Years ago, Russell Howze was working as a creative at an advertising agency in Atlanta when he got laid off due to budget cuts. He then spent years piecing together work through various corporate jobs, until he decided to follow his heart. He founded a nonprofit organization for artists, and now supplements his income running street art tours through Vayable, the company I founded, in his extra time.
The first part of this story is one that has come to define the reality of so many in the wake of the recession. But the second part—where the discontented worker leaves behind the "security" of a corporate job in favor of his or her passions—is a new and growing behavior in post-industrial countries, particularly in the United States, Europe, and Australia.
The media has named the growing trend toward micro-entrepreneurship "the Rise of the Creative Class," "the Gig Life," or "the freelance economy." All of those refer to the nearly 4.1 million workers (that’s 14 out of every 100 workers) who were self-employed this past year, according to the Office for National Statistics, and millions of others currently supplement their income with freelance work. While the trend has been spotted before, there’s one stark difference between micro-entrepreneurs today and the "Free Agent Nation" citizens of the late '90s: technology.
Data on self-employment and freelance is limited because labor reporting has yet to adapt, but one indisputable metric is the rise of micro-entrepreneurship platforms and its contribution to a Do-it-Yourself Economy. During the past year, startups such as Airbnb (vacation rentals), Taskrabbit (home services), Uber (car service), and Etsy (handmade goods), have catapulted from niche use to household names. And a handful of newbies including Skillshare (education), LooseCubes (co-working), Getaround (cars), RelayRides (cars) and my company, Vayable (tours and activities), are also growing month over month.
What defines this new economy is that it’s built on the empowerment of individuals and the technology that enables this. It’s allowing individuals to create their own jobs. It’s a celebration of life and time, and a shift in perspective of money. Technology now provides an opportunity for people anywhere in the world to monetize their passions. And it’s not just the artists and under-employed flocking to these platforms, but professionals who seek a higher quality of life, greater flexibility, and more time with their families.
There are five main reasons that I think make micro-entrepeneurship so appealing:
- Flexibility: The ability to focus on what’s important (family, health, self-care) is not only about have having more time, but also about having more flexibility in your schedule.
- Following your heart: The opportunity to spend more time doing what you love.
- Making money: Being able to cash in on the goods, knowledge, places, skills and passions that people already have.
- Enrichment: Many people, especially those who have been in the workforce for a long time, are looking for new, sustainable ways to enrich their knowledge, skills and experience in life. Those who are retired or unable to work full-time love an alternative way to stay active.
- Creativity: Being your own boss means being the visionary behind your own business, rather than merely following marching orders.
The value proposition of self-employment is so compelling that it’s precisely what drove the corporates-gone-creatives entrepreneurs behind the aforementioned companies to empower others to strike out on their own, while providing a business structure, resources, and guidance through the platforms that are otherwise unavailable to the self-employed trying to do it solo.
But of course, as in every economy, the growth and survival of micro-entrepreneurship will be determined by the market. Do customers have a palate for the smaller, more custom, and unique experiences that these platforms offer? So far, the verdict is a strong yes.
As our appetite for labor swings away from the corporate culture and structure, so does our taste in buying. Customers use micro-entrepreneurship platforms for many of the same reasons that the entrepreneurs themselves do:
- Price: Buying from individuals on these platforms often means getting a much better deal than buying from a large company or professional service.
- Flexibility: Customers crave greater personalization and customization in goods and services than ever before. They want to choose when they get it, how, and for how much. These platforms accommodate individual needs much more than old ways of buying.
- Ease of use: One of the top reasons people like these platforms is because they make it easy to search, find, and purchase exactly what you’re looking for in once place. And user-friendly design makes all of these platforms easier to use than many e-commerce sites.
- Authenticity: Buying directly from the individual artist, homeowner, painter, or food enthusiast often provides greater quality and the confidence that you’re getting the real deal.
- Unique experience: Transportation, accommodation, getting groceries, and visiting local sites are no longer commodities but memorable, enriching experiences that last forever.
- It’s good for the world: Responsible commerce is important to a growing number of consumers, and with these platforms they have the satisfaction of knowing that money goes back to small business owners and the local community, thereby fueling the economy and reducing waste.
Certainly the move away from the 9 to 5 and toward self-employment invokes a host of ideological, political, and social enthusiasm that have helped give rise to a movement. The Occupy Movement and a growing mistrust in government further swells the fervor around a new economy, amplifying the message that change is imminent and necessary. But the reason micro-entrepreneurship platforms are growing in size and variation is because it’s an economic imperative.
This new freedom economy is working because it’s good for economic growth, and it’s growing because it can lead to better lives. But this technological revolution that enables greater autonomy and flexibility will also require a humane infrastructure to survive.
What’s necessary to make a DIY economy work:
Trust: Trust in big business has been on the decline, but the collapse of the financial sector may have been the final straw for many (especially those who lost their jobs). As we shape the freelance economy, building and maintaining trust between buyers and sellers is critical to the success of its growth.
Collaboration: Even employees of large companies cannot always depend on them to provide for benefits, quality of life, and ensure that basic needs are met. Instead, we rely on each other, on our community. As the DIY economy grows, we will need to work with government to ensure that policy and practices take basic needs such as health care, disability, and retirement into consideration
Accountability: New forms of accountability are required, instead of outdated accreditations, licenses, degrees, and other credentials that are increasingly losing relevance. People will accredit one another through reviews, repeat business, and other forms of reputation tracking and social buying.
Security: Both online security (secure payments, personal information) as well as offline safety are imperative to empower the growth of micro-entrepreneurship.
Technology: This is really at the heart of the freelance economy. Continuing to fuel technological innovation and creative application of technologies is the most important thing for future growth and sustainability.
New companies that empower individuals to become micro-entrepreneurs not only stimulate the economy by creating new revenue streams and disrupting outdated models of business, but provide individuals access to more fulfilling, rewarding, and authentic lives. As my late grandmother used to say: "Life is how you spend your time."