Three media veterans (George Gendron, Michael Hopkins, Patrick Mitchell) decided to band together to create The Solo Project, to not only study this group, but to offer support and advice, develop community, and to create a media for the growing cohort of freelancers that will already play a dominant role in how all of us live, work and play. We spoke to Patrick Mitchell, the founding creative director of Fast Company, and owner of his own design agency.

What is The Solo Project?

Official logo. Credit: The Solo Project

Official logo. Credit: The Solo Project

The Solo Project is a media and research startup from the creators of Fast Company and Inc. magazines. We’re focused on the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. They’ve been called many things before — contractors, 1099s, freelancers, project workers — but we call them Soloists. And their numbers are HUGE. A recent Freelancers Union study claims that 53 million — 34% of the American workforce — are currently Soloists.

So this is an acknowledgement of the vast changes taking place in the economy. Does The Solo Project aim to give voice to this “new” demographic then?

"Notebooks-cafe-blog-mobile-569121" by Life-Of-Pix, Pixabay

“Notebooks-cafe-blog-mobile-569121” by Life-Of-Pix, Pixabay

It does. But we also aim to reflect how rich and varied this population is. For example, Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED conference, is, and for most of his life has been, a Soloist. Of course many Soloists become Soloists by necessity — it’s been a rough decade. But we have seen that this is more and more becoming the career path of choice for a growing group of people. It’s intentional.

 

Your first gathering of Soloists was quite the success. What were the demographics of the crowd? The other part of The Solo Project that is interesting is the research aspect. This isn’t just a gathering of a tribe, if you will, but research into that tribe. Can you talk about how this came together?

The event was a great success, despite a few factors working (very hard) against us: 1) nobody had ever heard of The Solo Project, 2) the event was free (event planners will tell you that free means nobody feels committed, and thus, it’s easier to decide to bail if something else comes up, 3) it was a short week because of Labor Day, and 4) it was an all day affair on a work day. Still, the tickets were gone within a few days of our announcement on Facebook and EventBrite. We even had to add more seats and eventually standing room.

The Solo City. Credit: The Solo Project

The Solo City. Credit: The Solo Project

We were only a little surprised that the room was almost dominated by women (about 80 percent). There was also a good mix of industries represented — obviously, the creative class showed up big, but there were lawyers and accountants, too, as well as a good range of entrepreneurs of all kinds. Age-wise, the average attendee was about 42, but Boomers and Millennials were also well represented. And this was a rabid crowd. It was as if they had found their kindred spirits. Most Soloists will tell you that one of the most difficult aspects of solo work is the lack of co-workers. It can get lonely outside of the traditional office environment.

With regard to research, we realized early on that there just simply is not a lot of data about this population. As part of our launch strategy, we’re using research as a marketing tool for connecting us with potential clients and partners. We believe it’s a huge opportunity for us.

What will that research entail? Will it be about the work? More about The Soloist? About the economy overall?

Demographics, careers, services, buying habits, mindset, things you’d expect, but also, we’ll be studying the affect of this cohort on the economy, compensation issues, and the changing relationship between companies and the workforce. Our first research project (with the Knight Foundation) was focused on the Solo economy and how cities need to prepare themselves to serve and retain this population.

That’s interesting. What can cities, then, do to “serve and retain” Soloists? Can they create a set of conditions that even attracts them? And what do Soloists need from government policies that they perhaps aren’t getting now?

Well, you’ll have to wait for our report to see the answer to that!

Yes, cities can be proactive about this. Beside the obvious — affordable housing, convenient transportation, support services — they can ramp up the availability of co-working spaces, innovation districts, and affordable professional services like legal, accounting, and financial services. They can also designate a portion of the city’s work to go strictly to Soloists.

Ask any Soloist how easy it is to get a mortgage or health insurance, and how unfair their tax situation is. We may need something like the Small Business Administration for independent workers.

"Panorama of downtown Portland [Oregon] in the day. Hawthorne Bridge viewed from a dock on the Willamette River near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry" by Cacophony, Creative Commons

“Panorama of downtown Portland [Oregon] in the day. Hawthorne Bridge viewed from a dock on the Willamette River near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry” by Cacophony, Creative Commons

Are there already examples of “Solo Cities” in the US? Cities that are attracting and retaining Soloists with the right mix of regs and resources?

It’s happening everywhere, and anecdotally, there are places we already identify as “Solo Cities” — Austin, Portland (Oregon & Maine), Boston, Brooklyn, Detroit, Boulder — where we’re seeing cool things happening, but it’s early. We hear about Montreal leading the way in Canada, too. But this phenomenon is really still on the cusp of a big breakout, at least in the media. Hopefully, we’ll remedy that. And we’re going to have to be the catalyst for changes in regulations and resources, too. The new world of work needs a voice.

What’s next for The Solo Project?

Credit: The Solo Project

Credit: The Solo Project

We’ve begun talking to potential investors, but simultaneously, we’ve launched our “studio” business to begin to connect with partners who are interested in either talking to or learning more about the solo market. We’ll be publishing the Solo City report shortly and will share it with leaders from other cities who have a vested interest in making themselves more Soloist-friendly. The Knight Foundation (our Solo City partner) will also be pushing out the report to their constituency. And, we will begin working on v2.0 of our website and populating it with content as well as prepping for the print launch of the Solo Quarterly in the next 8-12 months.