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Illustrations: Arne Bellstorf

The Gig Economy Is Failing. Say Hello to the Hustle Economy.

Unemployed teachers, cooks, dancers are turning to Patreon, Twitch, and OnlyFans

“W“We have nothing to sell besides physical touch.” The thought jarred Amber Briggle awake some nights. It kept her from eating in the first week of the Covid-19 shutdown when she lost six pounds fretting over the sudden collapse of the business she’d built up her “entire adult life.”

“I spent the entire first week crying. What else could I do about it?”

And so Briggle, a mother of two with no previous aspirations to “influence” online, swiped on some mascara and filmed a three-minute stretching video over the off-screen clatter of someone washing dishes. Access to that video, and the 40 others she has since posted to Patreon, requires a subscription of either $10 or $25 per month. More than 50 people have bought those subscriptions, netting Briggle a monthly payout of almost $2,000.

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Tech investors have dubbed this the “passion economy,” a place where anyone can profit doing what she loves.

In 2017, the economic advisory firm Sonecon estimated that nearly 17 million Americans made some money off digital platforms. And since then, argues Li Jin, a former partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, a wave of new startups has launched to capitalize on this “model of internet-powered entrepreneurship.”

The movement’s rhetoric often, and ironically, echoes Karl Marx: Only liberated workers with control of production can soak up the full spiritual and financial benefits of their labor.

“People see how fragile their connection to the economy is. Their job could go at any second,” said Len Markidan, the chief marketing officer at Podia, a hustle economy platform that helps its workers set up classes, newsletters, storefronts, and other products. One of its marquee names, the physical therapist Emma Shapiro, has built an empire teaching other health care workers how to create hustles of their own.

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At Landa’s current rate, he’d need hundreds of subscribers to break even, and thousands to replace his restaurant income.

In some ways, Landa’s ambitions mirror those of the hustle economy, writ large. While professional knowledge workers and creatives have long dominated these platforms, their peak potential lies in attracting a far wider range of “creators” — including low-wage and service workers. Jin, of Andreessen Horowitz, sees a future in the hustle economy for teachers, health care workers, and fitness trainers, among other professions. Erik Berg, an investment analyst at Rev1 Ventures in Columbus, Ohio, has gone so far as to suggest hustle economy platforms will empower a lost generation of “blue-collar laborers.”

“If you’re anything like me, you probably haven’t been able to sleep well the last couple weeks, not really knowing what’s going to come next, if your job is going to be secure.”

Hustle economy founders and investors say they’re aware of this precarity, though they generally believe creative people will manage to find a way. Markidan, the Podia CMO, predicts an ecosystem of support services will spring up around the hustle economy, much as it did around Airbnb. Amir Nathoo, who founded Outschool, said his company aspires to eventually provide or subsidize some equipment and support services itself. In the meantime, “we should be talking about the trade-offs and what the upsides and downsides are,” he said.

Written by

Enterprise reporter @thebuffalonews, formerly @washingtonpost.

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Written by

Caitlin Dewey

Enterprise reporter @thebuffalonews, formerly @washingtonpost.

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