Let’s Grow The Freelancing Pie

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In conversations with freelance platform leaders these days, discussions usually turn to a few topics. The first is funding. Many startups were in the midst of funding negotiations when the VC investment community largely shut down. It’s put many early-stage marketplaces at risk and forced others to reduce cost, staff, or ambition. And, it’s led platform leaders to seek alternative funding sources and accept lower valuations. That means less leadership time on the real value generators.

Freelance platforms are also frustrated by a talent supply challenge. Talent demand is far greater than supply in some areas, especially tech. We regularly read about 60 million freelancers in the U.S. but the majority are side-giggers: moonlighting full-time employees. Side-giggers are well situated for smaller, shorter projects, but large corporates prefer full-time freelancers who lack the constraints and conflicts that often limit side-giggers. Top talent is hard to find.

The third regular frustration is competition. More startups piled in the past two years. Competing for freelance talent is challenging and time consuming. More enterprise clients are fast becoming “coopetitors” by creating proprietary direct-sourced freelance platforms like Deloitte, EY and PwC. Under pressure themselves, VCs have pushed their portfolio companies to accelerate, driving competition. We’ve also seen big purchases such as Fiverr.com’s acquisition of Stoketalent.com, large mergers like Malt.com and Comatch.com, the emergence of full-continuum staffing companies like WorkGenius.com, and several important international platforms like Worksome.com, YunoJuno.com and Vicoland.com enter the U.S.

It’s an interesting moment for the freelance revolution. Two paths lay ahead. One is for platforms to compete ever more aggressively for their share of the pie. That would be the null choice.

There is a second path. Instead of solely focusing energy into competing, a better approach might combine competition with collaboration in key areas that accelerate progress and grows the pie.

The potential is huge. While freelancing is growing, it remains a rounding error in the global staffing industry. Freelancers are often regarded as an “on demand” supplement, not core element of a modern workforce architecture. Individual freelancers continue to struggle with being paid fairly and on time as a recent U.K. study found. HR, the media, and government, fail to fully recognize freelancing professionalism and expertise, and continue to emphasize full-time employment. While innovators like Unilever and UST are creating flexible, blended, workforces, most companies don’t know how to utilize freelancers at scale.

Freelancing can enlarge the pie, creating a rising tide. But freelance industry leaders must engage with one another to take the actions and initiatives needed to show key stakeholders the full benefits of freelancing at a societal level. And, we must show a larger community of professionals how full-time freelancing offers them an attractive future.

What will that take? I suggest seven areas of focus:

We can band together. More freelance platforms are working together. As more freelance platforms work internationally, collaboration counts. Mash, an Australian marketing innovator, has built a network of Asian, European and U.S. experts to serve global clients. U.S. based G2i.co and Netherlands based Qommunity.net similarly depend on collaborative relationships to meet client obligations. Ollo.is, a successful Brazil-based platform, joined forces with Bpool.co, a larger firm that offered the scale and resources to support their ambitious vision. Banding together formally and informally enlarges the potential of every platform.

We can meet. Peter McPartin and Una Herlihy, Co-CEOs of Ireland’s Indielist.ie, offers regular community meetups, and this month the topic is living through the recession. U.K.’s Hoxby.com similarly prioritizes engaging with platform members. These events build local ownership, the foundation of any movement. But we can also aim higher. For example, Outvise.com and several other Spanish platform leaders recently formed an association called R-Evolution Summit to grow the market. Underpinned.com’s CEO Albert Azis-Clauson recently announced a new UK Association for the Future of Work that has won early support. Upwork.com now holds an annual conference that draws partners from all over the world. Platform leaders in Africa and Latam are in the early planning stages of hosting similar events in 2023. As industry relationships become more robust, growth follows.

We can teach clients to be better clients. Survey data shows that many client companies are not “ready for prime time” in working effectively with freelancers. More platforms recognize this obstacle and are providing executive workshops and other training to help clients become better buyers. The Global Survey on Freelancing, co-sponsored by the University of Toronto, found fewer than half of freelancers saw clients as “knowing how to work well” with freelancers. Too many had unrealistic expectations of freelance project deliverables, budgets and timelines. And too few internal client project managers were skilled at leading blended teams. Improving client competence is necessary, will generates greater opportunity, create a better experience, and attract talented professionals to full-time freelancing.

We can share. The freelance revolution is making good progress on sharing. Freelancebusiness.eu, the Belgian company, provides an amazing month of professional education. Proteams.com in Denmark shares opportunity with Upwork.com and Worksome.com in serving common clients. 9am, a German platform, shares opportunity with partners like Uplink.tech. Open-Assembly.com, as a town square for the global freelance community, brings together freelance leaders for regular discussion of trends and challenges. Sharing also includes greater collaboration with ecosystem partners like Mybasepay.com and Payoneer.com in providing freelancer services. More than 80% of full-time professionals are interested in full-time freelancing, but fearful of income volatility, the loss of attractive employer benefits, and concerns of loneliness. Platforms like Honeybook.com are leading the way in this area. Greater sharing across platforms, and will ecosystem partners, will drive freelancer success and attract more full-time freelancers.

We can agree on standards. There has always been a counter-cultural aspect to freelancing. But as freelancing grows, the importance of common standards and definitions increases. Work is starting on several fronts. For example, Open-Assembly.com’s non-profit Center for the Transformation of Work is working with the global platform community to beta-test a survey process that enables top performing platforms to achieve public recognition as “trusted platform partners”. Data privacy and data security are a focus area for standards and common definitions. And let’s agree on language. Freelancers and gigsters are easily confused labels. And, as Oz Alon, CEO of Honeybook.com explains, many solopreneurs reject the freelancer label and see themselves as “independent business owners” which, of course, they are. As freelancing grows, a common lingua franca is increasingly needed.

We can tell our story. Rich Wilson, CEO of Scotland’s Gigged.ai is a master of storytelling, renting a multi-story billboard in central London after their first money raise, and getting invited to TV’s “Shark Tank”. He offers a great example of the value of keeping the freelance revolution in front of our audiences. Worksome.com is contributing by producing a video. The Human Cloud and Ivy are among podcasters telling the freelance story. Fiverr.com is campaigning for an international freelancer day. Underpinned.com and FreeelancerClub.net are working with local U.K. universities. There’s even been a TV show called “Freelancers.” Remember, the ultimate challenge of the freelance revolution is to make the choice to be or hire a freelancer ordinary, not unusual; an obvious and reasonable rather than a risky decision. The long-term success of the freelance revolution relies on how convincingly we tell the story.

Finally, we can get more freelancers working. 60% of freelancers have sufficient work according to the Global Survey on Freelancing and are satisfied with their income. But 30% of freelancers are frustrated and lack the skills or support to succeed. We have the tools and knowledge to help more freelancers do so but must make the tools widely available to grow the pie. And, we can continue to connect and encourage buyers and sellers, something that common standards will help us to do. For example, engaging South African freelance developers to work remotely for EU clients, as NS. work does, or creating opportunity for Latam professionals as Mybasepay.com does, provides an attractive living for the freelancers, and helps nourish the confidence and prosperity of the tech communities they support.

Let’s grow the pie. Viva la revolution!



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