FreshMeat #15: Free Agent Irritation

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FreshMeat #15 from Steve Portigal

               (__)                     
               (oo) Fresh                  
                \\/  Meat

Reach out and touch some FreshMeat!
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Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
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From the Internet boom came several new iterations of the structure, symbols, and meaning of work. Casual Fridays evolved into casual day every day, and that became you’re-lucky-I’m-even-wearing-pants day. Dogs in the office and unisex bathrooms became common reference points (although relatively uncommon experiences for most workers).

Perhaps one of the most over-hyped notions was the dawning of the Free Agent era – the independent professional of the future, someone who worked with others only as needed, rapidly shifting organizational "structure" in a dynamic and tantalizingly post-modern setting. Daniel Pink and Fast Company launched the movement in 1997 and the Free Agent Nation became one of those concepts (just like the paperless office and smart appliances) that we all like to imagine even though we don’t really believe they will happen.

And then the boom faded, burst, crashed, and recessed. Suddenly, large numbers of workers were figuring out what was next – many of them from the Internet industry, where the classic norms of work had been most dramatically tested. And the Free Agent path held some promise for them.

(Full disclosure – as of this writing, I’m nearing the end of my first year of self-employment, although I don’t describe myself as a Free Agent necessarily).

And so, bold experiments were launched – alliances, strategic partnerships (without being business partners), quid pro quo deals, visions for unbranded groupings, branded groupings, everything imaginable, and then some. Although if you look closer, you’ll see a bunch of folks with home offices, DSL connections, and cell phones, imagining that there’s some middle ground between this and life in cubicle-land.

Although it is tempting to identify with the romantic notion that the Free Agent movement puts forward, I really just see myself as someone who works at home, making good use out of technologies like DSL and the mobile phone. It’s been interesting to see how people react to me as a professional, since I present without many familiar corporate trappings. And it’s been a learning experience for me to realize how and when to move a little closer to that "corporate" image. For example, an answering machine is a home technology, but voice mail (which answers calls when I am on the phone) is a work technology. Eventually I realized this was essential, and switched to voice mail (although, the fact that my answering machine broke down may have had some amount of influence over this shift).

Or, consider the role of the web site. I believe my web site articulates my background and offering well (although if you disagree, please tell me!) but I also know that the level of visual refinement was somewhat less than corporate standards. Not something mission-critical, but a part of my business identity that I could obviously improve on. And so, several months ago, I set out to do just that – find someone to help evolve my web site.

Here in Silicon Valley, there are obviously fewer Internet professionals than before, but there are definitely plenty of unemployed and underemployed designers, coders, HTML jockeys, FEDs, and what-have-you. And many of these folks were now working on their own. I sought to capitalize on this, and reached out to my network for referrals. I got a wonderful list of names – people that were highly respected by those whose opinion I held in great esteem.

I sent out messages to these folks, describing myself, my business, and the scope of the work as I saw it. Surprisingly, the response was incredibly lackluster – many never responded, others took weeks to respond, others promised to follow-up with me later but never did. One person gave me an assignment of sorts to complete before I was to initiate my next contact.

It really seemed that they didn’t want my business. Of course, the job was small. But that seems awfully short-sighted. I am a free agent (note lack of capital letters) – I provide services to my customers by partnering with others who possess skills that I don’t. From my way of looking at it, it would be worth getting on my list of partners.

Now, maybe this experience was specific to the particular type of service I was looking for (I have had much better experiences in finding vendors in other categories, although the budgets were more significant than lil’ ole me). But really, who (especially in this market) can afford to turn up their nose at possible work, and who can afford to be so short-sighted?

My learning is this: there is a big difference between offering a service and being "in business." The people I dealt with probably have great design and implementation abilities, but they clearly lack the business skills required to build a relationship and close a sale. Someone might be the best translator, web designer, or pet walker, but they will need more to be a free agent – they must be able to listen well, ask questions, make commitments and follow through on them, articulate, negotiate, deliver, and a million more essential competencies.

I imagine many of the people I approached had worked very successful experiences on project teams in larger organizations, with project managers, sales staff, admin support, billing, and so on. I just don’t believe that everyone can make the shift to doing that all themselves. And that’s fine, I think our economy needs free agents, and it needs people inside corporations. But clearly, the notion of us all becoming free agents is just silly – just because you have what it takes to create breathtakingly usable and beautiful web pages doesn’t mean you can operate a business that delivers those services (and let’s not forget that many people have the business skills but would rather spend their time doing other things)

I see the next shakeout being in the Free Agent Nation – as more jobs in companies become available, those of us who aren’t cut out to be CEO, president, janitor, accountant, etc. head back to the traditional work environments. Those who remain independent will be the ones with the staying power, the interest, and the broader skills. And that will benefit everyone.

Epilogue: The person I found was someone whom I was already working with; since we already knew each other he had a leg-up in understanding what kind of face I wanted to put out there. We’ve had a creative partnership, and the new-and-improved web site is up. Check it out – http://www.portigal.com.

Check out Free Agent Nation at http://www.freeagentnation.com, Harriet Rubin’s book on soloing is here and Daniel Pink’s Free Agent book is here.

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