Four tips to survive the south african gig economy

To succeed in today’s marketplace, where the South African gig economy lives alongside the formal sector, the safe embrace of habit cannot be underestimated.

media update’s Adam Wakefield spoke to two experienced freelancers to find out what habits they rely on to succeed in a job market where they only have themselves to rely on.

The digitisation of the economy has seen a rise in individuals working for themselves. According to a McKinsey report, Independent work: Choice, necessity, and the gig economy, up to 162 million people in Europe and the United States, equivalent to 20 to 30% of the working age population, engage in some form of independent work.

Tamsin Oxford and Danette Breitenbach have both worked for themselves as freelance writers in South Africa for over a decade, and key to their success is the habit they rely on to get them through a workday where they only have themselves to rely on.

1. Be financially sound

According to Breitenbach, financial planning, management, and discipline are an integral part of working within the gig environment.

“It is important to have some money in the bank. You have to be able to roll money over and not spend because it is there. My first month as a freelancer I earned R500! It was a long time ago,” Breitenbach recalls.

“Retainers or a contract for regular work is good. You have to network continuously. I am always putting out feelers for work, chatting to people etc. You cannot be afraid to cold call or offer your services. You must think out of the box.”

Oxford says a “buffer fund”, as she calls it, is protection against clients who do not pay on time, or for long periods of time, even up to a year in the worst cases.

“It can be incredibly demotivating if you have worked like a dog all month and have only one payment to show for it. Try to build up a buffer fund that can cover your expenses for at least three months before you start out,” Oxford says.

“That way, you know you can pay your bills until the flow starts. Just to give you perspective – one bad month of payments impacts your accounts for three months.”

2. Be disciplined and a self-motivator 

Working for yourself means you are your own boss and, according to Oxford, doing so means being a self-motivator.

“There isn’t going to be George from accounting standing at the water cooler and suggesting that you get on with your work. Only you get to decide that it’s time to sit down and face that To Do list, and only you can make it happen,” Oxford says.

“If you’re sick, you don’t get the day off unless you are really completely incapacitated. Freelance is tough, but awesome if you can push through the desire to fire up a video game and play all morning in your pyjamas. I carried on through chemo so I could keep my business alive.”

Creating a balanced routine, which includes ‘me time’ and sticking to it, is at the centre of how Oxford plans her day.

For Breitenbach, working for yourself and from home requires discipline, and a regimen to stay focused. She draws her balance by applying conditions to her own working experience.

“I work from home. My office, however, is mine and no-one is allowed in there. It is my place of work. You must have a designated space that is yours and when you are there, you work,” Breitenbach says.

“I literally keep office hours, 08:00 to 17:00. I am very disciplined and as a freelancer you have to be. You trade on your reputation and, if you do not deliver, you will not get work from that client again, and they will not refer you to their network.”

3. Accept rejection and move on

An aspect of working for yourself that Breitenbach and Oxford both stress is the mental ability to put yourself forward for work and, more importantly, accepting rejection and moving on.

“You have to be able to deal with rejection as well as financial ups-and-downs. If you are the sort of person that freaks out about this, then do not freelance,” Breitenbach says.

Oxford says being “ready for rejection” comes with the territory, because it’s unavoidable.

“Every gig has a thousand writers waiting to nab it. Be graceful in defeat, ask for feedback if you can, use that to make yourself even better and battle onwards,” she says.

The corollary of rejection is being bold and putting yourself forward for work. Whether that means pitching yourself over the phone, handing out your business card, or chasing work. Oxford believes she was able to win work from Pottermore, the official Harry Potter website, because she emailed them almost every day after they announced they were looking for a writer.

“I included in-jokes, research, comments, and humour. I was the most persistent lunatic they had ever met. I think they hired me because they were afraid,” Oxford jokes.

4. Let go of your ego

Working for yourself is an individual experience, and it is not unheard of for a professional to believe they have produced outstanding work, only to be repudiated by the client. This is where ego is important.

“If the client hates it, deletes it, tells you you’re the worst ever, shouts at you and sends back the work covered in red, you suck it up,” Oxford says.

“You smile, thank them for their input and change it.”

Oxford has had her work torn apart over email and live conference calls, but it is about the client having “their ego while you swallow yours”.

Following from that, while freelance or gig work by its very nature means paying clients are important, Oxford says knowing when to let a client go must also be a tool in your workbox.

“Not all clients are created equal. I have some that are, honestly, the best. I cling to them like a happy barnacle,” Oxford says.

“There are others that I stuck to, believing I could be better and make them happy and I should have just walked away. Sometimes it is best for your health to fire a client … nicely. Don’t burn bridges, but leave them with the space to find someone that may fit better.