Looking for work? Somebody out there wants you to design websites, board dogs, run errands, write blot posts, do laundry, deliver packages, be a virtual assistant.
Sites like eLance, TaskRabbit, Fiverr, 99designs and 3to30.com are virtual employment offices offering gigs you can pick up and put down as needed. Sometimes you bid on jobs and sometimes you post your own ad, whether serious or offbeat. (“I will create a lacrosse trick and name it after you.”)
Whether you call this consulting, freelance or “microjobs,” more of us are headed that way, according to Kristin Cardinale. The author of The 9-to-5 Cure, Cardinale cites U.S. Department of Labor projections that “millions of short-term workers” are needed.
And some people simply don't want to punch a clock, according to Odd Jobs: How to Have Fun and Make Money in a Bad Economy. “Usually you decide when you work and when you take the morning off to sleep, or the week off to go skiing,” writes author Abigail R. Gehring. “And the variety of people you will meet, places you'll find yourself and skill sets you'll discover are sure to keep life interesting.”
Pros and cons
Make no mistake: Working for yourself is challenging. If you think self-directed employment = endless free time, think again. However, it might be perfect for people who:
- Prefer location independence.
- Aren't sure what they want to do. (Greetings, fellow Comparative History of Ideas majors!)
- Have goals that don't mesh with a straight-eight workday (e.g., being an at-home parent).
The location-independent aspect in particular appeals to me. I've written everywhere from the guest room on a South Jersey tree farm to a McDonald's in Cardiff, Wales.
Other advantages of being your own boss?
- Setting your own hours.
- Every day is Casual Friday!
- No vacation limits (as long as you get your work done).
- Staff meetings are really easy to arrange.
However, let's not forget the potential disadvantages:
- Work-life balance is hard, e.g., giving a project one more look at 11 p.m.
- Bookkeeping. Quarterly taxes — feh!
- No insurance or retirement. (Some square jobs don't provide these, either.)
- Unpredictable income.
Odd Job Essentials
- Current skills. Computer- or Internet-related jobs require up-to-the-nanosecond knowledge. It's a constantly morphing niche.
- A thick skin. Having your ideas/proposals rejected can feel like someone saying your baby is ugly.
- Ledger smarts. Make sure you get paid for all your work. Remember to factor in job-finding site fees (as little as a dollar, maybe a percentage of what you earn).
- The ability to prioritize. Multiple projects means careful time management.
- An all-business attitude. Stick to the contract. One freelancer was asked for a additional article and was told she'd be paid extra. Guess what didn't happen.
But I have no skills!
Sure you do. Can you sew? Jailbreak an iPhone? Do you like using coupons, grocery shopping or doing laundry? Those last three gigs paid $12 to $29 on TaskRabbit, and they weren't hard. The grocery-shopping gig was to buy and deliver just five items.
And then there's the market for, um, nontraditional employment. If you're willing to tell off somebody's boss or sing the name of an Internet start-up in bel canto style on the New York subway, you can get paid to do so.
Try this: Think about the things you do that irritate or startle others, or that engender raucous laughter from certain groups of friends. Such talents may turn a profit. (Can you blow up balloons with your nostrils? I'm thinking “dude birthday video.”)
What about job security?
I used to believe in that. For years I also believed in the Tooth Fairy. (Spoiler alert: Your mom put that money under the pillow.) In an era when even police officers are being laid off, how many jobs are truly secure?
Cardinale says multiple part-time gigs can actually improve your long-term options, because you're exposed to a “network of people at all levels of many organizations whom you can tap for leads to spark future opportunities.”
Maybe yours will be a Cinderella story, e.g., walking an editor's dog will lead to a discussion of the novel you just finished. (Have your elevator pitch ready, just in case.) What's more likely is repeat business and/or referrals.
Linnea Sage, an actor and voiceover artist, says two-thirds of her work comes from previous customers. She generally earns close to $2,000 a month through Fiverr. “We're in a time now where artisanal work is valued,” says Sage, 24, who lives in New York City.
Can you make your entire living this way?
That depends on things like how many jobs you can line up, how much you need to live on — and, of course, whether there's demand for your skill.
“You have to have something that people want,” says Elijah eSalaah, a 43-year-old beatboxer who has sold more than 600 Fiverr gigs in the past year. He generally earns $450 to $900 per week but doesn't rely on it; as a disabled veteran, he receives a monthly check. Additionally, the cost of living in Kansas City, Mo., is lower than, say, Manhattan.
Digital illustrator Shana Shay makes between $400 and $800 per week through jobs from 99designs, a crowdsource design site. Those earnings plus her musician husband's income — and the fact that they have no child-care costs — allow the family of three to get along fairly well. “It's not for everyone,” Shay says, “but for me it was a chance to hone my skills (and) be at home with my daughter.”
If you want a rich-and-famous lifestyle, it's unlikely you can get it solely through short-term gigs. (Retirement planning is a real issue, too. Ask any at-home parent or someone who's been unemployed for a year.) However, it could be possible to live on what you earn.
Really? On $5 a throw?
You may be able to set your own rate. Even sites like Fiverr allow higher wages for certain extras, such as 24-hour turnaround.
Depending on your specialty it might be tough to earn consistently livable wages, however. Witness an ad that begins: “I will write five high-quality articles of 500 and more words within short time for $19.” That pitch continued in poorly phrased English, with punctuation that made me twitchy. Yet it's pretty common, since $19 USD probably goes further in whatever country is home to that “high quality” writer.
Getting noticed can take time; so can learning to juggle multiple projects. Digital designer Shay submitted 60 proposals before succeeding. Now she's figured out which projects best match her skills, how to communicate with potential employers, how to prioritize her time in general.
Suppose you can't make a living wage selling your design skills, or blowing up balloons with your nose? That doesn't mean you shouldn't take an occasional microjob to augment your regular wages. Even a $5 gig will buy a lot of ramen.
But please: Resist the urge to underbid just to get a contract. Fellow freelancers will thank you. So will the people who have to read “high quality articles” that aren't.
Author: Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman is an award-winning journalist who writes the Frugal Cool daily blog for MSN Money and blogs at DonnaFreedman.com .
Donna has lived the frugal life. She has been a college dropout, a single mom, a newspaper reporter in Chicago and Alaska, and a late-in-life university student. She has also picked tomatoes, worked on a chicken farm, managed an apartment building, inspected and packed bottles in a glass factory, babysat, cleaned houses, mystery-shopped, set type, and sold doughnuts, movie tickets, fresh Jersey produce and, when things got bad, her own blood.
While getting divorced she went back to school and helped to support a disabled adult daughter by working a handful of part-time jobs.
Donna has freelanced for numerous magazines and newspapers. Her work has won awards from organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Women's Sports Foundation, the Association for Women in Communications and the Society of American Travel Writers. A resident of Seattle, she is the mother of
one daughter, Abigail Perry â€“ whoâ€™s also a writer. Go figure.