Albert Azis-Clauson is the CEO of UnderPinned, the company which allows freelancers to turn their passion into business by finding work, managing their jobs, and ensuring they get paid. As I join him for a Zoom interview, I’m surprised at his quirky office background including only part of his impressive record collection, multicoloured artwork on the walls, and coffee table complete with chess set. At only 25-years-old, Albert has set up a business worth £12 million and I want to know how he did it.
Albert says four years of ballet at the Royal Ballet School taught him two things. Firstly, the discipline and focus which comes with spending eight hours every day single-mindedly focussed on perfecting his craft, and secondly the “ability to take criticism as a present”. The latter has been one of the biggest drivers of his life as an opportunity for him to develop. At university, he chose to study Philosophy of Science as a hybridisation of logic and prose and started out as a Business Strategy Consultancy helping small businesses to get off the ground. As well as focussing upon his studies, he also became the Managing Director of a media and arts company which helps young and emerging artists build businesses.
Throughout his time working alongside his studies, Albert met tens of thousands of people, including “artists, graphic designers, illustrators, copywriters, web developers, engineers, consultants, translators, financial advisors, and accountants”, all individuals he describes as being passionate about what they do, but didn’t have the commercial context to make it into a sustainable business. At the end of his third year, he realised that he didn’t want to only help one person at a time as, while he enjoyed helping individuals more than he liked helping big businesses, he realised that this was both an unstainable and highly unscalable activity. From this, UnderPinned was borne, as “a scalable solution to helping people build a business out of their craft”.
As UEA is famous for its creative courses, particularly the master’s course in Creative Writing, I tell Albert how many students at my university feel as if they must enter a more stable industry, such as publishing or journalism, rather than pursuing their original creative passions. Here he is incredibly blunt in saying: “You couldn’t be more wrong”. He goes onto elaborate in explaining how the academic-first focus on education in the UK may not be a bad thing in terms of providing intellectually strenuous activity, but also highlighting that “it means we don’t equip ourselves for a commercial context”.
Drawing from personal experience, I ask Albert what he thinks about students undertaking free work for the sake of building experience or crafting a professional portfolio. He is adamant in saying there is no need to do free work. “The reason you’re doing it”, here he corrects himself, “the reason it’s being done to you is because people know they can take advantage of people who aren’t confident in themselves”. Keen to clarify that the onus needs to be taken away from the individual, he says “we’re not going to change the culture of business overnight” but is keen to offer some ways in which students can protect themselves while undertaking freelance work. Firstly, he states that a contract must be drawn up which covers your intellectual property and payment terms, then he moves on to say “never work for free. Full stop. That’s it”. He also wants students to start thinking like freelancers by considering the value they’re generating for the customer of client. Finally, he encourages students to avoid passive action, saying “just because you’re at university, it doesn’t mean you’re not a professional”.
I believe an interview about a business which facilitates freelancing simply would not be complete without enquiring as to how the pandemic has affected his business. Albert confirms my suspicions in saying it was the best thing which could have happened to UnderPinned, but with a heavy caveat. The trends occurring slowly before Covid hit have sped up by about 20 years. These include business hiring more freelances after accepting video communication technology, people placing more emphasis on personal time, and the promincence of creative knowledge and capital. UnderPinned offered support for people who were struggling throughout the pandemic by offering their services for free for a year and a half.
Finally, I finish by asking about the project Albert has been desperate to tell me about since the start of the interview, the UnderPinned Freelance Business Accelerator which is being launched in January 2022. Albert is offering universities the chance to sign-up an unlimited number of students to this intensive freelance education programme for a one-off annual fee: “I believe it is the university’s responsibility to provide you with the professional education required for the modern working world… [they] have a responsibility to make sure every single student has access to the career opportunities they are paying for by doing their degrees”. As 80% of creative students and 60% of all students will freelance within three years of graduating, Albert believes students should be putting pressure on their universities in asking them to provide this. Several universities, including University of the Arts London and London Metropolitan University, are already signed up to the programme and he encourages students to put pressure upon their universities to join: “it costs them nothing and it’s worth so much to them”.
So, why should students use a platform like UnderPinned? “If you want to build a sustainable, successful freelance business which earns you money, then you need to focus on just that: building a business. UnderPinned can help you do that”.