freelancers ±1.7%, Media & Entertainment freelancers ±4.7” (From [2])

A more important point is that the definition of “freelancer” seems to be “anyone who reports working freelance at any time during the year”.  This includes people who work exclusively or mainly as independent contractors, but also moonlighters who have a conventional job.  As far as I can tell, the definition of a gig is up to the respondent, and one gig of as little as a few hours might be counted as “freelancing” for this study.  In other studies from this group, the workers who could be considered primarily freelancing are considerably fewer than the most inclusive definition, so the headline about “one third of workers” is misleading.

Nevertheless, the findings about the “media and entertainment” sector are plausible.  These industries have always been filled by part time and independent workers, so in this sense nothing has changed in this supposedly “new” gig economy.

The survey found that the responding freelancers are worried about their irregular work and income, and also about late or non-payment. If these workers can’t get enough work in this economy, then there certainly should be very real concern for what will happen in the next downturn.

One interest point the report emphasizes is that many freelancers indicate that the choose to freelance.  (This is a pretty important ideological point for the FU.)  But, if two thirds of “media and entertainment” workers are freelancers, it sounds like there isn’t all that much choice about it—you freelance or you don’t work.  Perhaps the emphasis on how much freelancers prefer freelancing is a bit of cognitive dissonance, putting forward the positives for what must be done out of necessity.  Or perhaps contemporary freelancing is a “better way” to do what desperate screenwriters have always done.

What does this survey mean to the rest of us, who are not in NYC?   In other parts of the world, I bet the freelance life is pretty similar, if not as trendy as the Big Apple.

The sixty four million dollar question is whether you need to actually live in NYC, or not to succeed.  Freelancing or not, NYC has huge opportunities, but you’ll have to scramble to make the most of them.  Perhaps freelancing is particularly suited to this scramble, in any case it certainly is the way many workers live.

Lots of other surveys show that many freelancers work remotely, which means that it should be possible, in principle, to participate in the NYC markets while living back home.  So why move to the city?

I’ll note that this survey apparently doesn’t sample workers who live elsewhere but “work in NYC”.  I suspect there are a fair number of them, and that’s probably a bigger story than whether they are freelancers or not.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The first Freelancing in NYC study shows that 1 in 3 NYC workers is freelancing, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/09/10/freelancing-in-nyc-2019/
  2. Freelancers Union, Upwork, and New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Freelancing in New York City 2019. Freelancers Union, New York, 2019. https://www.freelancersunion.org/documents/36/Freelancing_in_New_York_Report_2019.pdf

*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.

Alton on The Future of The Gig Economy

In a recent blog post, Gary Alton raises the 64 million dollar question:  “Tech Opened the Door to the Gig Economy, But Is It Here to Stay?” [1].

First, his title agrees with my own conclusion that the Internet enabled the gig economy, but did not and does not determine its course.  The gig economy (however you define it) is one of many experiments the ubiquitous internet has made possible.

Writing from the point of view of tech workers, Alton summarizes the by now familiar advantages and disadvantages of the freelance economy.  For workers, flexibility, but little security.  For businesses, cheap, easily replaceable labor.

The same blog had a separate article with yet another potential disadvantage of gig workers: “Remote Workers Are Driving Network Security Professionals Crazy” [2].  Anna Johansson points out that all these freelancer who work remotely are generally exposed to security breaches, which is kind of a problem.

She lists five obvious challenges, though they all stem from working off site, via multiple networks including public access points.  Freelancers value “flexibility” and “convenience”, but these are anathema to network security, which needs rigorous and often annoying control.

Generally speaking, the more important the work, the more security you need to protect it.  So this means that remote workers, including freelancers, either cannot do critical work, or must use extraordinary technical security to protect the business interests.

If it were me, I wouldn’t let anyone do anything important remotely.  I want to keep my data and IP inside my fortress, and I mean a physical not a virtual fortress.

So maybe gig workers will be limited to low risk work, which is also low pay work.  That’s not so good.


On Alton’s second point, “Is It Here to Stay?”, I will repeat what I have said before.  The current gig economy has only existed in the upswing of the recovery from 2009.  We haven’t seen a major recession yet (though the “media” industry seems to be contracting every year somehow).

One of the entire points of gig work is that it is short term and contingent.  The next big downturn will pressure businesses to shed costs and workers.  Gig workers will be hit first and will be hit instantly.  In fact, you don’t need to even fire a gig worker, you just let out fewer short term contracts.

Essentially, the gig economy will make the next recession see a rapid flash crash of employment, in the form of a severe drought of gigs and probably even lower pay for gig workers.

This will have a knock on effect on the coworking industry.  A widespread recession in freelance gigs will cause many workers to drop out of their coworking spaces, and many workspaces will crash.

As goes the freelance economy, so goes the coworking industry.

By the way, my own guess is that WeWork will implode under a mountain of debt, while smaller, more locally grounded operations may survive.

So:  is it here to stay?  Maybe.  But neither gig working nor coworking are going to look so great after the next recession.


  1. Larry Alton, Tech Opened the Door to the Gig Economy, But Is It Here to Stay? , in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2019. https://www.computer.org/publications/tech-news/trends/tech-opened-the-door-to-the-gig-economy
  2. Anna Johansson, 5 Reasons Remote Workers Are Driving Network Security Professionals Crazy in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2019. https://www.computer.org/publications/tech-news/trends/workers-are-driving-network-security-professionals-crazy