Building The Virtual Town Square
We are nearing the dog days of summer here in NYC and it’s a good – no, necessary – season for dreaming about the future. Dreaming is, I think, the right word in these pandemic times. In fact, I own a painting by Thomas Pender, a little known but wonderful Australian aboriginal artist, that represents Dreamtime, if I’ve used the term correctly. Like any good piece of art, it invites reflection.
In my case, I’ve benefited from a delightful opportunity to reflect on the future of digital talent marketplaces with Erik Stetler, the chief economist of Toptal and venture capitalist. He and I share the view that, as organizations accelerate their adoption of the flexible, blended workforce, the best platforms will operate in ways that bring professionals together, and support both shared commercial opportunity and collective innovation. Erik has been a great thought partner. While we may disagree on some of the details, we share a view that in future – and this is Erik’s helpful metaphor – the best freelance platforms are virtual town squares.
Let’s start with the image. A town square is full of life, activity, and commerce. Stores selling products and services, customers looking and buying, cafés full of old and new patrons, busy parents with kids, busy kids with kids, and conversation everywhere.
In a world where more and more work is conducted on a remote and distributed basis, and certainly where activity is globally distributed, the digital talent marketplace should be a place where part- and full-time freelancers, and clients and colleagues, commune.
What might that look like in practical terms? We already have many indications on how the future may develop from current digital talent marketplaces. These seem to come together as 7 themes for the best of future platforms:
- Letting go of hub and spokes. A number of new marketplaces are rethinking the basic architecture of marketplaces: from connecting buyers to sellers through a hub and spokes organizational design to a community of communities. Said differently, open up the funnel. Up and coming platforms like Contra, Braintrust and Venture L are set up to support interaction and shared opportunity among teams and communities and, therefore, trying to gain a larger slice of the 95% of freelance work that comes through relationships and reputations, rather than digital pipes. More and more talent marketplaces will recognize that energizing the F2F (freelancer to freelancer) market and lubricating a greater network effect is potentially far more lucrative than relying on P2F (platform to freelancer) alone.
- Treating talent as an asset, not as inventory. Whether a multi-million member mega-platform like Upwork, Fiverr or Freelancer.com, or more specialized like an AceUp in executive coaching, or Rise in design and writing, the short history of digital talent marketplaces is the myth that more is more: more talent on the platform and more areas of expertise. Post-Covid 19 excellence requires a different reality: a profound belief that the talent on the platform is the asset, not the talent supply chain; the tech potential is spectacular, but only insofar as it delivers the talent – individual or team – that clients need. Firms like Toptal and Hoxby demonstrate the importance of selecting talent carefully, supporting talent extensively, contributing to their development, and delivering enough interesting work to ensure their freelancers’ loyalty. When talent is treated as the organization’s most important asset, individual freelancers are more likely to engage with and trust other “top talent”, and generate more of the network effect.
- Welcoming more kinds of freelancer relationships. As freelancing is established as a legitimate career, a greater range and variety of freelance careers will flourish. Some will be career portfolios that conjoin freelance and professional or executive roles; for example, I was part-time SVP and chief learning officer of a major US bank. Others will find it common to move in and out of freelancing and corporate or public sector roles, as government officials move in and out of think tanks. Still others will cap off a career with a move into freelancing: Independent Diplomat provides a path for former State Department and Foreign Office experts to advise and educate after retirement, and the ADP research institute wrote recently about senior freelancers noting that, in the US, the percentage of freelancers who are the 55+ is nearing 30%. Interim executive gigs will be more common as the need for experienced executives outstrips supply. And many, many professionals will benefit from the opportunity to do side-gigs in addition to their full-time jobs. For example, expert networks ranging from Superforecasters to the aggregator site Inex.One, provide subscription or pay-as-you-go advice and insight of specialists in a wide range of industries and technologies. Most engagements are under two hours. By contrast, marketplaces like Experfy in AI, Expert360 and Flexing It are building long term relationships for their clients through tie-ups with consultancies or VMS channels, and building career bridges between these partnering organizations e.g., Experfy and Deloitte.
- Providing more freelancer help and guidance in managing their business. A new and very specialized marketplace was recently created by HBS students: band together as a buying community to get the best rates on student loans. The Leveredge model suggests a powerful way platforms can support their members: creating buying group leverage for products and services that freelancers need. With most platforms having large numbers of freelance members on their platform, it’s an obvious win/win: both the platform and members can share the cost savings. Contra, in fact, sees it as a key part of their offer to teams and communities. One easily imagines a time when platform members have access to an ecosystem of benefits, and a greater ability to plan meaningfully for the future. Collective Benefits and FreelancerClub.com are good examples of how a broader suite of services and benefits is likely to evolve.
- Defining and sharing best practice across the platform. Where Erik reimagined the marketplace as a town square, I riffed off that thought and was taken to Aristotle’s Lyceum. John Winsor, founder of Open Assembly and a fellow Forbes contributor, has organized a unique virtual salon that brings ‘future of work’ executives, scholars and thought leaders together for sharing and co-creation. Staffing.com, the creation of Taso Du Val, CEO of Toptal, and Paul Estes, former senior director at Microsoft, have created a meaningful center of education and engagement around the topic of remote work. Go Floaters has done likewise in its co-work spaces, offering peer-to-peer exchange and education. Remote-how has annually led the drive to remote work with its impressive, multi-day, virtual conferences on everything remote. YunoJuno.com, Worksome.com, and FreelancerClub.com, are examples of platforms that are partnering with co-learning sites like Jolt.io or Coursera to deliver regular technical and professional learning and development opportunities. Independent management consulting platforms Weem in France, and Comatch in Germany, have taken it a step further, connecting more junior independent consultants on their site with more senior consultants to provide informal mentoring. Hoxby in the UK has created the role of director of future proofing to ensure the skillset of the Hoxby community remains strong and on trend. Gebeya in Ethiopia offers ongoing technical training and business development guidance to their freelance community. Future proofing, I think, is a key requirement for the post-Covid 19 freelance platform.
- Becoming an innovation center. Mike Morris and the team at Topcoder shows the potential for platforms of talent to be platforms of innovation in their annual innovation summits, and more recently in their sponsorship of the Topcoder’s “challenge for good anti-cononavirus hackathon.” a Comet, in France, working with the flash teams methodology from Stanford Engineering School, shows how teams of “skilled professionals who have probably never met before and may work on different continents, but who can turn a napkin sketch into a product within days or weeks.” And Superforecasters, mentioned earlier, is showing how freelance teams of highly accurate superforecasters are able to accelerate the solution to challenging industry and technology problems. These examples, and others, point to a new way that freelancing platforms will contribute in future: not “supplementing” internal staff; instead, providing a powerful but different methodology for rapid innovation.
- Investing in client education. Covid 19 was the ultimate persuasion that remote work could be as or more productive, engaged and well managed as the traditional office or campus. But, technology has mooted time and geography, and the perceived and real difference between a remote employee and a remote freelancer continues to shrink. Add to this the cost of full-time versus on demand employment, and it’s no surprise that more and more companies are choosing to adopt a flexible, blended, workforce model. But, implementation of the new model of work is a cultural as well as operational transformation, and needs to be thoughtfully managed. The best future digital talent platform will operate both as marketer and teacher, working closely with companies and third party partners to architect the change and help organizations establish the conditions for success. Educational initiatives like Toptal’s “Suddenly Remote Playbook” or Remote-how’s Remote Academy play a potentially key role in helping both corporates and non-profit organizations learn to successfully shift to a remote and distributed team environment.
Viva la revolution!
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