From the February 2001 issue of Startups

used to have it all, or so she thought. She had a plum job on Capitol Hill as a congressman's staff director, the respect of peers and the allure of the power of politics. Then she looked more deeply at what she was doing, and she realized there was more to be gained in the New Economy.

In January 2000, Vance ditched all the trappings of the traditional day job-the camaraderie, the benefits, the steady paycheck-to go it alone with AdVanced Consulting, a Washington, DC, political advocacy consulting firm. She has a handful of clients, a few long-term commitments, the freedom to work when and how she wishes-and she has a ton of fun in the process.

Sure, some friends still ask Vance, now 34, about the latest scoop on the soap operas and how the bon-bons taste. But she's content to chart her own course. "That's what being a free agent is all about: the flexibility to do my own thing," she says.

Free agent. It's the mantra of the New Economy, an era where employees have become entrepreneurs and are selling their services back to the companies that used to issue them a salary, benefits, a W-2 and not much else.

The term begs some definition: It doesn't just connote self-employment; it's a mind-set. Free agency, at least for those who ascribe to the clique mentality promoted by trend-watchers, is as much about work style as it is about work. It is the career move, not just a stepping stone on the path to a better job in corporate America.

A free agent isn't necessarily someone who makes a product to sell to the masses. Generally, a free agent is a consultant, an information peddler, someone who has spent some time in the corporate realm and headed off on his own to do the same job-only for himself.

Just How Many Are There?

knows free agency. He has lived and worked as a free agent since the mid-1990s, when he gave up a post as then-Vice President Al Gore's chief speech writer. As founder of FreeAgentNation.com, an information hub for independent workers, Pink estimates that some 30 million free agents work amid the American landscape, including "ruthlessly small" microbusinesses, "nanocorporations" and even 3 million temporary workers who ditch the regularity of staff work for the self-defined and self-timed parameters of agency gigs.

Free agency can be traced back to the 1980s, when corporate America sought to trim the fat by casting off its work force en masse, says Pink. Those jettisoned were left to find work for themselves; those lucky enough to keep their jobs were left to worry if they'd be next. Amidst it all, the bond between worker and employer weakened as people realized they were so much unappreciated chattel. "People's expectations from corporate America have waned," says Pink. "People want money and meaning from work."

Free Agent: Simply Irresistable

Some 10 years into his homebased writing gig, Lloyd Lemons fancies himself a soloist. It's not just the catchy name or how it fits the way he works, says the business and marketing writer, who lives in Plano, Texas. It's the way it fits that intersection between his lifestyle and work style.

For people like Lemons, father of two sons in their 20s, the need for independence is often too great-even in the face of attractive job offers. Lemons left homebased self-employment twice in the past 20 years for a total five years-earning double his homebased income in one job and triple in another-yet the call of independence eventually lured him back home.

"My whole kick is freedom," explains Lemons, who today makes more than either job paid him. "I've had corporate jobs I couldn't stand. I've sacrificed a lot to be a free agent. What I do is part of who I am." Even for those who work in corporate America, the free agent mindset will take hold, predicts Terri Lonier, president of Working Solo Inc., a San Francisco consulting firm that targets independent workers and the companies that market to them.

Couple Generation Ys with older, former-corporate denizens who will take their own corporate know-how home to work, and the result will be a community of computer- and business-savvy entrepreneurs.

Even those who return to corporate America will do so with knowledge and experience that only comes from having done it themselves. "In the future, there will only be two kinds of individuals: those who are entrepreneurs, and those who have to think like entrepreneurs," says Lonier. "As independents come back into the corporate structure, they're bringing an enlightened awareness of bottom lines, P&L and ROI."

What ultimately defines the free agent? Pink concurs with Lemons that freedom has a lot to do with it. But there's also authenticity, accountability and self-defined success. It flows from technology, from people who no longer wish to be corporate chattel and from the desire to be the driver, not the driven.

"Today, charting your own course isn't just more necessary than ever before," says Pink, "it's also much easier-and much more fun."


Journalist and author has worked from home since the 1980s. He writes about home business, teleworking, marketing, communications and other SOHO issues.