Freelancers: From ‘hustlers’ into ‘heroes for hire’

Shannon Mullen Feb 11, 2014

Freelancers: From ‘hustlers’ into ‘heroes for hire’

Shannon Mullen Feb 11, 2014

The U.S. economy is not creating a whole lot of new jobs these days, but the country’s freelance ranks are growing.  About a third of the American workforce has what the government calls “contingent” employment, and there’s a new industry looking to cash in on that upward trend.

Case in point: the Boston start-up OhYouHero.  The company is headquartered in a Boston office building, where its founders are about to launch a website they say will help freelancers find work. OhYouHero members can build a virtual storefront and list their skills for prospective employers.

These freelancers can specialize in anything from dog-walking and personal shopping to online marketing and creative direction. Co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer John Evans Maden not only designed the site — he’s also a client with an active profile

“If you got in touch with me and said ‘I need this done right now,’ I would do it,” he says. 

As Evans Maden explains it, the company wants freelancers to think of themselves as “heroes for hire,” instead of hustlers who “sometimes getting hustled” themselves.

“We think that it should be much, much, much easier to make a living in the United States, with all the technology we have.”

Freelancers get paid through the site. The company takes an 8 percent cut, which Evans Maden says is below industry standard.  For such a young industry, OhYouHero has a lot of competition. 

“We’ve seen an explosion in online work platforms, such as oDesk and eLance,” says Andrew Karpie of Staffing Industry Analysts.  

Karpie adds that before the recession, there were about 24  job sites for freelancers. Now he puts the number at 80 — or more. 

“These online platform businesses are innovating, even revolutionizing, how those two sides of work supply and demand come together.”

That matchmaking is just the start of this new relationship between freelancers and the free market.  Once workers get jobs, other new companies want to sell them time-management software or billing services.  New York-based Harvest offers online-invoicing, that sends automatic reminders when employers don’t pay. 

Harvest says its freelance customer base grew 300 percent in the past three years.*

“So people are picking up different tools that are allowing them to be really good at the business end stuff, as well as their core competency — [what] they actually get paid for,” says Jeremy Neuner, CEO of NextSpace

The coworking company is one of a growing number of that offer shared office spaces — where freelancers can be more productive than in their living rooms, and meet with clients they want to impress. Neuner says more than half of NextSpace members are self-employed. 

“There’s such a huge market to serve, so we have every intention – we’re at nine locations now – to be ten times that size by the end of the decade.” 

By 2020, estimates show half the American workforce could be freelancing.

“Industry is realizing the freelancers, and what we call the independent workforce, has reached a scale that they want to serve it,” says Steve King, a consultant at Emergent Research.  For freelancers who can afford to be served, King says a lot of the new products are free or low-cost. 

“We’re going to see freelancing [become] easier to do, which is good because it’s traditionally been hard.” 

For many freelancers, even a little less hustling could mean more time to enjoy some of the perks of self-employment.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misattributed the company that experienced a 300 percent increase in freelancer customer base. New York-based Harvest was the firm that experienced the growth. The text has been corrected.

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