Freelancers – there are a lot of them about. According to figures published in 2018 by the Association of Independent Professionals and Self Employed (IPSE), the U.K. was at that time home to around two million freelance workers, most of them doing it on a full-time basis. And the survey captured a rising trend, with numbers of up 46 percent from 2008.
One possible reason for the rise was the downturn in traditional employment triggered, in part, by the great financial crisis, with people who had not hitherto considered freelancing finding that pitching for work on their own behalf was the only way to make an income at a time when not many organizations were hiring. As the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis becomes increasingly apparent, I’m willing to bet freelancer numbers will rise again.
That’s not the whole story of course. Economic downturns have certainly played a role in swelling freelancer numbers but so too has the increasingly entrepreneurial culture that has taken hold across the world. Maybe you don’t want to start a business with staff and offices, but you can work for yourself and enjoy the kind of freedom and independence that is usually denied to employees.
Flipping The Coin
But let’s flip the coin over for a minute. As the pool of freelancers has grown, so has the number of companies who are prepared to outsource much of their work to solo independents. Rather than taking on staff, a business can grow -in theory – by assembling a distributed and very flexible workforce of skilled people. Often freelancers are used in back-room jobs, such as copy-writing or web design, but they are also deployed in client-facing roles and do what is essentially core work for organizations.
Which raises the question. Is a freelance workforce really reliable enough to build a substantial company around? By their nature, freelancers take work where they can get it. A company might use two or three trusted individuals on a particular project. Next time around, the client asks for the same team again, but people in question are no longer available.
It’s a possibility that Justin Small, founder and CEO of the Future Strategy Club is well aware of. An alumnus of a number of creative agencies, he has set out to create a business that can provide a full range of agency services, using freelancers rather than full-time employees.
This appeals to him on a number of levels. It’s certainly a cheaper option – not just for the Future Strategy club itself, but also, Small says, for clients. But there is a philosophical appeal too.
“When you think back to the original agencies – not necessarily the ad agencies, that’s a different world – but the wider range of agencies. They were created by people who were essentially misfits. They didn’t want to work in offices and wear suits.”
Today, he argues, the agency world has become much more corporate. “The freelancer is today’s misfit who doesn’t want to wear a suit.”
To date, the Future Strategy Club has assembled a community of around 300 people, including advisors with executive experience working at Sony, Santander and Mothercare to work on projects.
By using a freelancer model, Small says he has been able to grow a business that does not require investment. This, he argues, provides a means to maintain the independence of the Future Strategy Club. “Taking investment changes your decision making,” he says. “The idea behind FSC was to maintain the purpose of the business and to be able to say “no” to the work that we don’t want to do.”
Equally important, he believes that using freelancers helps to maintain a competitive edge. “Freelancers are only as good as their last job. They are motivated to do their best.”
Preparing The Ground
But the challenge has been to attract and retain a pool of suitably qualified freelancers in an industry where talent is at a premium and the best people are often poached by rivals. So since launching, the FSC has been at pains to present itself as a club.
“We have a small space in Peckham (South London) where we hold events. We did a lot of groundwork to build the brand,” says Small.
So what does that mean in practice? Well, there is perhaps a tension here. On the one hand, FSC is itself a brand, offering a consistent level of service to clients. That requires a degree of continuity. On the other hand, the life of the freelancer is notoriously insecure. As mentioned earlier, the freelancer who did great work for you today could be unavailable next week, or even out of business if there isn’t a regular flow of commissions.
“We aim to create the structures that enable freelancers to remain freelancers,” says Small. With that in mind, the FSC seeks to add value with a proposition that includes the offer coaching and mentoring. “We have a voice. We represent our community,” Small Adds.
Extensive use of freelancers has been, rather grandly, dubbed the Hollywood model – a term that FSC likes to use. As in Hollywood, teams assemble, work on projects and split up again. So what if the team members who assemble like each other so much that they form their own agencies. “We would support that. But we would hope they would continue to work with us.”
Small says, the structure of FSC has opened the door for a certain amount of innovation, such a Market section on the company’s website where smaller businesses can buy off the peg advice in areas such as PR and strategic planning. Bigger clients get a bespoke service. The model seems to be working. This year, the company is on track for around £1 million in revenues.
There is a bigger issue here. A freelance workforce is tempting to organizations that see an opportunity to reduce costs and become more flexible. The potential problem is that a great many freelancers would probably rather be on the payroll – especially if their work as solo professionals tends to be a bit Consequently sporadic. Many of those who are happy to freelance won’t feel a particular loyalty to their clients. If the future really is freelance, organizations could well have to learn to look after their freelancers just as they do with their permanent staff.