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09.02.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Curtis Cartier
How I Stopped Working And Learned to Love the 1099: Participants in Freelance Camp, held in mid-August, gather in the Rittenhouse Building to learn the ropes.

Land of The Freelance

Self-employment takes hold in Santa Cruz

By Curtis Cartier


THEY'VE come from around the country and the world to gather on the bare concrete floor of an empty office building and talk shop. A sea of laptop-clutching writers, photographers, graphic designers, IT specialists, engineers, public relations officials and advertisement representatives with one thing in common: they never want to work for another boss again.

"Welcome to Freelance Camp," says Shane Pearlman as the folks file in to the second annual seminar at the vacant Rittenhouse Building in downtown Santa Cruz.

Pearlman, along with business partner Peter Chester, are freelance "problem solvers"--technology experts and contractors for hire who work with companies to streamline their communications and web services. And as evangelists for the freelance way, they are practicing what they preach.

Their company, austerely dubbed Shane & Peter, is a kind of "freelance co-op" in which they recruit teams of self-employed professionals to tackle whatever problem a company might throw at them. By keeping a thick Rolodex of vetted specialists, Chester and Pearlman are able to tailor a staff to the needs of a particular project. And since the workers aren't full-time employees, the duo can avoid paying health insurance, 401k's and other costly employee benefits for a savings, they say, that's passed on to their clients.

Chester says his company only hires reputable full-time freelancers, not "people looking to do something since they got fired."

"I'd say out of 10 people we interview for a gig, one or two are serious freelancers," says Chester. "The co-op thing is kind of like communism--it can work great under the right circumstances, but you either need someone to keep everyone in line, or only use people that are good at keeping themselves in line. I sometimes think of us as more of a dictatorship, because Shane is always there to make sure things are on track."

Whether part of a co-op or not, the 200 or so freelancers at the Aug. 15 Freelance Camp are part of a growing sector of the workforce. Thanks to technology like laptops and wireless Internet, individual workers are trading cubicles, copy machines and suits and ties for coffeehouses, Blackberries and sweat pants as more people find they're able to package, market and deliver products all on their own--or find themselves downsized out of traditional employment.

In Santa Cruz, the move toward freelancing is especially striking. Shared office spaces like NextSpace in Santa Cruz and the Satellite in Felton provide Internet, shipping reception and meeting spaces on a part-time schedule, and for a fraction of the cost of traditional office space rentals.Teresa Thomae, director of the Central Coast Small Business Development Center, says she's seen a huge increase in self-starters over the last year. The boom, she says, stems from the slumping economy and unstable corporations that offer little in the way of job security.

"In every economic downturn we see an increase in people looking to become freelancers," says Thomae. "Instead of being an employee, they want to be their own boss. Not necessarily to hire a bunch of employees and grow a real business, but to create a job for themselves. Our parents taught us that if you get a good job, keep it even if you hate it, because it's health care and a salary. But now, for the Gen Xers and Gen Yers, if they don't like a job, they're gone."

The co-op model that Pearlman and Chester use is also catching on. Parachute Creative, a graphic design outfit run by Davy Reynolds and Ruby Anaya out of NextSpace, maintains a network of freelancers that can be mobilized when a job is too big or multifaceted to for Anaya and Reynolds to accomplish on their own.

For some of the freelancers, it's ideal. Web designer and mother of two Carey Bradfield says that if a gig will detract from her time with her kids, she'll either decline the work or bring in help from a fellow freelancer. Reynolds and Anaya say they're comfortable having a small operation and have no intentions of bringing any of their freelancers in on a full-time basis.

"Most of the freelancers we see are looking for full-time jobs. Still, I think if we expanded too much, we might lose some of the vision we started with. I think most of them realize this and don't expect us to hire them full-time," says Reynolds, lounging on a beanbag chair inside his company's colorful NextSpace cubicle. "We definitely try to hook up the freelancers we use, though. For any work we can't do in-house, we use them. And we've got plenty of work to do."

Freelance School

For anyone looking to give their boss the heave-ho and strike out on their own, Cabrillo College, in partnership with NextSpace, is offering three courses on developing freelance skills for the fall semester. The classes focus on starting a freelance business, using social media to grow it and understanding the legal and financial aspects of maintaining it. Tuition is $225 per class, with the first course beginning Sept. 23 at NextSpace, 101 Cooper St., Santa Cruz. For more info visit www.cabrillo.edu/services/extension/.


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Phaedra

Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Creative Commons: From left to right, Einar Vollset, Boris Glants and Tony Duarte work at NextSpace.

The Free Marketplace

Freelancers need habitat, too

By Jessica Lussenhop


YOU'D THINK the easiest way to find out about the effectiveness of "co-working"--the phenomenon whereby work-at-homers, freelancers and other indie business strangers elect to set up shop in a building and find out what happens--is to ask the co-workers (not to be confused with the tradition-bound drones known as "co-workers") themselves. Trouble is, they're all too busy working. Ryan Coonerty, Santa Cruz Council member and one of the founders of NextSpace in downtown Santa Cruz, taps on a member's shoulder in the cafe. As she turns she reveals a smartphone pressed to her ear. "Oops," he says, and looks around for another source of testimony, but the NextSpacers are all glued to laptops or hustling on cell phones.

He eventually manages to drag Jacob Knobel, one of the founders of 12seconds, away from his monitor. "The sucky thing about a startup is, there's two of you. You can go crazy," Knobel says. "But I love it here. I even sleep here once in a while."

The sleek-yet-cozy interior décor of the year-old business at the corner of Pacific and Cooper streets, site of the old Cisco offices, is meant to encourage that. The electrifyingly strong pots of free coffee are not. "We think, to date, two pots of decaf have been brewed," says co-founder and CEO Jeremy Neuner. "And we're not sure how the decaf got in here."

As technology continues to evolve at breakneck speed, a new breed of physical space has emerged to accommodate the workers who can sometimes find themselves paralyzed by their own freedom. "Working at home, I knew how isolated I felt and how hard it was to make myself work sometimes," says Barbara Sprenger, CEO of the Satellite Telework Center in Felton. "We wanted to create a place that allowed people to use remote tools productively, [while] separating out work life and home life."

Co-working hubs have sprung up all over the country to meet that need, from Silicon Valley to D.C. to Denver. At their most basic levels of membership, both NextSpace and the Satellite offer access to cafelike space, coffee and high-speed Internet. Dedicated NextSpacers can claim office space or their own carrel workstation, and the Satellite offers cubicles and offices with telephones and printing capabilities all hooked up "hotel"-style to an account. All you need to bring is a laptop. Cruzio also hosts less formal, free monthly co-working events called "jellies" in their downtown office, where laptop-toting locals can spend the day working side-by-side, mercifully free from sipping the same cold latte at Starbucks for four hours or slipping into the time-wasting WoW vortex.

After opening in May, Satellite has 30 members, and after over a year in business, NextSpace has seen a total of 180 members who've elected to ditch their pajamas and show up somewhere. "We need to get up, get dressed and go to work. It's a human instinct," says Coonerty.

The trend has emerged for many reasons, not least among them the swelling ranks of newly laid-off workers who've decided it's high time they got their own. "For the last 150 years or so, talent resided in firms. You were loyal to a company," says Neuner. "Now the trend is you're going to have eight to 10 different jobs, or you're never going to work for an employer, period. The means of production are no longer so expensive, so we no longer need to organize labor around big companies."

Neuner and Coonerty discovered Santa Cruz in particular is full of tiny companies, but only has big retail spaces. "Freelancing is really popular in Santa Cruz, and tons of people do it," adds Cruzio marketing manager Mike Brogan. "At the same time people are realizing you can't do everything yourself."

After all, no man is an island. The other C-word that comes up a lot in this conversation is "community," a very quaint notion for such a supposedly technophilic crowd.

"We need to create a 21st-century version of village life," says Sprenger. She says more co-working spaces means an end to the over-the-hill commute, with more time for family and less at the pump. It can also facilitate reaching out to fellow freelancers sitting at the seat just adjacent. "Call it co-petition," says Brogan.

And therein lies the importance of community. NextSpace hosts brown bag lunches and "Blog and Breakfasts," while Satellite has its own movie night and insists co-working must happen steps from "coffee, drinks and lunch."

"People need the infrastructure, but more than ever they need the community," says Neuner. "I don't just want friends on Facebook, I want real friends," says Coonerty.

Jessica Johnson, a cafe member at NextSpace and the head of her own nonprofit empowermentToday, says that after only a short time, she's not only found the perfect financial curriculum she was searching for, she also got an apartment from other NextSpacers' tips. "You just walk in and you feel like you're part of a community," she says. "It's good energy."

That energy has not gone unnoticed outside of Santa Cruz. "We've gotten emails [asking about NextSpace] from Cleveland, Charlottesville, Madison, Wisconsin, and--wait for it--Katmandu," says Neuner. "I think there will be places like this everywhere."

Sprenger says The Satellite will likely know where its second location is going in the next few months. Under consideration are sites in Live Oak and Santa Cruz's Westside.

"I bet the next big thing is going to come out of co-working," says Brogan. "There's just something about it that you don't get from regular working."

Simply put, people need people. "As long as human beings don't change, they will need places like this," says Coonerty.

Pay to Play

Both NextSpace and the Satellite want Santa Cruz to experience their unique visions of co-working, but like any exclusive club, you'll have to flash a little cash to get in the front door, and each handles things a little bit differently. NextSpace keeps it simple, with three levels of membership. Access to the cafe starts at $125 a month. A private carrel workstation runs $275 a month, and claiming private, permanent office space starts at $650.

The Satellite has a bevy of options. Anyone strolling the streets of Felton can pop in for $6 an hour; unlimited use of the cafe starts at $49 per month. Co-workers can claim private workstations on a days-per-week basis starting at one day per week for $109 per month, and going up to unlimited use for $525 per month. A private office runs $149 for one day a week, and up to $780 for unlimited usage. The coffee, however, is always free.

--Jessica Lussenhop

Drinking the Lemonade

Not every freelancer is bubbling over with entrepreneurial zeal. Some do it because their industry has steadily shaved off staffers and outsourced tasks in order to save money. For others, child care or similar work-life considerations are at the root of the decision to freelance--blurring the line over whether freelancing, with its sporadic pay and other associated brutalities, is a matter of choice or necessity.

Businessman and politico Leo Hindery, who heads the Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation, suspects the answer is the latter more often than not, even in places like NextSpace and the Satellite that are buzzing with can-do attitude. While he concedes that some people genuinely prefer the freelance lifestyle, Hindery thinks many freelancers are making lemonade from the sour fruits of a damaged economy.

"I promise you that if I walk in and say, 'On the left side, I want all the people who are doing this because they have to, and I will find you a very entrepreneurial environment at Google if they hire you full-time,' they will say yes in a heartbeat. It's the question: are you here by choice, or are you here because your economic foundation has collapsed?"

Freelancers generally make less money than their employed counterparts, Hindery says, and they are likely to be among either the nation's 50 million uninsured or the 50 million underinsured, meaning they're gambling on their health. If they lose, we pay. That puts them squarely at the center of the health-care debate.

Finally, he says, many freelancers land in a category of worker classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as "part-time of necessity." This group, 9 million strong, includes people who have part-time work but want a full-time position and--the health-care issue again--the attendant benefits.

But this group is not counted among the nation's 15 million unemployed. If they were--and if several other categories like unemployed youth were counted as well--the country's unemployment figures would double. "It's a very dark side of the unemployment issue right now," he says.

--Traci Hukill


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