This profile series is part of a project about the gig economy published by Missouri Business Alert
About a third of the U.S. workforce is now part of the so-called gig economy, in which workers take on temporary or contract-based jobs instead of or in addition to full-time employment, and the number is expected to reach 40 percent by 2020, according to a study by Upwork and the Freelancers Union.
In the future, more people of all ages are expected move away from traditional nine-to-five jobs for the flexibility and autonomy that the gig economy can bring. And for those who still hold on to full-time jobs for financial stability, side gigs can provide opportunities to pursue creative passions and make extra money.
Behind the staggering statistics and aggressive growth projections for the gig economy, there are millions of individual stories of people with unique experiences working as freelancers. Missouri Business Alert sought out three such individuals to share their stories.
Storyteller Larry Brown always finds an audience
Oral storytelling took root in Larry Brown’s mind when he was a child. Growing up in a family that communicated by telling stories, he found storytelling to be second nature.
Born and raised in a town of 1,000 in Nebraska, Brown moved to Missouri in 1975. Now living in Fulton, the 67-year-old is a lifetime pastor and educator with a background in sociology, divinity and geology. He taught geology at the University of Missouri for almost 13 years. No matter what he’s done, storytelling has been embedded in his work and life.
“When I was teaching geology at the University of Missouri, I got an evaluation that said, ‘We enjoyed your monologues,’” Brown recalled. “I was like, ‘Monologues? What are they talking about?’ I talked to a former student of mine. He said, ‘Oh you know when you began class, you always start by telling a story.’”
Brown didn’t take storytelling seriously until about 30 years ago, when he and his wife attended a storytelling conference in California. There, for the first time, Brown met a full-time professional storyteller. That’s when he decided to become a storyteller.
“I always had an inkling of what storytelling was about, but I had no idea that folks made money by doing that,” Brown said. “(Professional oral storytelling) was attractive to me, so I started experimenting on my own by telling stories I read, learned and heard from other storytellers, and then began my own storytelling.”
From an avocation to a profession
In the early years, storytelling was a hobby Brown did occasionally for free. But as his reputation grew, he began to be invited to perform at various events. In the course of a year, he would tell stories at public libraries, pre-schools, festivals, private parties, corporate gatherings, radio shows and other settings. At the same time, people started asking him for CDs and digital recordings of his work.
With the increasing demand for travel, products and his time, Brown realized that he had to charge clients in order to sustain his business.
“There is a justice issue here,” he said. “Is it fair for me to work cheap while somebody out there is trying to make a living? I think I need to up my prices and present myself as a professional in fairness to my colleagues.
“There is another ingredient, which is thinking of storytelling as a performing art just as music and drama. For me to do storytelling, I want to represent the art and think of myself offering a performance as a professional expecting pay.”
Over the years, Brown developed an understanding of how to run business. He learned to negotiate pay, budget for travels, draft contracts and strike a work-life balance. For instance, if he had to travel a long way for a gig that didn’t pay much, he would find other gigs along the way in order to profit.
“The biggest lesson I have learned is (to) know when to say no,” he said. “Don’t turn storytelling into ‘This is what I have to do.’”
The thrill of telling
Brown delights in telling stories and in the chemistry his stories create in the crowd. He treasures oral tradition and wants to keep its dynamics alive.
“Technically, when I tell a story, I’m describing something I can see in my mind,” he said. “My storytelling is free formed. My gesture tends to flow out of what I’m saying.”
Brown has been a regular on the Columbia radio show, Radio Friends with Paul Pepper, for about seven years. Prior to that, Brown was a frequent guest on Pepper’s TV show, Pepper and Friends, on Columbia’s KOMU TV, where he sang and told stories to children. Pepper said that Brown’s conversational storytelling style has a broad appeal to people in the community.
“Larry tells stories and grabs your imagination,” Pepper said.
Sherri Griffin, who started Millersburg Preschool in Fulton, has known Brown for more than three decades. Their friendship traces back to the early 1960s, when Brown was a minister at the Millersburg Christian Church in Fulton and routinely stopped by the preschool to tell children stories. After he became a full-time professor at the University of Missouri in 2002, he still went back every spring during the annual Screen-Free Week and kicked off the event with a story night. Many children he told stories to are now parents of children who attend the preschool.
“Larry is very dramatic when he tells stories,” Griffin said. “Children are always very engaged. He sings and plays the guitar while telling stories … He often incorporates children into his stories and his singing.”
Challenges and hopes
With the rise of digital technology and decline of storytelling festivals, many traditional oral storytellers like Brown are faced with a shrinking market for their skills. To Brown, a solo storyteller born before the digital boom, keeping track of financial records and online marketing is a demanding job.
“My creativity doesn’t tend to be always on demand,” he said. “The demand of running a business takes away from the opportunities of creativity.”
Earlier this year, Brown retired from teaching at MU. Now, he has decided to devote more time to storytelling. Despite the competition and shrinking market, he is still confident about finding his edge by focusing on his niches such as biblical telling, and developing a more diverse repertoire that can appeal to young children and baby boomers. Storytelling is his lifetime career.
“I won’t do it if I don’t enjoy it,” he said.
Teacher Kayla Murphy pairs passions of photography, winemaking
Freelancing didn’t occur to Kayla Murphy as a possible career option until she chose it.
Murphy, 29, was born and raised in Macon, Missouri. After graduating from the University of Missouri in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in science education, she returned home and, for three years, taught science at Macon Middle School.
Her interest in photography dates back to high school, when she took a yearbook class and was first introduced to photography. In college, she bought her first camera and started taking pictures of her trips, friends and family. She was fascinated by the fact that she could instantly capture almost anything through a small lens.
While working as a teacher, she picked up photography gigs on the side. As her passion for photography grew, however, it became a challenge to juggle her photography gigs and day job. Eventually, she left teaching for photography.
“It wasn’t an easy choice by any means,” Murphy said. “I wasn’t strong and emotionally capable of staying in that (teaching) job. For me, that wasn’t the best fit.”
When Murphy first started her photography business, she went to the local economic development office and consulted the staff about what it’s like to run a small business.
To grow clientele, she mostly relied on word of mouth. Additionally, she used online marketing tools and regional advertising campaigns to get her name out. She also spoke at local high schools about being a small business owner and picked one high school student every year as a spokesmodel to help promote her brand.
Gradually, Murphy found her niche photographing weddings and senior portraits, and she was able to maintain a steady client base.
“What I love is the transition period in somebody’s life,” she said. “A senior graduating. A couple getting married. Those are exciting times.”
Murphy got into winemaking at about the same time as she started her photography business.
Chris West, the owner of West Winery in Macon, still remembers the first time he met Murphy.
“She came into the winery one day and wanted to sell some of her photographs,” he said. “Then she wound up staying around and learning how to make wine.
“She likes to get to the bottom of pretty much every question brought up to her and attends to details … I’m glad that we found her.”
Over the past six years, Murphy’s winemaking contract work and photography business have been growing cohesively.
“Winemaking is really cool,” she said. “I always love to learn new things.”
No typical day
Depending on the time of the year, Murphy must strategically manage her schedule for both jobs.
Spring, summer and fall are usually busy seasons for her photography business. Winter is usually her slow season and provides time for business planning.
For the winemaking, she hired a group of sub-contractors who are able to help her run things.
“In general, I have a schedule for photography if that applies,” she said. “Winemaking is more task-oriented.”
Work a lot. Miss a lot.
Juggling a private business and a contract job, Murphy often works late at night and during weekends.
“You work a lot, and you miss a lot as well,” she said. “Some months, I was like, ‘oh my god, what do I do? Why am I doing this?’ But then at the end of the day, I know why I did it … it’s a matter of give and take with everything.”
Looking back, Murphy’s father, Kevin Murphy, says his daughter has sacrificed a lot of family time for her business over the years.
“A lot of people out there want to be photographers,” he said. “It’s tough to grow a business in a small community with such a high competition … but she does a great job.”
She also must contend with income fluctuations. Since both winemaking and photography are seasonal work, Murphy said her earnings vary greatly as seasons change.
“It’s a matter of give and take with everything,” she said. “With being a self-employed individual, you have your job with you all the time, and you have more flexibility. But in order to sustain this lifestyle, you need to make adjustments and sacrifices.”
In the future, Murphy wants to bring some fresh talent into both her photography business and winery work.
Earlier this year, Murphy hired a high school student as a photography assistant who is paid by task. For the winery, she is looking for someone who is younger and interested in winemaking.
“I want to mentor the generation below me,” she said. “I’d like to cultivate their skills and talent, and hope they are able to bring different perspectives to the table.”
For Jason Smallheer, there’s never have a boring ride
When Jason Smallheer first saw an online ad about being an Uber driver two years ago, he found it ridiculous.
“This is the silliest thing that I have ever heard about,” he sneered. “What kind of idiots are going to get their cars, drive around and pick up strangers?”
At that time, he was a full-time freelancer working on various business consulting and writing gigs. As he was trying to find something that could provide some extra money, Uber started to make sense.
“I’ve got my car sitting on the driveway, and it’s losing value every second,” he said. “I thought ‘I’m going to try this out.’”
Last November, Smallheer finally signed up to be an Uber driver. Despite some lingering doubts, he went to Uber’s office hours in Columbia where he learned how to use the mobile app and how the insurance works. What happened next completely eliminated his hesitation.
“I walked out of the door, turned on the app on my phone, and then bang! Right away, somebody needed a ride,” he recalled. “I drove someone cross the campus and earned $4. I thought, ‘Hey, that was easy!’”
He sat down, did some math and set a goal.
“If I could make $200 a week, that more than makes my car payment and puts some extra dollars in my pockets that I can use for Christmas presents and haircuts,” he said. “So I started doing it.”
Make smart money
Born in Patterson, New Jersey, Smallheer moved to Columbia in 2009. With a background in media, marketing and sales, he quickly figured out how to strategically make money by driving Uber.
He usually drives on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights when more people, especially college students, are out late. Instead of driving around downtown like many other Uber drivers do, he keeps an eye on south Columbia, where many students live and need rides to and from. On an eventful day like a football game day, he usually starts early in the morning and drives until late at night.
Smallheer is a target earner. Normally, he works hard to hit his $200 weekly goal. But he also has a baseline. If he drives for an hour without giving a ride, he stops.
“It’s a matter of learning where your customers are,” he said. “Always play with math and keep track of my mileage and earnings.”
Smallheer’s wife, Courtney Webster, said that making good money through Uber takes a lot of work from both Smallheer and his family.
“It requires us to organize our life differently in terms of the household and kids,” she said. “We need to rebalance things and work around the schedule.”
Sharing stories on the go
Smallheer loves talking to people and hearing stories.
“A lot of time when people get into my car, I will try to strike a conversation,” he said. “I have never had a night when I got off and felt bored.”
After driving Uber for a while, he created a group on Voxer, a walkie talkie app, that lets Uber drivers share stories, exchange jokes and update traffic conditions with each other.
“You never know who is going to get into the car,” said Zach Bahner, one of the drivers in the group.
Despite having initial concerns about Smallheer’s safety, Webster said Uber driving has turned out to be quite beneficial to the family and has made Smallheer a more well-rounded person.
“It has made him more grounded and have a more balanced vision of what the world is like,” Webster said. “He has more respect for everyone working, not just nine-to-five employees.”
Although he enjoys driving Uber, Smallheer said he doesn’t see it as more than a side gig.
“You’re not going to get rich by (driving Uber),” he said.
He also found that the lack of a personal connection with the company may make him less likely to stick around in the long run.
Still, for now, the job helps him provide more for his family. As a father of three children, Smallheer never wants to say no to his family. Although currently working full-time for MBS Textbook Exchange as a marketing communications manager, he values any bit of extra money he can make outside his day job. Family is a main motivation to keep driving.
“Every hour I spend behind the wheel, I know that it’s going to something they want or need,” he said. “That’s validation for me.”