When Kathryn Bondy graduated from art school in 2006, she dreamed of climbing the ranks at a major art gallery until she was in charge. But today, she has something much better: her freedom.
Bondy is a freelance florist and artist who sells meticulously crafted handmade flowers and fruit through her Etsy shop. She’s only five months into her freelance career, but feels like she should have made the switch years ago.
Almost 22 percent of the Canadian workforce is either self-employed or working a temporary job. That’s almost 4.5 million people, which is more than the entire population of Alberta, and then there’s the 3.5 million Canadians who are working part-time.
Co-working spaces, where freelancers rent desks to work among their peers, are popping up across Canada, and many cafes in major cities are packed from Monday to Friday with people grinding away on their laptops.
Temporary employment is expected to increase over the next decade with 85 percent of Canadian employers saying they anticipate using an “agile workforce” by 2025, according to a report by Randstad, a Canadian recruitment agency.
But it’s not only employers who are choosing flexibility over security. More than 65 percent of employees in the Randstad study said they chose non-traditional work, such as contractual, part-time, freelance or virtual work, for flexibility and control.
As this type of work becomes more common in Canada, finding a ‘real job’ in your chosen field can seem like an impossible goal. But not everyone buys into this idea, preferring to weather the ups and downs of freelancing in exchange for greater freedom.
“I don’t think any of my friends work for someone else,” says Paul Jarvis, a web designer, writer and software creator. He had just finished writing the first draft of his upcoming book, Company of One, when he answered VICE Money’s call at his home in the woods near Victoria, British Columbia.
With four books published, one in the pipeline, a weekly newsletter with 30,000 subscribers, two podcasts, three online courses and several software companies, Jarvis is not one to sit around and wait for things to happen.
But he did fall into freelancing by accident. He caught the attention of an agency after a private investor bought an online dictionary of slang words he created in 2003. He had landed a well-paid, full-time job without a university degree simply by doing what he was interested in. But he stayed for less than a year because he didn’t like how the company was run.
He was planning to visit the library to figure out how to write a resume when he started getting calls from his old clients wondering how they could continue to work with him. He took them on as his own clients and has been self-employed ever since.
That’s not to say Jarvis hasn’t had options to get back into the world of full-time work. He has entertained several attractive offers for full-time jobs, he says, but never accepted them because they couldn’t top the lifestyle he already had. In 2011, he was in the final stages of negotiating with an agency in New York City that wanted to hire him as a creative director. He was ready to sign on the dotted line when he heard about their vacation policy, which was the standard two weeks per year. At the time, Jarvis was working nine months out of the year and taking road trips with his wife the rest of the time. “I wouldn’t trade any amount of money for my freedom,” he says.
Jarvis has stopped entertaining the idea of a full-time job. After decades of working for himself, he thinks it would be difficult take orders from other people. “I’m fireable in so many ways,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean Jarvis is confident about the future. “I’m scared of everything,” he says. “I’m booked six months in advance, but what if nobody books me for the seventh month?”
One way Jarvis mitigates this fear is by saving as much as he can. “I’m like a fucking squirrel with nuts,” he says. “If something bad happens, I want to be able to cover it.” He pays himself a salary every month and only gives himself a raise when his income has increased for several months in a row. He contributes to an RRSP and aims to invest 20 percent of what he makes.
But very few attain the level of success Jarvis has in the freelance world. For Caitlin Kelly, a Canadian journalist living in New York City, part of surviving as a freelancer is taking full responsibility for for your financial future. Kelly agrees that putting away 20 percent of your income is critical. “You have to do it,” she says, because freelancing is not just about about paying next month’s bills, it’s about “are you going to be able to retire?”
Kelly is no stranger to struggle as a freelancer. When the journalism industry became especially turbulent after the financial crisis in 2008, Kelly found herself folding t-shirts part time at a clothing store. She used the benefit of steady income to write a book, but it was ultimately about survival. It takes a certain ruthlessness to say “if I’m not making enough, I’ll get a part-time job,” she says.
Things have since improved, but Kelly hasn’t stopped hustling. While on “vacation” at a friend’s beach house on Fire Island in New York, she starts work at 8 a.m., emailing editors in Alabama and London, booking a hotel in Montreal for an assignment and talking to a concierge about her rental car. “I do not turn on the television during the day, and that’s serious,” she says.
Kelly grew up in a family of freelancers. Her father was a filmmaker, her step-mother wrote for television and her mother was a journalist. “Nobody had a ‘real job.’ Nobody wanted one,” says Kelly.
Your greatest skill as a freelancer is self-discipline, mainly around money, says Kelly who lives with her husband in the same one-bedroom apartment she has owned since 1989. They don’t have kids, they “save hard.”
It someone offered Kelly a six-figure salary tomorrow, she says she would take it. It’s not the money that she’s after, but benefits of working with your peers. “You get feral if you don’t go out… Your social skills wither. Your confidence can be impaired because you’re not out there being fabulous. You need that,” she says.
Still, Kelly knows that autonomy, challenge and intellectual freedom — the things she values most — are hard to find in a full-time job.
Those are the qualities that Kathryn Bondy was looking for when she quit her full-time job as the display coordinator at Anthropologie.
After designing and building elaborate front-window displays for the high-end fashion retailer for for six years, Bondy knew she had the creative skills to leave her full-time job and start an Etsy store. “It’s like art bootcamp,” she says. But she knew she needed to soften the financial blow of leaving her full-time job, so she started to look for part-time work.
She thought she might like to learn about flowers, so she reached out to a friend who worked as a florist in Toronto and asked for a job — any job. Bondy’s reputation as a designer preceded her, and she was offered an apprenticeship to become a florist.
“I didn’t even know that was an option,” says Bondy.
After two years of practicing floral arrangement, working 10-hour days and posting her progress on Instagram, Bondy finally had the contacts and skills necessary to start the freelance career she dreamt of when she left Anthropologie.
Today, she splits her time between arranging flowers on a freelance basis for two different companies and making tiny handmade fruit and flowers for her Etsy customers. Her studio is a small space in a large building filled with other artists. While her studio-mates have their materials strewn about, Bondy’s is well-stocked, orderly and inviting. It communicates readiness to do business and the kind of confidence that comes only after years of hard work.
Keeping her financial goals small is another way that Bondy maintains her confidence. At this point, she is happy to cover her half of the rent and pay her own bills.
Her fiance, who works a steady job for the Toronto Transit Commission, is happy to help out financially while she gets her business off the ground. They live in a one-bedroom apartment, they don’t have a car payment and buying a house in Toronto would be out of the question even if they both worked full-time jobs, says Bondy. She is diligent about saving money for HST and putting a small amount into an RRSP each week.
As for children, quitting her full time job has made it easier to imagine being a mother. “My emotional landscape was populated completely with stupid work stuff…and I didn’t feel like I had room to take on anything else,” she says. If her business starts bringing in more money, she says she might start to think about having kids.
For now, it’s enough to have freedom and enough to money to pay the bills, she says. “I have never been happier. Never.”