Self-employment is on the rise and changing how Americans work

vbridges@newsobserver.comJune 16, 2014 

  • Freelancers in North Carolina

    • In 2012, there were 669,501 nonemployer firms across the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

— In the back of a downtown Durham building, Stella Wingfield Cook is guiding a client through a custom workout.

Cook, petite with blonde, braided pigtails and tattooed arms, stands as Marcia Brooks pulls, pushes and kicks through a routine on a reformer, a Pilates tool with a wood bedlike frame and a carriage, foot stirrups and hand bands.

While Brooks is pumping bands and hand weights, Cook talks about two pending trips to Los Angeles, where she would spend time filling in for her former boss and mentor. She would also get to spend time with her husband, Brad Cook, who will be in the city playing bass for and touring with singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten.

Such is the life of the self-described freelance trainer, who provides small classes and individual sessions under her firm, Anchor Studios.

Cook is part of the expanding freelance (also known as gig or project) economy that is changing where, when and how Americans work. From a mixture of globalization, outsourcing, technology and a shaky economy has arisen an alternative career of self-employment. The number of freelancers, who also self-identify as contractors, consultants, temps, solo entrepreneurs and micro-business owners, have increased by 10 percent since 2011, according to a September report by MBO Partners, which provides business services to independent professionals.

About 40 percent of the adult workforce is working or has worked as an independent. By 2020, that number is expected to jump to 50 percent.

Freelancers have freedom

If done right, freelancers get to choose their hours, environment and clients. If done wrong, they can end up dealing with a cash-strapped hustle.

To be successful, freelancers need to understand their capacity, differentiate themselves and focus their services to complement their supreme strengths, said Jaleh Bisharat, senior vice president of marketing at Elance-oDesk, a California-based company that connects businesses to freelancers while providing related services.

“One of the big shifts we are seeing in the future of work is that businesses of one will start to be the normal,” Bisharat said. “They will be freelancers, and they will also hire freelancers to help them with the part of their businesses that they don’t understand.”

The advantages and disadvantages of freelancing are freedom and control. There is no paid vacation or sick time and there are no opportunities to slack off.

“If you are failing, there is no one to blame but you,” said Jill Jankoski of Raleigh, who has been providing virtual administrative services since 2008.

Some freelancers turn to services provided by companies such as Elance-oDesk, which will bill clients and guarantee payments in exchange for a percentage of the transaction. Others figure it out job by job, build partnerships or network with other freelancers.

“Not being tied to a desk has its challenges, namely staying organized,” said Margaret McNab, 31, of Durham, who offers marketing and public relations strategy along with business partner Christin Prince through their firm Prince McNab.

McNab uses applications, such as Shoeboxed and Ronin to keep her receipts and finances organized.

Getting that first client

The major challenge freelancers face is getting that first client, Bisharat said.

To decide how much to charge, freelancers can look online and explore the rates of people with similar backgrounds looking to serve similar roles.

Bisharat said she knew one freelancer who started charging $15 an hour with a goal of getting her first client and endorsement. About a month later, she was up to $45 an hour.

“You are going to want to raise it as you can,” she said, but that first endorsement is “worth its weight in gold.”

Obtaining and amplifying endorsements are an essential part of a freelancer’s business, Bisharat said, especially if they connect with customers online.

Once they have a client, she said, communication is key.

Saleem Reshamwala, a freelance filmmaker who runs his firm KidEthnic out of startup incubator American Underground @Main Street, said one of the biggest mistakes he made in the beginning was not writing out a contract defining the work and payment.

His process improved greatly after he made friends with a successful filmmaker who shared templates for contracts and invoices.

Over time, Reshamwala, 35, of Durham learned to approach projects in two phases.

The first phase is exploration, in which he and the client define the project and its ultimate goal.

The second phase is execution. Breaking it up, he said, helps the client to see work is being completed long before the filming starts.

Freelancers also have to be clear about what they can deliver and when, Bisharat said. If there is an issue, communicate the challenge and a potential solution early.

If the client starts to change or add to the job, a freelancer should use diplomatic language to address the situation, Bisharat said.

Freelancers should also have basic business plans outlining how much they need to make, how they are going to differentiate themselves from others and how they are going to promote themselves.

Caleb Goodnight, whose firm Goodnight Creative provides video and producing services, said he has enjoyed all the different experiences from serving as a videographer on a Samsung promotional project to music videos for independent musicians.

Goodnight, 22, of Durham said he is giving freelancing three years to play out.

“One of the nice things about doing this is I have so many different experiences and hopefully really good work that would make me competitive at a more established company,” he said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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