Freelancing 2021: The Trends I See For The Freelance Revolution
Jon Younger Contributor Forbes
"Although a gift borne in tragedy, the forced shift to remote has proven feasible (because of tech), attractive (people like it), and productive (data). It has also been a freelance accelerator."
The acceptance of remote work will continue to lubricate freelancing. (especially in Asia). Although a gift borne in tragedy, the forced shift to remote has proven feasible (because of tech), attractive (people like it), and productive (data). It has also been a freelance accelerator. In truth, as I’ve written before, the difference between a freelancer and an employee shrinks to almost nothing when they are both working remotely. Feasibility is the result of technological improvements in communication like Zoom, Whereby, and Slack, and pre-pandemic experience with freelancing, and software advances that improve speed, connectivity, and monitoring of productivity. As Jay Desai, CEO of Stratlancer in India explains, “In countries like India, businesses are growing comfortable with remote freelance management consultants like our platform. It’s a significant change for the better, and will drive more freelance careers.”
Small is beautiful too. Up until a few years ago, freelance platforms seemed to think the bigger the platform the better. And, there are some things that mega platforms like Freelancer, Fiverr and Upwork do better than others because of the network effect. But, small can also be beautiful too, and we are seeing more and more platforms built as a professional neighborhood managed inclusively and personally. Examples are We-cruit (Denmark), Hoxby (UK), Indie List (Ireland), PR Cavalry (Scotland) and 10XManagement (US). As Rishon Blumberg, co-founder of 10X explained, “We were talent agents for Rock and Rollers, and tried to identify the next generation of rock stars. It was tech stars. And, that took us here. Never looked back.”
Are we selling labor or outcomes? Is a platform like Catalant the inevitable child of Spencer Stuart, the executive recruiting firm, or Boston Consulting Group, the eminent management consultancy? A recurring debate among platform leaders is whether freelance platforms offer a marketplace without obligation – enabling buyers and sellers of time and expertise to contract – or is there a promise of outcome, the result for which client companies are paying. Obviously it depends on the work and the field, but more and more, platforms like Callum Adamson’s Distributed in the U.K. are warranting the outcome through managed freelance teams, not just the time and effort. It’s a game changer.
Teaming and “hunting in packs” enables freelancing to compete for larger, more complex, enterprise work. More platforms are encouraging teams and teamwork among freelancers on the platform. There are various experiments at play: Studios @ Fiverr, VICOs (virtual organizations) at Vicoland in Germany, full-stack marketing teams @ Marteamo (US), Mash (Australia), and Vrootok (Macedonia), FAST teams @ Virtasant (US) and Comet (France), and encouragement of individuals banding together for mutual interest or gain in platforms like Experfy in AI (US) and independent management consulting platforms like Outsized (UK) and Comatch (Germany).
The relationship between platform team and freelancer is still a work in progress. Should platforms charge freelancers for membership in their platform? Some do, others don’t. There doesn’t seem a correlation with work won or lost, but some platforms definitely offer greater support to their freelancers than others; for example sharing business trends, offering premium services e.g., business growth coaching, education, PR and pricing support, and blogging opportunities. Again, some provide one or more of these aids without charge, others do. Then there are some interesting variations, for example, Kronos pays in crypto, which some freelancers find attractive.
HR is no longer MIA on the freelance revolution, but not yet leading the parade. We all know that HR is an important player on the demand side of the freelance revolution. But, HR is still relatively stuck for three reasons. First, HR tends to follow not lead, and corporate leaders haven’t yet fully embraced the flexible, blended workforce. Second, HR professionals are more or less excellent at administering and developing aw workforce, but not so much in designing a workforce or analyzing the workforce in a strategic, business savvy, way. Third, HR continues to see its role and its path to advancement as tending to full-time employees and managers, not the total workforce.
The era of hub and spokes platform design is nearing its end. Most freelance platforms are designed in a hub and spokes format. That means the center – the platform team – have relationships (more or less) with platform talent, but the platform is designed not to encourage relationships among members. That’s a problem because most smart people in this space think less than 10% of total freelance spending goes through platform website landing pages. The rest transits through relationships. Platforms can get more of the total spend by incenting its members to share their leads, hunt in packs, and provide a greater number of members with freelance work. In the next trend, I’ll talk more about how different platforms are trying to build communities rather than talent inventories.
Many platforms are experimenting with how to build and scale a community. I’ve noticed four different approaches to building and scaling a community. First, startups like Contra and VentureL are focused on building communities by relying on an invitation only approach, creating a network of talent relationships. That supports sharing leads, hunting in packs, and working together. Freelancing Teams and Vicoland take a different approach; they see the future of freelancing as team based and support the creation of teams that are ready-to-go. Hoxby and Toptal offer a third approach: selectively welcome new talent through an application and testing process (Toptal is famously known for focusing on the top 3% of applicants) and, for those who make the cut, offer a range of support services (profile help, webinars, tech and soft skills training, hiring freelancers for internal platform work. Omdena and Topcoder have found success in a fourth approach: bring platform members together to work on important shared initiatives. For example, Topcoder created a Covid 19 hackathon to identify ways the freelance community might contribute to a cure. Omdena brings together larger groups of AI professionals to solve social problems e.g., reducing rural family violence during a famine. Then there’s the four approach: stay small as I mentioned early.
This is a particularly creative time as freelance platforms adapt to Covid 19 economic reality, and try different combinations. Expert Powerhouse offers both independent management consultants and also maintains an expert network. Catalant is also developing an expert network to supplement its consulting services. 10X Management and Ascend (US) focuses on both expert tech freelancers and provides a recruiting service for freelancers who are interested in going full-time, and enterprises looking for top talent. Adequancy (France) offers a similar approach – providing both freelancers and interim (long term) employees, as does Ferovalo (Finland). MeasureMatch brings together tech and marketing freelancers to provide support in digital marketing transformation. Gebeya combines tech freelancing with both a training offering to help freelancers get started, and has experimented with the idea of an accelerator. Platforms are also experimenting with new relationships, for example: Experfy and Deloitte, and Freelancer.com and Arrow Electronics.
Supporting top performers. Some platforms are testing whether a more focused approach to supporting top performing talent will accelerate growth. Fiverr Pro offers additional services to its high performing platform members. MBO Partners also provides a similar coaching service to selected platform talent. It’s logical that more platforms will begin to focus more effort on the top 20% of freelancers, hoping that it will retain the loyalty of top performers and, if successful, will lead to a tide that lifts more boats.
Freelancing is becoming a respected alternative career. Even in Japan and the Nordics, among the last to accept freelancing as a legitimate career, there are signs that the ice is melting. Meet Worksome and Workstable (Denmark), Outsized (Sweden and UK), and Folq (Norway). Until recently, freelancers in too many parts of the world were seen as also ran, not able to attract a good full-time job. Covid 19 effectively shut down that perspective. We still have troublesome employment and tax policies in much of the world, and in many countries (including the US) it can be difficult to find good quality, reasonably priced, health insurance. But, we are also seeing record numbers of professionals choosing a freelance career over full-time employment.
Investors are increasingly interested in investing in freelance startups, and opening their checkbooks. Last week I heard back from one of the platforms I’d written about, thanking me and mentioning that the article was a factor in growing investor interest. That’s great news for them, a freelance platform in SE Asia, and another vote of confidence in freelancing in that part of the world. It’s also, increasingly, the story I hear all over as well, in Africa, India, across eastern and western Europe and the UK, and certainly in the US. The impact of Covid 19 on freelancing increased investor confidence in the future of the freelance revolution. We’re also seeing more freelance concepts attracting interest by top incubators and accelerators.
Expect more professions to incorporate freelancing, and an expanding universe of platforms. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve written often about interesting professional expansions of freelancing. Law and accounting were predictable, for example InCloudCounsel (US) and Toptal offering a full lineup of accounting and finance professionals, including experienced I bankers and venture capitalists. But we’ve seen an expanding freelance universe, disrupting traditional agencies and consultancies, as well as providing a new source of diplomats, space engineers, project managers, architects, event planners and staff, PR professionals, R&D scientists, pharma trials QA experts, yoga and fitness instructors, writers, medical doctors, executive coaches, therapists, capital raisers, sales experts, and even masseurs. The list goes on: few areas of business don’t see the potential for freelancing to expand their ranks.
Will consolidation follow growth? By some counts, there are already 800-1000 freelance platforms. 1-2 new startups reach out to me each week, and I discover another 1-2 more, also weekly, in my research and conversations with others, so it’s not farfetched to imagine a global total above 1000. While this is a period of tremendous growth and enthusiasm, on trend companies, like NYC real estate, moves from boom to bust. We can also expect that many of these new companies will not make it for various reasons – unable to attract capital, traditional and freelance competition, and difficulty building a strong talent base – are three reasons we can expect consolidation to, as some point, follow the growth.
Full acceptance of the flexible, blended workforce is still in the distance. Matt Dowling and the team at the FreelancerClub in the UK noticed an interesting trend in their research: freelancers often frustrated startup teams for not seeming invested in the larger, longer, mission of the company. Its a common complaint: freelancers are transactional, and appear disinterested in the company and its challenges. But, it’s a two sided coin: “on demand” is often a gig that leads nowhere. I’m eager for a time when organizational leaders and project managers establish freelance relationships that are more symmetrical, create a win/win on both sides, and do the hard work of on-boarding them properly, paying them fairly, including them as a member of the team, and administratively treating them with respect. As this happens, and as HR professionals become skilled in architecting open system workforces, we’ll see a greater acceptance of the flexible, blended workforce.
Finally, More variety in the breadth and depth of services offered. The early experiments in freelancing were job boards, and typically broad in terms of the verticals they’ve served. But these days there are an increasing number of categories for freelancing. Here’s my take and a few illustrative platforms:
Crowd-Sourced Solutions – FAST NPD, Prototyping, Superforecasting, AI-Supported Problem Solving
PR and Marketing Communication
Industry Verticals – Energy, Engineering and Construction, Pharma, Satellite
Service Verticals – Law, Medicine, Surgery, Diplomacy, Architecture, Accounting, Engineering, Science
Retail Service Verticals - Yoga and Fitness, Massage
Ramoras – Partnerships with Salesforce, Netsuite, Slack, Workday
Creatives aka patronage
Happy holidays, best wishes for 2021 and, of course: Viva la revolution!