A few years ago, the founders of Co-Op Advertising—a Toronto agency that exclusively relied on freelance talent—launched an awards program called the Freelancers Unite (or “FU”) Awards.
They promoted the awards with a humorous ad talking about the growing number of freelancers working in advertising, with every instance of the word “freelancers” bleeped out.
Fast-forward to 2020, and “freelancer” is no longer a dirty word, with companies across nearly every professional sector increasingly reliant on outside talent. There are an estimated 26 million freelancers in North America alone, with Statistics Canada data noting that 2.9 million Canadians identified as self-employed in 2018.
Co-Op Advertising’s founding partners, Adam Roach and Anya Switzer, sold their respective stake in the agency last year, and are using the proceeds from that sale to fund a new freelance-focused venture, Livelii.
The app-based invoicing system (iOS to start, with Android to follow) is designed to provide access to benefits that are commonplace for full-time employees—health and dental benefits, paid vacation and a regular paycheque for example—but are often denied self-employed workers.
Its users build those costs into their invoice (the amount they add is at their discretion, although it cannot exceed 7.5% of the subtotal), with those fees going into a dedicated Livelii account that funds their benefits.
Livelii also tacks a 2.5% markup onto the invoice subtotal, 2% of which is waived if the client pays within 30 days, and the other .5% going to Livelii (if the client does not pay within 30 days, the extra fees go into the Livelii user’s account).
Once Livelii’s users attain a certain dollar threshold required to fund a group benefits plan provided by Manulife—a partnership that Roach says took 14 months and 54 meetings to finalize—the money in their account can be used at their discretion to fund vacation time, etc.
“Freelancing truly is one of the best forms of work, but there are a lot of challenges that come with it,” says Roach. “Things that are essentially table stakes with full time employment… are just not a thing with freelancing, so Anya and I decided to take that on.”
The company soft-launched this week, with a preliminary focus on recruiting users within the marketing communications industry, although there are plans to expand to into other business sectors. “It’s the world we know,” says Roach, who also spent time at DDB Canada prior to starting Co-Op. “We already have an established network within that community, so it makes sense to start there.”
Livelii joins a growing number of businesses catering to the growing freelance economy. Earlier this year, Toronto freelancers Rich Cooper and Chris Harrison launched a service called Crral, which they described as a “real-time rolodex” of freelance creative talent for agencies.
Livelii will also generate revenue through a monthly subscription fee of $16.99 ($10 of which goes towards funding its various freelancer-focused programs) and what it describes as “strategic partnerships” that could encompass everything from retirement savings to access to financial services.
Livelii’s brand identity, meanwhile, is based on Creative Diff’rences, an Instagram cartoon strip devoted to freelance life that Roach co-developed a few years ago with Johnny Sampson, an Illinois-based cartoonist whose work has appeared in MAD magazine (including taking over the magazine’s signature “fold-in” from the legendary Al Jaffee).
“We created Creative Diff’rences to highlight the trials and tribulations of freelance, and we created Livelii to showcase a solution to that world,” says Roach, who calls this a “pivotal moment” for the freelance economy.
Livelii’s founders say that the freelance workforce is poised for expansion similar to the one that followed the 2008-09 economic recession, which is credited with giving rise to what is now commonly referred to as the “gig economy.”
A 2018 Harvard Business Review article said that 150 million people in North America and Western Europe had left corporate jobs (many involuntarily) to work as independent contractors.
We could see a similar step-change as a result of massive unemployment and corporate restructuring during the pandemic, which has been acutely felt in the agency world as anxious clients pull back on their ad investments.
“When client spending goes down and consumer confidence wanes, the impact on agencies is felt hard,” says Roach. “The series of agency layoffs and restructuring of staff is far from over, which means a surge of new freelance talent entering the market.”
“We are on the brink of another massive explosion of freelance,” adds Switzer, noting that data suggests that North America’s freelance workforce could grow to more than 45 million people providing as much as $780 billion in services.
Livelii’s leaders say that several factors are contributing to the rise of the freelance industry, including rising unemployment (it currently sits at around 13% after rising as high as 15% at the height of the pandemic), the continued “normalization” of remote work, and a growing realization among workers that there is life beyond the typical 9-5 office job.
And while the Livelii founders acknowledge there’s no guarantee of success, a system that helps freelancers address some of the most pressing concerns of self-employment just might give them the confidence to say “FU” to the corporate world forever.