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Drivers of freelance career success

ARJAN VAN DEN BORN1* AND ARJEN VAN WITTELOOSTUIJN1,2,3
1School of Economics, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
2University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium
3Tilburg University, Tilburg, The Netherlands

Summary Recent evidence shows that the frequently proclaimed collapse of the traditional career model is actually
not supported by job tenure data. This paper argues that the observed stability of job tenure might be
explained by an increasing number of shamrock organizations. This organizational form has three types
of workers: core employees, professional freelancers, and routine workers. In such an organization, two
very different career models coexist. The organization largely determines the career of the core employee,
whereas the individual essentially shapes that of the professional freelancer. This paper studies extensively
the career of this second group: the professional freelancer, a growing phenomenon in many developed
countries but not yet the focus of many career studies. We develop a freelance career success model
on basis of the intelligent career framework augmented by insights from literature on entrepreneurship.
Data are from a web survey with responses from about 1600 independent professionals in the
Netherlands, in combination with 51 in-depth interviews. We provide two main contributions. First, we
report findings from the first large-scale quantitative study into freelance career success. Second, this study
enhances our understanding of the success of the modern career by building bridges between career and
entrepreneurship literatures. We conclude that the external environment in which an individual freelancer
operates is the most important factor determining career success. The study therefore suggests that more
work needs to be performed on the relationship between the environment and individual career success.
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Keywords: freelancers; self-employed; career success; portfolio workers

Introduction

Is the traditional career of the 20th century becoming rare? Since the 1980s, many authors have argued that the
responsibility for the career increasingly resides in the individual (Arnold, 2001; Raabe, Frese, & Beehr, 2006)
and transcends any employer (Arthur, Khapova, & Wilderom, 2005). But recently, Rodrigues and Guest (2010)
showed for multiple countries that the collapse of the traditional career model is not supported at all by actual job
tenure data. Does this imply that the commonly accepted view of people having increasingly multiple-organization
careers is a myth? This paper argues that the observed stability of job tenure may be caused by the emergence of a
new type of worker: the skilled independent professional. This new type of worker contracts out her or his skills to
various organizations (Barley & Kunda, 2004; Barley, Kunda, & Evans, 2002; Connelly & Gallagher, 2004;
Kirkpatrick & Hoque, 2006).
Avant la lettre, Handy (1985) coined the term “portfolio worker” for those workers who create a portfolio of work

for themselves. In current times, terms such as freelancer, independent professional, or contractor are more frequently
used. Although it is hard to estimate the exact number of these workers, it is clear that their incidence is growing since
the 1980s. According to Arum and Müller (2004, p. 1), “[s]elf-employment can no longer be dismissed as an economic

*Correspondence to: Jan van den Born, School of Economics, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands. E-mail:

[email protected]

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Received 07 December 2010

Revised 18 January 2012, Accepted 22 January 2012

Journal of Organizational Behavior, J. Organiz. Behav. 34, 24–46 (2013)
Published online 9 March 2012 in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/job.1786Research

A
rticle

activity on the verge of withering away in response to processes of capital accumulation or in competition
with large firms.” Marler, Barringer, and Milkovic (2002) showed that these boundaryless workers can be
distinguished from traditional “temps” by their preference for temporary work in combination with their high
level of skill and experience. The claim is that these “contractors of choice” are especially likely to report
positive outcomes about job and career satisfaction (Anderson, 2008; Ajayi-Obe & Parker, 2005; Benz &
Frey, 2008; Guest, 2004; Guest & Clinton, 2006). As Blanchflower (2004, p. 21) summarized this argument,
“These self-employed work under a lot of pressure, find their work stressful and come home exhausted. How-
ever, they are especially likely to say they have control over their lives as well as being highly satisfied with
their lives.”
The increase of the number of independent knowledge workers fits nicely with a prediction of Handy

(1989), who argued that the organizations of the future will have three types of workers: (i) professional
employees representing the core competencies of the organization; (ii) professional freelancers contractually
hired on a project-by-project basis; and (iii) a contingent workforce doing routine jobs. Handy introduced
the term shamrock organization for this new mode of organizing. Growth in the density of this shamrock
type of organizations could explain why overall job tenure does not decrease, because the freelancer is
officially not an employee of the organization but is self-employed. Although these free agents hop from
one organization to the next, they never officially change their employer. In a way, they are employees turned
into entrepreneurs.
The shamrock organization model is associated with the coexistence of two career types. On the one hand, the

organization largely determines the career of the professional core. Hence, Lips-Wiersma and Hall (2007) correctly
argued that the role of the organization is not over. On the other hand, the individual largely determines the career of
the growing number of independent professionals—or freelancers. Consequently, modern career concepts, such as
the protean career model (Hall, 1976, 2002) and the intelligent career framework (Parker, Khapova, & Arthur,
2009), apply nicely to this new type of workers. This paper studies extensively the determinants of the career success
of this second group: the professional freelancer, a growing phenomenon in many developed countries but not yet
the focus of many career studies.

Building a Freelance Career Success Model

Process

Freelancers can be considered as a hybrid of employees and entrepreneurs. On the one hand, they are employees
because they are almost always hired by (large) firms to work for a period selling nothing else but their intangible
professional knowledge, which is different from other entrepreneurs and self-employed selling tangible products to
customers. On the other hand, they are entrepreneurs because they work for their own risk and reward without any
organizational guarantee or support. Any freelance career success model should therefore build on insights from
both the modern career literature and the literature on entrepreneurship. To develop a testable model, we first created
a draft career success model based on the available academic literature. This first draft model consisted of a number
of building blocks that included variables that might predict freelance career success, with five to 10 variables
for every building block. Second, we piloted this first conceptual model with experts from the field by interview-
ing 51 practitioners (i.e., 33 freelancers and 18 outside experts from intermediary agencies and professional
associations). On the basis of their comments, we created a final freelance career success model in our third step
by (i) adding groups of variables that were considered to be missing and by (ii) converting our variables into
operationalized measures. In the fourth step, we developed an online survey and administered it to test this final
freelance career success model.

DRIVERS OF FREELANCE CAREER SUCCESS 25

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 34, 24–46 (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

Individual career perspective

Our first draft model was based both on the career and entrepreneurship literatures, starting from the intelligent
career framework (Parker et al., 2009) as the core. We consulted studies in the entrepreneurship literature to add
variables to our core model that may be related to entrepreneurial success. The freelance career can be seen as quite
similar to the boundaryless career. DeFillippi and Arthur (1996) defined boundaryless careers as “sequences of job
opportunities that go beyond the boundaries of single employment setting.” A freelancer is probably the archetypical
job hopper going from one project and employer to the next, never staying for very long in a single organization.
Therefore, the boundaryless career concept provides a good starting point to build a freelance career success model.
The boundaryless career concept was already developed in the 1970s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(Tams & Arthur, 2010). However, the boundaryless career perspective was really developed further in the 1990s,
especially through the efforts of DeFillippi and Arthur (1994, 1996) and Arthur and Rousseau (1996). In the
mid-1990s, Arthur, Claman, and DeFillippi (1995) pointed to strong links between Quinn’s (1992) intelligent
enterprise and the boundaryless career concept. They argue that the creation of the intelligent enterprise requires
intelligent careers, which are built upon principles from the boundaryless career concept. This intelligent career
concept evolved into the intelligent career framework (Parker et al., 2009).
The intelligent career framework includes three interrelated classes of variables, referred to as “ways of knowing,”

that are argued to predict career development. The first way of knowing is knowing why, which involves career
motivation, personal meaning, identity, and personality. Knowing why is associated with an individual’s capability
to understand herself or himself, to explore different possibilities, and to adapt to constantly changing work
circumstances. The second way of knowing is knowing how, which reflects career-relevant skills and job-related
knowledge. Knowing how is closely related to established ideas on individual knowledge, skills, and abilities
(Schneider & Konz, 1989). The third way of knowing, knowing whom, involves relevant personal and business
networks. This has to do with career-related networks and contacts, including business relationships and personal
connections (Parker & Arthur, 2000). These three classes of variables are not independent; there are strong links
between these concepts, with a range of different theories explaining these linkages (Parker et al., 2009).
Despite the theoretical attractiveness and practical relevance of the intelligent career framework, much empirical

work continues to focus on career success as evaluated from an organizational perspective (e.g., in terms of
organizational position and promotion). This seems outdated because hierarchies are continuously flattening (Littler,
Wiesner, & Dunford, 2003) and because external labor markets generate an increasing influence over today’s
employment landscape (Cappelli, 1999). Arthur et al. (2005) therefore called for further rapprochement between
career theory and empirical research. As the employment landscape is changing, career research should reflect
the “new deal” that views the career actor as concerned more with individual rather than organizational goals and
which involves the kind of “meta-competencies” that allow for easier mobility between successive employers or
temporary contracts.

Entrepreneurial perspective

The intelligent career framework is originally based on organizational models of firm competencies and firm success
(DeFillipi & Arthur, 1994, p. 308). This is why the intelligent career framework offers an appropriate platform for
developing our draft freelance career success model. We cross the same bridge as DeFillipi and Arthur did and review
empirical results reported in studies of firm success in search for variables to be added to the model. Adding such
business aspects to our freelance career success model will create a better fit with freelancing challenges and dilemmas.
After all, a modern freelancer is a self-employed entrepreneur as well and not only a “boundaryless employee.” Hence,
we are especially interested in research into small entrepreneurs such as the self-employed and small businesses and not
so much in large businesses where the founder influence is limited (Boone, De Brabander, & van Witteloostuijn, 1996)
and other qualities are needed to be successful (Scott & Bruce, 1987).

26 A. VAN DEN BORN AND A. VAN WITTELOOSTUIJN

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 34, 24–46 (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

In the succeeding texts, we highlight the core drivers of entrepreneurial success as identified by empirical research
into the self-employed and small businesses (see Parker, 2004, for an overview). First, the human capital of the
entrepreneurial founder has a strong positive impact on firm performance (e.g., Bosma, van Praag, Thurik, &
de Wit, 2004; Pennings, Lee, & van Witteloostuijn, 1998). Being well educated or highly experienced, for instance,
contributes to the success of entrepreneurial ventures. Second, much evidence relates to the positive effect of social
capital on firm success (e.g., Bosma et al., 2004; Chiesi, 2007; Hoanga & Antoncic, 2003; Witt, 2004). Inherently,
entrepreneurship is a process of building bridges in a network, and hence of developing and maintaining social
capital, which provides broad and early access to information, and offers control over the distribution and
interpretation of information. In the freelancing context, social capital can be expected to (i) generate a broad base
of referrals; (ii) help the freelancer identify promising opportunities; and (iii) increase the probability that the
freelancer knows how to pitch a project. Third, the study of the impact of what may be coined personal capital
on entrepreneurial success has a long tradition. Entrepreneurs are argued to “engage the energies of everyone,”
“involve many people inside and outside the organization,” “create and sustain networks of relationships,” and
“make the most of the intellectual and other resources people have to offer” while “helping those people to achieve
their goals as well” (McMillan & Gunther-McGrath, 2000, p. 3). These qualities highlight the desirability of a
specific type of personality or other personal features, such as self-insight and leadership style.
In their overview of the literature on entrepreneurial personality, Amit, Glosten, and Muller (1993) suggested

that the four personality traits most commonly associated with self-employment are as follows: (i) need for
achievement (McClelland, 1965); (ii) internal locus of control (Sexton & Bowman, 1986); (iii) above-average
risk-taking propensity (Brockhaus, 1980); and (iv) tolerance for ambiguity (Frenkel-Bruswik, 1948). Note,
however, that although research has shown that personality traits are important for entrepreneurial success,
personality traits have typically produced very weak relationships with entrepreneurial performance (Begley &
Boyd, 1987; Low & MacMillan, 1988; Parker, 2004; Stam et al., 2012). The search for a psychological
explanation for business success has led to the development of tailor-made multifaceted “entrepreneurial”
personality traits, such as Chen, Greene, & Crick’s (1998) entrepreneurial self-efficacy.

Expert piloting

After the creation of our draft freelance career success model, on the basis of the review of the literature, we piloted
this draft in interviews with practitioners. These interviews were semi-structured. They started with open-ended
questions (e.g., How would you define freelance career success? and What are the key factors that determine
freelance success?), followed by a series of partly closed and partly open questions on the overall draft model
and each variable in the model (e.g., Do you think this is an important determinant of freelance career success or
not, and why do you think so?). Our interviewees defined two major topics that they considered to be missing.
Additionally, they expressed a variety of smaller suggestions about missing variables and suggested many improve-
ments in defining variables and operationalizing measures. One example is partner support. We included this
variable in the final model, as many interviewees convincingly argued that a freelancer could not be successful
without the proper support of her or his partner.
The first and largest deficiency in our draft model was the lack of reference to the external market. All 51

interviewees noticed that we ignored market factors in our initial model design. This is especially important because
we know that the environment is crucial for firm performance (Porter, 1980). A stylized fact in the business literature
is that organizational and industry variables dominate over individual-level variables as drivers of venture success
(e.g., McGahan & Porter, 1997; Sandberg & Hofer, 1987). In contrast, the external product or service market in
which the employer organization operates often plays a minor role in the employee career literature. In fact, career
studies generally neglect such forces. The studies that link career outcomes with characteristics of internal labor
markets, which were quite popular in the 1980s (e.g., Baron, Davis-Blake, & Bielby, 1986), are perhaps the most
relevant for our study. However, internal labor markets are very different from their external product or service

DRIVERS OF FREELANCE CAREER SUCCESS 27

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 34, 24–46 (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

market counterparts. In recent years, the issue of context has gained, again, prominence in career research
(Arnold & Cohen, 2008; Cohen & Mallon, 1999; Mayrhofer, Meyer, & Steyrer, 2007). But as far as we know,
quantitative empirical studies that estimate the impact of the external product or service market on career factors
or outcomes are absent.
Clearly, our expert and freelance interviewees all consider the external market to be a very important driver of

freelance career success. Cyclical and structural market conditions of demand and supply, transparency, industry
structure, and industry institutional arrangements are likely to largely determine career outcomes and may co-
determine key success factors. For instance, in the Netherlands, the traditional free professions (i.e., accounting,
law, notary, and medicine) are associated with strict education and learning requirements that effectively regulate
and limit supply and necessitate pre-entry and post-entry investments in human capital for all independent
professionals in the market (for an example, see Maijoor & van Witteloostuijn, 1996). In other markets (e.g.,
interpreters and some technical occupations), there are only a limited number of companies that employ the
specialized services of freelancers, implying an oligopsony that drives fees down (Bhaskar & To, 2003). Our
interviewees pointed out that some markets had only a limited number of potential clients; in these markets,
managing reputation was crucially important to retain business. In other markets, the number of potential clients
was much larger; in such markets, creating visibility by branding, marketing, and networking was said to be of much
greater importance than reputation management.
The second major aspect that was lacking in our initial freelance career success draft framework, according to our

interviewees, was business strategy. The essence of the strategic management literature is the assumption, for which
there is ample evidence (e.g., McGahan & Porter, 1997), that strategy matters, which is also echoed in the entrepre-
neurship tradition (e.g., Parker, Storey, & van Witteloostuijn, 2010). Hence, we decided to add a number of business
strategy variables in our model to reflect the fact that a freelancer is both an individual employee and an entrepre-
neurial “organization,” in the latter capacity pursuing business strategies just like any other business venture.

Crafting a Testable Freelance Career Success Model

Model

In Figure 1, we summarize our final freelance career success research model. The central concepts of the intelligent
career framework remain largely in place, where human capital can arguably be seen as representing knowing how,

(Individual)
career

literature

Draft freelance
career model

Entrepre-
neurship
literature

Interviews
(51)

Final
detailed
model

Online
survey

I II III IV

Analysis

V

Figure 1. Stepwise approach of this study

28 A. VAN DEN BORN AND A. VAN WITTELOOSTUIJN

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 34, 24–46 (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

social capital as reflecting knowing whom, and both motivation and personality measures, which can jointly be
coined personal capital, as mirroring knowing why. However, compared with the intelligent career framework,
our freelance career success model is extended by adding two clusters of variables that represent the external
environment and business strategy. This is precisely the consequence of the hybrid nature of the freelance status,
implying that the individual operates as both an employee and an entrepreneur.
Of course, an empirical model is never complete and is therefore always restricted in one way or the other.

Inevitably, developing a measurement model, even one that is designed to be so comprehensive as ours, implies that
decisions have to be made about what not to take on board. For instance, not taking any variables into consideration
that refer to organizational support—a decision based on the observation that, in the end, freelancers are not
employees linked to a single organization—means that hypotheses regarding this aspect cannot be tested. As a rule,
the selection of variables in our final model is based on the academic literature and suggestions from practitioners,
bounded by practical considerations about the maximum length of a survey. In this context, the exploratory
nature of our study is key. That is, the series of hypotheses introduced in the succeeding texts is very broad
in an attempt to assess which potential drivers of career success are more important than others. Our aim is
not to test any specific theory but rather to broadly explore what does and what does not matter in this new
freelance world. In so doing, for instance, our study offers the opportunity to evaluate the value added of
variables derived from the entrepreneurship literature, such as the market environment and business strategy,
relative to those inspired by the career literature.
A final remark relates to our choice of career success measures. We used two measures of success: objective

career success (OCS) and subjective career success (SCS). Moreover, our model explicitly incorporates the
interrelationship between OCS and SCS. The distinction between OCS and SCS is important in the freelancer
context because independent professionals self-select into self-employment for a variety of reasons: not only
monetary motives but also arguments relating to autonomy, flexibility, and work–life balance are potentially impor-
tant. Indeed, the extant literature emphasizes this reinforcing feedback loop, where career success not only produces
happiness but happiness also enhances further career success (Boehm & Lyubomirsky, 2008). Where we believe
that we can expect different effects of our independent variable upon OCS vis-à-vis SCS, we will develop two
separate sub-hypotheses; if we see no reason to expect a differential effect, we simply refer to freelance career
success in our hypotheses.

Hypotheses

We introduce our hypotheses by systematically discussing all Figure 1’s clusters of variables. We start with
the well-established standard human capital (knowing how) determinant of success, as this set of capabilities
is strongly supported by the literature on career success as well as that on entrepreneurial performance.
Moreover, on the basis of our interviews with experts and freelancers, we have learned that freelancers are
very aware of the need to continuously develop their human capital. They are always scanning knowledge
sources (e.g., internet, books, and magazines) to be up-to-date on the latest industry trends (Barley &
Kunda, 2004).

Hypothesis 1: Human capital is positively related to freelance career success.

Social capital (knowing why) is another cluster of variables that figures prominently in both the career and
entrepreneurship literatures. In traditional career research, measures of organizational sponsorship, which reflects
social capital in the context of a traditional career, often represent social capital. The meta-analysis of Ng, Lillian,
Eby, Sorensen, and Feldman (2005) shows that organizational sponsorship variables (e.g., career support, training
and skill development opportunities, and mentoring) demonstrate a weak relationship with salary and promotion
and a strong relationship with career satisfaction. As organizational support is largely absent for freelancers, with

DRIVERS OF FREELANCE CAREER SUCCESS 29

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 34, 24–46 (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

the notable exception of support of former employers (Cohen & Mallon, 1999), most organizational sponsorship
measures are not very applicable to freelancers. One concept that is closely related to organizational sponsorship
is applicable to freelancers, though: agency sponsorship. Support of staffing agencies is very important for
freelancers (Barley & Kunda, 2004). Many freelancers develop strong relations with external staffing agencies,
which are important partners for freelancers in their search for new assignments.
In the entrepreneurship literature, network characteristics commonly measure social capital (e.g., Chiesi, 2007;

Witt, 2004). Such measures of social capital are applicable in the freelancer context, too, as a strong network is
required to provide a steady flow of assignments, especially in the absence of supporting agencies. Hence, the
characteristics of these networks, such as network size and tie strength (Granovetter, 1973), offer a second
perspective to measure the social capital of freelancers. A third perspective regarding social capital inspired by
the entrepreneurship literature involves the amount of support that an entrepreneur receives. Such support could
come not only from a business club or business network, such as Lions and Rotary (Barbieri, 2003; Davidson &
Honig, 2003), but also from the freelancer’s partner. Our interviewees strongly argued that freelancing is stressful
and that partner support is therefore critical.

Hypothesis 2: Social capital is positively related to freelance career success.

To measure knowing why, we focus on personality traits and motivational drivers. In selecting personality-
related variables that can represent this personal capital of freelancers, we largely followed the example of
Eby, Butts, and Lockwood’s (2003) and used career insight, pro-activeness, and openness to represent the
freelancers’ personal capital (Figure 2). These measures of personal capital are distinct from the traditional
entrepreneurial personality measures such as internal locus of control, risk-taking propensity, and need for
achievement. We have three main reasons to do so. First, we needed to limit the number of personality-related
variables to a maximum of three because personality measures often encompass lengthy item lists that are very
time-consuming to complete. Second, these traditional entrepreneurial personality measures have never been
shown to be very powerful predictors of performance in the entrepreneurship literature (Stam et al., 2012),
and there is no reason to assume that these personality characteristics are more important in a freelance context,
where professional skills are arguably at least as important as entrepreneurial capabilities. Third, our interviewees

Subjective
Succes

(Satisfaction)

Objective
Succes

(Revenue)

Business
strategies

Market
factors

Social
Capital

(Knowing
-whom)

Human
Capital

(Knowing
-how)

Personal Cap
& Motivation

(Knowing
-why)

Figure 2. The final freelance career model

30 A. VAN DEN BORN AND A. VAN WITTELOOSTUIJN

Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Organiz. Behav. 34, 24–46 (2013)
DOI: 10.1002/job

emphasized the importance of career insight, pro-activeness, and openness. For instance, career insight involves
knowing which assignments to accept and which assignments to reject to build a clear profile and a strong
résumé, which was frequently reported as crucial to career success.
Another important aspect of knowing why is motivation. Not all freelancers pursue a freelance career because

of the same underlying motivational driver. Monetary reasons reflect, of course, a viable and often expressed
argument, but intrinsic motivation as reflected in the wish for increased autonomy, flexibility, …

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