The new high-end freelancer

This breed of workers is busting stereotypes about working from home and flexi-timing


iStockphoto
iStockphoto

Freelancer. In the Indian workplace, this word usually means “second best”. When Indian employers, or even employees, think of freelancers, they often think of casual temp or gig workers. Young hipsters in creative fields. Mothers who want to work from home. People who don’t earn very much. People, dare we say it, who couldn’t cut it in the “real” workplace.

But things are changing in the world of work. Employers are slowly recognizing that talent and drive can be found outside the 9-5 format. Meanwhile, a new, “high-end” freelancer is rising: ambitious, experienced, highly educated and able to command top rates.

The term freelancer is being stretched to cover consultants, project managers, researchers and analysts—anyone who works flexible hours. A 2015 study by venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers showed that freelancers made up 34% of the workforce in the US. And, according to workplace experts, this is expected to cross 50% in the next decade.

In India, the trend is still tiny, but it’s predicted to grow. Chandrika Pasricha is one of the people driving the movement towards a better breed of freelancer. A former consultant for management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., she now heads Flexing It (www.flexingit.com), a job portal that specializes in matching high-end freelancers with equally top-drawer employers. More than 17,000 professionals are registered with Flexing It, and among the 1,300 companies using its services are Hindustan Unilever Ltd, the Tata group, Dr Reddy’s, Deloitte and Reliance Industries Ltd, as well as the non-profit Oxfam.

Changing definitions

“The typical definition of a freelancer used to be a young person in a creative or tech field,” says Pasricha. “But now we find that the top three categories for hiring freelancers are marketing, strategy and human resources (HR). Most of the freelancers on our site have already spent 10-15 years in mainstream roles.”

Unlike the old freelancer, this new freelancer does not come cheap. According to FeeBee, a benchmarking tool used by Flexing It, the average daily rate charged by freelancers with about 10 years’ experience is about Rs.70,000 for those in senior management, Rs.40,000 for marketing professionals, Rs.30,000 for IT workers and Rs.15,000 for HR specialists.

Bengaluru-based N. Dayasindhu, an Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) graduate, and a former employee of software firm Infosys, is a prime example of a high-end freelancer. Two years ago, he left the corporate world to start his own consultancy, advising IT companies on research, innovation and development. “It coincided with the midlife existential questions of ‘How do I want to structure work and life?’” is how the 45-year-old describes his motivation.

There’s also a gender shift. Freelancing used to be thought of as the domain of women. No longer. “I have an equal number of men and women on my rolls,” says Pasricha. Wanting to have more control over work hours is not, apparently, a female prerogative. “It’s all about a new definition of work now: deliverables over location,” adds Pasricha.

Ankur Agarwal, founder and managing director of Advait Consulting Services, at his home in Gurgaon. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Ankur Agarwal, founder and managing director of Advait Consulting Services, at his home in Gurgaon. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Start-ups and SMEs are driving change

Why are companies waking up to freelancers? Thank the tidal wave of start-ups and the currently risky business climate. About 40% of the companies using Flexing It are start-ups. “Ecosystems have changed massively in the past three years,” says Ankur Agarwal, 35, who runs a boutique consulting firm in Gurgaon, near Delhi.

In any other time, a man with his glittering résumé—a BTech from IIT, Delhi, a PhD in computer science and applied mathematics and a research fellowship at the University of Cambridge, UK—might be logging in frequent-flyer miles with a Big Five consulting firm.

In this brave new world, a different job trajectory appeals. In 2009, Agarwal gave up his job with business consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, London, set up a couple of ventures of his own and, in 2012, started his own consulting firm, Advait Consulting Services. Today, he advises companies in the UK and India on strategy, with an emphasis on data science.

“Technology, globalization and increasing access to risk capital have created an ecosystem of very rapid change and massive opportunity in India. All this has also led to fierce competition. Many skill sets required do not exist within established organizations. Bringing in external talent often proves to be a faster and better approach,” explains Agarwal.

In an uncertain business climate, many start-ups prefer to hire people on a project basis rather than take the risk of hiring permanent staff they may not need in a year or two. “Ever since 2008 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there has been pressure on companies to reduce headcount,” says Bengaluru-based HR and diversity consultant Garvita Chaturvedi, 35, who began her career by working for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Masroor Lodi, co-founder and director of The Entrepreneurship School in Gurgaon. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Masroor Lodi, co-founder and director of The Entrepreneurship School in Gurgaon. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Embracing risk

Pasricha says many companies now want to hire freelancers because they are hungrier and keener, and specialists in their domain. “A lot of people are looking for failed entrepreneurs,” she says. “Failure used to be lethal in the past. These days, companies like risk takers.”

Delhi-based Masroor Lodi is one of those risk takers. Lodi, 34, who has done a master’s in business administration and has worked for firms such as consumer goods company Hindustan Unilever Ltd and drug maker Sanofi, is now a consultant for start-ups. He is also the co-founder and director of The Entrepreneurship School (TES) in Gurgaon, which helps train young entrepreneurs.

“Don’t call me a freelancer,” he says, only half in jest. “It has this casual, easy-going, lazy connotation, all the things I am not. I would prefer to be called a flexi worker.” Lodi has helped set up over 30 start-ups. “The idea that you have to be in the four walls of an office to prove your worth is dying,” he says.

“There have always been freelancers,” says Pasricha. “But they haven’t always represented top talent. Now companies are recognizing that the definition of talent is changing.”

Ashwin Ramaswamy is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Mubble, a Bengaluru-based technology start-up that employs several high-end HR and design freelancers. “Earlier, chaos was inevitable if you didn’t have your staff coming in every day. The whole point of face-time was to manage ambiguity and avoid confusion. The difference now is that high-end, experienced talent is available on a flexible basis, when it wasn’t before. These are seasoned veterans who can manage chaos and are very committed,” says Ramaswamy.

To be sure, not every company thinks that way. Quality often remains uneven, especially in the smaller towns. Ravi Kamdar, the founder of Bugle Technologies, an Ahmedabad-based apps developer, might be expected to belong to the generation that hires freelancers. Instead, the 31-year-old has struggled to find quality freelance talent and now prefers full-time staff. “There’s no knowledge sharing happening. People want to start freelancing with only two-three years of expertise. They simply don’t know enough.” Kamdar concedes companies can save money by using freelancers in the short term, but thinks they are “lethal” in the long term. “You can’t build a big company on the backs of freelancers.”

Garvita Chaturvedi, an HR and diversity consultant, at her office in Bengaluru. Hemant Mishra/Mint
Garvita Chaturvedi, an HR and diversity consultant, at her office in Bengaluru. Hemant Mishra/Mint

New platforms

Earlier, freelancers were forced to find work on “lowest bidder” sites such as Upwork (formerly Elance-oDesk) and Guru. Now, companies and job sites are helping freelancers compete based on talent.

This February, global consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC’s) US arm launched a platform called Talent Exchange to recruit independent talent. “PwC strives to be the employer of choice for talented women and men regardless of their geography or personal circumstance so—if the freelance economy is on track to continue growing—then it’s our job to support it,” said the statement.

In India, companies are realizing that if they don’t offer flexible work, they will miss out on talent. Hindustan Unilever Ltd’s Career by Choice programme, one among many similar programmes, allows women on a career break with two years’ work experience to return to work on a flexible basis.

“Only a few years ago, when I started out, there was nothing. Now there are sites like Biz Divas, Sheroes, or Jobs for Her,” says Chaturvedi.

All that said, most freelancers still find work through word-of-mouth and that most Indian of things: “personal contacts”. “There’s no replacing that,” says Agarwal. “Most of my work comes through friends and professional networks.”

Move from ‘gigs’ to knowledge projects

There used to be a time when freelancers got the dregs, the outsourced projects no one wanted to do, such as data entry. But with companies facing a talent crunch, that’s no longer the case. Chaturvedi is a case in point. A graduate of IIM, Indore and a former employee of the US conglomerate GE and insurance company MetLife, Chaturvedi now works with the consumer goods company Hindustan Unilever Ltd and other companies on gender diversity. “I would never have been able to do this kind of project while working full-time. My old employers would not have been interested in getting women back into the workplace,” she says. Lodi agrees. “I wanted to live my own dream, not other people’s dreams. I wanted to be challenged.”

Not every field is that receptive to freelancers. Freelance journalists, for instance, are notoriously badly paid; the rates paid by most magazines have remained the same for years, at a paltry Rs.5-8 per word, often paid many months late.

But even here, technology has shrunk the world and helped freelancers find better employers. As a freelance journalist, researcher and trainer, I earn most of my regular income from foreign companies, clients or editors whom I have never met, and who are based everywhere from Texas to Toronto. Many find me through my website, or I find them through theirs, and we do business via Skype.

There was a time when Indian writers were only used for cheap content-writing gigs by foreign employers who wanted to save a buck. While these still exist, I also find that plenty of foreign clients are willing to pay top dollar to Indian journalists with local knowledge. Diversification helps: It pays to be able to show a variety of skills from editing to reporting to training.

The entrepreneur-cum-freelancer

“Freelancing in the new ecosystem is more entrepreneurship than anything else.” says Agarwal, who has devised new ways of sharing in his clients’ success. “Some of my projects are structured as pure consulting assignments, others include components like profit sharing, royalties and equity in new projects.” Lodi has had to create a market for his product—entrepreneurship skills—from scratch. “They said entrepreneurship could not be taught. I had to fight to create a market.”

Then there is the constant struggle to stay relevant and current. “Unlike full-time staff, freelancers don’t get any training or mentorship,” says Chaturvedi. “I have spent a lot of my own time and money getting certifications in coaching.” All of which makes the new freelancer a one-man/woman business, rather than just a person.

Show me the money

How much of a financial compromise must the new freelancer make? Agarwal, whose data science niche makes him much sought after, says he is earning more than he did in his last job at the Boston Consulting Group.

A Bengaluru-based start-up founder, who did not want to be named, says he pays his freelancers 75-80% of the regular per-hour market rate. “I like freelancers who negotiate hard for what they are worth,” he says. “I am suspicious of people who settle for a low rate.”

But most flexi workers have had to make a trade-off between money and lifestyle. Still, the gap isn’t as wide as it used to be, provided you put in the effort. “After 10 years of pitching, I now find the work comes to me,” says Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, a Delhi-based journalist, author and columnist. Reddy Madhavan, 34, says she earns as much as a part-time columnist and journalist as she did at her penultimate full-time job. “Now I want to make as much as I did in my last job.”

More worrying for many freelancers are the ups and downs: prosperous spells followed by the stress of lean patches. “The financial compromise is not in compensation per month, but in the predictability of income,’ says Dayasindhu.

And then there’s the labyrinthine bureaucracy that freelancers have to negotiate to get paid—endless forms and repeated invoicing. After all that, you may still have to endure months of delay, while accounts departments assure you the cheque is in the mail. “I have learnt the hard way not to consult for small companies,” says Chaturvedi. “I only work for big MNCs who understand the value I bring to them.” “Fiscal prudence never hurts in this field,” says Dayasindhu. Surely, every wise freelancer’s mantra.

The bumpy road ahead

Despite all that has changed, many employers still think of freelancers as the poor cousins of full-time staff. New freelancers still have to cope with the old, hidebound ways of Indian workplaces.

Women freelancers, especially those with children, are often seen as filling the time between nappies and school projects, or as less committed than their male counterparts. Chaturvedi complains of an ingrained sexism towards mothers. “Employers think that I am freelancing because I have children, so it’s okay not to treat me well,” she says, frustration evident.

Often, freelancing is considered taking time off, not work experience, making it hard for freelancers to return to the workplace. “HR departments still think of freelancing as taking a break, even though I have never worked harder in my life,” adds Chaturvedi.

Pasricha agrees. “The fact is that employers gain a great deal from hiring freelancers—they can save on health benefits, provident fund, office space, training costs—but this saving is not yet being passed on to freelancers. Consulting fees, while rising, haven’t caught up with Western trends. But in the future, companies are going to have to realize that freelancers are not cheap deals,” she says.

She recommends that freelancers take all these savings into account when setting their rates, rather than get into a war of the lowest bidder.

With no unions to help freelancers in India, many are taken advantage of. “The freelancing lifestyle is not glamorous or cool,” says Reddy Madhavan. “It takes years and years of hard work to make it; you need to be able to deal with constant rejection. I have been doing this for 10 years and I am only now making some decent money.”

Ultimately, the tough decision to freelance isn’t for everyone, or may need to be revisited every few years. Chaturvedi hopes to return to the world of full-time work in the future. The others expect to continue their solo paths. “It’s a trade-off between security and satisfaction. Luckily, I have a high-risk appetite, but this is not for everyone,” says Lodi.

“My soul is my own,” says Reddy Madhavan, simply, of her decision to stay a freelancer, as she packs for a weekend away. “I am climbing a corporate ladder here too,” says Agarwal. “The difference is: It’s my ladder.”

Bare essentials

Successful freelancers gives us a 10-point primer

■Set aside at least a year’s savings, preferably more, before you take the plunge.

■ Don’t compare yourself to friends in corporate jobs who get benefits and expense accounts.

■ Do what you love doing. This will enable you to go the extra mile.

■ Diversify. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This is especially important for those in creative fields.

■ Stay updated and keep learning new skills. Remember, you are your own mentor.

■ Set the right rate. Ask around and don’t under-price yourself. Don’t be tempted to get into a bidding war with low-priced competitors.

■ Enhance your people skills. Even if you are working from home, meet your clients for a coffee outside. Face-time and personal relations are still important.

■ Build a pipeline for work: even when you are doing one project, start thinking about where the next one is coming from, so there are no gaps.

■ Work on fiscal discipline.

■ Make sure you have your family’s support.

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist, trainer and the co-author of Everything You Wanted To Know About Freelance Journalism (But Didn’t Know Whom To Ask).

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