By Nina Berman on January 24th, 2022
Guilded: Helping Freelancers Get Paid, Get Healthcare, & Build Financial Knowledge
The life of a freelancer is a precarious one. There are periods of feast and famine, confusing taxes, and the chasing down of vendors to pay on time (or at all). There is the constant hunt for gigs, which could cancel at a moment’s notice. This is to say nothing about how freelancers in the U.S. pay for healthcare or save for retirement.
Guilded wants to improve the lives of freelancers through the cooperative model. Formally incorporated in June 2020, Guilded is a freelancer worker cooperative incubated by the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.
They support freelancers by helping them manage their businesses from contract creation all the way through invoicing, collecting payments, and preparing taxes. They work with local healthcare clinics to give members access to primary care providers, and using their cooperative framework lets members connect with other freelancers to find support individually and build power collectively. Modeled on Europe’s Smart Coop, Guilded is built with artists and creatives as the central focus with the intention that once they can solve creative freelancer’s biggest pain points, they can expand outwards into the wider world of workers who are not full time employees of any one workplace.
Guilded is working to solve the everyday problems of freelancers with an eye to larger issues; from building generational wealth among Black and brown workers and giving financial knowledge to people who are often considered too poor to need it. They believe that they owe it to future generations to have each other’s backs and grow collective economic resilience.
Check out our chat with Guilded’s Program Manager Ajoke Williams to learn more about what Guilded does, how the cooperative model can support freelancers, and how its upcoming financial management cohort can help you (yes you!) get your finances in order with the help of certified public accountants.
What is Guilded?
Guilded is a freelancer cooperative. It's called a freelancer cooperative because we allow freelancers, contract workers, anyone who's not an employee, who gets their money as a 1099 worker, to own part of the business. So as a cooperative, we follow the six worker cooperative principles. Two of the main tenets being governance and decision-making power for owners in addition to financial power. So freelancers who are part of the cooperative of Guilded have power to make decisions in how the cooperative is run and get rewards as the business grows.
As a freelancer cooperative, we try to focus on providing freelancers with benefits that they don't get because of their status as workers. There are some universal benefits that every worker should be entitled to [and] Guilded tries to solve for some of these benefits that most freelancers don't get. We provide tax preparation assistance. We do accounting. We do invoicing and contract preparation for freelancers. And then we have a guaranteed payment plan, which helps to mitigate some of the income volatility that freelancers experience as they're going about doing these different gigs in addition to offering a suite of different healthcare-adjacent benefits as well.
Since cooperatives have worked so well in other industries, bringing benefits to folks that wouldn't [otherwise] have access to them and protecting workers by giving them power, what would it look like to bring that model to the freelancer labor sphere?
What are the different membership tiers like?
The membership classes [Class A and Class B] are divided between worker-owners - people who are employees of Guilded - and freelancer-owners, people who use the services of Guilded as 1099 members. Those are classes that we created to make sure that when we have elections for board seats, every party is able to be represented and we're not conflating the different interests. Sometimes the interests of employees might be different from those of the freelancers and we want to make sure the voices are present. Now, [I’ll] caveat that by saying, is that [with] Guilded's model, you can still use some of our services. You don't have to be a member. Being a member is more of a full-time commitment, [for people who] want to fully partake in the cooperative model and would like to have the power that you get as a member.
So people can use Guilded services, even if they are not worker owners getting the dividends of the excess profit?
Membership is a process that not everyone can join. We want you to get to know Guilded before you decide that you want to be a full member. We want to get to know you. We want to make sure that you think the platform is worth committing to because to become a full member there is an equity amount that you put in ($100). You can still use our contract services, our invoicing services, get access to our tax preparation and also some of the health care benefits that we have just by being a user, no member commitment.
Tell me more about the problems that Guilded is designed to help ameliorate - issues with finances, invoices, and healthcare.
Even though we're starting with focusing on artists and creatives, the larger mission [is that] anyone exchanging their labor for funds should have a way to also have those funds support part of their social basic needs. So right now, we start with tax preparation because people who are self-employed get taxed at a higher rate. If you're taxed at a higher rate and then you don't have as much income coming in, then you're less likely to file your tax with the professional and be able to take advantage of all the deductions that you could possibly get. So we make sure to pair folks with the CPA that could walk them through that process. We focus on health in an innovative way. We don't offer full health insurance, but we partner with local clinics that do direct primary care, which allows for a monthly subscription service that allows freelancers to go in and get their check-ins and traditional lab work done and we use that to serve as a model to help freelancers and contractors who just need regular check in services.
We want to help freelancers manage part of that income volatility that's inherent with being a freelancer so we can help you write your contracts so that you know when you're going to be paid and then we are party to that contract so that we guarantee that because you wrote the contract with us, the date that you said, you're going to be paid, we're going to pay it.
Say I make an arrangement with a shop that I'm going to provide a service and they’re going to pay me. Even if they're late on paying, Guilded would pay me (the freelancer) and then Guilded would be the one who is following up with the shop to tell them, “You signed this contract, you need to pay.”
That's exactly right. And it happens a lot more frequently than I would have thought. People have become accustomed to it in the industry. I’ve run through contracts with some other artists of Guilded. They're like, “Yeah, it's a 45 day net payment and I'm going to ship all my materials a month in advance. And I’m like, “Okay, that doesn't sound good. Let's revise the contract because you've already put in the work, you're shipping the material and you're not getting paid at this point til two to three months later because you've done the work in advance. So let's find a way to make sure that Guilded can help with that situation so you're not waiting.” And even with those terms, the people are late. So it's ultimately a way to guarantee a peace of mind.
[Guilded charges] clients an overhead fee that allows us to provide the services for our users and members. That's why we're very keen on getting in before contracts are signed. So we can say “This is the structure, these are the fees you're paying for.”
Guilded is part of the larger conversation that has been bubbling for a long time but has been exacerbated, particularly since 2020, about not wanting to return to “normal” because the thing that was normal was kind of not working. What's your sense of how Guilded fits into these bigger questions and the bigger constellation of people working on these issues?
If the past didn't work, this is a new model. [We’re] building it so that people can come and see this is something that's not only sustainable, but also actually solves for some of the systemic and structural issues that are around freelancing in a way that is realistic to the current landscape of the job market.
There should be a baseline of support that any laborer is given, regardless of their designation. Instead what has happened, is that the law's been able to carve away the sections of very unprotected workers and just say, “Well, if you want to be protected, you have to figure out a way to become an employee. And if you're not, then we don't really care about you.”
So if employers knew that someone's not tied to them [because of those benefits] then they would act in a certain way. If this person wants to be an employee, if they want to be a contractor, there are mechanisms for them to get benefits around both. And [employers] need to adjust how they approach valuing each person's labor in a way that actually shows that the employee has power.
I think what the pandemic showed, and it's still showing, is that people, in lieu of having another option, are choosing, “Okay, fine, I'm still going to cut ties with my employer.” But we don't want that. We want to actually make the field more open in a way that there are more options on the table as opposed to you going out to sea alone, because that's the only option you see.
A lot of the freelancers I know do pay out of pocket for health care in the marketplace. I have no idea what people are doing for retirement. It’s a huge question.
That's something that Guilded is considering for the future. Paid sick leave, retirement disability benefits that fundamentally are structured so that if you're not an employee, you don't really have access to them. How do we get those in the hands of contractors through the cooperative model?
Or even the knowledge of [what benefits can be available]! But for people that don't have those kinds of structural supports, what do you do?
I would say Guilded is addressing that in two ways. One is around the concept of managing wealth. And this idea that if you don't have any money, then people are like, “Okay, well, you don't need any of the services that people with money would need, or you don't need to get any of the guidance that someone would money, someone with a 401k might need, someone with an investment portfolio. And because the Guilded model allows for ownership of a cooperative, members can build patronage accounts where they're getting some of the returns that Guilded gets, they're building up their own financial assets.
In addition, Guilded is looking at ways to make sure that our members and users are supported as they build their wealth. We're in the process of launching a financial management cohort in conjunction with Brunch and Budget. They do a lot of financial planning and 1:1 courses to help mostly BIPOC people who are struggling with how to manage their finances, how to budget properly, and how to plan to actually generate their own individual wealth. And we are doing that with two different cohorts in the spring. With this idea of building financial stability, it’s not just us helping with late payments, but it's also helping shift people's mindsets in the knowledge that they have about what resources are out there, what can they use that they already have, getting the type of professional level knowledge that people with more funds would have gotten; putting it in the hands of freelancers and contractors who need it more. If you have less resources to work with, you're actually going to need to manage wealth in a way that builds for itself, and it also enables you to take the most advantage of it.
Who is the cohort designed for?
I would say interest. If you're someone who's been looking at your finances as a freelancer and you're thinking [about switching to full time freelancing], but not sure about how to make the finances work. Maybe you have been freelancing, but you’re just flying by a shoestring every month and you're interested in changing that, this is something for you. It's a long-term commitment. It's around six months during which you would get an opportunity to not only get personalized help, build a plan that works for you in terms of your financial management plan, but also be in a group of other folks that are working towards a similar goal. So you can know that you're not alone. Bounce ideas off of other folks and then have some type of group accountability.
What's the kind of knowledge level that you're expecting folks to be working with? Are we talking about people who might be totally freaked out by the prospect of building a budget or are we talking about people that have a bit more experience?
One thing I'll say is the great thing about Brunch and Budget is that you are going to be working with certified public accountants who are certified in helping you manage your finances, which means that you can be as unknowledgable as you want and they will get you to the point where you have enough understanding so that not only can you follow on the roadmap that you co-create with them, but you are able to take that knowledge and then do it for yourself afterward. So I would definitely stress that the key is not how much knowledge you have, but your interest. They're not going to come into your house and steal your checkbook and do it for you. But as long as you have the interest and the dedication to go in and actually follow it, then that's how you get to see the results.
How do people get involved?
So for just general interest, please sign up at the website to let us know you're interested in using Guilded because one of the prerequisites of joining a financial management cohort is you have met at least one invoice through Guilded. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Financial Management Cohort.” We are in the process of doing a special cohort for members of Fractured Atlas. And more details about how you can join if you are a member of Fractured Atlas to come!
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.