When freelance writer and public relations consultant Michelle Garrett moved back to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, after years working independently in the San Francisco Bay Area, she found a completely different business environment that was much less receptive to the concept of independent workers.
“While it has started to come around, it's still much different here,” Garrett says. “It's a different mindset. While you can work with clients anywhere when you freelance, I do think it's an advantage to live in a city that's accustomed to working with freelancers and very open to hiring them.”
Garrett says the open attitude in the Bay Area toward freelancers was driven by the region’s thriving culture of entrepreneurialism, side-hustles, and remote work — while Columbus was more focused on traditional 9-to-5 corporate jobs. On the other hand, the high cost of living in the Bay Area is prohibitive for many independent workers.
Those competing dynamics drive home just how much the environment for independent workers can change from city to city. To sort through this complex issue, we asked a handful of experts and independent workers: What makes a city attractive for independent workers?
An Established Community of Independent Workers
Steve Long is an entrepreneur and self-described “digital nomad” who has worked as a freelance management consultant and who runs the travel website The Travel Brief. The former Toronto resident currently works in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, home to a large community of independent workers from the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. He says the opportunity to connect with other people in similar situations is especially important, and some cities simply do that better than others.
“In Toronto it's hard to meet many people who are working on their own things, partly because the city is expensive, but also because most people there aspire to a life in the corporate world,” he says. “Not having this community takes a mental toll over time as you can't really talk about the unique set of problems and challenges of being an independent worker.”
Michael Lewis, founder and chief operating officer of Impact Hub Santa Barbara in California, which offers co-working office spaces, has helped cultivate freelance worker communities on the East and West coasts. He says he’s found some of his closest friends and colleagues through meet-up events with fellow freelancers, and he encourages others to seek out those types of gatherings if they are available in their area. “Just being able to connect to people is important, but so is making sure there are the right kind of people there to connect with,” he says.
Lewis says that since the 2000s, midsize cities have taken great strides in cultivating thriving and supportive communities of independent workers, which were previously the domain of major metropolitan areas. “You see Austin, Boulder, Santa Barbara, Fresno — these are cities that are kind of small and sort of in between the majors, but they’re starting to boom because of that community,” he says.
Availability of Quality Work Space
Working from home is fine for many independents but can be a challenge for others. It can also limit networking opportunities that can lead to new business. “I find myself much more productive in a space that I mentally associate with work,” Long says. “I generally do not associate my apartment with work, so I become easily distracted and [don’t] get much done at home. When I was working on my first business in Toronto, I basically worked out of the Starbucks next to my apartment.”
Deborah Sweeney, owner of MyCorporation, which helps independent workers with incorporation and LLC filings, says her clients often are attracted to areas with entrepreneurial traditions and ample co-working spaces that encourage collaboration.
“In the absence of public locations for ease of working, having co-working facilities or entrepreneurial hubs to work on a per-day basis can also be of value to independent workers,” Sweeney says. “In this type of open but not structured environment, independent workers may find it valuable to share ideas, and build a customer base.”
Metro areas with expanding economies, business-friendly environments and well-developed entrepreneurial ecosystems are typically favorable environments for independents. Quantifying those trends accurately isn’t always easy, but WalletHub’s report “2018’s Best Large Cities to Start a Business” includes a helpful data point: the entrepreneurship index.
The index, the percentage of the adult population of a certain city that became entrepreneurs in a given month, is worth considering for many independents looking for a new location to set up shop. The Florida cities Miami, Hialeah, Fort Lauderdale and Pembroke Pines have 234.72 startups per 100,000 residents, which is the highest number in the country, and is 12.6 times more than Columbus, Georgia, which has the fewest startups per 100,000 residents (18.56).
Earning potential relative to cost of living is another important factor for independents. A recent study by SmartAsset took a look at best cities in which to be self-employed, with some surprising results. Several midsize cities in Texas scored well on the list due to high salaries and low cost of living, while most California cities scored poorly. The message in the data: There are lucrative opportunities in cities that many independent workers might overlook. It’s worth investigating.
“When people are looking at where to move or looking at their current situation, it definitely is valuable to take the time and figure out how much money independent workers on average are commanding in that particular area — and, by that same token, what your taxes and housing costs will be,” SmartAsset senior editor Ross Urken says. “That calculus is ultimately going to determine how much money you can put away in retirement and how much you can spend to have a great quality of life in the present.”