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#3 Interview: Matt Dowling, Freelancer Club. “Try living a day without art, music, video, photography or design and see how you feel.”

Matt Dowling, Founder of the Freelancer Club, on his creative journey, growing a business that supports freelancers, and how companies can adapt to a new way of working.

What inspired you to set up the Freelancer Club in 2014? 
Way back, I was a freelance photographer prior to setting up the Freelancer Club. I had a bad experience with a client who kept me on the hook without pay for six months, asking me to shoot their collection week in, week out, whilst plying me with excuses as to why my invoices hadn’t been paid that month. I had dropped my other clients and had to borrow money from friends to pay the rent. After six months of chasing, I paid a visit to their head office and discovered they had gone bankrupt. They were using me to produce content to sell the last of their stock. That particular incident cost me £11,000. 

The story made the papers and a number of freelancers reached out to tell me they had experienced something similar. This sewed the seed for Freelancer Club. I became very interested in the way creative freelancers were perceived and treated by companies (startups and corporates) and felt there was a desperate need to provide freelancers with a support network. 

You’ve grown it from 30 to 40,000 members. What was the strategy and what services do your freelancers most value? 
The club started with a small group of friends I had worked with in the fashion industry. They loved the concept and through word-of-mouth, the club just took off. It’s been a very organic process. At the heart of the club is a sense of community and belonging. The idea that you are a part of a tribe brings a sense of comfort and that has played a big part in the success of the club. The members value access to paid opportunities and the ability to take ownership of each job. Being able to meet other freelancers for collaborations and an abundance of learning resources to develop their business skills are also really appreciated. 

How does Freelancer Club differ from other job platforms?
Our business model is very different from most other freelance platforms. Upwork, Fivver, and People Per Hour, for example, use a marketplace business model. They sell the promise of work and take a commission on any of the matches. We believe there is a healthier way to develop a freelance business and find work. Freelancer Club, as the name suggests, is a subscription-based membership community. Anyone can join for free to gain access to a range of benefits that help them grow their business in a much more robust manner. For example, all members can access articles, videos and events or post and apply for test shoots (collaborations) to help them build their portfolio and meet others in the freelance sector.

When a member feels ready to apply for work or would like to access an archive of learning content, they can upgrade to a Premium Membership to access paid opportunities, premium content on the Academy and a bunch of other valuable features. When they land a job on the platform, they take 100% of the rate. We don’t charge commission and both parties are free to engage in future projects without involving us. We don’t believe in quick fixes or freelancers having to under-cut each other. Our members develop their freelance businesses with us so they can pick up work via our site or any number of avenues. Proactive members grow to become well-rounded, independent freelancers who aren’t waiting for the ‘phone to ring’.  

How many jobs did you place last year?
It’s not as cut and dry as a figure from the database. When we connect the client with the freelancer, they often take their conversation ‘off-site’ (we don’t hold money on the platform). We’ve helped facilitate over 200,000 freelance jobs since launch, but I imagine that figure is a lot higher when one considers the offline connections and repeat business. 

Which work sectors are growing fast? 
The digital space is the obvious growth sector. Designers, UX/UI, Developers… Less obviously, we’ve seen a boom in Videography over the past few years. Lots of photographers have added this skill to their repertoire and, as demand for video continues to grow, the supply has followed. 

What have you been doing during this time to support forgotten freelance groups – PAYE, sole directors, new starters etc?
Fortunately, as a nimble startup, we were able to adapt very quickly as soon as we saw what was coming down the line. On a local level, we offered free one-to-one consultations to our members advising how they could adapt their business and offered moral support. We also opened up a lot of content to ensure our members were getting value while the market settled. To help financially, we gave our members the option to freeze their membership for a period of time. 

On a broader scale, we raised our concerns about the lack of financial support for the self-employed and very unintentionally found ourselves as one of the leading voices in what later became known as the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS). It’s interesting how one reacts in a crisis. Our business was taking a hit and we were implementing strategies to combat the situation as best as we could, however, it felt more appropriate to focus on the freelancers who we knew were going through hell. The act of supporting others gave us a greater sense of purpose. 

We conducted hours of interviews and campaigned hard to get freelancers the financial support they desperately needed. When SEISS was announced, it was an incredible feeling, however, it didn’t last long. We realised around two million freelancers would be ineligible, so we started a new campaign, this time with a group of influential businesses to add more weight. We’re still banging the drum. 

And the #NoFreeWork campaign?
Our #NoFreeWork campaign has been going for years. It’s at the heart of our mission statement. Our aim is to eradicate exploitative unpaid work in the freelance sector. What started as a hashtag has seen the campaign mentioned in Parliament and new legislation pitched to MPs at a roundtable with some of the most powerful names in our sector. I regularly speak at universities to highlight the realities of freelancing to the next generation as well as the pitfalls of free work. We champion businesses who treat freelancers with the respect they deserve and have gathered thousands of signatures on our petition.

Our objective outside of the legislative piece is to change the culture around unpaid work and highlight the value that creatives contribute to the economy and people’s lives. Try living a day without art, music, video, photography or design and see how you feel. We simply must protect the creative industries and be aware of their true value.   

Are clients getting on board with remote working?
We’ve seen a jump in remote opportunities as was predicted. However, it’s not exclusively the type of remote work one might expect. From brands hiring photographers and models to do Facetime photoshoots to promotional video content made from stock footage, homemade video and a lot of imagination, companies and freelancers have adapted to lockdown. The soft skills that all of us have had to develop is online communication be it on Zoom, Slack or any number of platforms we’re using to chat. Freelancers are having to learn how to deliver and build trust entirely online and communication has never been as valuable as it is now.  

Tell us more about your Freelance Academy and Concierge Service…
We have a sister company called Freelance Academy. It’s an online learning platform that delivers bite-sized courses tailored to freelancers. We decided to bring an element of this into the Freelancer Club and give our members access to a range of workshops, interviews and discussions so they could continue to develop their skills during the lockdown. We’ve covered everything from marketing and sales workshops to discussions on working from home with Caroline Bayley of BBC Radio 4, and the value of creativity with Patreon.

We launched the Concierge Service as a new concept right before Covid-19 hit – good timing, huh! It’s a service that helps companies hire freelancers without the fees or faff. It combines cutting-edge technology and human insights to make it easy for companies to build their freelance workforce. Post a project for free, choose the Concierge Service and our team will do the rest. You’ll be contacted by a recommended freelancer and the company takes it from there. To reignite the freelance economy and help companies get projects done, we’re running a campaign called #UnitedInBusiness that offers all new businesses £200 worth of Concierge Credits to spend on freelance hires. 

What trends do you see in the future of work? Is this the end of the 9-5 office?
A few years ago, we transitioned from an office-based industrial-era business model to an exclusively agile fluid company. My team are all freelancers and work remotely so I’ve been on this journey first-hand for a while. The technology and tools that facilitate agile work are racing ahead whilst company culture and processes are sorely lagging behind. One of the lockdown’s many legacies will be how comfortable we are with online communication, collaboration and adaptation.

Companies have been forced to assess their processes to facilitate remote working. However, integrating Slack, Monday and Zoom into a pre-existing full-time team is the easy bit. Sourcing, managing and developing a new agile workforce is an entirely different proposition not to mention company culture in relation to freelance hires. We help companies source freelance teams, by connecting them to talent, however, we’ve found ourselves offering advice on integrating, managing and retaining those teams as businesses learn to adjust to a new way of working. 

Remote working is here to stay, however, Covid-19 has put into focus the importance of social interaction and ‘watercooler’ moments in a company context. Now all of us have tasted life as a remote worker, companies have data to determine if it’s a viable option whilst workers – even those who’ve been stretched to the limit – will have experienced the advantages of WFH. Combine these factors with the level of introspection and reflection on what really matters in life, as well as the pending boom in the number of newly self-employed individuals and we could be looking at a very different working landscape.    

I suspect we will land on a hybrid model that combines time in the office and working from home. Less travel, downsizing, and an actual work-life balance that is not just a buzzword. Those who can facilitate this new world will reap the rewards. Those who dig their heels in might get left behind. 

If you’re looking for freelance work and creative collaboration visit www.freelancerclub.net.

Podcast 🎧:
ArtPaysMe podcast with Matt Dowling. Matt spoke to Duane Jones about creativity in business and what the education system can do to support creative industries.

Webinar:
Small Business Minister Paul Scully on Ltd company support. Good webinar this week with team IPSE who are still banging the drum for #forgottenfreelancers. I asked whether new sole directors can apply for the SEISS scheme as we are still technically ‘self-employed’ and have to do a personal tax return (computer says yes… it’s a grey area). Scully said he would look into it so keep an eye on IPSE’s Covid-19 page for an update.

Upcoming:
#TheRecoverySummit – June 15th-19th – the latest thinking on the global economy, leadership, managing change, innovation, disruption and resilience. It’s free – sign up here.

National Freelancers Day on June 18. The focus is on wellbeing, winning work, finance and taking charge. Good speaker line up, it should be an inspiring event.

Book:
Company of One by Paul Jarvis – why staying small is the next big thing for business. Exploring how to make your business better instead of bigger, and how you can thrive with less. Halfway through this, it’s excellent.

If you enjoyed reading this please share it on social media 🙌 – let’s keep the conversation going! If you have a story, tip or advice to share about being freelance, email nicci@niccitalbot.com. Find me online @niccitalbot.

Creativity. Coffee. Community

By Nicci Talbot

Director, freelance journalist & copywriter

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