On August 19, 2020, Axis Bank, one of India’s leading private sector banks, announced that they are exploring a ‘Gig-a-Opportunities’ mandate: the company has 85,000 full time employees but over the next three years, 15% of their incremental hiring will be based on alternative models of working, said the Bank.
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This may be new for India but approximately 150 million workers in North America and Western Europe have left the relatively comfortable existence in a corporation to a life as independent contractors. It is possible that some of them did not have a choice, but all of them seem to be enjoying a degree of independence that they had never seen in their earlier jobs, according to the Harvard Business Review, March-April 2018.
‘Gigs Jobs’ — Are they really new?
If we look back, almost all professions started as ‘Gigs’. There were individual carpenters, iron workers, potters, handloom weavers. Each a corporation of one, before guilds became the norm and then the corporations that engaged thousands of workers.
In today’s times, many professions prime you to become a ‘One Person Corporation.’ Doctors, lawyers, architects, chartered accountants are all seen as one-person corporations. Many of the creative industries such as film making, advertising, music/events have always had a large share of gig workers.
The growth of digital technologies, especially post-Covid, and the growth of the #WorkFromHome phenomenon, will now pave the way for more and more job seekers to become one man corporations, not just among the less-skilled but also among highly educated engineers, data scientists, chemists, financial analysts and business graduates.
The concept of gig economy has been gathering steam in the western world for some time now. Diane Mulcahy wrote her book ‘The Gig Economy – The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time Off and Finalizing the Life you Want’ in 2016 and titled an article [HBR.org, Oct 20 2016] with a sensational title: ‘Why I tell my MBA students to stop looking for a job and join the Gig economy’.
I don’t think any B-school in India can get away with the advice that Diane Mulcahy boldly trots out to her MBA class. The students, and more so their parents, will want their tuition money back, pronto.
The way to go
R Sridhar was a director in the leading ad agency Ogilvy & Mather when he gave up his cushy job on turning 50 to explore a life as a one-man-corporation. When I asked him why he did not continue till the statutory retirement age of 58 which is often extended to 60, he had an interesting answer: “I don’t believe in retirement”.
So instead of counting the days to retirement, he moved out early to set up an innovation coaching practice and has had a busy 20 years, and counting.
Anita Bhogle, the better half of the famous cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle, had a great career ahead of her as the head of strategic planning at FCB Ulka. But at the age of 39, she took a call to get out and join her husband in crafting a new business, marrying sports and business. In the 20 years she has been at it, she has co-authored two best-selling books, delivered more than 600 training sessions for corporates in India and abroad.
As she says her mantra is “Differentiate and try to create an impact”.
If those are two high profile names, there is this young MBA who gave up his job at the age of 30, after five years in the education and retail sector, to create a presentation studio. Sitting in Kerala he works on cutting edge presentations for individuals and companies around the world. When I asked him why presentations, he says his epiphany was when he saw a presentation by a person, whom he highly respected. And realized how a poorly created presentation can ruin a great talk or pitch.
Listen and learn
You may dismiss these as the odd examples. But listen to what Professor K R Shyam Sundar of XLRI has to say: “In the organized sector for every 10 new jobs created, going ahead, two could be in short-term contracts”.
The definition of short-term assignments and temp jobs just got expanded. It used to be delivery boys and Ola drivers, but now even white-collar jobs are going to go ‘short-term’”.
As Shiv Agarwal, MD of ABC Consultants said in his LinkedIn post, “I think career gig workers will emerge in India where you would see more people saying that they don’t want to be constrained by organizational politics.”.
And not all of them will be 50+.
Our business schools and engineering colleges are ill prepared for this new future. While many of them do have career counselling centres, and the better ones have entrepreneur-incubation set ups, none of them have a centre for one-Person-corporation creation. And as we move forward, managers and executives will have to work with their hands, since many supervisory positions are going to vanish.
As Ajit Balakrishnan, founder Rediff.com and former Chairperson of IIM Calcutta observed in his column in Business Standard [August 17 2020], “Will management schools, including IIMs, soon have to change their curricula and teach their students to work with their own hands as polytechnic and industrial training institutes do?”
While corporations are seriously thinking of adopting gig workers, the other side is also showing signs of impatience. Today’s 20-year old is not interested in a long-term tenure, hoping for a promotion every five or ten years. They want to see signs of growth quickly.
As Chandramouli Venkatesan has observed in his best-selling book ‘Catalyst’, the way to future proof your career is to make sure that you work on many small assignments in the first part of your career, say first 15 years. Then you are ready to manage the next 15 years.
I feel today’s youngsters want to explore multiple options in their first fifteen years and some of them, like my friend from Kerala, want to bail out to do something that they think will excite them.
One man corporation: A few simple steps
- Complete your formal education and while at it develop some areas where you have deep knowledge
- Start with a good company or good full-time engagement, where you can hone your skills [and continue learning]
- Develop a strong professional network within the company and outside
- Test out various gig concepts with people you can trust, your superiors, your mentors
- Identify one niche area where you want to focus
- Try and get at least one ‘Anchor Client’ who will pay you around 30% of what you were earning in your full-time job [and commit 20-40% of your time]
- Keep learning and if the niche turns out to be too small, pivot to a broader domain
- If your gig turns to be a big hit, you can consider adding partners and associates
- But before you start your journey, be clear what you want out of it: Money? Respect? Freedom? Enjoyment? In which proportion?
The need for resilience
R Sridhar was lucky that as soon as he set up his one-person practice, three anchor clients promised him a regular income. Not all of us will be so lucky.
So it is apt to remember the advice from Subroto Bagchi: “In order to be an entrepreneur [or a gig worker, as I may add], you have to burn your past, have to kiss your corporate success goodbye, and be ok with living the life of a stray dog” [OfficeChai.com].
If you are feeling bad that Bagchi is asking you to become a mongrel, remember that an Indian stray dog is always better suited to the conditions and often lives longer than their pedigree counterparts.
So be ready to grab the gig economy. And forge ahead as a one person corporation.