Dan Pink’s Free Agent Nation was, and still is, an appealing concept for thinking about the future of work. Many of us already are free agents and many more will be. If not pure free agents, many are working for a small business as an appealing alternative to the bureaucracy of large organizations.
Eventually, most free agents and small businesses run into the “scale” problem. There are some situations that may lend themselves to smallness, but many that don’t. It might be helpful to think of work as an ecosystem with problems at varying degrees of scale.
My own situation is one where I am half-time in an organization that has scale – a university. The other half is doing free-agent work (and I have previously worked in a couple of small boutique consulting firms and a couple of large firms). Today, I frequently run into scale issues in talking with clients and potential clients. I fit great into some projects, but others need more capabilities and resources than I can deliver. Thus, I look for partners and hope that client is okay with a more complicated arrangement of working with 2 (or more) entities, or essentially hand off the business – in the hopes that I’ve built good will with that partner and they will return the favor. And I am frequently brought in by partners to scale up their team. Seems to be working good so far!
It requires a degree of trust to compete on one contract and partner on another. Your personal reputation and brand is vital to survival in the work ecosystem, which might be compared to a Long Tail kind of model, where there a small number big firms with large scale operating alongside a large number of small firms with small scale. As an individual or small firm, your value is typically in specific niche that you can serve particularly well.
So, how do we small ones approach scale? The obvious answer is in building networks. The confirmed free agent is going to have to accept the loss of some work because of their decision to stay free, and to build solid relationships in the “return the favor” mode described above. Small firms face the challenge of knowing when to stop growing. Heresy, right? It’s all about growth? I’m not so sure about that. It seems that when you grow beyond somewhere around two dozen people, you start to fundamentally change who you are, as more complex operational capabilities come into play. If you stay under that number, then you have to really get clear about “what’s in and what’s out.” What do we need to do, and what gets partnered or outsourced?
It is so tempting as a small business (and a free agent) to do it all. Seek the appropriate therapy for that and move on. Once you get past that, the next challenge is learning how to routinely work with an increasingly diverse set of partners – building skills in identifying and managing partnerships. This requires trust! Do you really believe your partners can do what they say they can do? Perhaps it’s most dangerous when you have some knowledge or expertise in what you are partnering/outsourcing, which can lead to an ongoing second-guessing that undermines the relationship. The irony is often that we are often the victims of the same bad behavior when we are the partner, that is, we exhibit the same behavior that we complain about – (c’mon ‘fess up if you’ve done this). Of course, some of this is managed productively and even seamlessly, but in general I suspect being able to broker and managing and ongoing web of relationships is going to be an increasingly critical competency in an ecosystem of niches, partners, competitors, and problems of varying scale.
Perhaps I should offer one helpful bit of advice to close out what has mostly been identification of the problem so far. Trust is the lubricant of the ecosystem. One way to build trust that I’ve used in my own practice that I borrowed from Seth Godin’s idea of permission marketing, which I called permission futuring since I’m a futurist, is to approach client or partner engagements along the lines of dating. You start small, enable a quick “getaway” just in case, and progressively build the depth of engagement. In business terms, take on small projects, do them well, and use that to ask permission for increasingly bigger and complex projects. Don’t ask for the trust, rather earn it. Andy Hines