In the back of a downtown building in Durham, N.C., Stella Wingfield Cook is guiding a client through a custom workout.
Cook stands as Marcia Brooks pulls, pushes and kicks through a routine. While Brooks is pumping bands and hand weights, Cook talks about pending trips to Los Angeles, where she would spend time filling in for her former boss and mentor. She would also get to spend time with her musician husband, who will be in the city playing with singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten.
Such is the life of the freelance trainer, who provides small classes and individual sessions under her firm, Anchor Studios.
Cook is part of the expanding freelance — also known as gig or project — economy that is changing where, when and how Americans work. From a mixture of globalization, outsourcing, technology and a shaky economy has arisen an alternative career of self-employment. The number of freelancers, who also self-identify as contractors, consultants, temps, solo entrepreneurs and micro-business owners, has increased by 10 percent since 2011, according to a September report by MBO Partners.
About 40 percent of the adult workforce is working or has worked as an independent. By 2020, that number is expected to jump to 50 percent.
If they do it right, freelancers get to choose their hours, environment and clients.
If they do it wrong, they can end up dealing with a cash-strapped hustle.
To be successful, freelancers need to understand their capacity, differentiate themselves and focus their services to complement their strengths, said Jaleh Bisharat, senior vice president of marketing at Elance-oDesk, a California company that connects businesses to freelancers while providing related services.
"One of the big shifts we are seeing in the future of work is that businesses of one will start to be the normal," Bisharat said. "They will be freelancers, and they will also hire freelancers to help them with the part of their businesses that they don't understand."
The advantages and disadvantages of freelancing are freedom and control. There is no paid vacation or sick time. Some freelancers turn to services provided by companies such as Elance-oDesk, which will bill clients and guarantee payments in exchange for a percentage of the transaction. Others figure it out job by job, build partnerships or network with other freelancers.
The major challenge freelancers face is getting that first client, Bisharat said.
To decide how much to charge, freelancers can explore the rates of people with similar backgrounds looking to serve similar roles. Bisharat said she knew one freelancer who started charging $15 an hour with a goal of getting her first client and endorsement. About a month later, she was up to $45 an hour.
"You are going to want to raise it as you can," she said, but that first endorsement is "worth its weight in gold."