A New Equilibrium for Firmless Professionals: High Friction, High Reward
A few months ago, I wrote about the “firmless professional”: someone whose professional success is defined by interactions that take place outside of their firm.
Firmless professionals are a growing cohort of people — founders, creators, investors, and people brokering partnerships and new commercial relationships. Their goals are different, but they all face the challenge of needing to identify themselves to potential partners outside of their firm. They’re constantly searching, and their search space is constantly growing.
Today, this means Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, with a few Hangouts and the rare Teams interaction sprinkled in to keep us on our toes (fumbling awkwardly for the unmute button). As a firmless professional, I sometimes feel like a hummingbird, extracting inspiration like pollen from one source and depositing it into another, never lingering too long in any one place. It’s exciting — but also, strangely solitary.
Staving off this loneliness has become a massive shared project for firmless professionals. Pre-pandemic, we gathered in coffee shops and attended happy hours to connect, often superficially, with our fellow hummingbirds. Then came the proliferation of Slack channels, Zoom happy hours, Clubhouse rooms, book clubs, mentor networks, and the like. We’re all looking for community and a sense of shared connection. But as many of us can attest, the project is failing. We cycle through endless iterations of the above, usually without success: we join with gusto, engage enthusiastically on that first email thread, then slink off into the Slack abyss, double-book the happy hour, read only the first half of this month’s book, and forget to order the next one. Sure, there are exceptions. But they’re just that.
Our project is doomed to fail because it misses the mark. We’ve successfully created casual interactions and forums for exchanging advice and opinions, but totally failed to create follow through, and with it the potential for meaningful connection.
The virtual “open floor plan” is no better than the analog one
When open office plans were implemented in the 2000s with the goal of maximizing serendipitous interactions, the theory was that some of them would lead to deep professional collaboration. As firmless professionals (pandemic or not), we’ve created our own version of open offices to connect with our peers across firms. But in so doing, gone all-in on casual interaction and undercut our ability to create meaningful connections. We’re stuck in a bad equilibrium: by minimizing friction, we’ve also minimized reward.
It turns out that we need friction to create a sense of commitment. The deepest and most satisfying professional relationships come from high-friction undertakings: building together, solving hard problems, and creating new things.
By nature of being firmless, members aren’t required to collaborate, as colleagues within the same firm would be. So, their communities need to create the conditions for deep collaboration to happen. With most online communities, it’s so easy to join that nobody cares if you leave. This dynamic needs to change, for all of our benefit.
Here are a few ideas to move us to a new equilibrium of higher friction and higher reward:
- Banish small talk. We’re all living in different cities with unique weather patterns and pandemic conditions, but spending time on these topics prevents us from getting into the details of our lives and work that will serve as the foundation for potential deep collaboration. Americans are uniquely enthusiastic small-talkers, so it’ll be a hard habit to break, but break it we must.
- Organize around a goal. The goal of connection is noble, but flawed because it’s not enough. Spero Ventures’ thesis around product-led community laid this out: a community coming together around a shared goal of tangibly bettering one’s situation is much more likely to foster deep, long-term engagement than one that’s formed loosely around shared interests or affiliations (sorry sports fans…). For the firmless professional, it’s really hard to find people with shared goals. As a lifelong wallflower, “putting myself out there” is uncomfortable to say the least, and more often terrifying. But it’s a muscle I’ve started to build, and the reward is well worth the effort.
- Recognize collaboration. As an (aspiring) writer, I have long been frustrated that most (all?) writing platforms recognize only a single author, rather than groups of collaborators. Medium writers are free to include additional names and thanks in the free text of a post, but multiple authors can’t truly share ownership over a piece. Platforms where firmless professionals collaborate need to foster collaboration, and the first step is to recognize it.
- Ask questions. Asking a good question is half the work. As a thesis-driven investor, I find more dead ends than interesting paths. Choosing a problem space that’s rich for exploration is critical. Finding spaces where others have similar enthusiasm and desire to collaborate is equally challenging. The only way I’ve found to do this is to ask questions all the time. Tell people about my half-baked ideas and ask for feedback. See where there’s a thread and pull it.
- Expect participation. As the old adage goes, “you get out what you put in.” This is as true of forming community as it is of any other endeavor. Communities that expect a lot of their members are more likely to get a lot out (within reason, of course). I was recently removed from a Slack group where I had been a dormant participant — not even a lurker, honestly — just a non-participant. I was initially offended and wanted desperately to get back in. But more communities should do this: set and enforce high expectations for member engagement.
- Build for follow through. Deep collaboration nearly always means going off platform. This may seem inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be. Platforms that enable collaborators to connect and communicate deeply have a lot of intrinsic value.
As I think about the next wave of opportunities in this category, I’d like to see platforms that foster high(er) friction, high reward relationships, in addition to the loose ties we’re all so skilled at fostering. We’ve built the open office online and without borders. Now, it’s time to harness its potential to actually build things together. Platforms that enable people to solve problems have existed in the developer ecosystem for decades. We now need to bring that deep collaboration to other areas of work and life outside of work — learning, research, fitness, health and disease management, parenting, and more.
If you’re creating such a platform, let’s talk! I’m firstname.lastname@example.org.