Choosing a self-employed career can be a lonely path to follow at times, even if you regularly collaborate or work in shared offices and coffee shops. And you’ll often see advice recommending that you connect with other freelancers, for the social and business benefits that it can provide. But coming together can do much more, so I wanted to look at a couple of examples of how freelance communities can change your world.
Feeling alone doesn’t just mean that you miss chats around the office. Whether you’re a solopreneur or running a small business, you can sometimes feel isolated and powerless. There may be a new government policy that will change your work, or hurt your income. You may be having issues with a large client or customer, who can afford to mess you around. Or a well-funded rival might be giving you sleepless nights.
But there are more positive reasons for getting proactive in freelance communities, as well. Studies of businesses and employees are increasingly highlighting the need for purpose and fulfilment in careers. But while reports from McKinsey and PWC might influence large corporations, it can be a lot harder if you’re a company of one. Waiting around for the right projects is difficult when your bills are due.
Self-employed support created by freelancers
Like many freelancers, I’ve regularly visited the IPSE website for updates and information on government and legal issues. But I’ve never considered how the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) actually came to exist.
I didn’t realise how it’s grown from a group which came together in 1999, in response to the first IR35 proposals. Or how it’s evolved to represent 4.3 million self-employed freelancers and contractors across the UK as a non-for-profit association run by members.
It’s easy to feel powerless as a lone freelancer up against big companies, or even the UK Government. But IPSE shows that by bringing the self-employed together, it’s possible to successfully change government policies and introduce new ideas. And they’ve backed members in House of Lords cases, as well as provided advice and support for thousands of people with issues including IR35 and contract reviews.
I don’t know whether anyone in the early days had thoughts beyond protesting the first version of IR35. But given the passion, drive and creativity it takes to start your own business, it doesn’t surprise me. Bringing together freelancers can often feel like herding cats, but it also means you’ll be constantly challenged to offer more support and services. And when everyone does move in the same direction, it can produce big results.
Not every suggestion is guaranteed to work, but it’s important to always try and test potentially viable ideas. Google famously allowed employees to spend 20% of their time working on projects which might not have obvious short term results, which results in Google News, Google Adsense and Gmail. And IPSE continues to innovate and find ways to reach and support more self-employed people, including here at Freelancer Corner.
Finding world-changing purpose from a freelance community
Another reason I’m not surprised by the success of IPSE is that I have direct experience of how a group of freelancers and small businesses can work together. Mainly because I witnessed it first-hand with a community I co-founded.
More than 10 years ago, I half-jumped, and half-fell, into running my own business. With no experience of being self-employed, and little preparation, I felt pretty isolated sitting at my dining room table with an old laptop. Family and close friends were supportive, but none could really empathise, so I suggest a local meetup for anyone in the Peterborough area.
The monthly Digital People in Peterborough (DPiP) talks and meetups continue with almost 900 local members, and the formation of a community interest company. But it’s also gone much further with the launch of the free Peterborough STEM Festival in 2016, which engaged and inspired 5,000 children and families at the most recent event in 2019. And when the STEM Festival founder emigrated to New Zealand, it wasn’t long before a sister event launched in Tauranga.
You might not be surprised to learn the core team behind both events is almost entirely made up of freelancers, volunteering their time and effort around their careers. And while the DPiP events can provide some obvious business benefits, the STEM Festival really allows everyone to focus on something which provides purpose and fulfilment. And that’s important when the grind of finding new clients, delivering work, and chasing invoices can be a challenge at times.
From small ideas to big changes
The core lesson isn’t that you need to go and immediately launch a massive freelance community or association with a world-changing idea. IPSE started in protest to one law change, and DPiP was born because I wanted to go to the pub and complain about freelancing life to people who were also self-employed.
If anything, it should be that you’re not alone in the freelance challenges you face. And one message on a Facebook group, or getting involved with an existing community can make a difference far bigger than you might imagine.
That’s particularly true in my case. I couldn’t begin to count the number of new friends, collaborators and work opportunities that have come from the various freelance and industry groups I’ve been involved with over the last decade.
But the biggest change of all was meeting my partner Liz through DPiP a few years ago. Definitely the most unexpected, and positive, change to my world to come from freelance communities!