Understanding different emerging segments of freelancers in India: Part 1

By: Flexing It, 24/09/2013

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In our earlier pieces in the Decoding India’s Freelancers series, we focused on sharing and discussing data on emerging trends and patterns in freelancing. We also started to identify and characterise some distinct segments of freelancers that we see emerging. In this article and the next we look to delve deeper into each of the large segments of freelancers, and to understand them better through the lens of real individuals and their experiences with working independently, how they make it work, the issues faced and their thoughts on the future.

As we had discussed in our previous piece (http://www.flexingit.com/blog/new-segments-of-freelancers-emerging-20/), by far the largest segment of freelancers (35%) is of professionals who have opted to freelance after an extended stint in the corporate sector. The next 4 segments in terms of materiality are:  young mothers/professionals who have opted for freelancing owing to personal commitments, professionals in creative and technical fields where freelancing is seen as more lucrative and also as aiding better in achieving career objectives, entrepreneurs who have started their own ventures and are freelancing to keep cash-flows going, and finally professionals pursuing other interests like music or writing. The sixth largest segment that emerged from the data was of professionals looking to leverage their skills post regular hours (the professional moonlighters!). In this article we look at experiences of freelancers in the first two segments. 

Going independent after a corporate stint

Professionals who are now freelancing post a corporate stint (the corporate freelancers), tend to have a greater degree of work experience (three-quarters have 10+ years) and are drawn from a broad range of functional and industry segments. Just over half of these professionals are from 3 areas - strategy and business development, and general management, and Marketing & Sales. The Corporate Freelancers from our data are equally likely to be male or female, with the majority looking to work with full capacity either on a single project/client at a time or spread across multiple assignments simultaneously.

The major motivations for this group to go independent were gaining better control over their work and schedule, taking on work that provided greater challenge and growth, and being one’s own boss.  Salone Mithal, a former banker with a leading MNC bank, opted to become a consultant a year and half ago as she was not enjoying her work and wanted to better manage her job content and time. Manuraj Jain, an INSEAD MBA set up Vinculum Capital Partners when an expected role did not pan out and he decided to start his own practice to work in the areas of his choice i.e., private equity syndication, research and capital advisory in India. Kolkata based Rhituparna Chakraborty worked in the corporate sector for 11 years across American Express, IBM and Bank of America. Her decision to become a freelancer and move cities was prompted by getting disillusioned in the wake of a growing negative working culture that bred insecurity. At present, she is working on three  projects simultaneously, as a profile writer with the Hindustan Times, as an academic writer with ‘My writing masters’ and as a recruiter for fellowship programmes for Teach for India. Ranjan Pal began working independently after a long stint in the corporate world to pursue his passion of working in the education space and now takes on assignments pertaining to strategy and leadership issues with NGOs. His first assignment as an independent was helping set-up the Indian School of Business (ISB)!

As mentioned above, Corporate Freelancers are predominantly looking to use their full capacity whether across a single or multiple clients. This is borne out by the freelancers we interviewed too. Manuraj shares that it is difficult to describe an ‘average’ week when operating independently, with a great deal of periodicity in work. He is currently working across 4 different clients. Nidhi Panjwani, an HR professional and behaviour assessor typically works on 2-7 assignments every month each lasting a couple of days. Salone on the other has opted for a long assignment with a single client in the development space. 

Despite the various models adopted, freelancers in this segment are convinced of their choice and finds that it works for them. To quote Manuraj “I don’t think I have been happier…..I have flexibility in choosing clients, my schedule, the content of my work….my productivity has increased multi-fold.Salone believes she has become more disciplined since going independent and is also able to push her employer/client to make her assignments very deliverables-focused which was tough to do in a job.  Nidhi believes that her learning curve is higher as she is constantly learning new skills and has time for her family too. Ranjan echoes this, stating that he can now take on work, including voluntary contributions, that he is passionate about and that fit with his skills of networking.

Relatively new to freelancing, Rhituparna provides a cautionary note as well. She points out that one needs to be very disciplined to work independently and network actively to get good work. Both she and Nidhi talk about the need to ensure that one carefully screens the companies you work with to ensure there is a values match and payments do not become a nightmare. Rhituparna points out “People try to take advantage of freelancers by not having proper contracts or lousy payout terms. I have had to become very cautious about the wording of the contract.

Overall, the Corporate Freelancers segment appears committed to their choice with close to 75% either highly satisfied or satisfied with their work, and over 88% optimistic for the future. Of course there are elements that would make the path easier and some of the common themes we picked up were support in lead-generation and building a pipeline, support for select admin/accounting functions, and co-working options to get access to infrastructure and some conversation when needed! We will pick up on some of these themes towards the end of this piece.

Young mothers/professionals with personal commitments requiring flexibility

Young mothers/professionals who are freelancing owing to personal commitments accounted for just under 15% of the survey respondents with the majority (55%) having 5-10 years of experience. The top three functional areas were these professionals were drawn from are research & academia, HR, followed by marketing and sales.

As expected, the need to better manage work-life balance owing to young children was the predominant motivator for this group to freelance. Sucharita Narasimhan has two young children and with her husband travelling frequently she felt the need to be around at home. Zeenat was an HR executive with an MNC and started freelancing four months ago, to give more time to her newborn and takes on assignments as a creative writer, and as a French to English translator.

Interestingly, young mothers preferred limited hours/days arrangements in less than 33% of the cases which runs counter to what most would believe. So it would appear the preference is for the ability to control ones schedule versus necessarily cutting back on the capacity deployed significantly. Sucharita for example has multiple assignments ongoing, including research for a digital media company to define a product and create sales materials, creating white papers for an operations technology firm and writing articles and handling communications for an NGO. Aruna, who has been freelancing since the birth of her son 3 years ago, also works on 2-3 assignments paralelly and appreciates the absence of a long commute and the ability to choose her work. Tanya,has opted for a different model and works as a consultant with her previous organisation at 60% capacity and takes on additional projects with her remaining time periodically.

While the need for flexibility is especially contextual for this segment, we find that the levels of optimism for the future while high at 78% is a good 10 percentage points lower than for the other segments. We find this reflected in the interviews as well with the respondents pointing out both the pluses and minuses of working independently.  Both Sucharita and Aruna have been happy with the nature and quality of work they are doing. Aruna says “the freedom I get to choose assignments, working hours; and the time that I get to spend with my son seems to be worth the trade-off….I have had to master the art of focusing and finishing my work in any location whether it be library or the nearby coffee shop.” Tanya endorses this and believes that freelancing can help you discover what you want to do, and so urges professionals to consider it even while working in a regular model. 

There are notes of caution as well. Aruna believes that while she would recommend working independently to others, professionals need to build in risk-mitigation measures like having more than one focus area and client. Zeenat believes that freelancing needs a mind-set shift, professionals need to expect that work will not gush or perhaps even trickle down initially, expect needing to follow-up and also some rejection (which we are often not used to in our structured roles!).  She therefore suggests starting freelancing early in one’s career, bringing lots of positive energy to tide over the initial teething issues and of course marketing yourself well.

An entrepreneur’s mindset, networking, and self-discipline: keys to freelancing

Despite the varying contexts and reasons why professionals opt to work independently there are some themes that seem to cut across if you are to make this model work well. The first and most important is that one needs to think like a business owner or entrepreneur i.e., what is the product or service I offer, what’s the capacity I can offer and therefore number of clients/assignments needed both for today and the pipeline to build for the future. What underlies this is the belief in your product - in this case yourself! As Salone shares “It is interesting to see the reaction of people around you when you tell them you are leaving your full time job and becoming a freelancer….people have all sort of thoughts like you must have lost your job, or some personal issue otherwise why would you freelance!

A second theme for successful freelancers across segments emphasise is networking and marketing oneself. Many of the professionals we interviewed indicated that prior contacts were an important source of quality assignments. And it is important to stay in touch as you need to be top of mind when organisations have a need!

Thirdly, the bedrock of working independently across all the interviewees was discipline and self-motivation as you set and manage your deadlines. A common pattern was an initial period of struggle to figure out how best to get into a routine and set boundaries. Of course there is creativity and flexibility possible in setting this schedule. For Manuraj “the concept of a weekend slowly got diluted….though weekends are less relevant now as I can take time off during weekdays too assuming deadlines are met! Overall, as Ranjan says to make freelancing work well “one needs to be prepared to change ones mindset….let go of corporate trappings and be a self starter.”

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Our next piece will cover other interesting emerging segments of independent professionals, with a focus on the entrepreneur freelancer and professional moonlighter categories. Do write in with any feedback and suggestions into info@flexingit.com.

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