The Moonlight Hustle

November 5, 2011

12:00 pm

It’s unbelievably hard to find your rung on the career ladder now. At least 9.1% of us can’t even grab a hold, and vastly more of us, maybe even 71%, are not where we want to be with our work.

The recession is one major contributor to job woes— 45% of employees in professional and business services report being forced to make unwanted changes to their life and career plans thanks to the recession. But other factors, including globalization, technological improvements, and a workforce that contains about a billion people more than 20 years ago mean that the traditional employer-employee relationship will be less and less common, even after the post-recession fog clears.

What we used to call moonlighting is coming back, facilitated by companies that make it much easier to earn a little money, or maybe even a living, independently. The tools that match the willing and able with those in demand will occupy an increasing roll in our productive lives, first as a way to roll up sleeves and deal, or at least cope, with un- or underemployment and later to satisfy the demands of employers and the workforce.

Demand for alternate arrangements is already huge. Elance, a platform for online employment, conducted a business survey in August of this year that found 83% of their respondents planned to hire at least half of all new workers as online contractors over the next 12 months.

Factors contributing to expansion of virtual or virtually-facilitated work is coming from all directions:

  • Flexibility in labor costs and burst capacity for companies
  • Low cost, skilled labor in developing economies
  • Skilled professionals in established economies who want control and flexibility in their careers that they aren’t finding in traditional work environments
  • A second Lost Generation that wants opportunities to ply their skills
  • Remote collaboration and task management tools that make virtual team work possible and easy

The list of benefits goes on and on.

The change in the way we work will be lasting, and a host of new tools exist to help workers match their skills and time to demand.

ODesk describes itself as a “marketplace for online workteams” that offers “remote staffing for long-term work.” They match professionals, including software developers, graphic designers, and writers, with those who need them, and they guarantee fair billing and manage payroll and contractor screening.

The company offers a larger talent pool than what is available in most communities and a great deal of transparency into contractors’ experience and work.

From the employer perspective, oDesk work can come at a huge discount—the September 10 issue of The Economist reports that “getting a job done through oDesk can bring the cost down to as little as 10% of the usual rate.” From the employee perspective, oDesk offers a convenient way to access many potential buyers all the time and for a fair price.

Elance is an online platform that matches professionals to work.  Last year, 600,000 jobs were posted on Elance. The platform is huge—511K contractors and 178K active clients are participating. Beyond size, Elance has a number of guarantees around billing and transparency and promises to “give you all the tools you need to hire great talent and take on interesting work.”

Gig Walk matches people with smartphones to simple in-person tasks. Engagements are very short term—often minutes—and involve, for example, taking pictures to verify that restaurant health ratings are properly posted.

GigWalkers’ geophysical availability is a condition precedent for particular jobs, as tasks are only available to GigWalkers who are in the right spot. If a GigWalker does a good job, they earn “StreetCred” which makes them more attractive for future, higher paying gigs.

Task Rabbit, which we covered in August, “gets you in touch with friendly, reliable people who can help you get just about anything you need done, and put some free time back into your life.”

Someone who needs help posts a task, and background-checked, trained workers, called rabbits, offer the price for which they will provide the service. The one who makes the lowest bid is assigned the work automatically, and TaskRabbit makes the payment.

Rabbits perform all kinds of chores, errands, skilled work, and provide assistance in Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Francisco. Expansion to Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Portland, and Seattle is underway.

There are many other companies doing similar thing. Zaarly, which is kind of a reverse eBay for products and services; Uber, which focuses on car service; Guru, Freelance.com, and vWorker, all of which are online freelancing marketplace; and AirRun, a community job hub, provide are a few more examples.

The workplace is changing, and these companies do a great job of matching supply and demand to facilitate long term temporary work, or short term side hustles. But they aren’t perfect.  Task-based engagements provide little security, and there have been criticisms of the quality of work and the rates of pay for contractors in developing countries. But for those willing, able, and interested, the open access to discreet, paying opportunities can be a great way to make some money, develop skills, build a reputation, and cobble together an occupation independently.

The tools make freelancing a little less scary and significantly lower costs than building your own business from scratch. They also provide access to a global marketplace for talent, services and consumers and clear a path to the economic mainstream for an increasingly creative, independent, and large workforce.

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Blaire Jones is a law fellow at National Public Radio, where she focuses on technology and intellectual property matters, and a new graduate of Georgetown Law. At Georgetown, Blaire discovered a special passion for helping startups leverage intellectual property and manage risk. You can follow Blaire on Twitter @VenEnthusiast.

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