Collective

For various reasons (mainly economic and geographic) Winnipeg is a Freelance town. Freelance is a topic I write about a lot in this blog these days, writing is one of the ways I deal with the stress of economic uncertainty brought about by freelance employment. The feast v. famine nature of freelancing is not for the faint of heart and it’s compounded by the isolation of working alone.

On paper, I should not be nearly as successful as I am. I don’t do any overt marketing, I’ve never done a cold call (though, I have cold tweeted) and I rarely respond to job board postings. Yet I’m able to get by based on a very small network of trusted connections. I don’t write this to boast about my good fortune. I’m writing this because it feels like I’m doing it wrong, it feels like the bottom is going to drop out any day now, like the other shoes is going to drop, it scares the hell out of me and I feel like there should be a better way.

The Problem: Marketing

The cause of the famine periods of the feast/famine cycle could be boiled down to lack of marketing. When you’re dealing with an excessive amount of work during a feast it can be hard to set aside time to work on marketing, which only leads to compound the famine. In practice, this means that your work has to speak for itself and this is obviously less than ideal.

There are two fundamental marketing problems for an independent professional.

The first is finding new clients. The traditional solution for finding clients is the amorphous “networking.” It’s a term that can encompass any number of things, including “social networking” and Christmas parties. But I think if you asked most professionals what networking looks like, they’d describe something like an informal meetup group or a more formal group like BNI. In my experience, this type of networking sucks, the signal to noise ratio of quality to shit leads, is totally out of whack. As someone who cares more about quality over quantity, bad leads are unacceptable.

The second marketing problem is branding. Branding is a huge topic that I’m not super well versed in, but in this context I simply mean an identity that communicates who you are and what you do; that servers to indirectly attracts new potential clients. In my experience, building a personal brand is really, really hard. Building an audience for that brand is even harder. Contrary to the opinions of pro bloggers and advice gurus, building a legitimate personal brand on a national (let alone international) scale is unattainable for most individuals. I guarantee that every personal brand with more than a few thousand followers on the internet is the product of a team of people (but that is a topic for another day).

The Solution: A Collective

For a long time I’ve had this thought that something like an artists collective should exist for all the various trades that go in to making web stuff: coders, designers, writers, etc. I’m sure that if you’ve gone to art school you are familiar with the concept. As someone who did not go to art school, I had to look it up to make sure I’m talking about the right thing.

Wikipedia defines an artist collective as:

…an initiative that is the result of a group of artists working together, usually under their own management, towards shared aims. The aims of an artist collective can include almost anything that is relevant to the needs of the artist, this can range from purchasing bulk materials, sharing equipment, space or materials, through to following shared ideologies, aesthetic and political views … Sharing of ownership, risk, benefits, and status is implied, as opposed to other, more common business structures with an explicit hierarchy of ownership such as an association or a company.

The main difference between a web workers collective vs. traditional artists collective is the need for supplies, physical materials and the pooled capital required to buy these things. As virtual workers we have very little overhead in terms of supplies and equipment; and little need for physical meeting space. That said, I there is a lot of value in share aesthetics and shared ideologies regarding the web as a vehicle for free expression.

I see a formal collective as a potentially a great solution to the problems of marketing skills and work individually. By putting intentional thought into a group identity, then acting as a group, displaying work as a group and representing the collective when interacting with the community, these artist collectives implicitly marketing themselves. They build a reputation for a certain type of work and the collective audience of each individual member props up the group.

Granted the economics of being a professional sculpture or painter aren’t exactly the same as the economics of building websites. But I don’t think they’re that far removed either. At the end of the day, you need clients who value your work.

Thoughts?

I’m far from an expert on the subject of collectives. Perhaps is a non-sensical idea. Perhaps something like a co-operative would be more fitting.

I am interested in hearing from other web professionals. As well as people who’d purchase the services of a web professional.

Would you value being a part of something like this? Would you be encouraged to hire a member of a collective?

PS. The sub-text of this post is my belief that a idea of traditional “company” is a bad fit for the web and a worse fit for the way that people work in the 21st century.

Photo credit: Victor Grigas.

  • Paul

    Great post Ryan. It’s a very interesting idea. I think it’s worth exploring. Figuring out all the respective roles could be tricky. Trust is mandatory.

  • lyndonfroese

    One of the reasons for the feast/famine is because of a lack of “load balancing”. A business of 100 people with 100x more work than a business of 1 person has, will have be unlikely to fluctuate from MAXIMUM WORK LOAD to crickets.

    And another challenge that I know freelancers have is what to do when a project comes in that is a little outside of their wheelhouse. Building stuff for web is a broad skill set (Not many people know their way around Apache AND can design logos too). At a larger company, you just get the person a couple cubicles down to help with the part you don’t know how to do.

  • bella Mater

    How is this different from a firm, organized by partners in an enterprise? Strikes me as similar to architecture, law, dentists, hairdressers…

  • ohryan

    I don’t know a lot about how architect or law firms are structured, so I don’t know.

    Dentistry and hairdressing are not collaborative industries, so I don’t really see any overlap there.

    Also, I’m not (necessarily) suggesting a financial/business arrangement, per se.

  • bella Mater

    hmmm…AFAIK law/architecure partnerships work on the premise that the partners bring the physical assets to the table (including the table) there’s also shared cost in staffing and staff can eventually work/buy their way into partnership (which does come with significant financial responsibility to the whole) so yes… collective as it were.
    Not sure if you could pull it off without it being a financial/business arrangement.
    Sounds neat.

  • ohryan

    I see. I’ve not encountered a web/marketing firm (in the city) that is structured as a partnership, beyond two or three founding members. I think it has to do with the economics in this town and the relatively low (as compared to lawyers or architects) rates that developers and designers charge.

    > Not sure if you could pull it off without it being a financial/business arrangement.

    I don’t know either 🙂

  • I’ve always thought it would be cool to have an office space with 5-15 individuals in related fields, with a slight amount of overlapping skills. Each person would function and bill their clients separately, so technically they’d all be freelancers. This would give you the freedom to do what you want with your work, but also have a group of people to refer clients to if needed.
    You’d probably have to have some type of agreement on paper, but it’d mostly be for the co-ownership of resources, like the office space and shared things like printers. Kinda like how some co-working places work, but a bit more exclusive. Then you could also do some shared stuff like if you wanted to hire a shared receptionist/phone-answerer.
    I could see it functioning as having a club (or whatever you want to call it) that has exclusive membership (so you don’t have too much competition within the club), and has a membership fee (based on the shared costs).
    The only downside I can think of, off the top of my head, is that 5-15 separate businesses would probably cost more (tax-wise, and also for things like business licenses) than a single business with the work of 5-15 employees. I have no idea how business structures work, but there might be a way (maybe a cooperative?) in which each member still had the freedom to do as they wish, but have the collective be a single entity on paper. There’d be more overhead, issuing T4’s and stuff, but probably be cheaper in the end.
    It’s a cool idea, and one that you should keep playing with!