implications and opportunities for entrepreneurs
agency and the new economy
to author Daniel Pink, a
free agent is a person who works untethered to a big company or
large organization. They include the self-employed, freelancers,
e-lancers, independent contractors and dozens of more colorful names
like 1099ers and techno-cowboys. Pink’s new book, Free
Agent Nation, tells the story of a fundamental shift in
the way people are viewing their careers, as well as the
commensurate economic shifts. At this Morino Institute
Netpreneur Coffee & DoughNets meeting held June 20, 2001, he
talked about the implications and opportunities that the movement
presents for entrepreneurs.
made at Netpreneur events and recorded here reflect solely the views
of the speakers and have not been reviewed or researched for
accuracy or truthfulness. These statements in no way reflect the
opinions or beliefs of the Morino Institute, Netpreneur.org or any
of their affiliates, agents, officers or directors. The archive
pages are provided "as is" and your use is at your own
2002 Morino Institute. All rights reserved. Edited for length and
mary macpherson: introduction
evening and welcome to Coffee & DoughNets Goes Late Night.
Last month's Coffee & DoughNets was about “Cramdowns,
Ratchets and Other Four Letter Words,” which showed that
there’s a whole language being created around early stage funding
and some of the perils that are now associated with it. Tonight
we're going to explore another new language, and we're going to talk
about something that is
happening--I'm not sure exactly what the right descriptor is,
whether it's a movement, a cult, a tsunami--but it represents a sea
change in how work gets done, where it gets done and who does it.
There is a new supply chain, and some of the terms you'll hear
tonight are “entreprenetworks,” “free agent operating
system” and more. Woven throughout are some fundamental values
that are not new at all.
We first met Dan Pink about two years ago, right after he
started talking about the "Free Agent Nation" in Fast
Company magazine, and before he went off to write his book.
He joined us right here in this room for a Coffee & DoughNets in
October of 1999 that we called “Newsapalooza,”
and that featured a panel of journalists discussing public
relations. Now he's back, the darling of the book party set, and we
were delighted to see that the word used to describe one of his
recent parties was “Bookapalooza.”
According to a recent Washington
Post article, 11,000 workers have been laid off by companies in
the Metro region in the last nine months, yet there is only a 2%
unemployment rate. As Dan will tell you, the "Free Agent
Nation" is exploding, and perhaps there is a correlation there,
but before I turn the podium over to him, I'd like to thank the
volunteers who came to help out tonight, Roger Erickson of 270Tech,
Penny Sullivan of Open Systems Associates, Dan Cole of 2SG and entrepreneur
Stephan Tibbs. Thanks very much for helping us
with this event. Thanks also to independent bookseller, Politics
& Prose, which is here tonight with Dan's book and a table
outside where he'll be available to sign it. Dan is going to donate
his royalties for all books sold here tonight to Suited
For Change, an organization that raises money for clothes for
women going from welfare to work. We'd also like to thank our
who shoots and hosts our streaming video, and MAD Events &
Productions, who works on the audio.
Now I'll turn it over to Dan who is going to regale you, I'm
sure. He has lots of props, and I think you'll enjoy it.
dan pink: the free agent
right. I'm going to go about this in a slightly different way than
your typical business presentation. For starters, I don't have a
PowerPoint presentation. I want to tell you some stories, draw you
some pictures, show you some film clips and, depending on my mood
and how much you laugh at my jokes and applaud my words of wisdom, I
have some fabulous prizes to give away.
I don't know how many of you read my bio, but, for awhile, I
worked for Al Gore. Anybody remember Al Gore? (Laughter.) Curiously
four years ago almost to the day, I walked into Al Gore's office (I
was working for him; I wasn't stalking him) and quit my job. He
asked why and I said, "Well, sir, it's clear that neither one
of us has any long-term job security." (Laughter) No, not
really. I went into this kind of sad tale about how the job was
eating me alive. Even though it had all the outward attributes of
coolness and prestige and so forth--everything from meetings at the
vice presidential mansion, to trips aboard Air Force 2, to chance
encounters with Wolf Blitzer--the truth was that I was miserable
because the job was all-consuming. I was grateful to have had it,
but it was eating me alive. I had no control over my time and no
control over my life. My wife and I had a daughter who I never got
to see, and I was just flat-out miserable, so I quit.
He asked me, "Do you have a new job?"
"How are you going to support yourself?"
“Well, I don't know. I think I'll figure it out. My wife
still has a job.”
What I didn't tell him was that it wasn't only that job, it
was jobs in general that I think were getting me down. I figured
that I'd try a little experiment. I’d go up to the third floor of
our house in Washington, DC--we live in American University Park in
one of those small colonial houses that all have attics. I fashioned
an office out of ours and I said, "I'm going to give it a shot.
I'm going to try writing speeches and articles for anybody whose
checks will clear.”
One of the first things I did was to get a contract with Fast
Company magazine where I'm a Contributing Editor. I said to my
editors at Fast Company,
"It seems that a lot of people are making this decision; a lot
of people are going out on their own. It sounds kind of cool. How
about if I check it out and write a story about it?” Well, I did
it, and that story was called "Free Agent Nation." It
appeared a few years ago, and a curious thing happened afterwards.
Two things, actually. One, I got more email on that story than all
of the stories I had ever written in my entire life combined. It was
extraordinary. Every time I would hit "refresh," there
would be another flood of emails coming in saying, "Oh, that is
what I do! This is me.” or “I'm stuck inside a large
organization. This is what I want to do."
This is going to sound like a joke, but it's really not. They
said, "Oh, my gosh, thank you so much! I sent the article to my
mother who has no idea what I do and doesn't understand how I could
make a living without having a job.”
Second, there was a curious reaction in what you might call
the “elite press.” The New Yorker magazine (I was astonished that anybody at the New
Yorker read Fast Company) said, "It's about the end of loyalty in
America." It went on, "The manifesto about the end of
loyalty in America was written by a man named Daniel Pink." I
thought, “What? I'm just trying to make a buck here.”
“Manifesto about the end of loyalty?" They didn't mean
that in a nice way.
A national newspaper ended up writing about the story saying
something to the effect of, “Free Agent Nation, what a bunch of
crap. This can't be right, and this Dan Pink ought to be on
How many of you are on Thorazine tonight?
Actually, it's tragic. Thorazine is a drug for people who
have hallucinations from, say, schizophrenia or really bad acid
trips. This national newspaper was saying that I ought to be
medicated for my hallucinations. I don't want to tell you what
newspaper it was because the guy from the Washington
Post isn't here to defend himself. I said to myself, "Well,
I'm obviously on the right track because hundreds and hundreds of
people out there who actually work for a living, who do great
things, who are creating the economy, they’re saying, 'Right
on.'" The stodgy, established, elite press was saying,
the truth, or something like it
I started doing research at the Bureau of Labor Statistics
and other government agencies and realized that we know nothing
about this nation of people out there. I thought, "How does any
nation endeavor to understand itself?" It goes out and takes a
census, so that is what I did.
My census was modeled after the 1790 census, which Thomas
Jefferson ran . . . This is not a joke. I'll tell you what, I'll
raise my right hand when it's a joke, and my left hand when I'm
My census was modeled after the 1790 census. Thomas Jefferson
ran it. He was the Secretary of State at the time, and it was the
first census of the United States of America. Think about conducting
a census in 1790. You don't have the Internet, you don't have
telephones. What he had was 17 federal marshals on horses who went
out and basically wrote these little notations about how many people
there were and what they were all about. When he delivered the
results to President Washington, he said, "Here are the
results, Mr. President. I have the things that I know are right in
black, and over here, in red, these are results that I think are . .
. (and it's a lovely phrase) . . . very near the truth."
I said, "You know what, I'm going to do a census of Free
Agent Nation and give results that are very
near the truth." I went out for a year and I interviewed
hundreds and hundreds of people. I went on the road with my wife and
our daughter, and then another daughter, yes, our own
daughter, and I interviewed hundreds and hundreds of independent
workers, freelancers, “e-lancers,” self-employed professionals,
independent contractors, interim executives, temps and “microentrepreneurs.”
We traveled all over the country. I met them in libraries and
Starbucks and hotels and Starbucks and Kinko's and Starbucks. I
fashioned those “very near the truth” results into this book.
How many people have read this book?
I fashioned it into this book, Free
Agent Nation, and I want to tell you a little bit about what I
found. I want to talk about the numbers very quickly, and I want to
talk about how this happened because I think it illuminates some of
the challenges for small entrepreneurs. I also want to talk about
how it's fundamentally changing the American work ethic. As Mary
said in her introduction, that set of values might be among the most
profound, significant and enduring changes. I want to talk a little
bit also about how it works, both the attitudes of how it works and
the mechanics of how it works. If you look at the mechanics, there
are some incredible business opportunities. I actually think that I
can come up with five or six business ideas to throw out to you if
anybody wants them.
And I have prizes.
inside the numbers
The federal government divides workers today into two
categories. The Bureau of Labor Statistics which produces the
unemployment numbers--the figures that rule the markets--divides
workers into two categories: farm workers and non-farm workers.
Anybody here in the non-farm economy? (Laughter) They're a
little bit behind in how you count this.
It is actually through no fault of their own. The agency has
some wonderful people there. I actually worked at the Department of
Labor for a couple of years and there are some great people at the
Bureau of Labor Statistics. They're under-funded and they don't have
the resources to get the job done. Part of what is going on is that
work is changing so fundamentally and so swiftly that our capacity
to describe it and our capacity to count it is way, way behind.
We're kind of searching for a new vocabulary and a new way to count,
so I'm going to give you some very quick numbers.
I have my own taxonomy of free agents. There are three
varieties. One is what I call soloists. These are your typical freelancers, the independent
professional, the person working by him or herself, migrating from
project to project. I mentioned the vocabulary, here are some great
names that have come up for these sorts of people: freelancer,
e-lancer, independent professional, independent contractor,
consultant (which at one point was a euphemism for “unemployed
white collar worker” and I think it has become that again)
techno-cowboy, hired gun, lone ranger, guru, nomad, gypsy cab
driver, information backpacker, lone eagle and (my favorite) 1099er.
Only in America would you give people a nickname based on a tax
The estimates vary all over the place, but there are about 16
million of these people.
The second group are temps.
We all know what a temp is. There are two kind of temps: high-end
temps and low-end temps. Low-end temps have miserable lives. They
work for meager wages in terrible conditions. They want to get a
real job. They are among the most disgruntled workers in the
American work force. There are also high-end temps, such as interim
executives and interim nurses. There is a company out in Walnut
Creek, California, called CFOs-To-Go that provides interim CFOs. I
interviewed the CEO. There are about three million temps.
Last are microbusinesses. These are very, very, very small businesses. The
federal government says that a small business is fewer than 500
employees (again, its notion of a small business is a little bit
outdated). That is one definition. Another is fewer than 100
employees. Well, throughout this country there are legions of
businesses with two employees, one employee, three employees.
Here’s a startling factoid for you: 70% of business enterprises in
this country have no paid employees.
A very conservative estimate is that there are 13 million
microbusinesses. A lot of them are operating at home. Some are
second ventures for people. Many fly beneath the radar of the
authorities. No, I don't
mean criminals, I mean somebody who says that they’re going to
moonlight fixing people's computers, get paid in cash and not
declare it as income. Like that guy in the second row. (Laughter)
You add this up, and you have 33 million people who are
independent, untethered from a large organization. That is almost
one out of four workers.
As Mary said, I am a former speech writer. When someone says,
"Dan, what makes a good speech?" I say "Three things
make a good speech: brevity, levity and repetition." Let me say
that again: brevity, levity and repetition. Thirty-three million
people, nearly one out of four workers. Thirty-three million people,
nearly one out of four workers.
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