Winter Olympics for freelancers

Why do people become freelancers & which one of their knowings deserves a gold medal?

Have you ever asked yourself whether it’s what you know or who you know that makes you a successful freelancer? Or have you actually considered taking the why into consideration? Do people choose to become freelancers or is the choice made for them? What makes them stay freelancers? Do they still have a career in the old sense?

My Henley MBA thesis covered strategic options for freelancers, but also the question which of the three “knowings” (why, how, who) are the main ingredient for the recipe to success….

why what who shutterstock

So what comes before the WHY?

According to the authors of a recent HBR article, the three things employees really want are:

  • a career (the how)
  • community (the who)
  • a cause (the why)

So, you may ask, what are the three things freelancers really want?

For freelancers, the cause, or WHY, can have two sides – the reason they want to be a freelancer and the reason they actually became one.

Why (part 1): the reasons you become a freelancer aren’t always pretty

Digitisation – which obviously also affected the music industry – has led to a slump in profits for a few players, including some bigger companies. Their reaction was a crash diet consisting of mergers, acquisitions and the big red pen. Three guesses what this did to the number of freelancers in the music industry. Exactly. Their numbers grew a lot!

Of my MBA research group, 25% mentioned redundancy or job loss as the main reason for becoming a freelancer. Despite such relatively negative triggers to their career change, not all of them considered their new work style as an interim solution, or a “stepping stone” only back to employment.

Quite a few freelancers actually enjoyed going solo and want to remain self-employed.

This is partly because they witnessed a shift in their underlying motivation to work and the (new) alignment of their values with their work.

Why (part 2): Pros of being a freelancer

The major attributes listed by interviewees as the main pros of being a freelancer were:

  • Flexibility
  • Freedom
  • Autonomy
  • Independence
  • Work-life-balance
  • Choice
  • No more politics
  • No more bureaucracy
  • Control
  • Variety

What struck me in particular is that none of my respondents mentioned “getting rich” as their main motivator. Instead, being a freelancer was more a lifestyle choice than a career to them!

Why (part 3): Cons of being a freelancer

The main cons of being a freelancer lie in the insecurity and uncertainty related to issues such as the next payment, as you sometimes have to bang on your customers’ door for payment 4 months after you sent them the invoice despite a 14 day payment term. Being a freelancer isn’t as seamless as many think – the majority only see the benefits (“you have it well, you can go for a walk in the sunshine on a Monday, it always rains on Mondays”).

It seems there’s no sunshine without rain (or no spring without snow as the recent weeks showed). By the same token, freelancers:

  • yearn for individualism yet they lament a lack of belonging – Sir Richard Branson tweeted “are we better connected but lonelier than ever?”
  • want to be independent, yet they crave a support network – many struggle without an IT helpdesk, and don’t get me started on pension, accounting or tax issues
  • enjoy their flexibility, yet wish they had more structure – this starts with simple things as having some sort of external timetable to guide you through the day

As is the case with many aspects of people and careers, opportunities can also be threats and motivators (the WHY) can also become ‘demotivators’.

So what comes after the WHY?

The WHY fully deserves a gold medal. It acts as the glue for your know-HOW and know-WHOM. The other two knowings are not enough for the success recipe – you need the WHY, the drive and the passion to be a freelancer in the first place.

So, to answer the question from the first paragraph, what are the three things freelancers really want? They may indeed not choose career in the old-fashioned sense seeing that they just joined the gig economy.

But it’s likely from the above that they concur with the notion of community (or belonging) in terms of the WHO and cause (or motivation) in terms of the WHY. And the third one could well be competence (or expertise) relating back to the HOW.

Over to you – how would you dish out the medals?

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