Part of my job as the CEO of Upwork is meeting with other CEOs to explain to them why their companies will benefit from hiring freelancers via our site. The executives I meet tend to have college-age children, and within five minutes, almost every CEO I meet asks a personal question: Should their kids become freelancers?
My advice to their children is this: yes. Be as entrepreneurial as you can.
For some people that means starting a company, and for others it means becoming a freelancer. Whichever route you choose, the time in your life to do it is now. It will never be easier to strike out on your own than it is in your early 20s.
When you’re 35, you may have children and a mortgage, so you will likely be much more risk-averse. It will also be harder for you to gamble on an entrepreneurial venture when you’re walking away from whatever salary you’re earning by then.
But, right out of college, what do you have to lose? It is the best possible time to invest in building a career completely of your choice and away from the hierarchical limitations of a traditional job.
Some might say that it’s safer to take an entry-level job at some corporation, and build experience that way. That approach works if your skills are not top-notch, in which case the steadiness of a corporate salary increases your earnings potential.
But, let’s face it: Most entry-level jobs are not well paid. Statistics show that your income during your 20s is highly predictive of your lifetime earnings. If you’re working a low-level corporate job for the first few years out of college, you’re setting a low bar for your future earnings. By contrast, if you spend three years developing your own business, you could be earning quite a lot by age 25, and laying the groundwork for a much more lucrative career.
It’s not going to be easy right out of the gate. It takes time and effort to build a new business, whether it’s a startup or a freelance career. But, within a year or two, if you have skills that the market values, you should be able to surpass the earnings of your corporate peers.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the market for independent work favors specialization. Find a niche that you’re excited about enough to spend the time it takes to develop top-notch skills, and make sure it is something that the market wants. If you can find an intersection between your passion and market demand, you’ll have a very successful career.
If you haven’t graduated yet, you can prepare by taking on project-based work while you are still in college. This is a great way to build up a portfolio of work and a reputation, which will help launch your career when you do graduate.
Being entrepreneurial is exactly what I did in 1998, when I graduated from Stanford. I had offers from various companies but turned them down and started a company instead with a couple of classmates. Now that I have four kids and a mortgage, I’ve become more risk-averse. But looking back at my 20-something self, I’m glad I went the entrepreneurial route — and when my kids graduate I’ll tell them to do the same.
So, upcoming graduates, the time to take a risk and to try an independent route is now. Find your passion and go for it.