I have Google alerts set for a few variations on the words freelancing and freelance, as a pulse check on what’s happening in the industry. Over the past few months, I’ve seen a trend of opinions that gives me pause: The idea that millennials can and should go straight into freelancing, no traditional job experience required.
I’m as much of a proponent of entrepreneurship and self employment as anyone I know. Having been at it for 16 years as of this month, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. The underlying fact is, however, that I doubt I would have survived at it without a solid decade of working at small, medium, and large companies before going solo.
Among many other things, those traditional jobs:
- enabled me to improve my skills by being mentored, critiqued, and edited by people with far more business and life experience
- created durable, lasting business connections in a variety of industries
- taught me how successful businesses and managers operate, and why it all comes down to sales and profitability
- provided insights on what my clients would need and the problems they wrestled with
It’s important to note that it wasn’t just about improving my writing and editing abilities—it was a matter of interacting daily with people who were highly skilled in diverse areas such as finance, production, marketing, graphic design, human resources, and so on. I also had the opportunity to hire, work with, and observe freelancers of all stripes, which was educational in its own right.
Frankly, I think the advice to go straight into freelancing without any prior business experience—or its positioning as an easy way to make money—is risky, and fostered by those who have a vested interest in cheap labor. (I’m looking at you, content mills, and even the popular bidding sites.) Sara Horowitz, author of The Freelancers Bible (reviewed here) and founder of the Freelancers Union, put a happy spin on it in a recent article in Fast Company, “Why Millennials Understand the Future of Work Better than Anyone Else.” As much as I respect Sara, I think her premise is flawed. A freelance career isn’t fostered by a million loose social media connections; it depends on strong, intimate business connections.
I suspect that there are two related mitigating factors: 1) the tough job market, and 2) the number of millennials who live at home: at latest count, about 26% of the 18-to-34 population. Most of us probably could have freelanced till we were 34 if we didn’t have to pay any bills or put food on the table. I’m not saying that to slam the younger generation, or to denigrate those who choose part-time freelance work, or to sound like the cranky old uncle who walked uphill both ways to school.
I’m saying it as a businessperson. I’m saying it as someone who believes you can expect more from freelancing than a way to get by—if that’s what you want to achieve. It takes work, time, experience, and real networks, and there are no shortcuts. It’s my opinion, but I believe there’s a benefit to doing that kind of apprenticeship on someone else’s dime before going out on your own.
Perhaps I am overestimating the value of traditional jobs in laying the groundwork for an entrepreneurial career. Maybe I am underestimating the business acumen, tenacity, or cash-rich networks of freshly minted college graduates. If that sounds like you, and you want to set me straight in the comments, please do.
Free Marketing Q&A
Want to further your freelance education? Join Lori Widmer and Dr. Freelance for a free webinar session, “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Freelance Marketing…but Were Afraid To Ask,” on September 14.