Support services for the Indie Economy

Over the course of the past year, I’ve been interviewed a bunch of times about the “peer economy” or the “sharing economy” (Fastco, Wired, NY Times, PBS Newshour), with most of the focus on the public policy considerations of all this, specifically public safety regulations and the impact on labor.

A question that comes up every time is: “aren’t all of these new independent workers missing out on the stability provided by full-time employment?”  (e.g., healthcare, steady work, etc).

My answer has been: yes, for the moment. BUT, there is an emerging wave of networked services which will provide this stability to independent workers, albeit in a different form than we’re used to seeing.

My colleague Albert describes this as the “unbundling of a job” — the idea that many of the things that have traditionally been part of a job (not just steady money and healthcare, but also sense of purpose, camaraderie, etc.), will in the future be offered by a combination of other organizations, services and communities.  Albert takes the idea a lot farther than I will here, where I just want to focus on some of the more immediately practical developments.

Thus far, this idea hasn’t gotten a lot of press attention, as the number of visible services providing this kind of support has been small.  But it is growing, and I expect we’ll see at least a small handful of these kinds of services gain traction in the next year.

The oldest and most venerable organization doing this is the Freelancers Union.  New Yorkers will recognize their subway ads that have run for decades, advertising their programs and member benefits.  Freelancers Union’s roots are in the pre-networked era, focusing largely on independent creative types in NYC, and their scope has grown dramatically over time, growing nationwide and adding services like insurance and medical plans.

What we expect to see a lot more of are services that are tailor-made to support independent workers who reach customers and deliver their work through web and mobile platforms.  For example, Peers, which is essentially Freelancers Union for the peer economy.

So, what kinds of services are we talking about exactly?  Here are a few of the kinds of services we’ve been noticing and think we’ll see more of:

  • Insurance: One of the biggest challenges in this space has been how to insure it.  We’re seeing established firms consider how to address the space, as well as brand new insurers that are tailor-made for it.
  • Job discovery & optimization: Many networked, independent workers make real-time decisions about what kind of work to do (e.g., driving vs. assembling furniture), as well as which platforms to use (uber vs lyft).  This is currently a manual, non-optimized process.  Increasing discoverability and lowering switching costs will also be an important competitive vector to ensure workers’ interests are being met by platforms. (e.g., sherpashare)
  • “Back office” – taxes, accounting, analytics:  Dealing with paperwork is a huge headache for busy independent workers, and we’re seeing a bunch of saas-type offerings to help people manage it all (e.g., 1099.isZen99, Benny)
  • Healthcare: Gotta have it.  This is a topic in its own right, and not expressly specific to the indie economy, but we are seeing massive experimentation and innovation in how independent actors can buy healthcare (e.g., teladoc, medigo to name 2 of many)

I suspect that by the end of 2015 we will not only have a much longer list of example issues and services, we’ll see that some of these have gotten traction and started to make a difference for independent workers.

So, if you’re a reporter covering this beat, I think this is an interesting angle to pursue.  If you’re a lawmaker or policymaker, I’d think about this as an important and growing part of the ecosystem.  And if you’re an entrepreneur working in this space, we’d love to meet you :-)

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