Winnipeg is a Freelance Town

After being laid-off from my job as an interaction designer at Think Shift earlier this year, I exchanged some emo IMs with a good friend and former-Winnipegger. I told him that I was looking at getting into freelance full-time, to which he replied “Winnipeg is a freelance town.”

He was right.

I’ve spent the majority of my 10+ year career working as a remote freelancer. I’ve spent less time at “real jobs” in “real offices” than I have spent working in my “home office.” I took the interaction design job at Think Shift partially to see what I had been missing and partially because I believed the myth of job security.

I’m sure some people would be unhappy working from home without co-workers or face-to-face interaction; and others would be inherently unhappy working for a boss in an office. I’m not one of those people. I don’t know whether I prefer one to the other. There are pros and cons to each. But most of these factors could be lumped into a “soft” category: offices have face-to-face interaction, group collaboration. Home offices have more time with families, optional clothing, shorter commutes, better coffee. With the exception of health benefits and different tax rules, none of major differences have much of an affect my bottom line. They don’t affect my ability to pay the bills, which after-all is the whole point of a job.

When it comes to salary, “real jobs” in Winnipeg cannot compete with freelance. Based on my limited experience most Winnipeg employers live in a stereotypical Winnipeg bubble. They seem to worry endlessly about dealing with stereotypically “cheap” Winnipeg clients. They’re more likely to try to compete on price than quality and seek out clients who are more interested in price than quality (or vice versa, maybe it’s chicken and egg). Even the larger web shops seem hesitant (with typical Winnipeg insecurity) to compete for work nationally, let alone internationally. For all these reasons, Winnipeg web shops are completely unable to compete for salaries nationally.

(And for the most part that’s seems to be OK with Winnipeggers.)

The hourly rates I’m able to charge are completely unreasonable for any full-time salaried position in town – I know because I’ve had job placement agents (that’s the PC name for “headhunters” right?) tell me as much. At the same time, my rates are entirely acceptable to clients in larger markets. Local businesses are also willing to pay my rates because they are still significantly lower than the hourly rates a full on web shops needs to charge to pay the bills.

Some of the most talented designers and developers I know run successful freelance businesses or work remotely for companies like Automattic,  Shopify (I believe Shopify has a local office now) and Black Pixel.

6 replies on “Winnipeg is a Freelance Town”

Great post Ryan, I’m happy to hear things are working out for you.
Winnipeg is a fascinating city. There is plenty of opportunity, great businesses and growth. Unfortunately in my experience, because of this stereotypical city way of handling work, there are too many shops keeping their heads down and bid low. That’s not to say everyone is, but some definitely are. Cost of living is fairly affordable. Though, it’s beginning to catch up to other cities without the same increase in average salary. I think we sometimes experience this effect more so because of the size of the industry we work in. Winnipeg is a bubble, and large part of the industry operates as a bubble inside of a bubble. There’s not a lot of air if we don’t think outside of our own four walls.

I think that hourly rates will always be higher for freelancers when comparing to similar jobs. Employers are trading a steady paycheque, other benefits and some intangible idea of security.  

It’s also true in other markets that in the past 10 years or so the cost of living has gone up while salaries have remained flat.  

It’s a pretty good place from which to work at home. Not having a commute sure makes the winters more bearable.

There’s definitely a cap on how much you can make here as a tech worker at a regular company, even outside the web world.

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