The scary side of freelancing: the inadvertent freelancer

Not every freelancer is one by choice. The economy has thrust millions into the freelance economy. Technology can help some of them but what about the inadvertent freelancer? Who's helping them?
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor on

Freelancing because you have to

I was at a meeting the other day when two former executives from a major consultancy started chatting with me. It seems they were in the freelancing space these days. As our conversation continued, I heard some things that were pretty upsetting.

Both of these fellows are doing some freelance work, looking for full-time gigs and are trying to stay connected with executives at established service firms hoping some crumbs (or a permanent gig) fall their way. These guys are freelancers who really don't want to be freelancers. Instead, these are employees who are without an employer and are doing freelancing as a means to provide an income. Worse, since both are over 50, they expect to be freelancers until they retire as they aren't finding prospective employers too interested in people of their age.

I'm also concerned for these individuals and millions of others who have found themselves in similar straits in this economy.

My concern is that many freelancers are quite competent individuals in executing work but may not have the skills, discipline or appetite for selling it. To be a successful freelancer, one must have knowledge of opportunities, the timing to know when to ask for the work, the ability to close the deal and the ability to execute the work once sold. That is an exceptionally tall order as it is rare to find individuals who can market, sell and deliver work.

I'm also concerned that many freelancers are stuck doing commodity work with commodity skill sets and may lack the time or resources to enhance their current skill set. Seriously, can you make a living, learn new skills, be selling the next piece of work, build your brand, honor the delivery commitments on the sold work, have a life, etc. all at the same time? Is that realistic or desirable? This lifestyle creates additional problems as the freelancer often becomes less and less differentiated and more of a commodity to be bargained with on a low-cost gets the work basis.

The best freelancers, in my opinion, are the ones who develop a brand for themselves, create their own unique intellectual property and have a reputation for creating value for their customers. What these freelancers succeed in doing is moving themselves into a higher order of freelancer: the 1099 worker who does not negotiate on price. People want them because they’ve heard about the results they deliver. People hire them based on good word-of-mouth recommendations. People hire them without beating them down on price.

While much has been written about the freelance nation, little has been written about those who are involuntarily thrust into it. Not everyone was cut out to be a freelancer. Each of us can bring a different set of skills and capabilities to our employers and/or assignments. But not all of us can source, market, sell and deliver work. I am concerned about the inadvertent freelance nation that is forming as I am not sure that all of these newfound freelancers can or will succeed.

Many technologies exist on the Internet to help freelancers. There are sites that will match freelancers to short-term opportunities. There are sites that allow many freelancers to collaborate on a specific assignment. But there don't seem to be sites designed for the inadvertent freelancer and I suspect they have very different needs wants and requirements.

So, for those of you at Elance, oDesk, Fieldglass and other vendors let me know what you're developing for the inadvertent freelance nation because I'd like to write something very positive about this phenomenon today.

to read Part 2 - click here to read Part 3 - click here

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