Before writing this piece, I did a touch of reading on what people think of freelancing. How much money can you make? Is any of the genuinely interesting work ever outsourced? Who benefits most - employer or freelancer? A lot of the prattle online is about how it’s a sort of slavery by moonlight: wages eroded by crappy economic conditions force young professionals to look for other work in addition to their full time job. But if you’re in the creative industries (or have a skill from them), it’s genuinely easy to boost your income. And it’s cool as well.
Three weeks ago, I found myself looking at a website called PeoplePerHour, where employers find freelancers and freelancers find work - in fact, there are a few of these platforms. I was only on there for about five minutes before a job someone had posted caught my eye. It was a bit of copywriting (simple stuff for a journalist) for an app company in New York. They wanted a brochure written to present to would-be investors for their new app. What happened next was, considering it is document-based, a super-modern-ridiculously-cool-Generation-Y-moment...
I pitched for the work online. Justin from Acapella Apps got in touch straight away (it was 1pm in New York, 6pm in London), to ask me to get on board. In a single message, his first communication, he gave me his Skype name and suggested we ‘hook up’ in an hour with another freelancer called Isabelle, who was helping out with the project from Cape Town. Sure enough (and with me still giggling about the fact that, for the first time ever, I was actually going to have a serious use for video-calling) we ‘met’ at about 7.30pm. Isabelle and I sat and listened to Justin - the three of us a triangular 20,000 miles away from each other - about the new app, what the brochure should contain, and the linguistic tone Justin envisaged for it.
I sort of expected to complete the Skype call, go away and marvel at how quickly I had managed to wing some extra work, and generally not do anything more about it for a day or two. But in wrapping up the conversation, Justin said something like: ‘We’ll reconvene in, let’s say, three hours and compare work. Sound cool?’ What else could I do but open the link to the shared Google Docs brief Justin sent to us both, and get to work? Something about the slickness and American-ness of Justin’s approach (iPhone apps, video-calling, cloud-document-sharing, online freelance portals, jeans-and-Converse-in-the-office) had me tapping away at my laptop for a company which, until two hours before, I didn’t know existed.
And that’s the beauty of it: before platforms like this, young journalists like me had to rely on who, rather than what, they knew to find extra work. OK, so there’s a recession on and perhaps companies in London are not screaming out for loads of extra skilled work in the knowledge economy. But Skype and PeoplePerHour had landed me an evening’s work and £80 of income from an overseas market. I’m literally crossing borders with my skills. And for the sake of spending 20 seconds filling in a ‘proposal’ box on a website.
I fished around to see what other freelancers had thought of the experience, and, granted, the novelty of it all has probably clouded my judgment. Laura Brown is a freelance copywriter too, and says that when she first got started with PPH, it was very handy indeed. ‘It’s great when you’re starting out,’ she says, ‘as it teaches you what your skills are worth’. But she explains that too often ‘people would advertise jobs that were well below the minimum wage, and anyway I often felt that my work had been undervalued [by the price the employer set].’
So, possibly there is a downside here. Employers will advertise unfairly low prices in the knowledge that someone will come along and offer to do the work because they need the money. But, says Brown, ‘I still get about 20% of my work from PeoplePerHour’. Whilst it’s not providing her with a living, it is making a significant contribution, right?
For the time being, I’ve still got Justin asking me to do bits and bobs - and he’s even hinting at the possibility that I’ll be in charge of his company’s social media presence. It’s interesting work and it’s certainly helping pay that insanely high tariff on my iPhone that seems to have lasted since university. And I also feel pretty industrious for having forged a professional relationship with a hip New York company.
But could I make a living at it? That’s a very different question. It’s a nice way to get some extra cash through the door, but I won’t be giving up my day job just yet.