Developing that "Business-Owner Mindset"

Jul 16, 2013

In my book, I write about how the importance of reciprocity – that the best way to get is to first give. Nobody knows this lesson better than Ilise Benun, a Freelancers Union member and the mind behind

Ilise is constantly ready (and eager) to help. Every time we’ve asked for her advice or her hand, she’s simply said, “Of course.” She is a textbook giver – helping not because she has to, but because she wants to.

So when Ilise called me up to do a Skype interview for the Creative Freelancer Conference she was putting on, I cleared my schedule to make sure we could connect. I hope you like the back and forth – I really did.

A quick transcript:

ILISE BENUN: Hello everybody. This is Ilise Benun of I’m also the host and co-found of the Creative Freelancer Conference, which is being help this June 22-24 in San Francisco as part of HOW Design Live. And I am here with Sara Horowitz, who is the founder and Executive Director of the Freelancers Union. Hello, Sara!

SARA HOROWITZ: Hello, Ilise.

IB: I want to start with a couple of questions for you. One is I worked a lot of freelancers don't know that there are forty two million of there out there that there are – that’s one in three, as I’ve heard you say -- so I'm wondering if you can give us a little context for what you see.

SH: I think the really big thing is that the idea of the forty hour work week job is just not how Americans are going to be working. Really all of us are going to be working project to project, gig to gig. When you start to look at that we see that it's a third of the work force, according to the GAO. And also a lot of big companies like IBM are predicting that it’ll be half of the workforce. And it's very much because we're moving into a much more “just-in-time” kind of economy.

IB: If more and more people are freelancing and a lot of people are being forced into freelancing essentially – not jumping up and saying “OK, I want to be a freelancer,” as much as they are many people who love the freedom of it. Is it possible to cobble together enough money to save for retirement, put someone through school, support yourself as a freelancer?

SH: You raise really important issues because what I think is happening is this is the work that's here. We’re not going back. It's not full-time jobs with generous retirement and health insurance benefits. And so we ask ourselves these questions about how am I going to afford the things that i always could afford. And so it may not be that we devise the perfect life this year, but that we start to be on the road to do the things that we can do.

The first is to deal with what’s here and realize that you need to form a network and join organizations that help you learn how to do this. And you find mentors and other people. But that we also have advocacy view that says “if we're gonna work like this then let's start looking at things that we need as workers that enable us to be sustainable.”

IB: And what are those things we need as workers?

SH: Well, I think there are some really basic things like you should be able to put away some pre-tax money because everybody lives a feast or famine lifestyle as a freelancer. So you need to have and ability to put away pre-tax talent that you can use during the course of the year paying the monthly bills that are not feast or famine. And they come in the first of every month.

Another is to start to recognize entities like Freelancers Union and Freelancers Insurance Company and plenty of other kinds of associations and groups should be able to group people together so that people can get the kinds of things that they need, whether it's group retirement or everything from vacations and travel to other the things that you need for tax advisors. This is not going to be coming from government but these are services that all of these businesses are going to need so all these people do well.

IB: Just one last thought before we wrap it up. It seems to me that there's an employee mentality and a self-employed mentality. I see a lot of these really ambivalent freelancers really wanting the freedom of freelancing but not sure that it be able to pull it off. What I'm trying to teach is a business owner mindset, where you are proactively going after that work you want and getting for yourself what you need. It sounds like that's what you're talking about.

SH: Definitely. I think one of the things we have to do is almost change our words, because I think that many freelancers don’t see themselves as business owners and many business owners don’t see themselves as freelancers. So let's forget all the labels and just say that right now it’s very DIY. If you’re not doing these things, you’re going to suffer. Yes, in the future, we shouldn’t make it so hard to be creative. Let’s imagine a world where we started really making it so much easier and you didn’t really have to be a starving artist.

So it's a combination of things. Number one, yes, you are definitely not going to be like an employee were you walk in at nine and you get your assignment and no matter what your walk out and you get your paycheck. Those days are OVER. And you very much have to have that mindset.

But you also have to realize that you are not going it alone. And as you will coach anybody, the person who thinks they're on their own is the first person who will be extinct. It is biodiversity. It is networks. It is interconnection.

That is how you will get your work and send out your SOS's. That is how you will help your friends. That is how, in the long run, you will do well.

IB: It really is a complete mind-shift it seems to me on the part of the freelancers as well as the rest of the people who are going to be hiring them.

SH: In the truth department, freelancers have to keep their expenses down. You have to be nimble. And that could be looked as “You have got to stop spending.” But really it’s a way to say, “Do you need all that stuff?” Maybe there’s a life where you can start to have the time to do the things that you want to do and you don’t really need all those consumer things and you allow yourself to have this feast or famine lifestyle. And I think that's just the truth. And that's not saying that you're giving up or that we don't have an advocacy agenda. It really is a different life and I feel like successful freelancers know that. They're sort of less cluttered people.

IB: Maybe we should also not call it feast or famine any more because that has such dramatic connotations. Maybe it’s the “wave economy” or something?

SH: That’s true and it’s a really good point because I feel like we're really thinking about biodiversity and sustainability. That really is a life. You know, everyday has sunshine and everyday has rain. It’s just part of what it is going to be. And if you accept that, it won't be so frightening. It’s just, “Oh, this is my downtime.” And maybe we even start to be able to measure so that you know that every year you bet six or eight weeks of a hard time. And if you’re at twelve weeks, something's wrong. If you’re at four weeks, OK, you can maybe chill. I think that's what starts to help us build up our own strategies. And I think that's what you're talking about about having a business owner mindset. You look at your cash flow. You look at it and have a way to analyze it and therefore have some control over it.

IB: All right, let's give people some places they can go for more on this topic. I know that is the place where they can sign up for free and become a member for free and get all the benefits. I love also your new blog – I don’t know if you call it a blog – Dispatches. Tell us about that and where to find it.

SH: You can find it at What I’m really trying to do is while I'm building freelancers union with freelancers, there are all these interesting ideas and people who are doing really great things right now, on the ground. So that we can say this isn't pie in the sky. It’s not 25 years from now. It's happening right now. And so that's why it's a dispatch. Who am I talking to? Who are freelancers meeting with? Who are these interesting people and what are their ideas?

Sara Horowitz

As the founder of Freelancers Union, Sara has been a voice for freelancers for over two decades.