The Elephant In The Room

You can listen to me read this as an audio-blog (7 minutes).

I stood at the back of the auditorium of a popular web design conference listening to the next speaker. I had that calm sense of euphoria that imposter-syndrome-speakers always get when they come off stage and at least have the sense to know they didn’t bomb. I grabbed my coffee and settled at the back with a few of the other speakers who were happily tapping away and re-arranging slide decks.

On the stage, a very adept and confident speaker jokingly mentioned a web-related joke that feels decades old (which she was sarcastically referring to as being decades old) and the whole room fell about laughing; it was the first time they had heard this reference.

It was in that moment I realised the web industry had changed as we knew it. I looked at the other speakers and they too, had a similar look of realisation on their faces.

We have entered a whole new era of the web.

Now, I feel I should pre-face this. I’m entirely welcoming of new people to the web. I don’t believe it’s an old guys/gals club and I love getting emails from newbies into the industry; recently, those emails have had a similar theme. The web industry as a whole has had an undercurrent of secret whispering – yet no one is talking about it publicly.

There’s very few freelancers that I know of, making the same living that they were making 3+ years ago. Conferences that were once a staple part of every web designers calendar, have disappeared and no one from “the old days” can quite put their finger on why the web industry feels different.

Work has dried up.

“How can that be?” I hear you ask. 
“We have more devices than ever that need to be designed for – we’ve got more jobs than ever to do.” 
Or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones saying “I’m busier than ever!” – judging by what I’m hearing at conferences, and what I’m seeing come in on my inbox. You’re lucky. You’re in the minority. Lots (and I mean lots) of people are struggling.

We used to have to sell the benefits of being online to our clients. We were once in this minority group who understood this newfangled technology; pioneering best practices and solving problems that would simply be taken for granted. Why? Because we’re geeks and we love details. I love us for that. For that, the web industry will always be my home. However, and more importantly, what I’m hearing when I go out to speak at conferences, is that a large chunk of people at web design conferences haven’t been in the industry very long at all. They actually never even chose the web industry as their profession. They’ve been sidelined into the web job from another non-web-position within the company; and here lies the issue.

I spoke with three ladies who worked for one of the largest retailers in America who were telling me that the entire web team had been plucked from people from other parts of the company who showed “natural flair” for their web projects. The company did this after being exasperated by seeing how much they were spending on agencies to get the jobs done. They decided to go in-house.

This happened time and time again. Similar stories. Big companies realising they were spending on talent they didn’t own, so recruiting talent or finding existing people within the company to step up. It didn’t seem to matter who I spoke to last year, similar stories of hiring internally rather than using external agencies/freelancers, cropped up – and thus, a significant new breed of web designer was born. Companies who would have once used small studios or freelancers to complete their projects, no longer had a need to use them and work started to dry up for people who had relied on the abundant freelance lifestyle that was once afforded to them.

Now, I know it’s happening. I’m seeing it. I’m hearing it via friends. I’m seeing the heartbreaking repercussions of perfectly talented people emailing me in desperation asking me whether I have any tips or insider knowledge about getting work. These are people who are trying to pursue jobs for hours upon hours a day and getting zero leads.

At this point I feel I should point out that I consider myself out of the freelance game. I went to work for a startup in Los Angeles for over a year. I worked exclusively for them during that time, and there was no way I could continue freelancing and holding down working for a startup. When I returned to normal life from startup land, I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to go back to selling my time for money as I knew it.

The web had become a hugely complex place. Raising rates to compensate for the additional time we now had to take in ensuring our websites were now compliant across every browser from an x-box to an iPhone, didn’t come without a fight and a huge amount of education. It was something that left me, as a single person studio, wide open and I had three “side” projects entirely zapping my time.

During that time though, I cannot tell you the amount of “tyre kickers” I’ve had pop up. Another recurring thread. I convinced myself for a short period that maybe I wanted to do client work after all and engaged in enquiries in my inbox – these enquiries all went down a similar route. I would schedule the call, get on the call for an hour, and during that hour someone would bleed me dry of ideas or “how I would go about things” for me to find they would then take that advice to their in-house team and implement it before the week was out. I don’t do consultation calls without being paid any more. To have an open and honest conversation about what you think should be done, means pulling from your toolkit and knowledge base that’s taken you years of hard work and dedication. You should be compensated for that.

I digress.

Why is no one talking about this?

I received an email last night that was heartbreaking. One of many I’ve received recently, again, asking me for an advice on where someone could pick up solid leads and work and I simply told him the story of what I’ve found at conferences and speaking to people on the inside of the industry; there’s a handful of people I know still doing really really well, but there’s an awful lot of people struggling and not speaking about it.

I understand why, entirely – but that’s not going to solve anything.

Our power has always been in our web community – we are exceptionally good at creating movements and solving things, as a community. It’s time to dig deep and put as much time and effort into helping our community as we once did fixing browser quirks all those years ago.