Archive for the 'portland' Category

Freelance Nation

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I recently got to thinking about freelancing, why I and others do it, and what it means for cities like Detroit. An article on Business Week’s website titled, Beware the Freelance Economy, discusses a recent trend in this country in which the share of business with no employees (freelance) has increased relative to traditional employee businesses. The author contends that freelance businesses do not increase employment, nor create wealth. Furthermore the author believes that, “…people would be more productive in this part-time work if they did it as employees who were part of a bigger organization that could achieve scale economies…” He finishes up with a bit of a warning, and a general question as to why this trend is occurring.

Having been a full time freelancer, or self-employed individual as I liked to call it, for almost five years, and now a part time freelancer, I feel like responding to some of the points made in the article. I also think I have a pretty good answer for why this trend, that the author finds so troubling, is occurring. Being a fairly typical Gen Xer, I saw the Boomer Generation as missing out on so many important parts of life. I lacked direction, and questioned everything. The answer, “because that’s life…” or whatever, didn’t quite cut it for me. I saw a lot of, unnecessary in my mind, stress, and anger in the generation ahead of me as they strove for middle and upper management positions at large corporations that ultimately failed to offer the promised stability or loyalty that their employees seemed to give them.

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This appeared to be the American Dream. Work 60 plus hours at a company that saw you as disposable, so you could own a couple of cars and a house in the suburbs. Along with that came dedicating your life to a corporate entity that often became more important than family, hours waiting in rush hour traffic, and generally mind numbing and unrewarding work. Like so many others though, as much as I despised the large corporate workplace, I found the need to make a decent living, have health insurance, and a desire to save some money for later in life. Working in bike shops, and the like wasn’t cutting it. After college graduation I bounced between “real” jobs like accounting, and fun jobs like working in bike shops. The real jobs left me feeling unfulfilled. I worked hard at them, and was often recognized by my employers as a top employee, yet they did little for my soul. Working in the bike shop, on the other hand, allowed me to introduce people to an activity that could become a meaningful part of their lives. Often times the relationship between customers and employees turned into long term friendships in ways they rarely did in my “real” jobs.

During the almost five years of self-employment, I experienced unprecedented self motivation, and dedication to my work. Ownership, it turned out, was very important to me, as was actually being interested in what I did all day…every day. Furthermore the feeling of control, and the escape of the high school mentality of my “real” jobs, where employers cared more about when I came and went and less about what I actually accomplished, was rather nice. Self employment comes with it’s own set of headaches, but what job or career doesn’t?

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Now, almost everyone I know is self-employed or a part time freelancer. We all do multiple things with our lives. Dedication to the big corporation isn’t as appealing, doesn’t seem to offer what it used to, and certainly isn’t the end all, be all of most people’s lives. Personal growth and satisfaction seem to be as important as money these days. And while a part time job at Starbucks may (this is arguable) contribute more to wealth and job creation than freelancing, it may not contribute more to self-fulfillment and personal growth. While the author, Scott Shane, may be a professor of entrepreneurial studies, most freelancers couldn’t care less about the National implications of their side businesses. They do it because they want to. They do it because they need to. And this is as it should be. As a country we should embrace this. If someone feels motivated enough to do work on the side, it should be encouraged. My freelancing earns me more money to me than a second job would, and employs me just as much. The additional money earned is put back into the economy when I go out to eat, go on vacation, or by a new bicycle. It’s money that wouldn’t have been spent with out the side work. And more importantly it’s fed my need for personally satisfying work, and has led to other career opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.

Finally, what does freelancing mean to cities like Detroit? And why should cities like Detroit embrace freelancing and self-employment? While most freelance work may never lead directly to larger, job producing companies, some will. Connections will be made, networks will grow, and the area can benefit directly from them. Portland, Oregon, is an example of a city that has, for many years, attracted freelancers, and many companies have been started by the self-employed joining together. Detroit currently has a low cost of living, allowing for freelancers to keep a low overhead while building their business. Most will never amount to more than that, but even if a few do, it will contribute to health of the economy and the reputation of the area. A good reputation for entrepreneurship, self-employment, and creativity will attract more of the same. The alternative is always relying on someone else to provide for employment opportunities. And as it stands right now, nobody seems to be stepping in to fill that need.

Who’s left Michigan? And who’s left in Michigan?

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The other night I had a conversation with someone still living in metro Detroit. We talked about the national economy, and local Detroit metro economy as well. Now that I’ve been, for the most part, working outside of Michigan for the last couple of years, I see things from a slightly different perspective. Those who live in Michigan are, I imagine, feeling a greater weight,  than those of us who live in areas with a better economic outlook. While I’m not viewing the world through rose colored glasses, I certainly see a better national future than did the person on the other end of the line. I believe many regions in this country are well positioned for the future. Unfortunately, where we did agree was in the belief that Michigan, and metro Detroit, is not one of those regions.

For many years now, I’ve been stressing that as bad as things were, I believed they would get much worse for the area. Upon moving back to metro Detroit from Portland, Oregon, I suffered from a pretty big dose of culture shock. The people, the place, and mostly the attitude was completely different. In Portland people, with good educations, often with plenty of experience as well, moved to the area just to be there. They wanted to be around other young, educated, and often creative, individuals. They wanted to be around the kinds of people that start businesses like Resource Revival, Portland Design Works, and River City Bicycles. They wanted to have the chance to work for companies like Nike, Keen, Adidas, Weiden + Kennedy, and Second Story Interactive. I’ve never been able to say the same about Detroit. Though I’m sure there are some who have made a decision to live in Detroit for reasons other than family or a job, I’ve never met any.

Growing up in metro Detroit almost everyone I knew with a lot of money worked in the one industry. If they didn’t work for the Big Three, they had a family business, and it was most likely an automotive supplier, or somehow serviced the auto industry. The pay was often ridiculously high, and the bar was often too low. The pay didn’t necessarily go to the best, but to most well connected. Of course this wasn’t, and isn’t, strictly a problem in one industry, but as the auto industry grew, the problem grew too. At one point in the late 80’s and early 90’s the zip-code I lived in was the wealthiest in the country. This occurred even as the auto industry was in decline. Already almost everyone I knew, around my age, wanted to “escape” from Michigan, and the bloated, insular, and dysfunctional industry that dominated the area. Unfortunately the high pay, and security of the jobs in the industry sucked many back to the state after college, but the foundation for a healthy, innovative, and diversified economy was long gone. As soon as the over heated economy, built on debt, began to cool, the exodus from Michigan moved into overdrive.

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Who has left? Anyone with a good education, or skills that were in demand nationwide, such as software engineers, chemical engineers, and many other high tech and creative workers. They were the ones who could go almost anywhere. If you had a good education, and new you could get a good job anywhere, would you stay in a region whose main city leads the nation in crime rates, unemployment and poverty, suffers from a low level of education, has few cultural and recreational opportunities, bad traffic with no alternatives, and a sprawling and poorly designed metro area? Of course the suburbs don’t suffer as the city does from these afflictions, but let’s be honest, young, educated, creative types like cities. No matter what your middle aged, suburb loving, curmudgeon beliefs are, the younger generation likes what cities offer. Even if they don’t live in the city, they want to be near a vibrant one. They want culture, jobs, variety, choices in transportation, and vitality.

So who is left? Is it, as this article claims, the strongest that remain? Maybe those who stayed are stronger. Who knows, though it looks like it is the educated who are leaving, and it appears that the poorer, and less educated would like to leave, but find it much more difficult. But, regardless, metro Detroit needs much more than strength. It needs leadership, creativity, innovation, and vision. Detroit needs a new direction. There are a few good signs, as the article points out, but why did it take so long for anyone to take action? What was going on the last 20 years or so? Nothing as far as I could see. I was there. It wasn’t necessarily that no one cared, but that no one cared to see what was coming. Sure there were the few who were planning for the future, but for the most part it seemed as if Michigan was enjoying a party most believed would never end. Now the party is over, and many are pointing fingers. It’s the liberals fault. It’s bad tax policy. Blah, blah, blah… The ship is underwater. Time to stop the blame game.

It’s not that I believe Detroit has no future, it’s just that I think that it’s going to take a long time to attract the people that are needed to turn things around. Maybe a turn around isn’t even possible. Do we even want to go back? What we really need is to move forward. Michigan has waited far to long to face what was the future, and is now the present, but better late than never I guess. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I do know that unless Michigan can attract, and keep the types of people that are leaving, the state doesn’t have much of a future.