Are You Ready For A Freelance Economy?

Every month when the employment report comes out, there’s a lot of finger pointing about why no one is creating jobs to help more Americans get back to work.

And each time, I wonder when the public is going to realize that work has changed–and that many jobs that disappeared in the past few years won’t come back.

What we need to do is prepare more Americans for a new reality, where people will get their income from more than one source and not be as heavily dependent as they once were on a single, paternalistic employer.

Instead of relying on jobs training, I’d argue that we need to invest more in teaching people how to think like entrepreneurs of their own careers. It is not an easy shift in mindset, but it is important to make it, if you don’t want to feel like a victim in today’s economy.

I was excited to see that Tom Friedman has been noticing some of the same trends I see when reporting on careers and entrepreneurship when I read his New York Times column, “Why I (Still) Support Obamacare.” (Regardless of how you feel about the health reform, this piece is worth reading).

For the column, Friedman interviewed James Manyika, who leads research on economic and technology trends at the McKinsey Global Institute.

Manyika foresees a future where traditional middle-skilled jobs will fade and the positions that remain will either be highly skilled or too low paying to support the way of living that many people have come to expect. As Friedman summarizes it:

“…how we think about `employment’to sustain a middle-class lifestyle may need to expand `to include a broader set of possibilities for generating income’ compared with the traditional job, with benefits and a well-grooved career path. To be in the middle class, you may need to consider not only high-skilled jobs, `but also more nontraditional forms of work,’ explained Manyika. Work itself may have to be thought of as `a form of entrepreneurship’ where you draw on all kinds of assets and skills to generate income.

This could mean leveraging your skills through Task Rabbit, or your car through Uber, or your spare bedroom through AirBnB to add up to a middle-class income.”

Friedman says this transition could prove “more exciting than people think.” But he also acknowledges that, “right now asking large numbers of people to go from being an `employee’ to a `work entrepreneur’ feels scary and uncertain.”

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the uncertainty.

If you are not freelancing now, it’s important to think about what you will do if your steady job dries up and it is not easy to replace it. What is your plan B? Can you put into place any secondary sources of income now that will sustain you? What marketplaces can you use to sell your expertise? In addition to big sites for freelancers, there are now a number of niche-oriented ones springing up. For instance, I just wrote about one for professors called Faculty Row for Crain’s New York Business.  

Another key question: Are there any steps you can take now to manage your income so that if you find yourself doing contract or freelance work at some unexpected point in the future, you won’t find yourself drowning in overhead? Given the way the economy is changing, we all need to question the consumerist lifestyle that surrounds us in the U.S. Spending a little less can pave the way to a lot more freedom and peace of mind if you become self employed.

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Promoting Articles Via Twitter

My pitch landed!

A few months ago, I wrote about my first-ever attempt to pitch a personal project onto a major media outlet. Yesterday, my story, Suicide and the Economy, appears on the It’s about the suicide of my great-grandfather during the Great Depression, and the thousands of other forgotten men who died over a two-year period, when suicides peaked to their highest levels ever.

On April 12, 1937, the express train to New York roared across the New Jersey countryside. The train, a Pennsy Railroad electric locomotive the color of bull’s blood, usually passed through the station at Elizabeth at about 50 miles per hour. On this particular morning, it came to an unanticipated stop. As the express rounded the curve, my great-grandfather jumped down from the platform, where witnesses reported he had been pacing for 10 minutes, and lay down across the tracks.

When the engineer was finally able to halt the train 100 feet past the platform, Roy Humphrey had disappeared beneath its wheels. His last act: raising his head to look at the oncoming train.

I followed a somewhat circuitous route to get my pitch into the right hands. First, I got in touch with my graduate school advisor, Ralph Eubanks, who put me in touch with John A. Farrell, who contributes to The Atlantic. (His latest book is Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned). He, in turn, sent me on to the magazine’s editor, who sent me to the editor for the health channel.

I spent a while working on the story in my spare time, and the pay isn’t at the scales I’m used to in business media writing and editing … but I’m happy it’s published and hope to do more work for The Atlantic.

I also reached out to a friend of mine, Karen Lee. She is the social media and email strategist at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. She gave me three great tips for tweeting about my article.

• First, get ready with a tweet to announce that the article has been published.

• Second, prepare a series of tweets that talk about the behind-the-scenes of writing my article. That’s not difficult, because it’s a great story – I started writing about my family when I discovered some ancient scrapbooks and a bound set of love letters between my great-grandmother and an American University law school dean.

• Third, watch the comments on the article itself and get in touch with commenters to thank them and start communicating with them via twitter.

If you follow the Stanford GSB’s twitter feed, you’ll see Karen’s mastery at work.

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Million-Dollar Freelancers

Most free agents don’t go into business to make millions. Usually, they’re looking for a better lifestyle, more interesting work and greater control over their lives. But increasingly, new technologies make it possible for solopreneurs to build a seven-figure business working from home. And that means a better financial life, too, for the owners.

In our recent posts for the AARP Life Reimagined site, you can find out how several solopreneurs are pulling this off.  Jason Weisenthal, who started a business printing decorative wall stickers in his suburban basement, is on track to bring in $2 million in sales–with no full-time employees. Kelly Lester, an actress and mother of three, expects to generate more than $1 million in revenue this year at her company Easy Lunchboxes. There’s one more story in the series to come. They’ve “scaled up” their businesses without an element that used to be mandatory for growth–a big full-time staff. Technology makes that unnecessary.

Stories like theirs highlight why it’s time to do a new cost-benefit analysis between taking a traditional job and working for yourself. In the days before the internet, a six-figure job with benefits might seem like the best financial route for many professionals. But for someone who doesn’t mind learning a bit about technology and taking on some personal financial risk, starting an internet-based business could actually end up being a more secure route in the end–and a lot more financially rewarding. Of course, you’ve got to have a great idea and the ability to execute it.

I’ve been doing a lot of coverage of high-revenue, one-person businesses lately. One lesson from the founders stands out: They often ramp up gradually, testing the waters while they still have a full-time job. That takes some of the risk out of what they’re doing and means they don’t have to pull the plug prematurely because they have run out of cash.

Many people today feel they’ve lost control of their careers and work-life balance because of current economic trends. It doesn’t have to be that way. As people like Lester and Weisenthal have found, there are new and exciting ways to create a great career, far from the world of corporate cubicles.


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Time to Relocate?

It’s possible to freelance from almost anywhere, but some locations are better for work than others. If you need to jump on a plane, and not a train, to meet many of your clients, that’s a real obstacle. I’ve known many freelancers who found that it was better for their careers to live in or near a major city.

But moving to find work is a big deal, whether you’re doing it for your own career or for your mate’s, so it’s important to consider the tradeoffs carefully.

In our latest post for the AARP’s Life Reimagined site, “Moving to find a job,” we look at some of the key factors to consider before you move.

Some of the tips that experts shared with us were not what you’d expect. For instance, one leadership coach suggested looking at the number of corporate headquarters in an area you’re considering. That way, if you ever find yourself looking for a job, you’ll have more opportunities. We also discuss cost-of-living calculators that can help you figure out what it will really cost to maintain your lifestyle in a new place. Contrary to what many of us expect, a move to a small town may not be cheaper than living in a city.

Moving is an emotional decision, too. Sometimes, it’s not possible to live in the place you’d like, because of high housing costs, a spouse’s commute, or something else, and you’ve got to find creative solutions.

From the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J.

From the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J.

I’ve always loved cities and until my oldest children were five, spent most of my adult life living in them. But once my husband and I had four children, it became clear that it was too expensive to educate them in the way we wanted in an urban area, so we moved to a suburban town with schools we liked. We live in a beautiful, friendly town, but there are many aspects of being very close to Manhattan that I miss on a daily basis.

My solution, for now, is to make sure we plan regular activities in other places, so I can recharge by being around the cultural activities I love. Making a conscious effort to do that has helped me discover some new places I’d like to return, like the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J. Maybe someday I’ll write a best-seller and we’ll be able to keep a pied-a-terre in Manhattan, but for now day trips to places like this provide an interesting alternative.


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The Surprise Upside of a Home Office

For the past four-and-a-half years, I’ve made my professional life in a tiny windowed sunroom off the dining room of my rancher in Northern Virginia. From my home office window, I watch the birds feeding outside , and I have a trellised magnolia and a crepe myrtle in my view. On one memorable spring morning, I watched over eight hours as a trio of hyancinths I had planted under my crepe myrtle bloomed, gaining purple and red as the day wore on.

Working at home poses challenges. It can be lonely, and it’s difficult to keep up to speed on what’s going on in the office … and then there’s the whole boundary question. (There are tremendous upsides, too, of course, which we’ve written about many times.) One thing I haven’t written about is the surprising inspiration I get from ideas that cross the boundary between work and home.

Margaret and Richard Swift owned this ranch house before me, for more than 40 years. She was a homemaker. He was a machinist at a nearby base and then, the neighbors tell me, worked his way up the ranks at the IRS. The neighbors and his wife all called him “Swift.”

Before he lived in my house, when he was a young man, he stormed the beaches of France on D Day. I can’t even really imagine the courage required to step through into the waves from the troop transports. I can get a sense of his commitment to doing the right thing by the way he maintained my house. He dug gutters to keep the water out of the basement, installed an entire bathroom in the basement and caulked up the seams along the roof. He also left careful notes around the notes here and there, as on the air conditioning and heating vents: Flip Here In Summer. Flip Here in Winter.

A lot of people glamorize writing and freelancing. I love what I do, but a lot of it is just work, plain and simple, a question of putting the right word in the right place, over and over again (flip here in summer, flip here in winter), and not feeling satisfied until you’ve constructed something lasting out of all the words.

So sometimes, when I am going about my routine, and it gets to be a bit of drag, I think about Swift sometimes, as he went about his routines, taking just one step at a time.

(Kay Luo wrote about the importance of a sense of history on her blog, HomeCrunch, a while ago, and it was when I was working with her on this post about buying homes in Silicon Valley for Wealthfront that I first starting thinking about Swift and his notes.)

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Startup Energy

Before I moved to suburbia, my family lived in Jersey City. My older girls were admitted to a charter school there that many parents recommended. Shortly after their acceptance, I started getting a stream of messages asking parents to paint the walls of the school on weekends.  It was amazing to see the grass roots efforts parents were putting in to make the school a success.

But after getting a few of those emails, I realized that the day when I actually had time to paint the walls was never going to come, no matter how much I tried to rearrange my life. With three small kids and one on the way–as well as a new freelance business–I often needed to catch up on work on the weekends. I didn’t have room in my life to be part of another startup. It was around that time that my husband and I got serious about moving to a town with a great, well-established public school system.

I shared this story recently with another self-employed mother, who runs a professional services firm, and also moved to suburbia around the same time. She, too, has found it to be a tremendous relief to live in a town where, for instance, the elementary school play has been going on for years and doesn’t require a massive startup effort by parents.”My business is a startup,” she said. “My family is a startup.” She recognizes that, although she works from home part of the time, she doesn’t have time to launch something like an annual school play, too.

Many of us try freelancing because we like to work on our own terms, without adhering to rigid corporate policies about when and where we work. But my friend’s comments reminded me that bringing some structure into other areas of our lives, whether that means finding a great school for our kids or hiring someone to do the books in our business, can free us to accomplish more of our top priorities.

Startups are a lot of fun and often very worthy, but there are only so many that each of us can handle at one time.




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How To Form An LLC

In the 200kfreelancer’s latest post on AARP’s Life Reimagined, we offered five questions to ask if you’re thinking of forming an LLC.

Most entrepreneurs form LLCs to protect themselves from liability. An LLC creates a separation between yourself and your business. That’s smart.

An LLC agreement. can also support collaborative decision-making, which is great if you have a partnership-style business. It doesn’t cost much to form an LLC, if you pick a low-cost state. Virginia, where I live, is one.

You can pay an online site like BizFilings a fee – often less than $50 in addition to the state’s fees – to help you with very basic formation documents. Before you pay even that amount, however, check with your state to see if you can file the papers yourself.

Here are the five questions we suggested asking:

1. Where will you form the LLC?

2. Do you need an attorney?

3. What will the tax implications be?

4. Do you want to form as a sole proprietorship instead?

5. Are you partners ready to sign an agreement?




Growing Your Business ,

A New Way for Experts to Share Their Know-How

The digital world has opened up many new ways for freelancers to find work that they can do from home. One of the most interesting new trends is the rise of marketplaces where professionals can share their know-how. The experts typically answer questions from the public for a fee.

In our latest post for the AARP’s Life Reimagined site, Make Money as an Online Expert, we look at how pros, ranging from appliance repair specialists to career coaches, are bringing their knowledge to online communities such as Pearl and Maestro Market.

Often, these sites are not just a way to make money. One attorney told me how much he enjoyed being able to help average Americans who might not ordinarily be able to afford to hire a lawyer by the hour. He helps answer their questions for $10 to $25.

The number of such sites is still relatively small, but this will be an interesting space to watch in years to come.

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Path To A Successful Pitch

I’ve been a writer/editor for 25 years, since the day I walked up the stairs into the office of the diamondback at the University of Maryland. I’ve been freelancing for the past 12.

I’ve never, in all that time cold-pitched a story. That is, I have never sent a pitch into a magazine or newspaper. (Once, I sent in a letter to the editor of the Wilson Quarterly and the editor asked me to write a book review. That might count.)

I’ve always found work by first establishing a relationship and then finding projects of mutual interest – in other words, by selling myself first, and then finding the ideas.

So, here goes. I’m going to see if I can successfully pitch an idea that I’d really like to see in print. In other words, I’m going to sell the idea first — and then myself. Most of my work has been in business journalism, so this is a departure in that way, too.

I’ve been working on a novel on-and-off for about five years that’s based on a story in my family. My work on it is kicking into gear. So I’ve decided to try and freelance a story based on the book.

Normally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to share a pitch widely, because someone could rip off your idea. But in this case, the story is decidedly mine. And as we all know, ideas are great, but when it comes to writing or any kind of art or craft, the execution is almost the entire value.

I’ll follow my efforts here on 200k.

So, here’s my pitch. My first step was to ask for the advice of someone in my network on a target market. I thought of Ralph Eubanks, who just became the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He suggested the Atlantic, either online or print, so that’s my first target. I’m going to first dig around for the name of an editor to whom to send it. (I checked mediabistro’s how to pitch section, but they don’t have the Atlantic).

The recovery

Almost 100 years ago, my great-grandfather laid down on the train tracks in Elizabeth, N.J. He left behind a girl in a coat with shiny buttons – my grandmother — to finish growing up without a father.

Roy Humphrey was one of a generation of forgotten men: His death was covered up in my family, called a heart attack or a fainting spell. I uncovered his story by researching old family scrapbooks and newspaper files. My hunt for the truth about his suicide and why he had killed himself led me to Lower Manhattan, where he had worked as a Barge Inspector, to old medical records in New York City, and to the scene of his suicide itself, in the heart of much-changed Elizabeth.

Eventually, I found his grave – with the name misspelled – at Arlington Cemetery.

During the Great Depression, the suicide rate spiked to more than 160 per million, the highest ever. Unemployment, though common, was a badge of dishonor that many men could not tolerate. “Every family had a story like that,” family friend in her 90s told me, in an interview in an old farmhouse in rural Virginia. “We never talked about them.”

The suicide rate also rose during the recent Great Recession, though not nearly as dramatically. Our culture has untied, to some extent, the link between work and a person’s value. This story will look at the relationship between work and a person’s stature in society.

This piece for the Atlantic will reclaim my great-grandfather’s story and examine the question of shame. I will interview experts on suicide, unemployment and the legacy of family secrets to add perspective.

Suicide remains one of the most despised acts. In the middle ages, suicides were buried at crossroads, with stakes through their hearts.

The essential attitude remains unchanged. In researching my story, I encountered sympathy for my great-grandfather’s act: “I’m sorry,” said the historian at the U.S. Customs Office, though I never knew my great-grandfather and could not have been grieving. She wasn’t sorry for the loss, but for the shame.

The end of my story is an act of remembrance: traveling to Arlington to honor my great-grandfather’s service in WWI, and advocating for a correction on his headstone.

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Your Declaration of Independence

Often when I write articles for business publications about self-employment, someone will post a comment pointing to the failure rate of small businesses, as evidence that people should stick with traditional jobs.

It’s always smart to keep your eyes wide open when you’re considering starting a business and to test the waters by, for instance, launching it on a part-time basis or small scale before quitting a well-paying job. At the same time, I think it’s time to say goodbye to the outdated notion that a nine-to-five position is the only route to economic stability. It’s an illusion to think that corporate jobs are secure, unless you’re in a field like tech where there are talent wars. Many Americans will have no choice but to become freelancers, temps and contractors if they want to work in the future, given that a growing number of big companies are transitioning to a contingent labor force.

Viewing this change as an opportunity, not a threat can help you position yourself to thrive. Many people have already said no to corporate careers and are building successful businesses instead. Newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows a growing number of “nonemployer” firms with sales in the high six figures or in the millions. (I was interested to see that folks in arts and entertainment businesses were among those best represented in the category with revenues of $5 million or more). Revenue does not correspond to the profits or take-home pay of the owners, but it can be an important benchmark of success.

You can find out more about these firms in a recent post I wrote for Forbes called “The Rise of the Million-Dollar One-Person Business.” In response to comments on the site, I will be following up with some more specific data about the highest-revenue nonemployer businesses within particular industries in the next couple of weeks.

Not everyone has what it takes to build a thriving small business, but seeing these numbers underlined for me just how many people do have the right stuff. If you’ve done your homework, don’t let fear of failure keep you from pursuing your dream of going independent.




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