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From Tom Rath to Jerry Maguire, the Evolution of Organization Man
Dan Pink Discusses Opportunities And Entrepreneurship In A Free 
Agent Nation

(Washington, DC -- June 20, 2001)  In the 1950s, novelist Sloan Wilson made an American icon out of Tom Rath, “The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit,” a post-War everyman wrestling with the challenges of maintaining authenticity in the corporate world.  Many things have changed dramatically since then, but, as author Daniel Pink discussed at tonight’s Netpreneur Coffee & DoughNets meeting, people (men and women) are still struggling with those gray flannel issues today, and it’s still reflected in pop culture.  The title character of “Jerry Maguire,” for example, responds by trying to make it on his own, a “free agent” sports agent in a world of “Show me the money!”  According to Pink, author of the new book “Free Agent Nation,” Maguire may be as much of an icon for our times as Rath was for his.

For Pink, “a free agent is a person who works untethered to a big company or large organization.” They include the self-employed, freelancers, "e-lancers," independent contractors, home-based businesspeople, solo practitioners, independent professionals and operators of microbusinesses, as well more colorful descriptives like “lone eagles,” “1099ers,” “techno-cowboys” and “CFOs-to-go.”  By Pink’s calculations, in the past several years their ranks have swelled to over 33 million people in the US, more than the number of manufacturing workers (18 million) and public sector workers at all levels of government (20 million).  Pink, who was once a speech writer for former Vice President Al Gore, became a free agent himself several years ago and began to track the movement nationally after writing an article on it for Fast Company magazine.  That article has since grown into the book and a Free Agent Nation website which Pink operates.

Why is free agency such a growing phenomenon?  There are a host of interrelated and interdependent reasons that reflect the deep changes in the world.  They touch on everything from macroeconomic trends to demographic upheavals to shifting value structures to technology to the existential angst of the baby boom generation.  When Pink explains his own move to free agency, he speaks for many.  Even though his job, “had all the outward attributes of coolness and prestige¾everything from meetings at the vice presidential mansion to trips aboard Air Force Two to chance encounters with Wolf Blitzer¾deep down, the truth was that I was miserable because the job was all-consuming.  I was grateful to have had it, but it was eating me alive.  I had no control over my time, no control over my life, and my wife and I had a daughter who I never got to see.  I was flat out miserable, so I quit.”

“It was jobs in general that were getting me down,” Pink decided, “so I figured that I'd try a little experiment.”

Men and women (especially women) are trying that experiment all over America now, people whom Pink divides into three groups:

-      Soloists, the over 16 million people who go by names like “freelancer” and “independent consultant,” working alone and migrating from project to project.

-      Temps, some 3 million people at both the low-end (from manual labor to administrative positions who are often among the most unhappy workers) and the high-end (in professional and semi-professional positions such as nurses, interim executives and accounting.)

-     Microbusinesses, which include over 13 million entrepreneurs and very, very small businesses that may employ as few as just one worker.

Part social scientist, part stand-up comedian, Pink stepped through the nature, numbers and motivations of the free agent movement using film clips, quizzes and wisecracks that kept the audience engaged and giggling.  An irony quickly became apparent: in a world where individuals are rapidly abandoning large organizations (and Organization Man’s organizational contract), American social structures are not keeping pace.  For example, among the biggest concerns of free agents are health and disability insurance which have largely become functions of employer benefits programs these days.  Politics, policy and that largest organization of all, the federal government, are even further behind the times.  Consider:

-           The Bureau of Labor Statistics currently tracks just two kinds of employees: farm and non-farm workers.

-           The economic policy debate more often than not is reduced to argument between two factions: Big Labor vs. Fortune 500 companies.  However, fewer than one in 10 Americans are members of unions, and only about the same number work for large corporations.  The vast majority of Americans have relatively little direct connection to either, leading Pink to comment, “You wonder about the many reasons why voter turn-out is down and why people are disengaged from politics?”

But if free agents are turning away from government and corporations, where are they looking for answers?  Quite often it’s in places like Starbucks, Kinko’s and Staples, what Pink calls the “free agent infrastructure.”  Businesses which are actively and aggressively addressing the growing market are finding huge returns.  (Staples recently announced the news that it would open only 100 new 20,000 sq. ft. stores this year.)  But the truly successful ones are those few who really grasp the free agent’s psychology and business rules.

Take Starbucks, for example, the poster child for servicing the free agent market according to Pink.  “What business are they in?” he asked.  Nope, not coffee drinks, they’re in real estate, he declared, citing the vast numbers of free agents across the country at any given hour of the day who are nestled in overstuffed arm chairs, typing away on laptops, conducting interviews, holding sales meetings and talking on cell phones, all for the price of a cup of Joe.  Compare that to a growing phenomenon called “executive office clubs” where business people can rent space, technology and services inexpensively, plus get all the Starbucks coffee they want as part of the deal.  According to Pink, both are in the same business, they simply have different models.

If you need more proof, consider that Starbucks’ two biggest corporate deals of late were not with Safeway or Mr. Coffee; they were with Compaq and Microsoft to provide wireless Internet connectivity in many of their stores.  And a new Starbucks venture, Circadia, open now in San Francisco and Seattle, offers a bit fuller menu than its coffee houses, plus multimedia rooms you can rent by the hour.

As companies like Starbucks and Kinko’s have discovered, there are huge opportunities for entrepreneurs in servicing free agent markets, and Pink suggested several more possibilities ranging from new kinds of talent agencies to creative sources for IT services.  There are other implications for entrepreneurs in the free agent nation, as well, such as how one competes for free agent talent.  Employers large and small must come to understand the new work ethic, priorities and values of free agency because free agents may be just the type of free thinkers startups need most of all in their highly competitive markets.  You can see it in a passage that Pink read from the shooting script for Jerry Maguire, in an early scene in which Maguire is making copies of his new “mission statement” at Kinko’s and the clerk smiles with admiration, “Jerry nods.  This guy  sounds and looks like a prophet.  In fact, everyone in Kinko's at 3 a.m. does."

Copyright © 2002 Morino Institute. All rights reserved.


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