If you haven’t recognized that work is quickly shifting toward free agency and away from longer term employment, you really must understand what is happening to the nature of work if you hope to perform it and make any money going forward. Depending upon whom you read, the last several decades have seen an accelerating shift to an information, knowledge or creative age. However you choose to term it, they all mean the same thing: humans are moving toward ever-higher value work and away from more rote, assembly, industrial or lower value effort.
The difference now is that the internet and our tools (e.g., mobile devices, Wifi, collaborative web and app tools, etc.) has made it easier than ever before for us to work when, where and for whom we want.
The concept of free agency came from professional sports (via Wikipedia): In professional sports, a free agent is a player who is eligible to sign with any club or franchise, i.e. not under contract to any specific team. The term is also used in reference to a player who is under contract at present, but who is allowed to solicit contract offers from other teams. In some circumstances, the free agent’s options are limited by league rules.
That free agency concept was built upon by the author Daniel Pink (a guy whose books I embrace) but with a twist: sports free agency means a player can consider offers from other teams while the business concept means that one is essentially doing work for multiple companies, organizations or individuals.
The term free agent for business is believed to have been coined by Pink, author of a 1997 cover story in Fast Company titled “Free Agent Nation” and his subsequent book by the same name. From a Wikipedia article on business free agency: In business, a free agent refers to someone who works independently for oneself, rather than for a single employer.These include self-employed workers, freelancers, independent contractors and temporary workers, who altogether represent about 44 percent of the U.S. labor force.
Besides the internet, there are other influences catalyzing the shift to a new, free agency age. For instance, the Affordable Care Act (i.e., “Obamacare”) is being looked at by many in the venture capital community and elsewhere as potentially one of the biggest catalysts to entrepreneurship ever (see Obamacare & the Coming Entrepreneurship Boom and Affordable Care Act Could Be Good for Entrepreneurship). The latter article points to this report (PDF) that says the number of self-employed people is expected to rise by 1.5 million as a direct result of the health care overhaul. Good news to anyone who is still stunned by the lack of hiring going on in the U.S. even today.
You might already be participating right now as a free agent. Many of my colleagues and peers are and they vary in age from 28 to 64. You may also be thinking right now, “OK Borsch…I get it that work is transforming and that I should be doing something about it. But what exactly?“
Thought you’d never ask.
The first thing you have to recognize is that any sort of shift like one from long term (or lifetime) employment to free agency is one that will take a very long time to unfold. The best ideas will emerge (e.g., co-working facilities like CoCoMSP which, according to Business Insider, is one of The 17 Coolest Co-Working Spaces In America) and it will become more and more obvious what you should do, and how you should do it, to support yourself as a free agent. But there are several steps you can take NOW to make certain you are positioned well for what is shaping up to be an inevitable way of work going forward:
1) Choose a single focus. You can’t do everything and you cannot shift around to whatever is hot at the moment. Pick one direction you are interested in, knowledgeable about, or have passion for and begin.
This is particularly hard for someone like me, a guy with the gift of ADHD, who is intellectually curious about everything and has learning as one of my key strengths. I shudder at choosing one thing, so the things I’ve chosen (e.g., management consulting with Innov8Trends, web publishing with Innov8Press, tech with Minnov8, trends for the home furnishings industry with The Trend Curve™) keep me completely and totally focused on key areas that play to my strengths and, though it may not seem like it on the surface, each of these businesses are coordinated and orchestrated with each other.
2) “Be the Ball, Danny.” In the movie comedy Caddyshack, Chevy Chase’ character Ty is showing Noonan how to “be the ball” and be one with putting. While funny it illustrates the truth in embracing, loving, learning, and having fun with whatever you are pursuing.
It may seem too Zen-like or metaphysical for you to consider doing, but find time to be contemplative about your focus. I know a woman who runs a small web development business and found she was approaching women business owners to sell them, obviously, but doing so from the perspective of being a healer and someone who brings out the value in a business like no one else can. She found that her design and layout skills would bring out the beauty of what they did and she surprised herslef that she was nourishing the spirit of their business (i.e., their mission and vision) too. Don’t ask me how she did it…but she has become quite successful in the web business in Oregon.
3) Be professional. The way you present yourself to existing and potential clients is critical.
- Do NOT use your mobile phone as your primary business line. The signal is highly compressed and it is very hard for many clients to hear you well. Get something higher quality like an Ooma box, RingCentral line, or even a phone number for Skype. Make sure you use a headset so you don’t sound like your office is in a 55 gallon barrel.
- Don’t skimp on business cards. Get something of quality like those from Vistaprint…but ONLY if you spend a few bucks extra and get the aqueous coating on them so they don’t look like you printed them on a color printer at home.
- Create a template in Word, Pages or whatever you use for your proposals. Put your logo at the top, your POBox or mailing address, email and website. Do NOT send a proposal to a client in Word or Pages but instead, output it in PDF so the fidelity of what you created is maintained. Using PDF means you can be certain that fancy font you used isn’t missing from the recipients machine and is now rendered in “Calibri” or “Arial” and looks like crap.
- Get a decent website with YOUR OWN DOMAIN. I recommend Namecheap for your domain which you can then “point” to anywhere that you host your website. For example, you could build your website at Squarespace.com or WordPress.com and point the “www” there. Then you can ‘point’ your email server to (what most of my clients do) use email, calendar, Google+, Google Voice, and everything else Google offers through Google Apps for Business. You really need to do this since sending email from a generic Gmail, Hotmail or AOL is a joke and you’ll come across as someone not professional.
- When presenting to clients from your laptop or tablet device, CLEAN IT! Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pitched by someone and their laptop or iPad is covered with dust, greasy fingerprints, crumbs or other yuck. It’s a real turnoff and again, shows you’re not really very professional.
4) Network, network and network (did I say ‘network’?): There are so many chamber of commerce, association, industry and other organizations that it’s easy to get connected with people locally. Even nationally if you start local and connect your way up within those organizations.
There are an accelerating number of meetups (e.g., Meetup.com) that you can almost always find one for whatever you’re interested in focusing upon. They key is to ensure you do it.
Get to know people working within your focus. Connect on LinkedIn or ask the people with whom you’re connected (there or anywhere) to make introductions so you can have a conversation with that person about what it takes to be the best in your focused area.
5) Stay Aware. The internet has done something interesting besides put the world at our fingertips and make it trivial to connect with people anywhere on the planet: Information, knowledge and noise is coming at us in parallel ALL THE TIME. The kicker is you have no choice but to stay aware in the area of your focus, but to also do so in areas INFLUENCING that focus.
For example, while we have embraced WordPress for our Innov8Press business, I’m staying 100% aware of what is happening with Squarespace, Wix, Drupal, Ghost, Twitter Bootstrap and all the other technologies out there. Not only to ensure we understand the benefits of other approaches to web asset development, but to make certain we’re aware if something becomes a tool we want to use for clients.
Rather than be afraid of change embrace it. Love it. Become good at it and have fun with it. Ask a lot of questions, especially what people are seeing and experiencing in their respective areas of expertise.
Good luck and I’ll see you in the future.