Reflections on how to be, and not be, a freelancer.
Recently, someone on LinkedIn wrote to congratulate me on my seventh anniversary at Fabriders. I was a bit taken aback. Had it been seven years?
The story behind FabRiders
My career does have seven-year phases. Night Club DJ, Non-Profit Admin in Various Orgs, Circuit Rider in the United States and Movement Building Lead for an international NGO were all seven years gigs. What’s significant about the LAST seven years, is that it’s taken me that long to figure out FabRiders.
Independent consulting wasn’t really where I wanted to head in my career. I was committed to the organisation I worked for, and I felt I thrived working in an organisational structure, within a team, with close relationships with colleagues etc. But thanks to a variety of factors, including where I wanted to live, consulting seemed my only option. I started FabRiders in 2012.
I’m incredibly grateful to colleagues who see me as part of their big picture, regardless of where I work or under what capacity. I’m particularly thankful to Gunner at Aspiration, who has been a mentor, partner, and a close friend since we met, way back in 2003. FabRiders would not be without him. One of the first pieces of advice that Gunner gave me was “Don’t make it all about you. Don’t do dirkslater.com.” Thus FabRiders was my choice for a domain. You can read more about the name here.
So, I’m a freelancer?
When I started, I felt a constant need to get paid work and focused my unpaid time on hustling for gigs. I thought I had to sell myself during every interaction (apologies if I did that with you). To be driven by chasing money was the core reason that I didn’t want to be a consultant.
I wanted to be driven by social change strategy and a connector between my colleagues and an asset to the sector — a conduit for knowledge sharing. Instead, I felt like a mercenary, just showing up for the bounty. Worse, I felt this was how people saw me not connected to an organisation or part of a collective effort.
The main turning point came about five years in. The stress was getting to be too much, and it impacted my mental health. I felt caught in a whirlpool of self-promotion that wasn’t contributing to social good and feeling like I needed to say yes to anything. I strongly considered going back to being part of an organisation.
Thankfully, valued colleagues again helped me see a way forward and gave me invaluable advice. Instead of spending time promoting myself, I needed to have self-funded projects that spoke to my strengths and demonstrated my expertise.
I’m not a freelancer. I am a FabRider.
And thus two significant self-funded projects under the FabRiders banner were born, the Network Centric Resources Project and the Data Literacy Consortium (in partnership with IFRC and the Centre for Humanitarian Data). These projects demonstrate my value and expertise in ways that people benefit. I can run workshops at events like MozFest and Aspiration’s Non-Profit Developers Summit that help me move projects forward and get people engaged. Now with these projects running, paid work finds me rather than me needing to go out and look for it. I also have people to be accountable to, which makes a big difference in both how I see myself and also getting stuff done.
Another super helpful asset has been this website, FabRiders.net. I’ve always seen it as the platform for sharing what I’m learning and things I’ve developed that others can use. I’ve authored nearly 120 posts, divided between the FabBlog (learnings) and the FabToolkit (stuff people can use). The site gets visited by an average of 800 visitors a month. There’s a lot of people who have reached out because of what they’ve read on the site. I’m finding people know of it without necessarily connecting me with it.
So it turned out I was wrong about where I thrived and how I could be of value – mainly working within an organisation. I still work within teams in both the paid and self-funded work. I have profound, close relationships with colleagues not contained within organisational boundaries. I organise my day by the priorities that I’ve set, rather than someone else. Scope of work, deliverables and timelines are agreed via proposals and contracts well ahead of time. Those deliverables and deadlines very much dictate my priorities. Time on self-funded work is determined by what I think is needed. I appreciate not getting drawn into other people’s task lists on a moments notice.
The brilliant paid work
In these seven years, I’ve completed over 90 projects that have been ‘paid for’ work. That might seem like a lot, but if you break it down, it comes to roughly one project a month. More than half of those, 48, was for facilitating events, ranging from 6 to 150 people. I’ve worked for nearly 60 clients (thankfully I do get hired more than once by the same people!). What may seem unbelievable is that every single one of those projects I’ve enjoyed. If you’ve ever asked me, ‘What are you working on?’ thanks for indulging my unbridled enthusiasm. I’ve facilitated retreats for small powerhouse organisations like The Restart Project to some big hitters like Greenpeace International. There have been intensive and immersive projects like IFRC’s Data Playbook, or data literacy research and a podcast series for School of Data. For the past four years, MozFest has engaged me as the Facilitator Support Guru for MozFest, helping the 600+ facilitators to deliver great sessions every year. I’m currently building a network of ‘Data Champions‘ amongst UK-based grantmakers for 360Giving. The paid work and the people I work for are all brilliant.
I couldn’t do any of this without the support of colleagues who shared their help and expertise when I needed it. Along with Gunner, I’m grateful to Misty Avila, Greg Bloom, Cheekay Cinco, Tin Geber, Gillo Cutrupi, Becky Faith, Maya Ganesh, Sasha Kinney, Heather Leson, Tom Longley, Milena Marin, Beatrice Martini, Mariel Garcia-Montes, Soraya Okuda, Ali Ravi, Katelyn Rogers, Mor Rubinstein, and many, many others for always being there.
So I’m done with seven-year phases. It’s a FabRiders life for me.