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Wipeout: the risk of flying solo

This week has been a wipeout. From the wedding I had to leave early on Saturday, to the uncomfortable journey home on Sunday, to the four days spent largely incapacitated since. I won’t go into too much detail but it involves a root canal, a ‘phoenix abscess’, a probable migraine, and a pretty negative reaction to some of the medication involved.

In five days, I’ve lost five pounds in weight and my face has gained a few years worth of wrinkles, screwed-up in a grimace when my painkillers were exhausted.

It has not been pleasant.

I share this in part as an explanation and apology (‘Explapology’? ‘Explology’?) for my lack of presence and the emails piling up in my inbox.

Sorry.

But I share it more as a cautionary tale for the future gig economy.

Short term security

Much is made of the loss of security that freelancers face: no sick pay, no paid holiday, no company pension. But there’s little discussion of what happens to everything else when someone flying solo crashes for a week. What happens to the work? The business of marketing? The administration?

Maintaining a successful freelance practice involves constant self-promotion. It can’t stop or the work stops — or at the least, stops growing. You become reliant on ‘word of mouth’, also known as good will and luck. This is fine until it’s not, because it is so unpredictable.

It also involves large amounts of administration: dealing with clients, contracts, invoices, accounts, tax, rent, broadband, software. All the things you can hand off to someone else when you’re employed.

It’s not just the work that doesn’t get done when you’re sick, it’s the business of being in business.

Clients first

The reality is that when you’re back on your feet, the priority is always servicing your clients. Often even beforehand.

Three times this week I’ve timed the painkillers right and steeled myself to get through a webinar, a presentation, and a batch of calls and emails. Only then did I find the time to squeeze out some confirmations of new work and a couple of invoices.

That’s why, right now, I don’t feel too bad about knocking out this blog post rather than chasing my next deadline (I have a few hours).

It will ever be thus: good freelancers will be committed to meeting their clients’ needs first. And it looks like there will be a lot more freelancers in the next few years, as companies automate what they can and turn to on-demand resource for the things they can’t. That seems to be the current pattern.

So who is going to catch the freelancers when they fall (ill)?

Not tomorrow but today

This isn’t so much about the long term: the pensions, benefits, holiday entitlements etc on which an increasingly freelance workforce might miss out. This is about keeping the wheels turning from day to day — automation, which presents benefits to the freelancer, as well as risks, can only do so much.

I see two approaches. One is the collaborative collective, sharing rather than competing, and supporting each other. These are the types of initiatives that some co-working spaces seem to be trying to develop, though if you’re going to trust your business to someone in your absence, you’d want to have some pretty robust agreements in place or a very strong sense of trust.

The other is outsourcing. We already have umbrella companies, who handle all the financial affairs of contractors in health, IT and elsewhere. Imagine a super-umbrella, like a combined PA, book-keeper, accountant and marketing firm. If such a thing existed, I’d be tempted to shift a chunk of my expenditure to them. With a few clients they might be able to exert some fairly significant buying power over additional services that might be attractive: office space, connectivity, travel etc.

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Tom Cheesewright