Freelancing used to be a seen as a dangerous proposition. Most people, perhaps understandably preferred the stability of a solid ‘career job’ to uncertainty over their next paycheck. Freelancing became the preserve of starving artists and creative types, who traded the freedom to pursue a career they truly loved for a more nomadic and worse funded existence.
With the rise of new technologies, though, being your own boss is all the rage. The global reach of wireless internet, powerful phones and laptops, and several careers that rely heavily on computers have created the ‘digital nomad’: freelancers who travel the world working from cafes.
Meanwhile the ‘gig economy’ has moved from a concept to a real part of people’s lives, with services like Uber, Deliveroo and even Amazon taking on short term workers.
The latest extension of this approach to labour is Australian startup Snappr. The idea is simple: a two-tiered scalable service lets users book a photographer in their local area at a set price, on as little as 12 hours notice.
The user just needs to pick the price bracket and the event they want photographed. They then get to choose from three photographers near them, with some basic information on their specialities and a review score.
In theory it sounds ideal. The company has proved a hit so far, to the extent that they have been funded by famed Silicon Valley ‘seed accelerator’ (read: startup investor) Y Combinator. They are planning to launch a service in San Francisco that offers a mere hour’s notice, making it even more analogous to Uber. You could book a photographer over your morning coffee and have them arrive at a lunchtime party.
Where things fall down is the pricing. $59 will bag you a 30-minute shoot where you get to keep the best 3 pictures. For $99 you receive a 30-minute shoot with all of the pictures taken in that timeframe. If you want two hours where you keep all the pictures, you just multiply that $99 price tag by four. For the customer this is a great deal. For the photographer it’s absolutely terrible.
Freelancers rely on making good money from gigs in order to sustain them through dry spells. In my profession of wedding photography, a majority of weddings take place within a specific window of (hopefully) good weather. For the rest of the year, you’re coasting on those previous earnings, hoping that nothing in your house breaks, and looking for extra odd jobs.
Nor is it an easy job. The field is hyper competitive, and you live and die by the quality of your work, and to a lesser extent your personality. Many photographers study for years only to take up a different career because it just stops being viable. The photographers that do make it have incredible perseverance and things that most people lack: framing, composition and editing skills.
Snappr says that only 5% of applicants are picked for the platform, and interviews each applicant before they are approved. But the top 5-10% is worth multiple times what they are charging.
And the cutthroat nature of the platform means that photographers could easily fall out of the loop. It’s not like Uber, where your driver has done a good job if you get from A to B. Reviews will be based on the perceived quality of work, and scores could be doled out inappropriately.
I can understand why some freelancers might be tempted. It offers the chance for a steady stream of income in tough periods, and the possibility to earn a lot in a small space of time if you get a base of strong reviews. But it’s akin to doing internships or work experience for free. You’re selling your skills short in order to compete on a platform that doesn’t deserve you.
The chief problem with these kinds of services, aside from the lack of reliability, is that they drive expectations down for everyone. Freelancers become willing to work for less as a trade off for increased demand for their services.
Meanwhile the public expects to get a certain product for a certain price. Worse yet, they become comfortable with a level of service which might be below what you would expect from professionals, and stop seeing the benefit to paying more.
Freelancing is supposed to be a great, liberating exercise. You get to follow your dream and live a flexible lifestyle. The peaks are high – the odd bumper batch of jobs where it seems like everything’s perfect – and the troughs are low.
But it should all be about control: about self-worth, about improving and performing to your own expectations. The gig economy risks demolishing all of that in favour of profit and convenience. Don’t get suckered in.