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The pandemic has torn down the freelance hurdles

What’s holding you back from sprinting your career ahead?

It was more than 20 years ago, but I can still remember it clearly. I was sitting in front of an old cathode ray tube watching a grainy VHS tape of my state’s high school track finals. Kevin, a friend who was one grade above me, had just won the 800m with a new state record. What was really memorable was how he won the race.

For the first half, the pack stayed tight — as you’d expect from a final. But then, on the backstretch, Kevin started accelerating when everyone else was tiring. He looked like a Ferrari against a flock of minivans, as if he had two more gears than all the other top runners from the state. He won in astonishing fashion — like he was competing against different laws of physics that day.

I see this same pattern repeating in the newly disrupted world of work.

Employees are the sluggish minivans of today’s workplace. Us freelancers are the Ferraris. They used to slow us down with speedbumps and hurdles, but the worldwide transformation towards distributed teams has dismantled those obstacles. We’ve rounded the first two corners, and it’s a wide-open sprint to the career finish line. Who do you think is going to win this race?

Those hurdles were never more than flimsy cardboard facades

Social expectations and outdated workplace norms used to build a stigma around the risk of relying on freelancers. Poor communication tools and remote-work processes held us back from the holy grail of collaboration. And a lack of trust when our shoulders couldn’t be looked over hindered freelancers and remote employees alike.

How quickly those hurdles came crumbling down. One year of a global pandemic with everyone forced to learn how to work remotely has transformed most organizations into the distributed teams that freelancers have enjoyed for decades. The playing field has been leveled up. The hurdles wiped clean.

Less risk, more value

There’s now very little difference between a remote employee and a freelancer. I’d argue any differences left are in favor of freelancers. Hiring an experienced contractor is now a lower risk than taking on a new employee and often with better returns.

Freelancers don’t need benefits and health insurance. They don’t require the overhead of office space and equipment. They don’t need training either. All they want is mutual trust and understanding, and they’re off running. This is a far more flexible way of work.

It’s a tipping point in business culture that will see the rapid crumbling of traditions dating back to the industrial revolution. Loyalty and long-term career advancement have been replaced with the flexibility of varied portfolio careers.

Not the cheapest, the best

To take advantage of this freelance revolution, you must be a Ferrari — a finely tuned professional machined built from years upon years of experience and excellence. You can’t repaint a minivan and expect it to perform like a race car suddenly.

That means getting out of the rat race of gig work and into the immensely fulfilling world of being an external expert. Experts command immediate respect and trust — gone are the old days of uncertainty about “cowboy” and “rockstar” labels.

Hiring freelancers is no longer about how to find the cheapest talent; it’s how to find the best talent.

The Expert Economy is leaving the Gig Economy in its dust. It’s fueled by an influx of the world’s top creative minds choosing a career path that offers more flexibility and control.

Where the best people go, the demand follows.

Experts at remote collaboration

Why are freelancers thriving during these turbulent times? Because the way everyone else has been forced to work is the way we’ve been working all along. We’ve always known how to effectively communicate remotely and asynchronously — not just when we’re in meetings or around whiteboards.

I’m constantly asked how the pandemic has affected my work, and my answer is: it hasn’t.

This is business as usual for me. This is the way we all could have been working all along if antiquated work traditions hadn’t been holding us back.

When you hire a quality freelancer, they slot right into a smooth process of distributed work. It’s like installing a printer on a Mac vs. a Windows machine. On Windows, you have to configure, and fiddle, and train it to work. On the Mac, you just plug it in and go. That’s how I work. Just plug me into your team, and you’ll immediately recognize I’m one of the most valuable members you’ve got, even when I’m the only outsider.

Platforms are evolving too

I’ve never been a fan of freelance platforms and marketplaces. Upwork, Fiverr, forget about it. But I must admit that platforms are finally starting to evolve into tools that actually help rather than harm.

What they’re learning is that we don’t need a middleman who wants to control the process of finding clients, building a non-portable reputation, and getting a commission taken from our hard-earned payment. That’s so 10 years ago. What we really want are tools that help us grow thriving, independent businesses — while giving us more control rather than trying to own the transaction themselves. Tools that help us collaborate gain efficiencies and target high-paying niche customers rather than low-quality mass-market gigs.

The new trends in freelancing platforms help us hunt in packs, collaborate with freelance teams, and keep our businesses organized.

I still believe the ultimate freelance career relies on no platforms at all. But for those earlier in their career development, at least these modern platforms are starting to respond to our real needs.

What’s holding you back?

Let me leave you with a question (and I’m honestly interested in your answer — please discuss in the comments): What’s holding you back from your dream freelance career?

My answer to most of the above is “no”. But I also recognize that I’m at a stage in my career that’s taken 20 years of growth and refinement to reach. I could be out of touch with the struggles of those just beginning their freelance journey. So tell me, what hurdles are you still jumping over? What’s holding you back from sprinting past the old world of work?

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.