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  • The ‘pick n’ mix’ work life: lessons from my portfolio career

    It’s sixteen years ago that I took the leap to work for myself. In the early days I set my stall out as a go-to project manager/consultant, working for my former employer and contacts I'd made in my previous role. The goal back then was twofold: work as many days a month as I could, and at the highest rate I could charge.

    After a couple of years I wanted more variety so I switched to a portfolio with a broader mix of projects and ventures. Alongside the revenue generating work I made space for side projects that I did for love rather than money. I loved the variety of working days that segued from running a marketing project for Benetton to managing a band with a bunch of friends. I’d carved out a ‘very Ian’ work life. It’s a model I’ve continued to this day (“What the hell does Ian Sanders actually do?” 10 Things I Did In 2015.)

    Herminia Ibarra wrote about this new way of working, ‘The Portfolio Career Mystery’ in the FT last month. “Pundits have hailed (portfolio-working) as the future of work, offering flexibility, novelty and autonomy,” she says. Herminia went on to outline the challenges of this new way of working such as dealing with isolation and how to label what you do.

    What have I learned about portfolio careers in the last sixteen years? I've covered some of this in my books: in adapting to a self-employed life (in my book ‘Leap! Ditch your job, start your own business and set yourself free’ ); and in advocating a multi-dimensional worklife (in my book ‘Mash-up! How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier’).

    If you’re thinking of switching to a portfolio career, here are my ten tips:

     

    1. Be resilient. Carving out your own work life is rewarding but it’s also hard, especially when there’s no-one else to help shoulder the knocks. At times it will feel like a rollercoaster ride - with plenty of ups and downs - so hang on in there.
    2. Develop by-products. Offering the market just one skill may become limiting (and you might find it boring). Be multi-dimensional - ask yourself, what else can you offer? From offering training workshops to writing books, develop by-products.
    3. Nurture your network. In 2015, 80% of my work came from referrals and approaches from my network. ‘Biz dev’ often isn’t a sales job, it’s about managing and nurturing relationships.
    4. Leverage social networks. Getting proficient with social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter is essential. I’ve won projects, been offered book deals, got speaking engagements and met key contacts through Twitter.
    5. Don’t just measure success by how much you’re billing. My objective isn’t to earn as much money as I can, it’s to carve out a work life that suits me, to be able to choose how I spend my time and what I want to work on. I’ve found that autonomy, flexibility and having a sense of purpose is more valuable than how much money I’m earning. Look beyond the spreadsheet! 
    6. Ideas-led not skillset-led. When I’m talking to an organisation about working with them, I don’t pitch my skills at them, I present ideas that could make a difference to them/ their business. Don’t sell your skills, sell solutions to client problems.
    7. ‘Work’ is a mindset, not a place you go. In a portfolio career, ‘work’ is not a place you commute to. Discovering where you work best is about finding those places that provide the most creative energy, where you’re in your element. Check out my post ‘Out Of Office: five lessons from fifteen years without a proper office’ for some practical tips on how to choose the right space for the right task.
    8. Develop a unifier. When you have a portfolio career, a job title won’t cut it anymore. Instead, develop a unifier: a phrase that unites everything you do. It might help with the ‘what do you do?’ question.
    9. Get comfortable with uncertainty. This is not the place for the five-year-plan mindset. Instead embrace the ‘unplan’, stay open-minded about what comes next and don't try o guess the future. Be adaptable, go where the water flows.
    10. Frame it around ‘You’. Frame your portfolio career around you: around who you are, what you stand for and what makes you tick. You’re the boss in this new way of working, so make sure the working life you carve out reflects your talents and desires.

     

    Good luck!


    If you need a helping hand shaping your portfolio career, get some help from someone who’s been there ahead of you. Join me on my one-to-one Fuel Safari, where I work with executives, entrepreneurs and consultants to help them find the ‘fuel’ at the heart of their offering.

  • ‘The Future is Freelance’: the realities of the F word

    The entrepreneur and Financial Times columnist Luke Johnson wrote in yesterday’s FT that ‘The future is freelance - and that is healthy’ (you may need to register to view the article). He said the growth of self-employed and freelance workers will have important implications for our politics, culture and economy:


    “Their growing numbers stimulate free enterprise, innovation and wealth creation, and create a more adaptable country, better equipped to deal with the challenges of the modern global economy.”

     

    As a long-time freelancer - I took the leap in 2000 - I share Luke’s enthusiasm for this trend. But there are a lot of myths around freelance work. So in response to Luke’s piece, here is my take on the freelance economy:


    1. Freelancing is more than just an economic model, it’s a completely different way of life. The act of going freelance not only means we have to replace the pay cheque with finding clients and invoicing them. Going freelance is a conscious decision to choose a different path, a desire to be more independent, to be more authentic, to ditch the rules. It re-negotiates our relationship with that four letter word: ‘work’.
    2. Being freelance isn’t only about self-sufficiency, becoming an all-rounder. It requires a whole new mindset. Success isn’t about how good you are at completing your tax return or how adept you are at creating PowerPoint slides, it’s about your attitude - having an enterprising mindset to turn your talent, contacts and ideas into invoiceable work. It’s also about staying agile, being able to react rapidly to opportunities rather than stick to a three year plan. In that sense being freelance doesn’t carry all the usual entrepreneurial baggage.
    3. We’re not all capitalist by default. Luke argues that ‘every self­ employed citizen becomes a capitalist by default – which means a more economically literate population’. I’m all for economic literacy, but again it neglects the reason why many people choose the freelance life. It’s not about following the moral code of The Apprentice contestants, it’s a reaction against the mediocrity of corporate life. So we’re not trying to build versions of the businesses we just exited, and we’re not all motivated by wealth-generation. We may be more excited by the flexibility our new work life offers in going for a lunchtime cycle, than by sweating to earn the most money we can.
    4. Freelance interests still need protecting. Luke says that the self-employed are the opposite of public sector workers who are frequently union members. True, but as the number of freelance workers grows, so too have communities where freelancers can hang out and get support. Look at the emergence of The Freelancers Union in the US, founded to protect worker’s rights. You won’t be seeing any unionised strikes, but you might see more groups form around freelance interests.
    5. You’re not a failure if you don’t scale to become a start-up. Being freelance is not necessarily a step towards full entrepreneurship. Luke notes that whilst most freelancers never end up hiring staff, many entrepreneurs - including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs - started out as freelancers. True. But let’s be clear: it’s viable carving out a work life as a freelancer. You don’t have to scale to become a start-up entrepreneur. Freelance career trajectories are not always linear; in my fourteen years I have gone horizontal rather than vertical, crossing borders from one world to another, adding new strings to my bow, rather than build my expertise in one single, narrow area.


    I read Luke’s column yesterday morning, when I was using my local library as a workspace. As I cycled home at lunchtime to continue my working day, I happened to pass my father on the street. “Skiving?!” he joked, as he saw me. And that’s probably one of the biggest changes between traditional work practices (where my father spent his career) and being a freelancer in 2014: work is a mindset, not a place you go.


    If you're looking for a guidebook to going freelance, check out my book 'LEAP! Ditch Your Job, Start Your Own Business & Set Yourself Free'.