Cruel is a $5.00 Tagline

Freelancing, and the Legend of the ‘Lean’ Entrepreneur

The New York City subway system is covered in advertising. Banks remind you of your low balance at the turnstile. Celebrities ogle you in the station. Infectious diseases threaten you on the platform. But the real assault happens in the trains themselves.

Aggressive marketing campaigns promote anything from alcohol and lifestyle brands to breastfeeding and smoking cessation. Add to this visual field a mix of goofy local adverts with famously bad graphic design. The idea is that during rush hour, face in a stranger’s armpit and the stiff edge of a purse jabbing your ribs, you look up at a crown molding of brand messaging just to avoid reality.

I try to shut out the onslaught of any commute with a book and noise-cancelling earbuds. But, recently, the reality of the new gig economy was too harsh to ignore—in the form of a splashy campaign for a startup.

I hesitate to use the name of the company, lest this essay gives it more undue attention, but that would belie the point. Fiverr, which provides “freelance services for the lean entrepreneur,” is hitting the New York region hard. Its subway campaigns feature attractive, self-serious subjects that embody the “rockstar” CEOs of the future. But for today, they’re lean entrepreneurs.

Fiverr is a marketplace for business services like branding, web design, and video production. But wait, there’s more. Its “innovation” on the traditional freelance model is that these essential (and time-consuming) services start at the egregiously low base rate of $5. Hence, Fiverr. I guess. (As a strategist who does naming, my guess is the founders paid their market rate for this brand identity. The extra “r” betrays a problematic web domain, one based on a seemingly arbitrary dollar amount.)

Put another way, Fiverr envisions a world where lean entrepreneurs are “job creators” who see nothing wrong with underpaying marketing professionals for invaluable assets and strategy. Just to reiterate: On Fiverr, someone will design your company logo or write your organizational mission statement for $5. (Just to be clear, this is a base rate. Other vendors might charge more, like, say, $35.)

Is this what “disruptive” means?

There are many galling aspects of Fiverr’s ad campaign. In fact, much has already been written about another series that features an overworked startup founder sacrificing lunch for coffee. The criticism here is that poor work-life balance is, according to Fiverr, sexy. The campaign to which I’m referring above has changed the subject. Those models are attractive and cool as fuck. Or at least, that’s what we’re to believe. I’ve already made my feelings known about this trend toward valorizing startups and their figureheads. This is simply a matter of taste (mine happens to lean toward a DIY aesthetic where creators, not CEOs, are cool).

But lurking just under the surface of this transparent art direction is Fiverr’s questionable core mission.

I’m a freelancer, one of the millions of self-employed in this country whose “biz-dev” process can be reduced to one basic strategy: sing for your supper. (Can’t stop, won’t stop.) We spend much of our client negotiations performing a delicate dance between justifying our worth and divining just how small the project budget might be. I’ve heard people scoff at what seems like the cush life of high day rates. Here are some of the stark realities:

  • The self-employed pay all Social Security and Medicare taxes (roughly 15%), as opposed to full-time employees and their employers splitting these costs. (This does not include income taxes.)
  • Freelancers pay quarterly taxes, which amounts to cutting large checks every three months to the IRS. This can be a struggle when clients are late with payment. (It once took me over a year, and countless emails, to get paid for completed work.)
  • We pay the full freight for our healthcare. (I don’t know anyone in my freelance community who qualifies for the ACA subsidies. And Trumpcare® isn’t looking very promising.)
  • We’re solely responsible for managing and contributing to any retirement program like a 401(k), if you’re lucky enough to have any money left to contribute.
  • While we’re eligible for certain tax deductions and business write-offs, tracking these expenses and keeping books is entirely up to us. Just add CFO to a job title that already includes CEO, HR, and Janitor. (Wait, does this mean I’m a lean entrepreneur?)
  • Many aspects of our work, like chasing down projects that never materialize or updating portfolio websites, are sunk costs. (This is as opposed to full-timers who, by virtue of their salaries, are compensated for pitching work that might go nowhere.)

These are just a handful of the challenges a freelancer might face, a list that is by no means exhaustive. But just to be clear, this isn’t a catalog of grievances. Rather, consider it context.

The salient point is that Fiverr’s business model further contributes to the broader structural issues of the gig economy. In serving entrepreneurs by undercutting market rates, it hamstrings independent contractors. The idea that companies are trimming down “nonessential” workers or reducing “cost centers” isn’t new. The truth is that outsourcing can inject vital and fresh ideas into a stale or floundering business. That’s precisely why the vast market of creative services—from advertising to branding and graphic design—exists in the first place.

But Fiverr’s intention is far more exploitative. Prepare yourself for some undergraduate Marxism: Fiverr is buoying the capitalist at the expense of the worker. And it’s essential to keep in mind that we’re getting progressively more accustomed to limiting worker protections. Politicians on both sides of the aisle reduce unions to a voting block. But unions, in case we forget, are the reason why one might have basic benefits like maternity leave and employee-sponsored healthcare. Remember: When Walmart pressures suppliers to cut costs or busts unions, we make documentaries and grandstand at city council meetings.

Now one could counter with a number of arguments, mainly based on the overriding perspective that markets are “amoral.” We might say that Fiverr doesn’t have a responsibility to ensure freelancers are paid fairly, if we could even define “fair.” Moreover, its expression of supply-and-demand might suggest that there is far too much supply, hence the low costs. And perhaps there is a glut of creative professionals. After all, MFAs aren’t known for preparing graduates for the “real” world.

It’s worth noting that there must be some benefit to the creatives offering their services on Fiverr. Sure, adding work samples to a portfolio can set one up for the next bigger, market-rate job. But then we must accept that we live in a world that caters to the “lean entrepreneur” above all else. I’m all for promoting free markets and small businesses. But there’s always a cost; money, like matter, is neither created nor destroyed.

Markets can be somewhat more moral. I’m not a strict socialist, but fair wages and affordable healthcare are basic human rights—and, therefore, moral responsibilities. And, anyway, if an economy is amoral, to whom or what can we turn to ensure our life and liberty? Our federal government is in the hands of amoral (if not immoral) businessmen. What happens if some underpaid creative needs an emergency appendectomy? Or (gasp), how can we generate the revenue required to pay for debt-neutral tax cuts for the wealthy if American workers are so grossly underpaid?

I don’t mean to suggest that all CEOs are evil (though many are) or that all companies are solely guided by profit motives (though most are). But a company like Fiverr is blatantly rebranding wage slavery for the information age.

Look, I’ll admit I don’t always buy fair-trade products or shop local. But I try. Just like I try to do smart work for my clients that exceeds their expectations—at a fair rate that accurately values my contribution and meets my monthly expenses. All of which is to say, Fiverr inspired me to do some pro-bono copywriting: Fiverr. Finishing what Wall Street started.