Thinking Commercially as a Freelancer

In this week’s blog post, I got the chance to talk to Albert Azis-Clauson, co-founder and creator of UnderPinned, about the wonderful world of freelancing, mental health and inclusivity. To listen to our chat, make sure you follow The Lonely Freelancer and read along below!

Tell us a bit about your current role and your business

Hey, so I am Albert. I am the CEO and co-founder of UnderPinned. I have a weird and wonderful background that got me into running Underpinned, I was a freelancer for a long time, I was a business strategy consultant, I founded a few businesses, worked for charity, worked in various different sectors doing various different things. After growing up as a ballet dancer and being embroiled in the creative world, I had this weird winding path that led me to UnderPinned. The basis of what Underpinned is is a platform that helps people successful freelance businesses. It was founded on this idea that when I was trying to build a freelance business I had no idea what I was doing and I ended up running a media and arts company, working with young and emerging artists to build successful businesses out of what they doing – there was just this common theme of all these amazing people with amazing skills in crafts, but no idea how to build a business successfully. It wasn’t to do with a lack of ability, it was just that they had all left education or employment with no idea of what to do. I ran a survey on this recently on my Linkedin and it showed that 0% of people said they were fully prepared for freelancing when they left education or employment and that was crazy to me. The whole purpose of UnderPinned was to say ‘what can we do’ ‘how can we build a scalable framework that anyone from any industry can come in and use to build a successful freelance business’ and that’s kind of what we’re doing. So we use education, community and technology to do that.

Do you think the pandemic has made a lot more people go into freelancing?

Yeah so we’ve been watching these trends and doing all these surveys and stuff and it’s crazy – the increase in freelancers is massively, but the really interesting thing is, in 2008 with the financial crash there was a big surge of freelancing but it was people being forced into freelancing after losing their jobs. But it’s not been the same at all with the pandemic. With the pandemic, obviously, people have lost their jobs and it has been very difficult for a huge group of people but the biggest driving force that we’ve seen is people working in flexible formats that they’re not used to doing. It’s meant that so many people have picked up hobbies they never knew they had, so many people have had the courage to start doing freelancing and more people have started freelancing this year than in the past ten years combined. But the other thing that’s really cool is, in 2008, loads of people were freelancers but businesses weren’t necessarily hiring more people. Whereas in the last year, during the height of the pandemic, there was a 40% increase in the job listings for freelancers. In other words, there was 40% more work for freelancers at the time when there was the least work for anybody in our economy as a whole.

Previously, most companies didn’t feel comfortable using tech-first communication formats. The idea of sitting in a room with someone was incredibly important and that just disappeared over a 6 month period. So now companies are going ‘so it’s more efficient to work with freelancers, they’re more specialised, I’m already working remotely with my whole team anyway, I feel comfortable working with people in this format, why on earth am I not doing it?’ Because there’s a massive increase on both sides then, and it’s good for freelancers to know that if they actually want to go into it, there’s more work as well.

Why do you think businesses struggle to accept and welcome freelancers into their teams?

So I talk about this trend quite a lot, and I noticed this trend happening, 5-10 years ago and then it became a really big thing. They call it ‘The Agency Trend’ which is that when you hire creative agencies or branding agencies or marketing agencies, you don’t hire their junior or their mid-weight staff, you hire the four people that founded it. Like you hire the three directors who have 25 years of experience, and they know what they’re doing and you don’t ever really learn the names of the people below them, and they’re the people who pitch to you, etc… And what started to happen was that these agencies started to go ‘why do we have a team of 20 people who sit across a bunch of different specialisms and try to find work that fits for them, when instead we could find work and build the perfect team?’ So agencies started this trend before the pandemic before COVID became a thing, and what I’ve noticed is that companies who previously never would have worked in that format, with these hybridized, fluctuating teams are now starting to do that. More companies in tech industries are starting to adopt this agency model and build the right team for the project and disband them when we’re done. I think that’s kind of a precursor to the work, which is these hybridized, flexible workforces, and that in 20 years time, you won’t start a job for one company, you’ll start a job for 5 or 6 companies and you’ll go between them as is needed.

What do you think is the biggest struggle facing entrepreneurs right now?

It’s interesting because there’s a big difference between what I describe as the freelance movement and the entrepreneur movement, but the entrepreneurial mindset and attitude is something that is talked about a lot and is really not dependent on sector size or business. So when I think of entrepreneurs, my first port of call is to think of the start-up world, but then a lot of freelancers think of themselves as entrepreneurs – despite the fact that both communities have different problems. For freelancers first starting entrepreneurialism, I think that access to simplistic formats for building businesses i.e accounting infrastructure, financial infrastructure, access to clients, access to successful portfolio development – largely because if you’re a business, you have specialistic departments who can come in and work on each of these things. As a freelancer, you have to learn them yourself and do it in ten different places so I think that’s the problem that UnderPinned is trying to solve. We want to build infrastructure in one place where you can go and do that. On the other end of the spectrum, I think the biggest problem for people trying to build bigger businesses is access to first time capital, which is an issue I’m particularly passionate about. One of the things I like the most about freelancing is that it gives the opportunity for work-first hiring, i.e trying to remove bias in the process of hiring. I do a lot of work in inclusion, diversity and access to opportunity and freelancing is an amazing vehicle to try and do that. That’s a big part of what we do at UnderPinned.

If you go a little bit up the ladder, in terms of the scale of business, it’s a lot harder. Literally getting access, if you’re a woman, if you’re any part of the LGBTQIA+ community, if you’re from any culturally diverse background, it becomes significantly harder because where the vast majority of wealth is held is near white men who made their money in the ’70s and 80s. What that means is they tend to gravitate towards other people who look kind of similar to them, or what they looked like when they were younger. But more importantly, it’s the people who grew up in those environments who more easily have access to those conversations. I’m acutely aware that growing up, I could walk into a room and have conversations with people fairly confidently, and that is a big big problem. I think it’s also a particularly obvious problem within the startup community, where access to first-time capita is a big issue. But if you’re looking from early-stage freelancing to the Monzos of the world, there needs to be a better format for allowing open communication between the world of business and people entering the world of business. That’s a problem that I’m particularly passionate about but is very difficult to solve.

Why do you think diversity is so important in freelancing?

Diversity is really cool, and it allows for so much more exciting stuff to come out of it. We’re doing a series of talks at the moment and I just sent the marketing team a message like ‘this is really cool because you just sent me the next 6 expert speakers and they’re all women and they’re from all different backgrounds’ and that’s amazing. That happened naturally, without anyone trying deliberately to go and find those people, is wicked and now we probably need to make sure that there’s a bit more diversity in terms of other gender identities – which is a great problem to have! In the world we’re operating in, it seems much easier to encourage that and I think that needs to get dispersed across more sectors and industries and stages of business, but if you find areas where diversity happens in a more organic and natural way, you get so much more interesting stuff coming out of it. I think, one of the issues businesses face is that simply saying you’re striving for diversity isn’t good enough. Passively saying ‘we are diverse’ isn’t enough, you need to pro-actively encourage diversity and inclusion, even if it’s just stating ‘we accept people from XYZ background’ because people from those backgrounds never seem themselves represented. You need to tell them that they explicitly should be involved in what you’re doing, and that’s a movement that I hope will get bigger and will have more momentum over the next few years.

What can UnderPinned do for individual freelancers?

So this is a really interesting point because when we first started UnderPinned, the main thing we wanted to address was the freelance mentality of ‘I’m good at what I do but I don’t know how to build a business’. What we found was that people spend 3-5 years fumbling around making a lot of mistakes and trial and error before they get to be this established freelancer and that’s where people fall off, that’s where people fail and stop. Particularly, the people that stop are the people that don’t have access to other people that can support them and to the things they need so you end up losing a lot of really interesting people due to financial circumstances. So the biggest benefit I see in UnderPinned is taking someone who is on the very first day of their journey and then within a month of their journey, they’re ready and they know what to do. We don’t want people to be fumbling around, and most of the people in our industry focus on successful freelancers and simply taking a slice of their pie by doing their accounts, their finances, doing some software system for them – they view it as ‘you’re making X amount of money per year, and we’re going to take a percentage of that to run your business services’.

We didn’t take that attitude at all. Our attitude was ‘how do we get people to earn X amount of money’, how do we support that journey? Whilst everyone else in the industry was focused on established freelancers, we wanted to focus on the next generation of freelancers and as a result of COVID, there are so many more people freelancing than there were over the past 5-10 years and so we decided to start there.

One of the things we do with UnderPinned is we run all these workshops and masterclasses and we share all of the tools you need to put a freelancer in one place, and I think the thing that’s particularly exciting is our Ultimate Guide To Freelancing programme. That’s what gets people in, so by the end of that you feel confident, you know how to do freelancing and you know what to do. From a really cynical commercial perspective, and I feel like it’s important to talk to both your customers and your investors about the other side of the story, the way the accelerator programme works is it progresses the freelancer but we can then invest in them. If you’re paying £5 per month for our subscription, it’s going to take you quite a long time to become a valuable investment for us from a commercial perspective, but if you can commit to the Ultimate Guide To Freelancing, it gives us the opportunity to invest back into you and we can build a much stronger relationship with you.

What has been your biggest professional hurdle to overcome? I.e. self-confidence, funding, motivation…

So there’s so much stuff that was so difficult – I can’t tell you how stressful this journey has been, how many hours I just spent crying into my hands, just absolutely destroyed. I feel like my most common characteristic is just having a very serious phone call, hanging up the phone and then just crying for ten minutes.

As with lots of things in this area, the most challenging thing is just emotional resistance. I feel like we’ve started to talk about this as the traditional thing in the start-up world is ‘get up early, work really hard, have no friends and see no people and watch Netflix’ and there’s a culture of ‘trade Netflix for better sleep’ and I’m just thinking ‘no, no, no still watch TV in the evenings, still do stuff and relax’. I think, particularly when it comes to men, there’s no real conversation around crying which is terrible and the biggest hurdle for me was just maintaining emotions throughout what has been, by far, the most difficult journey of my life.

What does your typical working day look like?

Ok, I want this to be heavily, heavily caveated but my normal routine is – get up around 5am, go straight into the shower, then head to the office and just plug between then and around 8am. That’s when I get my stuff done, that’s when no one is talking to me, no one is messaging me, that’s Albert time! Then we have a team meeting and lots of other meetings for the next couple of hours, get a little bit more stuff done, and then at 12:30pm I move away from my desk and head to the gym. I usually do like an hour workout, half an hour of cardio, then I’ll have a sauna, shower, get something to eat and come back to my desk at around 3pm.

During that time, I reply to emails on my phone but not really focusing on any pro-active work. Once I’m back in the office though, I’ll just work until I don’t wanna work anymore. I’m strict with myself, so if it gets to like 4pm and I’m thinking ‘I’m not getting any work of value done’ then I’ll stop. But I might work til 8, 9, 10pm but generally speaking, I will stop when I feel I’m not being productive anymore.

I can typically be much better at focusing on things like podcasts and interviews in the evenings, but I generally don’t do other stuff. So I’ll go and do lots of talks and events, which I really really enjoy!

But here’s the heavy caveat – I don’t do that all the time. If I did do that all the time, I’d be dead. I like to go out on a weekend, I like to party, I like to see my friends, I love sleep. When I first started Underpinned, I realised that I pushed myself way way too hard with this crazy routine and then I thought that it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t necessarily make me better and although I love this routine, I will also get up at 7:30am some days and make sure that I look after my mental and physical stuff first.

Finally, take the time to plug UnderPinned and share your recommendations for those who might want to use it!

Ok to be completely honest, the thing that we’re plugging at the moment is ‘come and do our course!’. If you’re starting out your freelance journey or are a few years into your freelance journey, get involved! It’s £200 BUT with the discount code ‘THELONELYF25’, you can get 25% off for The Lonely Freelancer listeners!

So come and give it a go, there’s a 7-day money-back guarantee if it’s not for you – but it will be! This is five years of learning to put into a piece of software, with a masterclass every week, software systems, workshops with me every week, workshops with my team and so much support – you can’t come out of this not feeling good about freelancing!

Just a final thank you so much to Albert for speaking to me on The Lonely Freelancer! If you’ve not listened to the latest episode and my interview with Albert, I highly recommend you head over there now!

If you have any questions about UnderPinned, freelancing or want to know how you can be a guest on The Lonely Freelancer, drop me a message at [email protected].

Thanks for reading.

About Albert Azis-Clauson: 

Albert Azis-Clauson is the CEO and co-founder of UnderPinned, a platform that helps freelancers build their careers. At 25-years old, his 3-year-old startup is worth £12m having personally raised over £1m within a year of graduating from university. He has published a white paper with BEIS and the Small Business Commissioner on late payment culture in the creative industries and regularly works with UK Government bodies to advise on the future of freelancing. He is a freelance educator and worked with multiple early-stage startups as an advisor with a focus on helping first-time founders with impactful ideas access their first venture capital. As well as a judge for the Great British Entrepreneur Awards, studied as a dancer from the Royal Ballet School and an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community, there is a lot more to this young & dynamic entrepreneur than at first glance.