According to a recent study performed by Upwork and the Freelancer’s Union, you are one of approximately 57 million American workers who are self-employed. Representing 35% of the American workforce, we freelancers, solopreneurs and independent contractors generate nearly $1 trillion dollars in annual income – approaching 5% of GDP.
Like many of you, I have struggled over the course of the last week.
The effects of the nationwide shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were felt almost immediately, and I’ve been forced to accept that my business, which has provided so well for our family, will no longer be enough to keep us going over the coming months. At least not on its own.
At this point, I think its important to say that I absolutely believe that the steps being taken to "slow the curve" of this pandemic are both necessary and the right thing to do. Protecting our most vulnerable citizens from this virus and doing everything we can to keep our medical facilities from being overwhelmed needs to be our highest priority for all of our sakes – but I do worry that the burden being put on our nation’s self-employed is being overlooked in the process.
Like many of you, I’ve watched our elected officials announce relief packages for industry giants, employers, and employees – but the self-employed are rarely mentioned.
I’m not sure most people realize that unlike many of our traditionally employed peers, as economic activity slows we won’t be eligible for unemployment. They may also be unaware that in most cases, our businesses are too small to qualify for the low-interest disaster relief loans that are being provided to small businesses, or that even if we did qualify, it could be prohibitively difficult for a one-person business to generate enough revenue to afford the regular payments that come with taking on additional debt.
To put it lightly, we’re in a tight spot.
I won’t pretend to know what the solution is here or if a one-size-fits-all solution for the self-employed can even exist, but it would be reassuring to at least know that the decision-makers are thinking about us right now and perhaps exploring some way to help.
But really, I’m not writing to complain.
The real reason I am writing this letter is to remind you that however uncertain things may look for us in the short term, we are in a good position to come out on top if we can stay tuned to our instincts and do our best to stay calm.
I hope these reminders may help carry you through the current troubles and those to come.
Our natural ingenuity and drive make us unique
These days, it seems like everyone has a laundry list of grievances that they are willing to share on a moment’s notice. There is no shortage of people with the ability to find things to complain about, but less who are willing to do the legwork that is required to come up with real solutions to these problems, and even fewer who are willing to go to work solving them.
As solopreneurs, we have never been very good at accepting “because this is how it’s always been done” as an answer, and if we see something that is not right it’s near impossible for us to let it go. We need to fix it.
I’ll admit this trait can make us somewhat difficult employees at times, but it’s what makes us great as self-employed entrepreneurs.
I’m not certain the notion of “how it’s always been done” is going to work for anybody in the near future.
When this is all over, people like us who don’t need to wait for instruction are going to play a critical role in forging a path forward and shaping what will become the new “normal.”
We’ve always been the ones driving innovation.
We will continue to do so in the future.
It’s not what we do that makes us important, it’s how we do it
One of my favorite lessons to share with aspiring entrepreneurs is that they need to learn how to “love the problem, not the solution.”
This simple phrase highlights an important trait that we self-employed share. We put real effort into understanding the problems we seek to solve so that we can come up with elegant solutions that will be well received by the market. It's what allows us to provide the maximum impact with the least amount of effort.
There is a very real possibility that the solutions we have offered in the past may no longer fit the problems people are looking to solve in the weeks, months, or years to come.
Keep your eye on the problem, and if you need to shift your solution or even tackle a new problem for a while, do it.
Our ability to quickly identify, understand, and efficiently solve our customers’ problems has always been the primary driver of our success, and I can’t think of a time when that particular set of skills has been more valuable than it will be moving forward.
We were made for this
There is no question there is a lot up in the air right now and things will likely get harder before they get better. Making a real “plan” isn’t really feasible when there are so many unknowns.
Thankfully, operating without a plan is something that we self-employed are really good at. In any other situation I’d say we are almost too good at it, but today this is going in the "strengths" column.
I say this somewhat in jest, of course – but it’s worth noting that our agility as self-employed people does give us an edge in uncertain times.
Where other businesses have management, sales and production teams who all need to be moving in the same direction to avoid chaos, we are naturally able to keep these roles (more or less) in sync because we have internalized each of them.
As larger businesses struggle to pivot, we are able to turn on a dime to quickly fill holes in the market as they emerge.
We’ll find a sense of normalcy again in the future, but in the meantime, because of our skills and experience, we are in a strong position to push forward and make the most of the times to come.
For these reasons and a hundred more, I am proud to count myself among you.
The willingness you have shown, time and time again, to step up to a challenge and address it head-on inspires me more than I can properly express. I hope you never lose that, because that would be the biggest tragedy of all.
In closing, I’d like to share that I kicked off this year with big plans for my business, and while this is certainly a setback (a whopper of a setback, really,) I am confident that however rough things get in the short term my family will make it through this and my business is going to be in a great position to take off when things settle down.
It’s hard to know how much many of us are going to struggle, but I take heart in knowing that if we can keep cool heads and look out for each other, collectively we can all come out of this stronger, wiser, and in a great place to do what we do best.
Getting to work and taking care of business.
Orth, Moorhead, is owner of Fireline Neon Company.