A failed burrito stand provided Jeremy Sulzmann with some hard-earned wisdom about the realities of freelancing. While living in Amsterdam, Sulzmann tried to fill what he saw as a glaring culinary void. Ultimately, his “can’t miss” business plan never reached fruition. Yet, while trying to figure out how to introduce Hollanders to the wonders of Mexican street food, Sulzmann reached out to one mentor after another. Along the way, he harvested an education that he has put to use throughout his career. “It was probably the most informative year of my life,” he says. “Waking up in the morning and creating my website, marketing materials, cold calling—I felt like it was a one-year MBA [program].”
Sulzmann’s advice to freelancers: Don’t be afraid to fail, because that process often leads to discovering the skills needed to succeed.
Freelancing, specifically “How to Survive—and Succeed—in the Self-Employed Economy,” was the subject of a Fast Company panel sponsored by Intuit QuickBooks in Austin, Texas, last month. In it, the participants itemized those skills (along with the necessary tools), while acknowledging the ever-growing population that requires them—and will need them in the future as more people turn to contingent employment to succeed. “Sixty million people in the U.S. are self-employed today, and that number continues to increase,” said Sulzmann, the business segment leader for QuickBooks Self-Employed at Intuit. “From ride-share drivers and creatives making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to a doctor that’s working in an emergency room on contract and a real estate agent, many people are turning to self-employment for both primary and secondary sources of income. And with this comes a new set of opportunities—and challenges—that need to be addressed.”
While the increase in work has delivered coveted independence to freelancers, it has also added new complexities. Take ride-hail drivers and others on gig platforms. Alex Rosenblat researched their circumstances in depth for her book, Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work. In it, she cites the advantages of scheduling flexibility and a quick payday. “But [the Uber model] traded on assumptions that this work doesn’t have to be well-compensated, because it was a form of sharing,” Rosenblat told the audience. “There is no bargaining power. The drivers can’t build their own client list. They don’t set the rates; Uber sets the rates. They don’t have the information they need to determine if a job is profitable. And if they try and reject a job that is not profitable, they might get a notice warning them that they’re going to be disciplined.”
Rosenblat’s conclusion: “Many people may be prepared to run errands in the gig economy, but they’re not necessarily prepared to run their own business.” The skills required to manage one’s own business aren’t always taught, so understanding what it takes to be successful is critical as more people turn to gig-based work.
YOU’RE THE BOSS
The panelists stressed the importance of freelancers thinking of themselves not as employees but as a business. But being your own boss requires a wide range of skills. Twisha Mehta, senior impact manager for Samaschool, a nonprofit that educates low-income and marginalized populations about the gig economy, said that tech literacy is a must. Customer-service skills and tax savvy are also helpful.
Sulzmann pointed out that 840,000 QuickBooks customers are self-employed, many who signed up because they were surprised by a tax bill. “People are used to having a full-time job where what you get paid is what you can spend, because taxes and benefits have been taken out,” he said. Others just starting out, he added, often don’t know they must send an invoice, thinking payment just happens. “I sat down with one customer who said, ‘My contract is basically a map of scars from where I’ve been burned over the years.’ ”
People often say “I wish I were my own boss,” when what they really mean is, “I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do.” But bosses play crucial roles. Sulzmann suggested that freelancers put themselves through a standard annual review. “Assess yourself,” he said. “Go over monthly objectives and examine how you did.”
He also recommends setting regular performance goals, such as a weekly revenue tally to see if you are hitting the necessary billable hours or marking out time to earn a qualification. “Having the structure and clarity about what you want to do, and then mapping your time back to that, is one thing that you get in a full-time role that you don’t have as a self-employed worker,” he said. “You have to create it.”
WHO’S IN YOUR CORNER?
Of course, full-time jobs come with those golden gifts of healthcare and other benefits. Mehta pointed to for-profit startups offering portable benefits for independent workers. “But from a policy perspective,” she admitted, “there’s a lot more work to be done.”
Rosenblat noted that the U.S. lags behind other nations on this score. “There’s a really similar concept to portable benefits in a couple of other countries—it’s called universal healthcare,” she said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “Now it’s being discussed as a necessary innovation, but we’re providing stop-gap solutions.”
The panelists agreed that the freelance world needs more representation and support. Hundreds of thousands of drivers have joined Facebook groups, chat boards, or WhatsApp groups to figure out how to survive the system. As independent contractors, they don’t get an employee handbook. “What they get are thousands of in-app notifications, text messages, and emails that recommend how they should behave on the job,” Rosenblat said. “And if they don’t, then they risk being deactivated—a technology word for suspended or fired.” This concept brought up the importance of understanding how—and when—to connect with others who may be in similar positions for advice and networking.
To prepare for this shift in the workplace, Samaschool’s Mehta says that the entire education system must change, citing a World Economic Forum statistic that states 65% of children in primary schools will take job types that don’t yet exist. To prepare, students will need to optimize “soft skills,” including cognition, creativity, and problem solving, as well as creating personal brands. Companies are in a perpetual race to optimize their technologies and algorithms. But first, she said, society must think through its own optimization. “How do we make sure that technology is there to serve humanity and provide dignified work that pays a living wage, rather than the other way around?”
This article was created for and commissioned by Intuit QuickBooks.