Confessions of an Accidental Free Agent

There is a lot of chatter about the gig economy — independent contractors, self-employed consultants, on-demand workers, e-lancers, high-lancers — and whatever new terms come out tomorrow that describe this shift in the way people are earning a living. It is usually described in the context of highly capable people choosing a different path, intentionally blazing their own trail, and embracing the American entrepreneurial spirit.

I have a confession. I’ve been an independent consultant for seven years now, and I feel like one day I tripped, tumbled down the proverbial rabbit hole, and ended up in freelance wonderland. Here is the ironic part. Most of the work I do involves advising clients on being intentional and structured in the way they drive their business forward. I help them create strategic business and marketing plans to grow in a deliberate and measurable way. But when it comes to my own consulting practice, it began a little less…deliberately.

The truth is, I was once a manic, ahem, I mean ambitious company-side Vice President who bragged about the long hours I worked and cherished my corporate benefits like Paid Time Off and obligatory holiday parties. But something happened on my way up the traditional corporate ladder. That something, I have come to learn, is called life.

First, I had a child. Then the financial crisis of 2008 eliminated thousands of jobs including my husband’s, so we relocated to Texas for a new opportunity. As I contemplated my professional prospects shortly after we settled into our new home, I realized that my daughter, my aging parents, and my own health were becoming increasingly demanding variables on my time.  I wanted to be working, but I wanted flexibility and a reasonable number of hours — like 40 hours per week.  Honestly, I wasn’t really sure how to communicate these needs as I spoke with big firms about big jobs.

I tried applying for jobs beneath my pay grade, but that resulted in hiring managers eying me skeptically when they saw my salary history, and dismissing my “this is a lifestyle choice” explanation all too quickly.  I tried to pitch part-time or job-share alternatives, but without the benefit of having already proved my work ethic and myself, that was also a nonstarter.

Finally, I did what anyone would do in my situation. I went to lunch. Actually, I went to a LOT of lunches. With everyone I could.  And I started volunteering in resume-building positions (which is nice way of saying working for free). I met all sorts of smart interesting people doing smart interesting things. Then the work started to come. First a friend who landed in the marketing department of an oil company asked if I could write a product brochure about diamond impregnated drill bits.  Uh….sure, that can’t be that different than writing about financial services, right?  So I did it.  And it was, dare I say, fascinating. Then I landed a project helping a serial entrepreneur who was creating cooking apps for the iPad, and then I helped a nonprofit launch a for-profit product as a new means to fundraise. The work kept coming and each new project stretched my mind and expanded my skill set.

Independent Consulting is exactly the right fit for me. It is fun and engaging and rarely feels like work, but it has its challenges as well. My schedule is unpredictable and lumpy.  Feast or famine as they say. Also, as an extrovert, I crave the energy of collaborating with others. As the workforce increasingly demands flexible work arrangements and on-demand labor, companies like Canopy Advisory Group are creating solutions for these challenges. Canopy, a portfolio of multi-disciplinary consultants, matches seasoned professionals with organizations looking to add talent but not full-time employees. According to co-founders Brooke Borgen and Griffen O’Shaughnessy, the business model was founded on the premise that not everyone wants to lean in or opt out – there is room for a third way.

If there is anything I have learned over the past seven years, it is that “right place, right time” doesn’t just happen. You must put yourself in situations to interact with smart interesting people doing smart, interesting work. And if things get quiet, go to lunch.

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Traci Ayer is an independent strategy and marketing consultant living in Denver, Co.

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