How Do You Create Optimism During a Recession? At Gunpoint.
When Allison Hemming launched her talent agency, The Hired Guns, nine years ago, the economy was also on the brink.
It was 2000, and soon the dot-com bubble burst. Worse, almost all of her clients were freelance web designers.
“We actually were much worse off in the first economic downturn,” Hemming, 41, said candidly as she leaned over her desk. “All of our talent worked for the web. We were the dot-com meltdown.”
But her business strategy saved her. And in this recession, The Hired Guns is as busy as ever.
The Hired Guns is like a talent agency for freelancers. Usually people who seek its help are media specialists, journalists and writers. Much like another popular company that serves freelancers, Mediabistro, The Hired Guns helps and teaches freelancers and small businesses to expand their brands.
“I wrote this business model because I could never find a good freelancer when I needed one,” said Hemming, a former marketing director at POV magazine, and at Morgan Stanley. “I thought, this is a model that’s broken, it should be easier!” She gesticulated wildly. She had just come from a lunch meeting that ran 40 minutes overtime – which is typical, according to her assistant Eric Perkins.
Her purple fox headband floated like a halo around her bright red hair. She spoke in a booming voice, as if orating to an enormous crowd: “Careers aren’t linear! Especially now, in the post-economy, in the post-corporate economy, people are going to need to learn how to do a lot of different things, but they need to have a structure of what they want to do and where they want to go.”
Laurel Touby, who founded Mediabistro in the late 1990s—then sold it for a cool $23 million —shares some of those sentiments.
“I think the recession is already helping freelancers,” Touby said. “As companies downsize, they rely more and more on freelancers to pick up the slack. As the economy begins to improve, this effect will be magnified, as companies put off full-time hires as long as possible.”
A few freelancers who rent desks at the Hired Guns’ office, near Manhattan’s Union Square, can be highly obsessive, and intensely focused on their goals.
Anthony Giglio, 42, a wine journalist, must taste 5,000 bottles of wine over the next six months. He and his team of young interns, who are paid in vino, are writing Food and Wine Magazine’s 2010 wine guide.
Part of the Hired Guns’ mission is to expand the brand of small businesses like Giglio’s. Hemming recently ran into the office and demanded that everyone start drinking a big glass of wine and laughing to each other—- she had brought in producers from ABC to pilot a reality show based on Giglio’s business.
Like any employment agency, The Hired Guns gets a cut of the paychecks for gigs it arranges.
“That’s the great thing about us, we make sure that freelancers get their checks immediately,” said Bart Codd, 43, Hemming’s husband and general manager of The Hired Guns. “When you’re freelancing, the number one thing you’ll have trouble with is getting paid on time-if at all.”
Since the official announcement of the recession, monthly visitors to Mediabistro’s website have shot up to two million, an 83 percent rise over the year. Interest in The Hired Guns has likewise skyrocketed. Perkins could not fit anything into Hemming’s schedule unless it was planned two weeks in advance, and that went for those working in the office. Hemming, though, devotes every spare moment to chatting up her tenants about their plans.
“The rule is, if you have your headphones on, then Allison won’t bother you,” said SMITH Magazine founder and Hired Guns client Larry Smith. “The woman will talk to you forever. I wonder how many people are working with nothing playing in their headphones.”
“We created an environment that would allow companies to hire those laid off back as interim talent,” said Hemming. “For many years, companies thought it was the duty of the company to teach their employees all of their skills; I think that’s baloney. There’s no personal ownership of that situation. If you work like us, it can be really empowering.”
“I really feel like I have control in where I’m going, there’s great energy and optimism in this office,” said Smith, who runs a magazine that celebrates storytelling. “I’m at a point now where I see my business really getting off the ground.”