What happens when Free Agent Nation meets the world wide web? You get the "e-lance economy." A growing army of self-employed professionals has discovered that when it comes to landing projects, managing hectic schedules, and meeting new colleagues, the Web is without peer. Meanwhile, a growing number of Web sites — with names such as eWork Exchange, Guru.com, and FreeAgent.com — have arrived that attempt to meet free agents' virtual needs.
"We're in the dawn of the e-lance economy," says Thomas Malone, a professor of information systems at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "E-lancers are electronically connected freelancers. They work together on project teams for a day, a week, a month, or longer — and then disperse and recombine to work on other projects."
Consider Zerita Rodriguez, 53, a Denver-based graphic designer whose clients range from US West to Qwest Communications to Coors Brewing. After just a month of posting her portfolio and bidding for projects on eLance (www.elance.com), she is now getting at least 10% of her business through that site, working virtually for companies such as the pharmaceuticals manufacturer Merck.
Sites like eLance offer a new twist on a now-familiar idea — online auctions. E-lancers compete with one another for work by posting information on their skills, their fees, and their promised delivery dates. The site even tracks the virtual reputation of e-lancers by allowing previous clients to rate their performance. For the e-lancer, it's a whole new way to do business. "You can find a job that you want, bid on the job, get the job, download the materials to do it, and get paid for it through the site — all without having any contact with a client other than by email," explains Rodriguez.
But e-lancing isn't just about getting work — it's about getting work done as well. For example, the Web gives free agents powerful customer-service tools. Consider free agent Caroline Akens (www.akens.com), 49, a virtual assistant who provides administrative-support services over the Web to other free agents. Akens hasn't met most of her clients in person, but she often meets with them online via WebEx.com, a site that lets groups view and modify their documents in real time. "We have meetings there every day," she says. "Our online meetings are just shorter than most meetings."
Here's another powerful benefit of the e-lance economy: You may be working alone, but you don't have to go it alone. Shoshana Berger, 30, a trend researcher based in Oakland, California, says, "The company of the future is going to be very elastic. It will be brought together on the fly, with many people coming together to tackle a project. As independent professionals, we can't wear all of the hats all of the time." She taps into the online community of Guru.com, which she calls "a great node" for meeting and learning from other free agents: "There's value in reading profiles of other free agents — finding out how they manage their time and how they find work. We're all relying on one another to blaze trails."
Working on a big project often means recruiting other free agents to team up with you. Andrew Keeler (www.keelerkom.com), 37, is a San Francisco-based Web designer who works with clients like Adobe Systems, Macromedia, and Hewlett-Packard. He uses mailing lists, such as the one provided by the Web community NoEnd (Editor's Note: As of May 2000, this site is no longer accessible), to find other Web independents to work with him on projects. "I work with lots of people here in San Francisco whom I've never even met," he says. "It happens so fast, and it's all done by email."
E-lancers also use the Web to stay in touch with people who are already in their network. Patricia Boehm (www.emeraldhillsstrategy.com), 36, a management consultant based in Redwood City, California, visits iNiku.com regularly. She uses the site to learn more about other members of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, an organization to which she belongs: "There are only so many lunches and breakfasts that you can attend to find out who does what."
Bidding for jobs. Finding new partners. Working with colleagues. These are all just variations on the same theme: independent professionals using the Web to increase their value in the new e-lance economy. Craig LaGrow (www.lagrow.com), 39, a Denver-based Internet-business strategist, puts it this way: "Imagine that there is a stock exchange for human beings and that everyone has a ticker price. Well, I'm interested in making my ticker price go up!"
Sidebar: E-Lancers of the World Unite!
So you want to go e-lance? These sites are designed to e-work for you. They can help you market your services, meet other people to work with, and get the job done. Now get clicking — and get to work!
eLance (www.elance.com), Monster Talent Market (www.talentmarket.monster.com)
Put yourself on the block. At Monster Talent Market, you offer information about your skills, your availability, and your desired rate, and then you put yourself up for bid. At eLance, you bid on listed projects by naming your price and by describing your qualifications. Going, going, gone.
FreeAgent.com (www.freeagent.com), Guru.com (www.guru.com)
There's strength in numbers at these sites, which not only match free agents to projects but also serve as modern-day guilds. FreeAgent.com provides independents with such benefits as health insurance and 401(k) plans, along with services such as invoicing. Guru.com is an online community of free-agent "gurus" who offer advice to other independents.
eWork Exchange (www.ework.com), iNiku.com (www.iniku.com)
Working for yourself doesn't mean working alone. These sites connect contractors with projects. They also emphasize how important it is for free agents to work together. Both offer good tools for collaboration, such as private file-sharing. Using these sites is like having a virtual office.
advoco.com (www.advoco.com), Ithority (www.ithority.com)
Looking for some really short-term assignments? On these sites, you can answer questions in your area of expertise — and get paid for it.
A version of this article appeared in the November 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.