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She Lives in Atlanta. Her Last Job was in Iceland.

How Stephanie Eley harnessed the gig economy and you can, too

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Eley

Kaila Kea-Lewis is a small business owner, career coach, and writer who focuses on all things career development. 

If you’re a freelancer or independent contractor, then you’re a part of the gig economy. However, more and more full-time workers are venturing out into the gig economy as well. The gig economy is a job market in which temporary or flexible work is the norm (as opposed to permanent, full-time jobs). For example, companies like Uber, Etsy, and TaskRabbit have made it easier than ever for workers to pick up short-term gigs. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard this term before. Although the concept is familiar, the terminology is relatively new. It’s just in recent years that the gig economy has started to boom! Women have decided that they can have careers that are both nontraditional and fulfilling. In fact, in 2018, Bankrate reported that roughly 44 million people throughout the nation have a side-hustle.

Still, navigating the gig economy has its challenges. Stephanie Eley, photography aficionada and owner of ELEY Photo Studio, knows all about these challenges. Eley’s illustrious career started with several gigs, including photo assisting, bookkeeping, and dog walking. Over the years, Eley has figured out how to make photography, her favorite gig, into a lucrative career. Fresh from a trip to Iceland, Eley was gracious enough to share how she’s made it in the gig economy. If you’re curious about how one woman carved out her own niche in the gig economy (and how you can too), dive into these eight key takeaways from our conversation. 

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1. Change is uncomfortable  

Change and discomfort go hand-in-hand. Eley knows all about this. She always knew that photography was her passion. However, she started out studying graphic design because naysayers said that she couldn’t realistically make money from a photography career. “When uncomfortable moments are presented to you, sometimes you have to take a leap of faith,” Eley says. So, the Savannah College of Art and Design graduate pursued a career in photography despite the disapproval of others. The same might be true for you. Although you will never be completely ready to dive head first into the gig economy, you never know how taking a leap of faith can change your career (and your life).

2. The gig economy slows down, too

Building a lucrative side gig takes time. And, even once you get it off the ground, you can expect highs and lows. Eley has experienced this firsthand, sharing that, “Photography is undervalued at this point.” She goes on to explain that some people prefer quick and easy access to camera phones to more formal and time-consuming professional photography. This can cause business to slow down at times. Luckily, Eley doesn’t put all her eggs in one basket. She rents her Atlanta-based photo studio out to up-and-coming photographers and takes on diverse projects to stay inspired and keep business coming in. Not to mention, she keeps a close eye on her finances…which brings us to our next lesson.

3. You must take care of your finances

When she first started in the gig economy, Eley was advised to save at least six months’ worth of bill money plus enough to fund leisure activities. This advice has served her well. “There was a lot of pre-planning for me,” she says. While your start in the gig economy may or may not be as strategically planned as it was for Eley, you definitely want to develop good financial habits as you start your side gig. In the beginning stages, your side-hustle may cost you more money than it generates. However, if you stick with it, it can be a worthwhile investment. 

4. Don’t just network with the “big wigs”

If you plan to network your way into the gig economy, you have the right idea. But don’t think you have to connect with the most established person in the room. In fact, Eley says much of her career in the gig economy has blossomed because she makes it a point to network with everyone. “I build my network with the makeup artists, hair stylists...the people on set so that when I have my own clients, I know who to refer them to.” As a fresh face in Atlanta who was trying to make a name for herself, Eley learned early on about networking with the decision-makers as well as fellow freelancers. Whether your side hustle is in photography, blogging, or ride-sharing, it’s important to make genuine connections with other independent contractors. 

5. It’s not all about talent

A cornerstone of the gig economy is self-sufficiency. That’s right—if you want to benefit from the gig economy, you’ve got to be able to do it all (okay, maybe not all of it, but a lot of it). Your talent alone won’t help you advance in the gig economy. Eley advises, “You also have to have a pretty cool personality.” Your personality is what helps you stand out from the competition. It’s also helpful for networking effectively and making a lasting impression with potential contacts. As Eley says, “You are hired in the gig economy for your strong suits.” So, once you figure out which strong suit you want to turn into a profitable gig, do it to the best of your ability. Dedicate just as much time to developing your technical, administrative, and interpersonal skills as you do your talent.

6. It doesn’t hurt to get fit

There are dozens of good reasons to eat well and work out—making it in the gig economy is one of them! Even in her early days as a photo assistant, Eley noted the value of staying fit. She had to stay in good shape to carry and set up photo equipment for various shoots. In fact, Eley’s physical fitness became an asset for her, helping her to level the playing field in a male-dominated industry. “As a woman, it’s important for you to step up and say, ‘I can do this just like you.’ Just be smart, take care of your body, and be prepared for the ups and downs.” This is especially true if you’re planning to keep your day job and enter the gig economy. Switching between jobs can be taxing, so staying fit and eating right can help you be at your best.

7. Sometimes, you have to put on a different pair of goggles

Like many of you, Eley always knew she was passionate about photography. It would have been easy for her to only accept the jobs that aligned with her passion for portraiture. Instead, she accepted a range of gigs and made them work for her. “A lot of people say ‘I don’t want to shoot weddings’ but if that keeps a roof over my head and I can still tell people’s stories, I’ll go for it. Sometimes, you’ve got to put on a different pair of goggles.” When her dad suggested she take a government job shooting passport photos, she kept the idea in mind, even though it was different from what she wanted to do. “I know where I want to go but if [the suggestion] isn’t too far out of the gamut, I’ll keep it in my back pocket while I take these other stepping stones to where I want to be.” Remember that taking a job that is indirectly related to your passion doesn’t mean you’re not thriving in the gig economy. If anything, it speaks to your resilience, resourcefulness, and ability to adapt in an unpredictable job market.

8. It’s never too late to get started in the gig economy

The rise of the gig economy is largely due to people wanting to bring in more money and pursue other interests. “People are more curious about what they can do for themselves,” Eley says. “Whether you’re 25 or 35, you can do this.” And it’s true…you can! If nothing else, Eley’s career shows us that there is room for all of us to benefit from the gig economy. Earlier this year, Forbes confirmed that independent work attracts people of varying experience levels—gone are the days when you had to stay within your field to generate income. Today, you can keep your day job while exploring other revenue-generating gigs.

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