Freelancing and transaction costs

In the six years of running my own consulting business, I’d forgotten about an essential part that you need to endure as part of a job – piecemeal work. It is fairly often when you’re working for someone else that you get work that is so tiny or insignificant that you can hardly take ownership of it. The best strategy for dealing with it is to quietly get it over with and hope you won’t get such stuff again.

However, sometimes you can get caught in a rut of continuously getting this kind of work, and start wondering what you actually signed up for. And this is one thing I hadn’t expected to encounter when I got back to full time working earlier this year.

Thinking about why I never had to encounter such stuff during my consulting life, I realised there’s a fairly simple explanation – transaction costs.

Being a consultant is high transaction cost business. Every time you need to take on a new piece of work, you need to go through the charade of negotiating specifics with the client, pricing and drawing up a contract. All put together, the effort is not insignificant.

Moreover, in the line of work that I used to do, there was this massive overhead cost of understanding, cleaning and getting comfortable with the client’s data  – the effort involved in that meant that after a particular point in time I stopped taking work that wasn’t chunky enough. For a while I started refusing such work, but then got smarter and started pricing myself out of such work (though some clients were generous enough to meet that price to get their little tasks done – effectively I’d passed on the transaction costs to them).

The downside of this, of course, was that there was a fair amount of money I could have made taking up small works which I didn’t since the transaction cost was too high – this can be thought of as potential lost revenues. The upside was that whatever work I did was of high quality and (hopefully) made a big impact on the client’s business.

In the nature of the firm, Ronald Coase wrote that the purpose of the corporation was that transaction cost of dealing with co-workers can be eliminated. But then, I realise that sometimes this transaction cost can also be a good thing!

Oh, and obligatory plug here – my book Between the buyer and the seller deals with transaction costs, among other things. It’s available for sale (both in print and digital) on Amazon.

 

Coase

In the wake of the passing of Ronald Coase, two incidents, both professional. The first was with an established company to whom I suggested a partnership – they are in a space where I don’t have much skill, but have access to companies who I would love to sell to, and they don’t have my skill and our skills are complementary. So I reached out to them (through common contacts) suggesting that we could work together. They came back to me saying they would love to work with me, but would want me to join them as an employee.

The second was an incoming lead. This was a rather small company doing something similar to what I’m doing but with bigger ideas. They want me to join this “innovation hub” they are trying to create. This is a loose federation they are creating including professionals from various fields. Nobody is obliged to work full time for the hub, but this gives people an opportunity to get together and work together on projects where their respective expertise can combine well.

As the more perceptive of you who would have read every Coase obituary in the last two weeks would have figured out, the piece of work that Coase is most well known for is about the theory of the firm. The question is rather simple – why should you and I get together and form a firm if we have to work together, if we can remain independent and just come together for projects. The answer lies in transaction costs.

The advantage of coming together as a firm is that you negotiate only once. Let us suppose you are a graphic designer and I’m a data scientist. If we decide to work together on a visualization project, how do we decide how much you get and how much I get? We will need to negotiate. Let’s say we negotiate and agree on a price. And complete a project and split the spoils. What would happen the next time we were to bid for a project? We will need to negotiate again on how we will share the spoils.

If on the other hand we were to form a partnership firm, then for every project that we do, our respective share is fixed! Thus we don’t have to negotiate before every single projects. Thus, firms exist so that you don’t have to repeatedly negotiate.

However, there is a downside to this. What if I form a firm with a graphic designer, and then we see a significant opportunity in projects that involve a lot of analysis but little visualization? In that case, I have no use of my partner, and would loathe to pay him his share of the profits. Or consider if I were to somehow become much better at my job, while my partner stagnates. There is little I can do, for we’ve been locked in into the financial arrangement.

These are only some of the complications that arise when you need to decide whether you want to become a firm. I just thought it is pertinent that I’m having some of these dilemmas (employee versus consultant versus partner versus member of federation) in the few weeks after Coase’s passing.