Digital Workplace and Freelancer Expectations and Experience
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This year, I travelled across the southern regions of the Philippines to give a series of workshops on Digital Marketing, Digital Careers and Freelancing. Together with an army of industry pioneers and supporters, I got to witness the overwhelming opportunity for growth in multiple sectors–powered by all these technology companies, digital workers, innovation companies, startups…
Now before this piece gets accused of buzzword-play, let me share with you a recap using a one-on-one interview with one of my creative forces in this series we’re calling ‘The Gig Economy”. ‘Gig’ pertaining to a freelancer, a creative side job– and how this has evolved into a full-fledged mode of work for more and more people.
So today, we’re joined by Jeebs Unabia , who I’ve known for almost three years now. His story of transitioning from corporate to digital work environment.
Lorna: Hi Jeebs! Welcome to this first piece. Happy to have you today.
Jeebs: Hello! Hello (listeners)
Lorna: (Laughs) Great! Oh by the way, for everybody’s benefit this is actually a dry run of our upcoming series podcast of the same title, “Gig Economy”: Perspectives on Digital Workplace Expectations and Experience. To start off, Jeebs, why don’t you share with us your backstory — a little backstory about your professional life…
Jeebs: Same as most other people, I started out as a clueless job hunter. This was back in 2003 when I graduated from college. And you know how you were brought up to believe that when you graduated from college, you had to find work within your own career space–if that’s even the right word. Like, if you studied Economics, you really had no other options–it’s like you owe it to your college education that you had to find work in a bank or you know, some other financial entity just because doctors were meant to be doctors, engineers had to go into an engineering job and all that sense. You mentioned a while ago the word ‘journey’ and I find it funny that — how I ended up now in the world of advertising and marketing is exactly how I started my journey.
I started work in Cagayan de Oro City circa 2003 with Makro, the giant chain. No longer an entity now, I guess it’s now absorbed by SM now?
Lorna: Right, right. Retail chain. Yep.
Jeebs: Right. Of course, Makro was an entity from the Netherlands and they specialized in retail. Most specifically bulk retail. That was my first, sort of, jump into the whole workforce situation and it exposed me basically to the realities of working. Working in the sense that, you know how it is when you’re a teacher and you have such a lofty goal but you’re shipped off (in the Philippine setting that is)… and you’re shipped off to some distant location.. . So that was my first go. I was shipped off to different places in and around Mindanao trying to get people to sign up for this Makro as you know, as a membership organization…
Lorna: Shopping. Right.
Jeebs: It wasn’t until 2004 when I finally decided I was so-called a big fish in a small pond and moved to Cebu. When I moved to Cebu–this is going to sound like one of those ‘E!-True-Hollywood’ stories where Madonna came to New York with just 23 dollars in her pocket, I came to Cebu with just about a very old battered cellphone, and probably 500 pesos in my pocket.
Lorna: What’s that–about 10 dollars at that time, right?
Jeebs: Right. Because I was waiting for my final pay, which wasn’t really going to be released until I already found a job. It didn’t really help… I was thinking I was going to wait for my final pay to come in which was only about 3,000 pesos if I’m not mistaken–but big money…
Lorna: Yes, at that time. Yep.
Jeebs: We can have a separate talk about job hunting but you know, now when you talk to people–prospecting, they’re dressed up, they have their suits on, taking cabs left and right which wasn’t the case when I first started. I had on a pair of black leather shoes that my father bought me as a graduation gift–which I remember, came from ‘ukay-ukay’ in Iligan City. And that was the only pair of shoes I had. I walked everywhere in it. It went well with jeans and with black chinos so it was flexible. But it was hell on your feet because you know, you had to take the public transportation in these black leather shoes.
Lorna: Right, right. Did you have to stand for hours on the bus?
Jeebs: Not the bus, just the regular public utility vehicles. And that was the whole thing too. I came from a small town in Iligan City where it wasn’t really a culture shock by the way. My father is from Cebu. But you know as an adult and you go around the city without your parents and you realize, “where am I?”
Jeebs: You’re not supposed to sweat and you come into this air-conditioned offices, you look like hell and it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning. So yeah, fast forward, one fateful day when a friend asked me if I could accompany him to Waterfront (Cebu). We just came out of Ayala (Cebu) Cinema. As we were heading to the parking lot, someone handed us a flyer from Convergys. But I went, “No, I’m not gonna do call centers. I majored in Economics. I rather go work for a bank (Metrobank) or whatever. And he was like, “Just please come with me! It’s air-conditioned there anyway and it’s our first time inside The Waterfront Cebu..” and I was like, “Okay”. And then he begged me to take the interview with him. And this is where it gets too “E!-True-Hollywood” story-like… I passed. He didn’t.
Lorna: Wow! So you went to this unplanned interview not really caring…
Jeebs: I wasn’t dressed for it.
Lorna: You showed up not intending to apply for a job and then you got the job and he didn’t. (Laughs). How long did you stay in Convergys for?
Jeebs: Almost 10 years. Going 9 and 4 months. 9 or so years of my life… and it was great! Before Convergys there was Makro and we were pioneers so you had that certain gung-ho attitude right? We’re going to introduce the concept of what works and what not. I grew up very quickly there. I was Supervisor at age 22, which was the second youngest age of any at that time. I fired my first employee at age 22. A 64-year old former banker.
Lorna: Wow. Talk about cross-generation workforce, right? We’re going to touch that later…
Jeebs: That’s the thing. I didn’t really realize it at that time, but looking back in the early 2000’s, from an overall market perspective–specifically in the Philippines, it was the first introduction of the idea that a twenty-something (year-old) and a 60-something person could work together in the same environment. As far as I know, that was unheard of. My father comes from a generation of the womb-to-tomb kind of job where you stuck it out …A lot of good things came out of that experience in the sense that this sense of work discipline and work ethic was inculcated in me but at the same time it also opened me up to the reality that up until that point, if you’re going to look for a job you look for a job and you stayed there until you become crazy or you died. It wasn’t until the call center industry came that we realized–and you know a lot of people–their jumping in and out of call centers just because you could, just because it was available so you jump at the slightest indication that things aren’t going very well and you sort of jump ship. I would say it did not, but it took me nine years to enter the void but probably because I held on to the idea that this is a good job, a high-paying job and I have to stick to it. Right now, I still have a couple of friends who are still in Convergys, they’re running 13-15 years already. I applaud them for it but looking back I did a decision call to jump ship and move myself from that environment because it really can get draining. I don’t even want to say it’s challenging because all jobs are. But at some point it really just takes the energy out of your soul. It’s not about the income.
Lorna: Right. Which is a great segue to my next question. What brought you to consider working on your own, being self-employed and adopting this lifestyle. I mean they say that a digital career is really a lifestyle choice. So what can you say about that?
Jeebs: I’m starting to think it is. Let me explain why. After Convergys, I was drained, really and I really didn’t want to engage myself plus I had this really sweet severance package. I drifted for almost three years. I went to Ifugao. I went to Puerto Galera for a while and became a beach bum.
Lorna: Didn’t you say you had a…you opened a small tiki bar in the beach?
Jeebs: Yes I did. We called it ‘Isla’t Alon’.
Lorna: And that’s part of the three-year period you drifted.
Jeebs: Within that period, I lived right by the seashore. And then I went up in the mountains. Which were two different stories altogether. But it did sort of wake up to the idea that the next time I find some sort of question to answer…the most important thing then would have to be “Is it worth it?” Obviously you work because you want to earn and you know, income, money is important… but at the same time, “will it crush my spirit–like, I came back into the workforce sort of with a phobia… i didn’t want to have some soul-crushing thing to happen again…” After a while I tried working in different centers til I decided… it’s right around the time I met you and I decided this is something I could do and I don’t mean to sound sentimental here, but I did send you that text message.
Lorna: (Laughs) What, where the universe conspires and all that, right?
Jeebs: It wasn’t at all easy, I’d tell you that because the last 12 years or 13 years.. You sort of still have a large disposable income. You’re sort of used to a different lifestyle and I think that’s one thing that a lot of people should really consider that you will have to shift your perception of lifestyle a little bit.
Lorna: Right. Right. Right.
Jeebs: Because working as a freelancer…It could get so romanticized.. I was just reading a backpacker blog, it’s a very romantic lifestyle where–see that’s the thing about social media. You control what you post. You control what you want to–you control what you want the world to see (of you)–not to mention the back-breaking, hunger-inducing work, is really…
Lorna: To your points, as far as the perspective… the perceptions are about freelancing and the digital nomad lifestyle, right–which is so clearly defined by travels here and there and working in coffee shops and being just as flexible, you don’t have to be in any one location, just curious–with your 10, 12 years in corporate, right, having a firm geographic location where you have to be and a group of people with whom you had to work with, how has this experience changed the way you work now that you’ve chosen to adopt the freelance lifestyle–both professionally and creatively, you know?
Jeebs: It has changed and it hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed in the sense that I still believe in work discipline. I find myself setting alarms still, waking up at 12 midnight because I have to post something manually… and the same discipline as managing your time and controlling the output, the quality of work, you know it’s still there. I don’t want to say laser-focused, specially now because your output is a direct representation of your value.
Lorna: Right, right.
Jeebs: Patience. Working this digital nomad lifestyle sort of teaches you a lot about expectations. Like, okay, I’m going to earn as much as…I’ve heard a lot of happy stories, success stories where they earn 6- and we’ve heard this in the last conference, right… they’re talking about 6, 7 figures and like, you know.
Lorna: Do you agree… Yeah. That’s interesting you’ve pointed that out… And this is being upfront to our followers, our audience or whoever is reading this blog piece or listening to this recording. Freelancing or digital life is not a get-rich-quick-scheme. Like it’s the same painstaking hard work that you put in to your corporate job if you had any…
Jeebs: I will say it’s more of a labor of love.
Jeebs: My part in the last conference that we did, I came a bit… This is how you make money, just to set the tone, when I started my part, I said, “Look, I’m not a businessman per se. I’m a creative. I’m more of a creative person. Of course I work because I want to earn. I don’t derive all of my satisfaction from that. I derive a lot of my satisfaction knowing that my output is something that I am proud to share in my own timeline.
Lorna: Right, right. Right. Exactly.
Jeebs: It’s very altruistic. A lot of people might be discouraged to listen to us.
Lorna: I wouldn’t be surprised if people raised eyebrows. Sorry to cut you. But there’s… I’d like to take off from what you said, it’s… sometimes the bottomline depends on your personal.. what you hold to be of value, in your case it’s being a creative and being proud of your work output regardless if you made 3 times, 5 times, 10 times of what you made when you were in corporate. But I’d like to debunk that myth, taking off from… it’s not as romantic as it sounds that you earn 6-digit income staying at home and doing this. And maybe that’s also possible. I mean, I’m not discounting that truth but like you said, oftentimes, it’s a labor of love. It entails a lot of your creative energy, creative juices and it’s not as if you’re working with five other people on the team who put their heads together, right?
Jeebs: Specially if you’re a single entity, freelancer. There’s a whole chicken-and-egg situation where, you’re eager to work but a lot of the external clients really won’t… you can’t price high because you don’t have years of experience so you know and the only way you could price high is if you have previous experience. How will you get (previous) experience if no one hires you because you don’t have previous experience?…
Lorna: Correct. Chicken-and-egg. Well taking off from that, in the past year that you’ve been at this digital landscape, could you tell us more about what you do and you know, on average, how many people are you working with right now? Like, I should know right? (Laughs)
Jeebs: Right now, I handle, I have 9 social media accounts that I’m monitoring. By monitoring, I mean planning the content, creating the content and delivering the content… videos, graphics, static images, all that. I also work with an influencer, Neal Schaffer. I also do sort of a VA work for him but more on the social media. Which reminds me I need to turn in a blog. The first time he’s asked me to write a blog…
Lorna: Oh there you go!… Congratulations! Hey! That’s great to hear man!
Jeebs: The Philippine digital landscape lends itself very well to social media just because a lot of us are… but it is a science, there is a method to it, and this is for all the potential wanna-be’s out there… it’s easy because it should come naturally to us Filipinos but it does take learning. It’s not without hard work. You sort of have to have a keen eye for what’s going on. Get yourself out of just a regular teledrama, Korean pop music situation because there’s so much more out there and just really learning to up your aesthetic. I’m trying different color combinations that I’d never thought I’d use in my entire life but that’s work. And being around images. Not being afraid to try tools that’s probably alien to you in the past. As I said, it’s all in the service of that innate sense of creativity that you just want to nurture.
Lorna: In what way has your corporate discipline transcended to this new world of…
Jeebs: I was thinking of writing a separate piece about this because when you’re in corporate and you know, BPO firms, you do get to talk to foreigners… but the end-user customers, baseline customers right, there’s a QA guidelines that you follow. There’s a lot of free flow but still it’s a very structured sort of conversation. Very rarely does an agent get a chance to talk to a client, Client, you know the bigwigs who hold the contract. But even so when they do, it’s in the form of a focus group discussion that’s still controlled and I should know because I control these sessions back in the day when I was a Client Services Manager. I think that’s one of the greatest skills that I’ve learned and that I’ve brought into this whole thing. Be at ease with clients–with people who bring in the big bucks and because you get drilled when you’re in BPO, you get drilled to be natural, just speak intelligently but also sincerely about what you do and what you’re capable of. No dog and pony show.
Jeebs: If you ask me to do a dog and pony show, I probably would.
Lorna: No doubt. Isn’t this one of those? Just kidding. You and I have talked about this many times. We’re about applying disciplined approach to a creative space where you don’t necessarily destroy the creative flow by too much structure, but just allowing enough flexibility for people to make decisions, be accountable for decisions, and be excited about results. That’s what you and I are about in this entity. Before I let you go I wanted to just recap. You have background, a decade-long of corporate exposure and transitioning to a freelancer workspace allowed you to manage just as many (or if not more) clients directly and having to think with them on marketing campaigns and trying out different things and different strategies–see what works and what doesn’t and tweaking, without having to have to go through layers and layers of decision-making. Would you say that to be successful in this type of work , accountability and attitude, risk-taking attitude (calculated)–however that translates are crucial, based on your experience. So accountability and attitude.
Jeebs: I look at it from this perspective. And I think this is something that all creatives share. Some people call it creative control, others call it being a control freak, but really it’s all a matter of… are you getting proper credit for all the hard work that you do? When you’re in a corporate entity, everything is in the risk of the corporate entity. Yes, a lot of corporations encourage diversity and all the good stuff they put in the mission, vision statement, but when you think hard about it, all that creativity–although you get paid handsomely for it– does that credit every land on you and me… It’s a team thing… an entity thing. When you’re a freelancer (and that’s where a lot of creatives like me would find it really enticing) when you speak to these people, you share your ideas, they are your ideas, everything goes back to you and it’s a sort of cool form of validation. At the same time, it forces you to be really accountable because there is no net. You are your own net. If you fail, you fail spectacularly.
Lorna: I’ll quote you on that. “You are your own net.” I like that.
Jeebs: That’s the push and pull of it. It gives you a lot of, basically a hundred percent of creative control is yours.
Lorna: But also the quality. Yep. You’re the main gatekeeper of the quality. Our tagline is ‘Get a better view.’ and we’re talking about perspectives here. Your experience, your expectations. How would you say clients of freelancers or freelancers networks like us would benefit from hiring freelancers and what do they need to pay attention to? I guess get a better view of things, you have to engage vast majority of people who are A) Trusted but that’s corporate speak right? So from your experience working with 9, 10 clients, what has been your ‘get-a-better-view’ promise?
Jeebs: Well, as potential client hiring one of me… it’s really all about, it depends… of course reputation is one and how you present yourself obviously, at the end of the day it’s all going to be about results. The good thing about hiring freelancers –as a businessman looking to hire one, you can sort of dictate your terms like, ‘I’m going to put you on a trial period and let’s see…’ On the other end it also gives the freelancer the opportunity to put best foot forward and say, ‘I’m worth what I quote, so let me show you…’
Jeebs: Without jumping into a major contract already and so much so that so much is at stake. It’s a promise. And I think that’s what’s good about the whole ‘gig economy’… on both sides of the field, it leaves a lot of room for negotiating and really testing the waters before going into something huge. Same time, the freelance economy or ‘gig economy’ situation–and this is where my sense of community comes in–is because, why can’t a small business owner get a hold of corporate level skills just because they can’t afford the asking price of someone in corporate? That’s unfair. If you’re a true creative, you also want to share what you know. You also want to share your visual, your aesthetic to the world. Be it a small entity or a large entity. The last year, I was speaking to small-medium business owners who are really hungry for all of this. I say, ‘Go!’ in the sense that for the country, it’s about time we upped our game, upped the level of what Filipino brands can be.
It’s really a major shift in culture. How we perceive big brands and how we perceive small businesses. Now given this ‘gig economy’–access to freelancers who are equally skilled or experienced, there’s a whole lot of leverage for small businesses to hire on-demand without really breaking the bank and to me this has largely been the whole experience: them (small businesses), knowing that they have access to talent–the pool that used to be only available to large corporations, multinationals.
Building your portfolio with any one client–whether it’s a test run, a trial run–which morphs into a longer term engagement, entails commitment. It’s more collaborative. The way we work with clients, multiple clients at that, at any given time, through any given channel, it’s really as near-real-time as you could possibly get and that this collaborative environment allows people to then make quick decisions, which then translates to more work getting done, and faster way to gain insight. The freelancers’ job is to deliver. It has to do with continuous improvement and that’s a corporate discipline. You anticipate the clients’ needs. You think about their wish, even before they make the wish clear. To be successful, a freelancer should focus and commit to delivering quality, responsiveness and agility to his clients.
In Jeeb’s words, “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!”