The New Rules for Getting Ahead in the Gig Economy

Yes, the job landscape is changing. Here’s what you can do about it...

How to get ahead in the gig economy

If you listen to your parents or grandparents talk about their work history, you’ll probably see an alarming trend — they didn’t go anywhere! They stayed at the same company year after year, often decade after decade. Compare that to the average job length as of January 2016: Just 4.2 years.

In fact if we look at the job landscape, a lot has changed in the past 50 years:

  • Flexible work arrangements continue to shake up the traditional workplace environment. For example, a Gallup study found that 37% of US workers have telecommuted at some point “four times greater than the 9% found in 1995.” While salary is still the key factor in choosing a job, a 2014 Cisco study found that “the flexibility to set your own work schedule” ranked second among Gen X and Gen Y.
  • Job hopping is becoming more and more common as workers chase different positions, challenging problems, and, of course, better perks (all without the retirement pensions of yore motivating them to stick around).
  • Freelancing continues to rise constituting 35% of the US workforce in 2016.

You may have heard the term “gig economy” thrown around in the past few years. In general, it refers to this shift in the workforce from long-term careers with the same company to shorter, contract-based opportunities. It could look like working as a freelance web developer, selling crafts on Etsy, or working as an Uber driver.

What it lacks in stability, the gig economy makes up for in flexibility. Since the opportunities are often short-term and completed on a freelance-basis, workers can choose when they work and pick only the projects they’re interested in.

For some, the gig economy provides the necessary freedom and flexibility in their schedules. Buying healthcare on the individual market and paying self-employment taxes are prices worth paying. For others, the idea of freelancing full-time for their income brings on cold sweats and fear. Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, two things are clear: The gig economy is here, and it’s continuing to grow.

Even if you’re not planning on freelancing anytime soon, it pays to understand these emerging forces and how you can get ahead. The same strategies may land you your next full-time job, or earn you a handsome side income. When you look at people who succeed in this new economy, they all excel at two keys things — becoming a master of their craft and honing their reputation.

Refine your craft and become the default choice

If the gig economy is coming (or already here), some natural questions emerge. What’s your gig? Does it match up with the type of work you want to be doing? And, most importantly, are you good enough to get paid for it?

There are limitless career opportunities and gigs available. The trick is honing and refining your craft so that when the opportunity rolls around, you’re the default choice for companies looking to hire. Becoming the default choice is hard work, but it is attainable.

Master the fundamentals, not the specifics

In his book A More Beautiful Question, author Warren Berger contrasts the difference between the current job climate and years past. In the past, adults would go to school, figure out what they wanted to do for a career, and then continue to do that work year after year for the rest of their lives.

“[B]ecause of constant change and increased complexity, that rinse-and-repeat approach to adult life no longer works as well,” says Berger. “In a time when so much of what we know is subject to revision or obsolescence, the comfortable expert must go back to being a restless learner.”

Industries are changing so rapidly that it’s no longer enough to know the ins and outs of your specific niche. You need to be adaptable. If your niche becomes obsolete for whatever reason, you need to learn a new aspect and push forward. Instead of memorizing a specific set of tactics for your craft, master the strategic thinking behind them; know the industry in and out, not just a certain set of tools.

“In a time when so much of what we know is subject to revision or obsolescence, the comfortable expert must go back to being a restless learner.”

For example, if you’re a growth marketer, Facebook ads and email marketing might be the titans of your space at the moment. In 20 years, it may be a different story. If you only understand those specific tools, you’ll be out of luck. If, instead, you master the skills of thinking strategically, testing new approaches to attracting customers, and learning from the results, you’ll excel regardless of whatever tool is popular.

How exactly do you master the fundamentals? As you might expect from the book title, A More Beautiful Question hints that better questions might actually be the answer. Berger explains the future of work in this way:

“…we’ll be expected to quickly adapt to using new and unfamiliar tools, as we try to construct new businesses, new markets, new careers, new life plans — using ever-changing technology, without clear instructions, and with the clock ticking. All of which requires people to be not only better questioners, but better experimenters.”

Here are two questions to get you started. Use these as thought experiments to kick your mind into a new way of thinking.

  • If you had to do your job now without your favorite tool or set of tools, how would you do it? For example, if you were a marketer and you had to reach a large audience without email or social media, how would you get it done? Similarly, if you’re a developer and you can’t use your preferred language, how quickly could you ship a project in something else?
  • What assumptions are you making about your industry that might change on a dime? How would you react? A simple example is the shift from desktop to mobile devices. In 2010, many companies just assumed their customers would come to them over desktop computers. Enter the mobile revolution. What’s the equivalent shift that could happen in your space? How would you react?

Become so good they can’t ignore you

This phrase is the title of a book by Cal Newport which he in turn borrowed from the actor Steve Martin. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Martin was asked for his keys to success. He replied simply, “Become so good they can’t ignore you.” In short, get so good at your craft that your customers would be crazy not to give you the gig. Newport expands in the book, “You have to get good before you can expect good work.”

The gig economy offers tons of benefits for workers with flexible schedules and a variety of projects to pick and choose from. In the same vein, it offers companies an unmatched selection of freelancers to choose from for a certain gig. To get ahead of your competition, you have to be far and away the better option. Here are some tips to do just that.

Narrow your market. In his book Purple Cow, marketer and author Seth Godin defines the way to reach mainstream:

“The way to break through the mainstream is to target your niche instead of a huge market.”

When defining your gig, choose a niche audience that’s big enough to support you but not so big you’ll get lost in a sea of noise. For example, Jean Hsu left Medium and Google to work as a leadership consultant, but she targeted her business even more. “Leadership” by itself may be too broad so she targeted “Engineer Leadership.”

Isolating your niche also allows you to understand your specific customer on a deeper level. What challenges do they have? Which conferences do they go to? What other influencers are they reading/watching?

Define “good”. Once you have identified your specific niche, the next step in becoming the best in your chosen field is defining what the best actually looks like. Newport uses the example of a musician:“When you ask a musician…there’s little ambiguity about what getting ‘good’ means to him at that moment.”

What does good look like in your field? Who are the titans you look up to and respect? Why are they at the top of the field? What do you need to master to get to that level? List out those items. You now have your to-do list. Get to work.

Refine the details. Seth Godin defines the opposite of remarkable as “very good” meaning if your product meets spec or just a bit above, it’s unlikely you’ll have customers ranting and raving about your work.

Find ways to make your work actually remarkable so customers have a reason to talk about you to potential clients. For example, if you’re a customer service professional, your customers expect fast email replies. What they don’t expect is a personalized message at the top of a welcome email that changes each day. That’s engaging, unique, and yes, remarkable.

Join a Mastermind group. These groups are becoming a popular way to grow and network professionally. The concept was originally introduced by Napolean Hill in his book Think and Grow Rich.

On a simple level, a Mastermind group consists of 4–6 people getting together on a regular basis to share trade secrets and learn from one another. Choose individuals you want to learn from and soak up as much as you can. As an added bonus, your group may refer work for you later on.

Hone your reputation

Once you develop your craft and become the best in your chosen field, the next step is to make sure everyone knows it. To do that, you have to cultivate your reputation both on and offline. From building your portfolio to growing your audience, here are some strategies for showing off your work to potential customers down the road.

Build a (focused) portfolio of your work

Even if you’re not looking for a new job, build an online portfolio showcasing your work. If you’re a web designer, you should have design samples you can showcase to friends and potential clients. If you’re an entrepreneur on Etsy, create a quick portfolio of your best work outside of your Etsy shop.

Your portfolio shouldn’t encompass all of your work. It should encompass your best stuff and represent the type of work you want to get hired for moving forward. Remember that tip to narrow your market a few paragraphs ago? Your portfolio should be catered to that audience. Behance’s Brand Director, Mark Brooks, explained it this way for designers:

“Your portfolio defines who you are as a designer and where you want to go. If you have a specific interest in a certain design field such as editorial design, that’s what you need to focus your portfolio on.”

You can expand this to virtually any field. If you’re a writer looking to work exclusively on long-form profile pieces, don’t fill your portfolio with the shorter, regular columns you write on a weekly basis. If you’re a developer, show off the projects built in the languages you want to specialize in.

When viewing your portfolio, it should be easy for someone to pull out two things — what you’re good at and what kinds of work you enjoy doing.

Google yourself regularly

Your future employers and business partners are likely googling you. You should know what they’re seeing. The only way to do that is to regularly google yourself and keep tabs on what’s coming up in the top search results. Ideally, these top results will contain your website, personal projects, and online networks you’ve chosen to focus on (more on that below).

To stay on top of your Google reputation, follow these two steps:

  1. Go incognito. For the best results, Rich Matta, CEO of ReputationDefender, recommends running a search in an incognito window. Otherwise, your search results will be heavily influenced by your browsing habits, current location, etc. By doing the search in an incognito window, you can be sure you’re seeing what anyone else would see.
  2. Set up a Google alert. You can automatically get notified when your name pops up in new search results through Google. For example, I have mine set up to automatically notify me when my name appears in new searches with at most one email per day. I don’t get a ton of emails through this, but it gives me peace of mind know that it’s in place.

Narrow down your networks

New social media networks come out all the time (many disappear just as quickly). Whenever a new social network hits the scene, everyone rushes to register their username and build a dominating presence. Adding to the hype are the dozens of articles filling your stream with titles like “Why You’re Missing Out on Snapchat” and “Why You Should Double Down on Pinterest.” The result is social media FOMO and the feeling that you need to be everywhere on social media.

Your online reputation is key in the gig economy, but that doesn’t mean you have to adopt every new social network that comes out. As social media strategist Laurie Hurley puts it, being everywhere leads to being nowhere.

“Trying to be everywhere with your social media plan will result in not being anywhere with substance. Narrow your focus and see greater results.”

Instead of trying to be everywhere, narrow your focus to one or two networks and really focus on excelling. The social media company Buffer has a handful of tips on selecting the right tool. Those suggestions are definitely helpful, but I’ll suggest a few additional tips for narrowing down to the right network.

  1. Pick the harder option. When presented with two equally viable options for building your audience, pick the one that will be harder for others to emulate. For example, it’s easy to share software development links on LinkedIn. It’s much harder to answer questions every Friday on StackOverflow or live coding on Twitch or regularly posting on Medium and building a reputation for knowing your stuff.
  2. Own your audience. If you put all of your eggs in one basket and then that basket shuts down, you’re going to be in trouble. When possible, you want to own your audience. For example, if you run an email list through Mailchimp, you “own” those email addresses meaning you can export them and move them wherever you choose to go next. This isn’t always possible (you can’t easily export Twitter and Facebook followers, for example), but it is a factor to consider. At the very least, I would suggest having one avenue where you own your subscribers (email or blog subscribers, for example) and another where you’re left at the mercy of a platform (YouTube, Instagram, etc).
  3. When possible, avoid crowds. If everyone is going one direction, think about heading the opposite direction. It’s easier to stand out when you have less competition. This doesn’t mean you should ditch Facebook for MySpace and be a big fish in a non-existent pond. It does mean that instead of posting aimlessly on Twitter every few hours hoping someone will find your work, you could join a few smaller, targeted Twitter chats involving your target audience.

Personally, I find the gig economy both exciting and terrifying. On one hand, it’s possible to forge virtually any path you want. Niches exist anywhere and everywhere with customers waiting for you to show up.

On the other hand, this means success is largely up to you. Success in the gig economy isn’t based on tenure; your next promotion and pay raise aren’t guaranteed. You have to work at it day in and day out, refining your craft and honing your reputation. It takes constant work, but if you do both well, you’ll have customers banging down your door for a product only you can provide.

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