The future of freelancing isn’t better platforms — it’s no platforms
A rebuttal of Dr. Jon Younger’s accurate, yet platform-obsessed freelance revolution predictions.
It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of freelance platforms — Upwork, Fiverr, Freelancer.com and the like. I’ve written about it before. I simply can’t understand why you’d want to leave both your income and reputation at the mercy of a third-party who doesn’t always have your best interest in mind. Especially if you aim to build a full-time career from freelancing. It’s your livelihood — you want to be in control of it.
When I came across Jon Younger’s recent article on freelance “revolution” predictions I found myself nodding in total agreement and cringing in frustration in equal measures. So much he said rings true, but it’s so platform-centric it made me throw up a little in my mouth.
Before you get too far down my rabbit hole, go read (or at least skim) Jon Younger’s predictions for the unfolding freelance revolution: Freelancing 2021: The Trends I See For The Freelance Revolution
(I’ve summarized some of my favourite trends below)
I respect Jon. He’s a knowledgeable expert who has been pushing HR and the freelance economy forward for a long time.
But, what’s with the obsession over freelancing “platforms”? I mean, he links to 46 platforms¹ in this single article! It’s practically all he talks about. He also mentions that “by some counts, there are already 800–1000 freelance platforms.”
It’s such a narrow view of what freelancing really is.
Why is the freelance world seemingly defined by the latest and greatest marketplaces that want to take your money in exchange for helping hook you up with clients? And why do we need so many of them when they all essentially do the same thing? Is freelancing without the crutch of a third-party platform really that difficult?
Maybe I’ve been freelancing under a rock for the past two decades, but in all my time running my own business — since 2001 — I’ve never used any of them! Perhaps I’m not a real freelancer. Or, just maybe, I’ve learned a better way to do it.
I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of people want to freelance, but they don’t want to run a business. Platforms are the middle-men that try to fill some of that gap. But for those of us with entrepreneurial minds who enjoy the business side as much as the craft, they offer little to no value.
Despite my misgivings about platforms, what Jon has highlighted well is that analyzing trends in freelance platforms is a mirror for what the freelance economy is doing as a whole.
Let’s take a look at Jon’s predicted freelancing trends. Despite my argument, there’s a whole lot to like here.
Freelance revolution trends
Here are some of my favourite predictions Jon laid out in his article.
The acceptance of remote work will continue to lubricate freelancing.
The forced shift to remote has proven feasible (because of tech), attractive (people like it), and productive (data). It has also been a freelance accelerator. In truth…the difference between a freelancer and an employee shrinks to almost nothing when they are both working remotely.
2020 was the year the world learned to live with (and mostly love) remote work. Of course, this is old news for those of us who’ve been working at home all this time, but now the whole world understands our perspective. And I don’t think they’ll ever go back to their old normal.
Remote work and freelancing go hand-in-hand because many of the previous criticisms of freelancing were really worries about remote working. Now that those concerns have been proven false, the runway for freelancing has opened up even wider.
Freelancing is becoming a respected alternative career.
Until recently, freelancers in too many parts of the world were seen as also ran, not able to attract a good full-time job. Covid 19 effectively shut down that perspective. We still have troublesome employment and tax policies in much of the world, and in many countries (including the US) it can be difficult to find good quality, reasonably priced, health insurance. But, we are also seeing record numbers of professionals choosing a freelance career over full-time employment.
I’ve never run into this stigma much in my own life, but we’ve all heard the stories of family and colleagues who didn’t treat their freelance friends as having real jobs or serious careers. The trend towards acceptance and respect for the freelance career was already well down the track before 2020, but COVID put the final nail in the coffin of that old stigma.
It’s also worth pointing at that freelancing, in many cases, is now more stable than traditional employment. The smart ones are training to build their own businesses rather than being slaves to someone else’s profit.
Full acceptance of the flexible, blended workforce is still in the distance.
Matt Dowling and the team at the FreelancerClub in the UK noticed an interesting trend in their research: freelancers often frustrated startup teams for not seeming invested in the larger, longer, mission of the company. Its a common complaint: freelancers are transactional, and appear disinterested in the company and its challenges. But, it’s a two sided coin: “on demand” is often a gig that leads nowhere. I’m eager for a time when organizational leaders and project managers establish freelance relationships that are more symmetrical, create a win/win on both sides, and do the hard work of on-boarding them properly, paying them fairly, including them as a member of the team, and administratively treating them with respect.
I find this one really interesting because I can understand and sympathize with both sides of the story.
Being “on-demand” is a blessing and a curse.
It’s true that some freelancers don’t get invested enough in their client’s business. They see the job as too temporary to justify a deep intellectual or emotional investment. They don’t want to become an integrated part of the team when they know they’ll be on their way in a few weeks or months and likely never be called back.
But this presents a tremendous opportunity for those us who do get fully invested in our client’s success. It’s something I pride myself in doing, and my clients feel that commitment and love me for it. They treat me like a part of their team because I have as much (or more!) passion for helping them succeed than any of their employees do.
It’s a two-way street that makes this work — what Jon calls a “symmetrical relationship”. Freelancers only want to get invested if clients invest in them in return. If we know it’s the start of a long-term partnership we’ll dive right in. If we know it’s a one-off gig and then “see you later”, it’s hard to make the same commitment.
Clients are opening their eyes to this dynamic. They know if they want to attract the most expert freelancers and get the best out of them they need to treat them with the respect they deserve and offer many of the same perks that permanent employees enjoy. Partnerships like this can become incredibly fruitful. I have many freelance client relationships that are still going strong after more than 10 years.
You’ll notice all the points above had nothing to do with platforms, and everything to do with the changing perceptions and attitudes towards freelancing as a career. Those trends were, unfortunately, the exceptions in Dr. Younger’s predictions.
Every other trend Jon highlighted was entirely based on the evolution of freelancing platforms. Which makes those predictions, to me, largely irrelevant because I don’t belong to any of those platforms — nor do I have any desire to join them.
He seems to assume that freelancers can only develop their businesses when aided by a platform to show them the way and grease the wheels. I think he should be given us a bit more credit.
But there was one platform prediction that caught my attention.
The only “platform” trend that really matters
There’s one trend that Jon highlighted which I’d like to call out because I think it’s the most insightful prediction. He frames it, again, in terms of which new platform cater to the demand, but it’s a strategy that any freelancer can adopt on their own to help them grow their business and attract better work.
Teaming and “hunting in packs” enables freelancing to compete for larger, more complex, enterprise work.
Jon explains how the encouragement of individuals banding together for mutual interest or gain is a new trend on freelance platforms, but it’s really got nothing to do with platforms at all. The platforms are simply responding to the demand of an existing trend that has allowed us to attract larger work for decades.
I’ve talked before about how small freelancers can attract massive projects. Many of my own projects over the past 5 years have been 6–12 month engagements with budgets of $50K and larger.
“Hunting in packs” is one of the strategies that can help build the trust and capabilities needed to land projects of this size, so I was really pleased to see Jon highlighting this important strategy.
Freelancing platforms that aid individual experts in combining their talents, collaborating, and marketing themselves as a trusted group to potential clients is an area I can see real value in. They are no longer just connecting clients with freelancers and taking a cut of the pay. They have matured into helping freelancers actually grow and evolve their business while maintaining their own autonomy and flexibility.
Finally, that’s a platform that actually reflects what I see as the future of freelancing.
If you have developed expertise, built a local reputation, and have a strong portfolio of work for people to judge you on, finding enough freelance clients isn’t that challenging. I haven’t had to search for new work for the last 5–10 years. Once you reach a critical mass of good work, work it comes to you.
When you’re starting out, sure, use a freelancing platform if you must. It’s not the best way to start freelancing (I would start local), but it’s one tool in your toolbox. However, mastering Upwork isn’t freelancing. It’s one tiny, potential stepping stone towards a much better goal.
“Winning” at freelance isn’t about getting enough clients to do it full time and pay the bills. That’s a good starting point, but a lousy end-goal.
Real freelance freedom comes from being so spoiled for choice that you can turn down all but the best opportunities. It’s about the privilege of working only on projects you are passionate about. Because passion brings commitment (remember the point above?). Passion and pride are the recipe for creating your best work — the kind of work that leads to referrals and an endless supply of new jobs. The kind of work that excites you to get fully invested.
If that’s the goal, platforms don't help you get there. Most of them are notorious for being full of bad to mediocre clients. Cost-clients, not value-clients. They aren’t the place you go looking for your ideal client-partner.
So as soon as you get beyond the desperate-beginner-freelancer-willing-to-take-any-opportunity stage — and you’ve graduated to the luxurious world of saying “no” — you’ve grown out of the need for a freelancing platform. They no longer provide you value. In fact, they will hinder your growth to better clients and projects.
My prediction for the freelance revolution? The masses will stick to platforms, but all the best experts will go platformless.
What to do instead?
The future of freelancing isn’t becoming a slave to a platform designed to suck profits from you, your clients, or sometimes both. Real freelancers find clients by actually forming relationships with local people, not competing anonymously for jobs from across the world.
The freelancing economy is becoming the expert economy. It’s about injecting immense value into an organisation on-demand — to help them fill gaps in capability, availability, or vision. This is the power of being an external expert, and it’s the career of the future. It’s profitable, flexible, builds reputation, and allows you to follow the intersection of your passion and your value to others.
And to take that a step further, it’s about building a tribe of expert sometimes-collaborators that you can team up with to tackle the big hairy projects.
Instead of relying on a platform to match you with potential clients — where you’re competing globally on price with people with a lower cost of living than you — make those client connections directly yourself. Or even better, build a system that attracts them to you.
Instead of building up a reputation of non-portable, platform-specific ratings and reviews, build a real-world reputation of client testimonials, LinkedIn recommendations, and delighted clients who sing your praises and refer you to their friends and colleagues. A well run freelance business becomes a nearly-passive client acquisition machine.
Instead of allowing a platform to hold your income hostage, get your business accounting in order (gasp! — hire an accountant), deal with clients directly, and keep every cent of your profits.
When you strip away all these shackles, it can be scary. You realise you alone are responsible for running your business and all its successes and failures. There’s no unfair system to vent your frustrations on.
That’s extremely liberating too.
It doesn’t matter if your favourite freelancing website changes its algorithm or increases its fees. It doesn’t matter if it gets more and more flooded with entry-level gigsters who undercut your rates. It doesn’t matter if you get booted out of their system with no explanation, or your platform reputation gets tainted by unscrupulous clients. None of that matters because you’re no longer a slave to their system.
You’ve gone platformless. Welcome to the real freelance revolution.
¹ The ridiculous number of freelance platforms Jon Younger mentioned in a single article: Stratlancer, Fiverr, Upwork, We-cruit, Hoxby, Indie List, PR Cavalry, 10XManagement, Catalant, Marteamo, Mash, Vrootok, Virtasant, Comet, Experfy, Outsized, Comatch, Kronos, Contra, VentureL, Freelancing Teams, Vicoland, Toptal, Omdena, Topcoder, Expert Powerhouse, Adequancy, Ferovalo, MeasureMatch, Gebeya, Experfy, Freelancer.com, MBO Partners, Worksome, Workstable, Folq, InCloudCounsel, FreelancerClub, Twago, Inex One, One Circle, Kolabtree, Urban, Torchlite, and OdeCloud.
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
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