Get Going in the Gig Economy

Jul 24, 2020

It was the Panera in San Antonio that brought it home to me.

I was in San Antonio recently for some meetings. After a breakfast meeting, I had a couple of hours to kill before the next one, so I made my way to a Panera to knock out a few things.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one. Dozens of people were there doing the same thing. Knocking things out. Sure, there were a few people there for a latte, a scone, and conversation with a good friend, but most of us were there for the workspace.

There were small tables with individuals wearing earbuds or on the phone with a Google spreadsheet pulled up. Larger tables had groups of two or three, cutting deals and signing contracts.

I could have been at a local bakery at 2:30 in the afternoon or a Starbucks at 8:30 at night and seen the same thing. It’s just the world we live in now.

How many real estate agents lock down a deal at Chick-fil-A over a chicken biscuit? How many nonprofit leaders are raising their next $1,000 over an iced chai?

What happened to clocking in at the office?

I’ve written elsewhere about the places where this work happens (I kind of wish I could track the value orbit of these places for a month). On this San Antonio morning, though, I was thinking more about the gig economy. What is it that really allows this many people to work from a Panera?

Gig Economy Defined

The gig economy is built around the idea of piecing together a few different gigs to make an income.

There are freelance graphic designers, business consultants, Uber drivers, ethical hackers, ghostwriters, real estate agents, Airbnb hosts, TaskRabbit handyworkers, engineers, doctors. (And that’s not all.)

Some people are forced to piece together a few things because companies are wary of making a permanent hire—committing to payroll taxes, health insurance, etc. But many people prefer to be gig workers because of the scheduling freedom, ability to control one’s project list and pace, and the potential to make more money.

Plus, there’s the ability to work from your favorite eatery.

The gig economy, freelancing, independent contracting—whatever you call it, it has changed the game. The stats are clear:

  • In 2021, 36% of American employees were independent contractors. (Americans for Prosperity)
  • 24 million nonemployee businesses existed in 2014. (Brookings)
  • The gig economy is estimated to grow to $335 billion in revenue by 2025, up from just $14 billion in 2014. (Brookings)

It’s not that W-2 employees are going away (nor should they—they provide security in many cases for both the individual and the company), but neither is the gig economy. Companies have to be able to speak both languages, and individuals need to be able to consider both.

Taking Advantage of the Gig Economy

There is enormous opportunity for people who simply want to get stuff done. That’s the advantage of the gig economy for the worker—take out the staff meetings and the water cooler conversations and the “reply all” emails, and you can double or triple the time you have available.

One poll found over 20 “wasted hours” a week. You could never, of course, eliminate all your busy work, but if you could eliminate a chunk of it, you’d get more time on the specific work you love and make more money doing it.

You have to know what you’re doing, though. Sustainable gig-economy workers are often fierce about work routines and figure out ways to collaborate to move ideas along.

Excellence is king in the gig economy.

In addition, the gig economy requires constant self-advocacy and the ability to think ahead and look down the road. Actress Miranda Otto could have been speaking for the entire gig economy when she said, “Acting is a freelance career … you never stop having to prove yourself and fight for work.”

It’s not all sitting at Starbucks. And even when it is, there’s a gig economy code of conduct that says, “Take a corner table and buy something to ‘rent’ your space. Don’t sit at a primo table over the lunch hour.”

As for the companies who hire independent contractors, they must ask, “What does it look like to get great, capable work?” In hiring someone from outside, they are losing the ability to control the entirety of the project—from the pace of the project to the fit of the project with overall strategy and culture—as well as losing the ability to develop the employee for future work.

But the upside is potentially huge—superior work from an expert at a reduced long-term employee cost.

To that end, companies must excel at identifying the right contractor. Malcolm Forbes said, “Never hire someone who knows less than you do about what he’s hired to do.” That’s especially true in the gig economy. If you are constantly looking over their shoulder and correcting your freelance hire, you’ve failed.

Clarity is also key. Determine fair pricing on the front end and give clear direction for the project—timeframe, deliverables, report structure, collaboration aspects, etc. If a project is vague, it’s often impossible for the contractor to hit the bullseye, and then, everyone is frustrated.

One final note in that vein: when a gig employee excels, hire them again. The deeper the relationship, the greater the benefit as they’ll learn to piece together—and even improve—what is vague in your mind.


We’re not all about to become independent contractors, but the gig economy is not a niche piece of the economy. That hasn’t been the case for the past decade. The challenge is flourishing in this reality.

Rest assured, it’s definitely possible to build efficient, productive, profitable outputs and deliverables from the gig economy. But to do it consistently, you have to be focused on how you go about your gigs.

That’s true whether you’re the company hiring some help or the individual offering some help.

If you’re the individual, though, you’re more likely to get a bagel out of the deal.

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