Nurturing Freelance Ecosystems
In this post I briefly share my experience and philosophy about supporting freelance communities and some practical advice for nurturing their ecosystems.
The Case For Freelance Symbiosis
I am no stranger to either freelancing or hiring freelancers. In fact, throughout my career, the companies I have founded and the projects I have managed have largely been staffed by freelance contractors. Recently, I calculated their number to be in excess of 1250 individuals.
Freelance is not for everyone, but for those who can make it work, it offers tremendous freedom and financial reward. For employers, it offers flexible access to part-time expertise without the overhead associated with full-time employees. The key to making this work is nurturing and maintaining a thriving freelance ecosystem — supply and demand.
I learned to embrace this model early in my career working as an independent film, television and video producer in Los Angeles. Nowhere is there a more robust community of freelancers than in Hollywood.
Like many independent production companies, my video production company was essentially me and one or two others during the development phases of a project. Once a project was green-lit, however, I would quickly staff the production by reaching out to my go-to team of freelance professionals. Depending on the size of the project, my teams ranged in size from under a dozen to many dozens of talented craftspeople.
Typically, I would call on the same core group of folks time and again — my go-to cameraman, lighting director, art director, audio technician, production assistant, music composer, etc. When someone was unavailable, they would refer me to their go-to back up person — someone else they knew, who did exactly what they did, presumably just as well, otherwise they would not feel comfortable recommending that individual. If that person was unavailable, they would refer their go-to backup person and so on. Usually, within one or two hops, you would find someone who you could be reasonably well assured would step in and do a great job.
This is still how it works in Hollywood. Most crew members are freelance contractors. A team is assembled around a specific project, for a limited period of intense activity, often forming deep friendships as a result. When the project is over, there is a wrap party and you all part company, noting with whom you would like to work with again.
Risk Aversion Over Nepotism
Understanding this model explains what is often miscast as nepotism in Hollywood. Television and film production is a high-stakes business. There is a lot of financial pressure on producers and directors to deliver. So when you find someone who is both good at what they do and easy to work with — even under pressure — you are not too anxious to swap out that person for some unknown talent. Risk aversion and quality of life, first and foremost, are the reasons why it is hard to break into the Hollywood trades.
Pay it Forward
As my career matured, I moved from film and television production to broadcast graphics, interactive multimedia, game development, and eventually web application development. In each case, I have promoted the notion that a thriving freelance eco-system is good for that industry.
Some industries have been slower to adopt this approach than others. The enterprise software industry, for example, still has a long way to go to come close to matching the Hollywood freelance ecosystem. This is especially true in secondary markets, where developing a freelance marketplace often seems like a chicken and egg conundrum.
With the right mindset, I think we can change that.
Advice to Freelancers
1. Stop Seeing Your Peers as a Competitive Threat
The best Hollywood freelancers are constantly on the lookout for talented people who can do their job. This may seem counterintuitive, but there are many good reasons to do so:
- It is better to be part of the solution than to disappoint a client
- What goes around comes around — by referring a peer, that peer may likely refer you, when the shoe is on the other foot
- It’s nice to have a backup bench when life’s unexpected emergencies come up, like illness or family matters
2. Master Professionalism
- Be disciplined about maintaining your calendar
- Return calls promptly
- Always be punctual
- Be knowledgeable (stay current; know your trade)
- Never miss deadlines (instead, renegotiate, but do so early)
- Keep a work journal (this will protect you from selective client amnesia)
- Use a tool like Freshbooks to generate professional invoices
- Always make your clients feel important; don’t talk needlessly about other projects or clients in their presence and NEVER use another project as an excuse for incomplete or unsatisfactory work
3. Network Intentionally
- Seek out the best in your field
- Ask questions and listen actively
- Share opportunities and best practices whenever you can
- Embrace my philosophy about peer referrals and share this philosophy when meeting others
- Develop a referral network among your peers
Advice to Companies Hiring Freelancers
Having access to freelance consultants, available on a project basis, can be a tremendous asset to companies of any size across all industries. It is in your best interest to help foster a thriving local freelance community.
With that in mind, here are some fundamental tips for companies, to be supportive of freelancers.
1. Treat Freelancers with Professional Courtesy and Respect
- Be open.
- Be honest.
- Communicate early and often.
- Above all — do not treat contractors as second-class citizens.
2. Be Sensitive to the Realities of Freelancing
- Realize that freelancers have a business to run outside of your project.
- Be flexible. Freelancers may occasionally need to return phone calls, schedule meetings, etc., in support of their next project.
- That said, this activity need not and should not impact your project; nor should it need to be handled as a clandestine operation.
3. Pay Freelancers Promptly
- Nothing starves a thriving freelance pool like slow or no pay.
4. Make Freelancers Feel Part of the Team By Offering Perks
- Trusted access to office space between projects or after hours
- Invitations to company events
- Thoughtful offerings of company swag, like tee-shirts, etc.
5. Share Your Freelance Pool with Friendly Competitors
- If you can't keep your freelancers busy, keep an eye out for other opportunities. The goal is to keep your freelancers well-fed and available for your next project. Your freelancers will remember and appreciate any referrals you provide and so will your peers.
- The philosophy of what goes around comes around works for companies, too!
- Your competitors may even reciprocate; in kind, or otherwise.
Taking It To Heart
MojoMediaPros was founded around the Hollywood model of networking and developing lasting relationships with outstanding freelance talent to offer exceptional value to its clients. Whenever any of my favorite freelancers are booked-up and unavailable, I celebrate that fact with them and immediately ask them for a great referral.
This process works. It has never let me down and only gets better as more companies and freelancers buy into it.
Steve's expanded on this topic in his speaker presentation for Craft Content 2018 Presentation, "Nurturing Nashville's Growing Freelance Economy" This presentation includes references and downloadable resources.
For more articles by Steve Lomas, visit Digital Bits at blog.stevelomas.me.