What is the gig economy?

The world of work is transforming from an ecosystem in which workers seek long-term or permanent employment with a single employer, to one where impermanence is the new norm. Switching jobs and career changes are more common and no longer deemed unusual, meaning conventional long service to companies is no longer considered the hallmark of loyalty or job security.

The proliferation of digital online platforms has been a major catalyst of these changes. The gig economy is certainly disruptive to the traditional set-up of permanent employment and what the baby boomers or Generation X used to call ‘jobs for life’. It has ushered in a new wave which gives way to micro-entrepreneurs and self-employment on a freelance basis. In the gig economy, self-starters trade services and businesses engage independent workers for short-term or project based work. Freelancers are self-employed and therefore not entitled to company benefits typically accessible to permanent employees such as paid sick leave, pension and health insurance. The “gig work” lifestyle has historically been confined to people working in the entertainment sector such as in the music, television, and theatre business or seasonal workers in the farming sector, etc. However, the corporate sector is now following the trend, which evidently helps them cut costs on employee benefits.

Today’s workforce is mobile and work does not necessarily have to be done onsite. This has also given rise to alternative workspaces such as co-working spaces which give freelancers the ability to work from anywhere in the world, either from the comfort of their homes or in shared spaces which incorporate a similar concept to ‘hot-desking’. Similarly, gig workers are not confined to local employment opportunities, but are in fact able to work even across borders almost seamlessly due to technological enablement.


6 simple steps to get yourself started as a gig worker

How then does one get started in the gig economy? The following are tips on what you can do to launch a successful gig economy career. They are outlined in a relatively sequential manner, although the process may not always be linear.


1. Identify your expertise

In order to be a freelancer or a gig worker, you need to possess a skill that you can offer to clients. The logical first step is to define what your speciality is; preferably based on the skills that you already possess and something you are passionate about. You need to also interrogate your motives for freelancing for instance, is it to earn more money or have more flexible working hours? Whatever it is, ensure that freelancing is the solution`. Set clearly defined goals for your freelancing career to provide you with direction and focus.

2. Build your portfolio

Most companies engage freelancers as they come highly skilled and require minimal training. As such, before approaching prospective clients, you need to put together your portfolio as evidence of the work you have done. A portfolio is necessary regardless of the target industry or specific skill on offer. Your portfolio should include samples of your work, accomplishments and testimonials. Even if you have not landed any clients, provide testimonials from individuals who can vouch for you professionally such as colleagues and even former bosses. Do not launch your freelancing career before you acquire relative experience in providing the services you plan to sell. A good way to build your portfolio and test your services is by doing some “pro bono” work for small companies or non-profit organisations.

3. Brand yourself

In addition to your portfolio, you need to brand yourself by having an online presence – at the very least in the form of a website and LinkedIn profile. Having a good online profile will create the impression that you are serious about your work and not a “fly-by-night”. Other crucial branding tools include business cards, a letterhead and logos. To succeed as a freelancer you also need to be willing to offer value to your prospective clients in the form of content that speaks to their needs or concerns and establishes you as an expert in your field.

4. Consider the legalities and finances

As a freelancer, you need to be aware of the tax and other legal implications within your country. Determine if you will be trading as business entity, an individual and the tax implications thereof. Consider your business goals and assess the benefits that come with how you decide to legally trade. It is a good idea to engage the professional services of an accountant to advise on setting up the financial structures you need. It is also advisable to separate your personal and business finances in order to easily track expenses. Prepare yourself for dry spells as you enter the gig economy as income can be sporadic.

5. Determine your fee

Probably one of the trickiest considerations in entering the freelance space is setting a fee for your services. This is something that you should research well by speaking to other freelancers in the market and individuals within your network. Take into account other costs such as administrative, marketing, travel, etc. When projecting your income, remember you are not going to utilise all possible billable hours in a year and will be unpaid when you are off sick, on holiday or attending to personal matters. You may have to quote lower rates in the beginning as you penetrate the market while trying to build your client portfolio, but as you progress you need to know when to walk away from contracts that are not worth your while.

Remember, in any industry, there are always a lot of competitors willing to charge much lower rates than you are, therefore do not fall into the temptation of underselling yourself to compete. Benchmark your service against what others are offering and price yourself based on the value you deliver. Also consider different pricing strategies such as per hour billing or pricing per project. As a general rule, always overestimate both time and money particularly when billing per hour.

6. Execute a client strategy

Now that you have the basics in place – define and approach your client base.  The first step is to identify which type of companies will make use of your services and can afford to pay your rates. Consider the decision makers within these businesses and how you can connect with them. This process may be trial and error in the beginning and you will eventually develop a good sense of the “buyers” market which is most suitable to achieving your goals. Once you’ve narrowed down your target market, the second step is to find them, approach them and hopefully secure your first contract. A great way to gain access to your potential client base is finding out where they “hang out”. As such, find out about associations within the industry, professional online platforms that you can join as well as events where you can network and build relationships. If you have the appetite for it, you can also try cold calling or emailing.

A great additional tool is using your existing network of friends, family and ex-colleagues since they are likely to be people that care about you and will be willing to support your endeavours. In this regard, let people in your network know the kind of work you are doing and inform them that you are available for assignments and contracts.


Final Insights

The gig economy provides a new way of working for individuals who do not want long-term commitment to one employer and technology that makes much of this possible. Managing a freelancing career requires putting several things in place to ensure longevity and success given that the work assignments are episodic. Identifying your area of expertise is a key starting point and following that with a solid portfolio as evidence of your expertise.  Professional branding as a gig worker should, at the very least, consist of a personal website and well-crafted LinkedIn Profile. Legal documentation and financial structures should also be in place to ensure compliance.

Article by guest writer, Phiona Martin