Career and Jobs

Is It Time For Freelance Startups To Collaborate? A Modest Proposal

By any reasonable measure, the freelance revolution has taking root and is flying high. Numbers tell part of the story. Upwork, for example, reckons that 60,000,000 Americans are taking part as gigsters, full-time freelancers or side-giggers. McKinsey four years back estimated the global population of gigsters and freelancers above 160,000,000, but that was before Covid 19 gut punched the global economy, eliminated tens of millions of full-time jobs, and encouraged many more millions to try their hand at freelancing.

And, the millions of freelancers trying their hand on a full-time or part-time basis has yielded an explosion of startups expanding or supporting the freelance revolution. I write about freelancers and the digital talent marketplaces that support them, and I am struck by the frequency with which I hear from new CEOs and entrepreneurial teams. Here’s an example from this morning from a new CEO, describing dgitags.io, an innovative new platform and an example of the marvelous creativity we’re seeing in the talent space and in HR Tech generally:

 “I’ve appreciated your analysis about freelance revolution and impacts on companies organization & employees. dgitags.io is based in Paris and Dublin, it is a new type of digital agency/consulting firm, combining a growth marketing agency and a highly selective product freelancing community. With my associate, from our previous professional experiences in big companies and as freelancers, we wanted to mix the agility of freelancing and the specific high expertise of  a digital agency, and MAKE them work together to always deliver more value to our clients  by offering them the best of these two “worlds” and to adapt better to theirs organizations.”

I’m looking forward to learning more about dgitags.io, but not only. By my estimate, and there’s some extrapolation involved, there are at least a couple hundred freelance platforms forming around the world, or moving from infancy to adolescence.  I’m a writer and teacher, not an organizer, but I wonder whether it’s time for startup leaders to more actively and intentionally collaborate, as well as compete. In each interview, I find that freelance pioneers are eager to hear what one another is doing, learning and planning, and it comes from a place of shared enthusiasm for the space and its possibilities, not just their competitive instincts.  Interviews inevitably turn into discussions and brainstorms, and always end with a request to be introduced to other entrepreneurs.

Is there value in organizing a founder’s club for this new generation of digital talent marketplace CEOs and the ecosystem partners that support them? Here’s why the time might be right, and what the new generation of marketplace CEOs might do about it:

  1. Collaborating for a rising tide. Most of the startup CEOs I speak with are working hard to grow their business, but recognize that freelancing is still a relatively immature industry with cultural barriers to growth. The logic of “on demand” is clear, but most corporates haven’t recognized the value of a flexible, blended workforce. Many cultures still regard freelancers as second class professionals. And, most HR departments still consider their ‘clients’ to be full-time employees, not the full range of their workforce. Pulling together on a global scale, working together to inform and correct misperceptions, and build the reputation and credibility of the industry is will help the rising tide to rise faster than a lack of common purpose and effort. 
  2. Meeting freelancer’s big 5 needs. Freelancers need and expect help from their platform: (i) work (making a living), (ii) Frequent and ongoing opportunities to pitch for attractive, interesting, project work, (iii) Administrative and marketing support to manage and grow their business, (iv) Information and education on trends and help future-proofing their skills, and (v) Feeling and treated as part of a high performance community. But, the response has been fairly uneven, in part because many platform entrepreneurs are tech superstars, but have little prior management and startup experience. But, it’s also the case that some platforms have grown their freelance talent so large that only a small percentage experience real success. As a result, I’ve been asked on several occasions to mentor new CEOs, join their advisory boards, or set up mentoring relationships with more experienced CEOs. A founder’s club would help.  
  3. Helping client companies build successful freelance strategies. Just as freelancers have a “big 5” set of requirements for their marketplace, companies using freelancers regularly and building effective flexible blended workforces takes five factors: (i) a clear and well communicated strategy for how and when to use freelancers, (ii) a rigorous performance management system that sets S.M.A.R.T. goals, clear milestones, and regular two-way feedback, (iii) managers are trained to skillfully manage freelancers, which is not the same as full-time employees, (iv) freelancers are treated as part of the team, not second class citizens, (v) freelancers are administratively treated fairly and with respect (pay, communication, access to information they need to do the work expected of them). But, while some platforms like Toptal are teaching companies to work effectively with them, most are not. This is an obvious area where freelance platforms should work together for the common good.
  4. Working toward standards of best practice. The early platforms came together as job boards in the US, UK, India, and Denmark around 2007. Since then there have been several waves of marketplace startup activity. With each wave, the industry has learned something. For those of us watching the industry grow, there are evident green shoots of best practice. For example, YunoJuno in the UK offers a strong example of how to disrupt the traditional advertising agency. Catalant in the US, Flexing It in India, Expert 360 in Australia, and Worksome in Denmark have built strong marketplaces in the independent management consulting space. Toptal is a model of enterprise teaming, along with Hoxby in the UK, Toptal is also a master class in remote work, freelance talent management and community. Inex.one in Sweden has helped grow the next generation of expert network business.  New platforms like Contra and Venture L are pushing the marketplace industry into new territory by reimagining the platform as a network of relationships that support one another instead of the traditional hub and spokes. Omdena in India is extending freelancing into AI enabled FAST teaming in the non-profit world, and Spacely here in the US is bringing freelance talent to the last frontier. New tech has made stronger matching possible, reducing the time to find and hire the right freelancer for the job. And new areas of freelancing, like executive coaching at AceUp, are coming up fast. Best practice sharing doesn’t violate the competitive spirit of this industry; coopetition it makes us all smarter.
  5. Supporting one another in continuous improvement . Most talent marketplaces are small operations, many still working hard to raise money, build their talent base, and generate revenue. Individually they put on blogs and work with writers like myself to teach the world – both potential freelancers and potential customers – about the freelance revolution and how to make it work for them. Working together, this industry has the potential to support research and education that “lifts all boats”. For example, I’m working with several platforms together with Professor Gerald Cupchik, of the University of Toronto, a leading social psychological researcher, on a global study to better identify the qualities of top performing freelancers. Sound research is a crucial tool for the growth of this industry. Too often, quick and dirty studies, not well planned or executed, provide a sound bite or press release, but not real knowledge.
  6. Benefiting from global creativity. One of the most exciting aspects of the freelance revolution is its global nature. I’ve had the pleasure of introducing innovative African platforms like One Circle HR and Gebeya, Latin American startups like Consultok, and Asian marketplaces like TheNightMrkt in Singapore. One of the great opportunities available to startup leaders is to learn from one another’s experience in different parts of the world.
  7. Planning for a post Covid 19 world? We’re all in the midst of an extraordinary uncertainty: what will work look like as Covid exits, when it exits. It would be good for the entrepreneurs creating the digital talent marketplace industry to have a consistently high quality of insight. Remember, the world still faces the most destructive period of employment in our lifetime.

As I said at the beginning, I’m a writer and teacher, and an occasional angel investor. Not an organizer.  And, I’m excited to see other, larger, collaborations led by John Winsor of Open-Assembly to focus on the big picture of new work and open talent. This is a more modest proposal, and perhaps will “tuck in” or form part of a larger and more ambitious whole. But, I believe that, among the hundred plus entrepreneurs that I speak with, interview, and write about, there is an appetite for more collaboration – and perhaps an organized founder’s network – to help one another build the global market for freelancing?

I was pleased to recently learn that entrepreneur is derived from entrepôt, a port or place that connects people of common interest in commerce. It may be just what the entrepreneurs of this nascent industry are looking for to help one another jump to the next level.

Viva la revolution.

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