Category Archives: “New Mutualism”

How Digital Technology Enables Freelancing [repost]

[This was posted earlier here.]

For the past twenty five years or so, many people point out how digital technology, especially digital networks, enable remote working, including freelancing, coworking, and general digital nomadism.

My own view is that the technology is necessary but not sufficient, it enables but does not really drive these trends in work.  (See the book!)

This winter Anna Medina reiterates this case, explainingwhat the cloud means for freelance workers” [2].  Writing in the Freelancers Union blog, she declares cloud technology to be “a game-changer”.

Cloud-based technology has been a significant game-changer responsible for propelling the growth of the freelance industry.” (From [2])

Now, to me, “cloud technology” is as much a business model as a technology.  The stuff in the cloud is pretty much what we had all along in large organizations (and which I helped pioneer).  The new thing is who owns it, and the fact that you basically rent your critical infrastructure rather than try to run it yourself.

I think Medina’s basic point is that this approach (renting form the cloud) is especially beneficial for freelancers.  I would say that it levels the playing field, making it possible for an independent worker to have the same high-quality infrastructure as a member of a large organization.

She lists the kinds of tools available, including Communication, Sharing, and Payments.

I think Medina is completely correct that a lot of contemporary freelancing and coworking would be infeasible without access to these cloud services.  Technologically, the array of services cited would be “the easy ones”, services well perfected long before “the cloud”.  She doesn’t even mention virtual machines specifically, which make possible a variety of “on demand” computing, including software development, simulation, large computations, and lots more.

From my point of view, cloud computing makes a kind of “average” infrastructure available at low cost to even an individual worker.  “Average” isn’t perfect or ideal, but it definitely places a solid floor on the quality of infrastructure, raising all boats.  Only the wealthiest organization could afford the quality that you or anyone can get in the cloud.  That’s good, for sure.

Now, the cloud does not provide everything you need.  For one thing, you need a physical place to work, and most people need other people.  That’s what coworking spaces are for.

But even technologically, cloud users have to “bring your own” stuff: computer and networks, and users have to take care to use the cloud well.

For example, earlier in February in the same blog, Samuel Bocetta discussedHow to secure client data when you work remotely” [1]. The essential point is that, no matter how great and how “secure” cloud services may be, you, the worker, must still take responsibility for protecting you clients and your own information.

Obviously, using well designed cloud services is a good foundation.  But, as Bocetta outlines, you still need to operate defensively and practice safe computing:  passwords, cryptography, and policies.   You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again.

The good news is that the steps he outlines are little different from any Internet user.  The bad news is that they aren’t any more fool proof than general Internet security.  So watch out.

To me, one of the scary parts of freelancing is that, as an independent freelance worker, you are on your own, both responsible and liable for protecting you clients.  One of the great benefits of belonging to a large organization is when you are helped by and at least partly shielded by the larger group.  A big company or university has lawyers on retainer, and also has experts who work hard to defend your systems.  You are not alone.

Yes, cloud computing is certainly a good thing for freelancers.  My own view is that it is an enabler, but not exactly “responsible for propelling the growth of the freelance industry.”  It also is hardly the whole picture.  Freelancers are still “on their own” in many ways.  This is why coworking spaces and communities are so important and valuable for freelancers:  so you aren’t all alone.


  1. Samuel Bocetta, How to secure client data when you work remotely, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 18, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/02/18/how-to-secure-client-data-when-you-work-remotely/
  2. Anna Medina, What the cloud means for freelance workers, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 28, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/02/28/what-the-cloud-means-for-freelance-workers/

Samuel Bocetta, How to secure client data when you work remotely, Anna Medina, What the cloud means for freelance workers,

(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

What is Coworking?

Continue reading How Digital Technology Enables Freelancing [repost]

“Broad City” Portrays Freelance Life? [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

For the record, following a post wondering “Where are all the freelance characters on TV?”, the Freelancers Union* posted an earlier item that tells us that one place to look is the TV show, Broad City [1].  The article, signed by “Trupo” (which is an insurance company partly owned by the FU), discusses the fictional life of the characters.  (Caveat:  I haven’t watched more than a few minutes of this show myself.)

“The characters don’t explicitly say they are freelancers, but they continue to work side jobs throughout the shows five seasons.”

These two working women live the real life of a freelancer: many gigs, mostly very short term. Intermittent income, no benefits, little security.

The show plays these challenges for comedy, of course.  The point is that this is slice-of-life comedy, representing the real experience of a lot of workers living in New York City.

The FU concludes, “hopefully this is just the beginning of a more accurate representation of the growing norm of non-traditional work.”

I don’t know how “normative” or “non-traditional” gig working is, will, or should be. But it’s certainly good to see some realistic fiction about working lives.

As I commented earlier, why not a fictional life set in a coworking space?  I have described coworking (and by implication freelancing) as “participatory theater”, in which workers create their own story of the Future of Work.  That sounds like a decent scenario for scripted theater.


  1. Trupo, What Broad City got right about financial insecurity and episodic income, in Freelancers Union Blog, January 31, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/01/31/what-the-show-broad-city-got-right-about-episodic-income/

*Note:  I am a proud member of the FU.


(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

What is Coworking?

Making It As A Freelancer [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

The Freelancers Union and GCUC report that one reason that people like freelancing is because you get to work on what you want to work on, when you want, how you want.  Gig workers are free to pick their gigs, and coworkers pick their own work environments.

But gigging is hard, and, frankly, even the glass-half-full surveys of freelancers and coworkers show that the pay is short, and the hours may be long (assuming you can get the work).

Looking closely at the surveys over the years, it is clear that many of the respondents were enthusiastic newbies, happy with their first experiences. (We were all rookies once! : – ))

But I have long questioned how viable gig working will be for the long run, for a whole working lifetime.  (I discuss this in my book, “What is Coworking?“)

For this reason, I was interested to see several posts from experienced freelancers, who have rather more sanguine view of gig working.  It’s not all roses and unicorns.

To be sure, these senseis want people to freelance.  But…they have some important things to tell you.


First of all, Hannah Edmonds posts yet another discussion of time management.  (This is a perennial topic for freelancers and coworkers.)

Everyone has trouble managing their time.  One good thing about working for an organization and having a boss is that these things provide structure and other people to help enforce the structure. However, an independent gig worker is on her own [1].  Edmonds points out the need to structure your gig work, and offers tips on how to do it. This takes self-discipline, which I, for one, am not that good at.


Sensei Tyra Seldon has more tough advice:  freelancing isn’t meant to be free  [3].  In particular, gig workers need to know the value of their work, and need to charge appropriately.  Anyone who has worked with Sensei Seldon knows that she is very clear about terms of payment, and demands appropriate professional levels of compensation.

She tells us that this is “what 10 years of freelancing taught” her:  talk about money clearly and demand to be paid.  Say “no” if necessary.

I’ll note that this is another good thing about working for a conventional organization:  someone else sets the terms and compensation, and there is a contract that defines it.  There is no need to negotiate every piece of work separately, so there isn’t a need to explicitly worry about the value of each piece.

Gig workers have to make demands and get paid.  That’s not all that fun, but it is for sure necessary.


What does this mean?

Sensei Naomi Nakashima tells us that she had to learn “that it’s not enough to love what you do” [2]

It no longer felt like I was getting paid to do something I loved, it felt like I was barely scraping by. I felt underpaid and undervalued (because I was).” (From [2])

What she found is that, however much she liked what she was doing, it was necessary to earn enough to actually live.  She recounts how one of her clients refused a patently absurd low bid from her, and told her “no matter how much you love what you do, if you’re not making enough to live on it, you will end up resenting it.”

Think carefully about this.  She is telling you that getting paid isn’t just necessary for survival, it is necessary for your sanity and morale.

Sensei Nakashima’s suggestions are good advice for any job, freelance or other. I can testify that poor pay and lousy work will definitely make you hate any job, no matter how cool it might seem on paper.

She elaborates:

1) It’s not enough to enjoy what you do – you also have to enjoy the project you’re working on.

2) It needs to do more than just pay you – it needs to be worth your time.

3) It’s not enough to simply work on clients’ projects that you love – they need to help further your career in some way. (summarized from  [2])

I would say that #2 is the crux of all of this.  Freelancing might seem like a great thing, but it really must be worth your time or you’ll never survive.  This isn’t even a matter of money (though Sensei Seldon is right that you need to be paid), it’s a matter of life and death.  You only have so much time, you can’t really throw it away doing things you hate.

I would add a further bit of advice.  My own experience has shown me that the most important thing is who you are working with.  Working with good people is generally worth your time, even if it might not be perfect for other reasons.  (For example, I’ve been very happy doing unpleasant (but important) work with people I really care about.  I’ve also been happy working with good people, even when it didn’t particularly advance my career.)

I think this is one of the reasons why coworking is so valuable to many freelancers.  If you find a good coworking community, everything will be so much better because just showing up and doing your work with good people will be worth your time.


Gig working isn’t easy, and it’s not guaranteed to make you happy.  I doubt that you will get rich (at least not from the gigs).

But these experienced freelancers are here to tell you that it can be a good life, if you are disciplined and take care to do work that is worth your time.

What is Coworking?  It can be an opportunity to work with good people all the time.  And that’s a really good thing.


  1. Hannah Edmonds, How to keep freelance work from eating up your life, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/23/how-to-keep-freelance-work-from-eating-up-your-life/
  2. Naomi Nakashima, How one freelance writer figured out that it’s not enough to love what you do, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/30/why-its-not-enough-to-love-what-you-do/
  3. Tyra Seldon, Pay now or pay later: what 10 years of freelancing taught me, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/17/what-10-years-of-freelancing-taught-me-about-payment/

 

(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

 

What is Coworking?

Report on Freelancing in NYC 2019 [repost]

[This was posted earlier here.]

The Freelancers Union* has released a new survey of “Freelancing in New York City” [2].

The headline number is that 34% of workers in NYC “is freelancing”.  Wow!  (That would be over a million workers.)  The study finds that in “media and entertainment” 61% of workers have freelanced in the past year.

The report touts the Big Apple as an especially favorable environment for freelancers, for the same reason as it is favorable for all workers (opportunity, professional networking, etc.)

So what does this all mean?

First of all, this is a web survey, which means that it is pretty difficult to assess how representative it might be.  I tend to be skeptical of the reported margins of error, given the format of the survey.  Granted, the target group of the survey is comparatively likely to be reached and sampled by this methodology, but who knows?

This study surveyed 5,000 residents in NYC who work in the greater NYC metro area. Within this NYC worker population, the study looked at those who freelance (N=1728) and media and entertainment workers who freelance (N=432). The study was fielded from March 22, 2019 to April 18, 2019. Margin of error for each audience group are as follows: NYC Workers Overall: ±1.3% at the 95% level of confidence. NYC Freelancers: ±2.3%, NYC Non-freelancers ±1.7%, Media & Entertainment freelancers ±4.7” (From [2])

A more important point is that the definition of “freelancer” seems to be “anyone who reports working freelance at any time during the year”.  This includes people who work exclusively or mainly as independent contractors, but also moonlighters who have a conventional job.  As far as I can tell, the definition of a gig is up to the respondent, and one gig of as little as a few hours might be counted as “freelancing” for this study.  In other studies from this group, the workers who could be considered primarily freelancing are considerably fewer than the most inclusive definition, so the headline about “one third of workers” is misleading.

Nevertheless, the findings about the “media and entertainment” sector are plausible.  These industries have always been filled by part time and independent workers, so in this sense nothing has changed in this supposedly “new” gig economy.

The survey found that the responding freelancers are worried about their irregular work and income, and also about late or non-payment. If these workers can’t get enough work in this economy, then there certainly should be very real concern for what will happen in the next downturn.

One interest point the report emphasizes is that many freelancers indicate that the choose to freelance.  (This is a pretty important ideological point for the FU.)  But, if two thirds of “media and entertainment” workers are freelancers, it sounds like there isn’t all that much choice about it—you freelance or you don’t work.  Perhaps the emphasis on how much freelancers prefer freelancing is a bit of cognitive dissonance, putting forward the positives for what must be done out of necessity.  Or perhaps contemporary freelancing is a “better way” to do what desperate screenwriters have always done.

What does this survey mean to the rest of us, who are not in NYC?   In other parts of the world, I bet the freelance life is pretty similar, if not as trendy as the Big Apple.

The sixty four million dollar question is whether you need to actually live in NYC, or not to succeed.  Freelancing or not, NYC has huge opportunities, but you’ll have to scramble to make the most of them.  Perhaps freelancing is particularly suited to this scramble, in any case it certainly is the way many workers live.

Lots of other surveys show that many freelancers work remotely, which means that it should be possible, in principle, to participate in the NYC markets while living back home.  So why move to the city?

I’ll note that this survey apparently doesn’t sample workers who live elsewhere but “work in NYC”.  I suspect there are a fair number of them, and that’s probably a bigger story than whether they are freelancers or not.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The first Freelancing in NYC study shows that 1 in 3 NYC workers is freelancing, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/09/10/freelancing-in-nyc-2019/
  2. Freelancers Union, Upwork, and New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Freelancing in New York City 2019. Freelancers Union, New York, 2019. https://www.freelancersunion.org/documents/36/Freelancing_in_New_York_Report_2019.pdf

*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.

(

For much more on what makes coworking tick, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

 

What is Coworking?

A Growing Technical Ecosystem for Platform Coops

The “platform cooperative” movement has a certain visceral appeal, “putting (digital) tools in the hands of the workers”, etc.  The vision of an open source and/or worker owned “Uber” is certainly seductive.  But the details and even the very definition of what this means are complicated.

This summer Nithin Coca reports on some of the companies that have emerged that “make it easier to build a sharing economy or platform cooperative startup”  [1].  Basically, these digital services are designed to fold into a platcoop, to lower the barriers “giving them more space to focus on their core business – sharing”.

This is a good idea, though I have to wonder how valid the assertion that “you need to increase your scale in order to survive” ([1], quoting Derek Chang).

So what does Coca’s list tell us about what a platcoop needs?

  • Tipalti – payments e.g. to drivers
  • PlatformOS – on line marketplace
  • Twilio – phone and messaging
  • Checkr – Background checks (!)
  • Extole — Referral marketing (?)
  • Stocksy – images
  • MyTurn – lending library
  • Stripe and Hyperwallet –  payment processing
  • Everflow- promo codes
  • Sharetribe – marketplaces
    (From [1], see article for links)

Two of the services are “online market places”, and a third is a generic “lending library”.  This makes sense, in that many platcoops are lending or matchmaking operations—that’s how you implement sharing.

Two services are payment systems—twenty first century cash registers. I’m sure these are useful, though not particularly specialized for “sharing” applications.  Similarly, Stocksy (imagery) and digital messaging are useful but not specialized services.

Two others are a bit worrying, providing digital promo codes and referral marketing.  These technologies are typically used to track customer behavior, which is, ick! Clearly, these services are edging more into the “business” and away from “sharing”.

The tenth item is even more alarming:  background checks. Talk about “ick”!

I understand why this is needed for a business, but I wonder just what kind of “cooperative” or “sharing economy” needs to check the criminal records of its owner/members. Part of the point of a platcoop is that you trust each other rather than trusting a distant corporation. Relying on this company to establish trust is not necessarily the right idea, IMO.

Overall, Coca’s list reveals an emphasis on the “business” part of a “sharing business”.  For that matter, his title makes clear that “building” and “start up” are the things we are interested in, at least in this list.  (There is a lot of this going around these days, such as this or this)  To be fair, Coca wants this to be about making it easier, and freeing up effort for the important part: sharing.

The second thing that Coca’s article suggests is that the “platform” part of “platform cooperative” means “true on-demand services”, i.e., Uber-esque digital platforms.  His list is certainly consistent with this definition of platcoop.

Now, I’m not really sure that things like Uber should even be called part of “sharing economy” (and I’m not the only one who might question this definition, see this, this this). IMO, the important thing about coops is the ownership, which is hard, and which these services do not address in any way.

Yes, this technology that makes extractive ticks like Uber work can work equally well for a worker owned service.  But the tech itself won’t really help you create or run a worker owned service.

In general, building a platcoop using these services will create a service in which the people mostly interact digitally. This may or may not be good business, but it is probably bad for sharing.  The fact that you might need background checks makes the point: working with strangers is working with strangers, no matter what the ownership model.

And I’ll point out the important observations of Sensei Claire Marshall: everything changes when you take money out of the interaction.   The true joy of sharing is the human interaction, so a platcoop should strive to emulate the one thing Uber got very right: the money is moved out of sight, creating the opportunity for a comfortable human interaction.

This means that the services Coca talks about definitely should be in the background.  The people should be in the foreground.

In other words:  use these 10 companies with care, and use them to build things that are more about sharing between people.


  1. Nithin Coca (2019) 10 companies that make it easier to build a sharing economy or platform cooperative startup. Sharable, https://www.shareable.net/10-companies-easing-barriers-to-entry-to-sharing-economy-and-platform-cooperative-startups/

 

Liz Enochs on Coop Accelerators

Creating a coop is hard.  You need vision and leadership and money and legal paper work.  And, by definition, you need enough people who want to be owners, and are willing to do their bit.

The good news is, there is no one right way to do it.

The bad news is, there are many possible ways to do it, and you have to actually do one of them well.

It’s small wonder that there aren’t more cooperative businesses. Even if you have a great idea and the right people, who knows how to do it?  How do you learn how to do it?

Liz Enochs writes this summer about a number of initiatives to help people learn how to do it.  Taking a page from the for-profit book, these “accelerators” and “incubators” are “supercharging a worker-owned economy” [1].

Hmm. What does this mean?

Enochs points to a number of examples.  They all share the overall goal of increasing the number of worker- and user-owned enterprises.  Unlike for-profit incubators, both the accelerators and the enterprises are cooperative, and not-(primarily)-for-profit.  Like for-profit incubators, there is generally a network and ecosystem of allied coops to help new enterprises.

And, like for-profit incubators, there is an element of pay-it-forward:  investing in the fledgling enterprises, and receiving a return later when they are successful.

There is a large educational component, probably more than in conventional business incubators.  This reflects the complexity of cooperative business models, including the patchwork of legal frameworks, and the varieties of goals and organizational styles.

For-profit incubators have the game down to a cookie cutter templates—and the goal is to get rich and sell out.  Some of these coop incubators have their own cookie cutter templates (e.g., The Next System), as well as advising on legal and financial designs.

Equally important, coop incubators feature training and mentoring, similar to for profit incubators.  The Green Workers Cooperatives offers an “academy” which is described as “a lean MBA in five months”.  Start.coop offers training, mentors, and standardized “platform services”.

So what could be wrong with this picture?

First of all, are we interested in cooperatives, i.e., ownership, or are we interested in enterprises, i.e., making money for the owners?

To me, the important thing about a cooperative is to serve a (generally local) community, and, by definition, for the community to define the service. The enterprise needs to be economically sustainable, but not necessarily hugely profitable, and definitely not bigger than needed.  The first and often only question is, how to keep charges low enough to serve everyone who needs it, and still generate enough income to make ends meet.

Some of the incubators discussed by Enochs seem to be closely following the example of business accelerators, which seems to me to be poorly aimed for this fundamental balancing act.  I see programs about marketing, investment, and “scaling up” (i.e., rapid, wide growth).   (And Rogue Co-ops has a competition, which makes no sense to me.)

These tools will certainly grow an enterprise, bring in more income, and possibly get more members.  But I have to wonder if they endanger the entire notion of a community of owners, and marginalize the original purpose of the coop.

Among other things, valuing starting something new and growing fast over creating a long-term sustainable life for the owners and customers isn’t necessarily the right approach.  Remember that conventional incubators teach that failure is success, most new enterprises go broke, and successful ones sell out to big money.  Coops should be about resiliency, long term goals, and not selling out to big money.

So, these incubators / accelerators / whatever appear to be promoting and enabling the establishment of new cooperatives.  That’s great.  And given the challenges of creating and running a coop, catalysts and mentors are definitely needed.

On the other hand, just as in conventional business accelerators, they are also promulgating an entrepreneurial culture.  And that may or may not be consistent with your views of the spirit of cooperatives.

So I don’t really know about this.


  1. Liz Enochs (2019) How co-op accelerators and incubators are supercharging a worker-owned economy. Sharable, https://www.shareable.net/how-co-op-accelerators-and-incubators-are-supercharging-a-worker-owned-economy/

 

What is Coworking? It is a way to stay connected [repost]

[This item was posted earlier here.]

Sensei Tyra Seldon writes for the Freelancers Union Blog about the importance of “staying connected” to other people.  “[F]reelancers may be particularly vulnerable to feeling disconnected and lonely.” [2]  As independent workers, they are also responsible for maintaining their own well-being.

Sensei Seldon gives three key things to do to sustain an independent career:

  1. Network with others
  2.  Join virtual communities
  3. Take care of your body

On the third point, she equates well-being with “self-care”, though I view the latter to be mostly cosmetic, while the latter is essential.  Exercise, rest, eat right.  You know it’s important, and Seldon is correct that your work will suffer if you don’t.  Budget time and effort to keep your own physiological and psychological infrastructure in shape.

The second point is, of course, not limited to independent workers. Many, if not most, workers—and basically everybody–are digitally connected in many ways. Independent workers may find valuable connections beyond direct work activities.

However, experience shows that digital communities are not enough.  People need other people, face to face.  So item number one is “network with others”—in person.

Historically, one of the key reasons contemporary coworking emerged is that independent workers can find a community of like-minded workers.  It is a “respite from our isolation”, to quote Zachary Klaas [1].

This is all good advice, and not just for independent workers.

I thing Sensei Seldon leaves out another critical principle. “Self care” is important, but the road to happiness is caring for others.  (Actually, we know Seldon hereself understands this:  see here and here)

Anyone with kids or elders or a family in general knows this.  Why is work-life balance a problem?  Because work is necessary but takes time away from what really matters, and what really matters and makes us happy.

So–when  looking for community and self care, I say aim to help take care of each other, not just yourself.  And this is certainly something that a coworking community can, and should foster.


  1. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  2. Tyra Seldon, 3 ways to stay connected for emotional and physical well-being, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/04/23/3-ways-to-maintain-your-emotional-and-physical-well-being/

 

(For much more on what makes coworking tick, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

 

What is Coworking?