Most of us engaged in the freelance revolution, and certainly the entrepreneurs building the next generation of talent marketplaces, are problem solvers first and foremost. We all enjoy celebrity examples of the “must solve” orientation of business creators: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak driven to build the computer for the “rest of us.” Elon Musk preserving the environment for future generations and building better ways to transport people above and below ground. Freddie Laker, the creator of Laker Airlines, the first budget airline, saw the need for budget travel around the same time Herb Kelleher felt a similar urge at Southwest: make air travel more affordable for more people.
These are the big ticket problems, for which there are few individuals capable of creating a solution. But, the world is full of smaller more tractable problems and we are grateful for the creative and hard-working individuals for whom that problem is a “can’t stop” opportunity.
There turns out to be an excellent model in nature for a particular category of problem solving that ought to be calling out to freelancers. I’m inclined to call it the Remora Strategy, and not alone in doing so; thanks to Don Dodge for describing an early version several years ago, and Srinavasan R for his recent expansion of these ideas in an excellent blog post.
For those of you who aren’t expert on fish beyond Sushi preferences, the Remora is a small fish whose front dorsal fins have evolved to enable them to adhere by suction. Thus, a Remora spends its life clinging physically to a larger host like a whale. It is a mutualistic arrangement; in business we would say synergistic. The Remora aids the host by removing ectoparasites while benefiting from the Whale’s protection and eating the crumbs of its meals.
Meet Remora strategist and freelance entrepreneur Susan Marshall and her freelance platform, Torchlite. Her insight was that Salesforce.com – the Whale – was unable to provide its smallest customers with the same assistance and service that its larger enterprise customers received. Susan proposed a new unit of Salesforce to do exactly that: focus on the specific and unique needs of SMB (small and medium sized businesses) customers of Salesforce. Her boss,
Scott McCorkle, CEO of Salesforce Marketing Cloud, loved the idea, but saw the business potential insufficient to be of priority internally. Marshall recounted the exchange. “He said, ‘We probably won’t do it, but somebody should service these customers. You build it and I’ll be your first investor.’ He was true to his word and now our executive chairman.”
Whales don’t necessarily seek out and recruit Remoras, but, in some cases, the extension of a company’s service through a freelance support and service ecosystem is an explicit aspect of strategy. Take, for example, what Workday says about Workday Services Partners on its website: “(They) are essential to Workday’s growth and success. They are a key part of our go-to-market strategy and play a critical role in helping companies gain value from their Workday investments. In fact, a majority of our customers deploy Workday using our services partners. These partners are trained extensively on Workday products as well as on the tools and methods that enable fast, efficient deployment and ongoing adoption of new capabilities.” Workday’s largest implementation partners are the Big 4 consultancies – definitely not Remoras – but also include many smaller organizations that depend on individual freelancers for specialized expertise or to fill out the project team.
Salesforce, has a strong service partner network as well; in fact, there is even a Salesforce Partner Community that connects service partners to one another. But, Salesforce had not built out much of a support and implementation ecosystem when Susan Marshall had her epiphany in 2015. What she envisioned was a talent marketplace where SMB Salesforce customers could find fully certified salesforce freelance experts without the increased cost of working with consultancies and agencies. It was an excellent example of my version of key principles of the Remora strategy, what I call the four “Be’s”:
- Be too small to look too tasty to the Whale
- But, be important enough and good enough to be of value to the Whale
- Be successful, but not successful enough to attract the Whale as a competitor instead of a benefactor or partner (think Amazon here)
- Be alert to other Whales
Torchlite has prospered. And Marshall attributes its success to its implementation of four principles:
- Love the Whale. Marshall had the advantage of coming from the Salesforce organization, and Torchlite’s success has benefited from her relationships with Salesforce’s sales representatives, the customer success team, and with the Salesforce Essentials team that was focused on small business products and services. As she put it in our interview, “We’ve made sure to be closely connected and responsive to the sales and customer success team. It’s been a critical source of clients.”
- Solve the customer’s problem. Marshall found out early that the greatest opportunity was helping small business owners and office managers work through the complexity of Salesforce products. She explained, “As a Salesforce tech leader, I kept hearing small business customer employees say, ‘I’m going to get fired because I bought the system and it’s so hard to use. Agency partners are too expensive for a company our size. Can you recommend a certified freelancer?”
- Turn gigs into relationships. Marshall explained, “Small businesses never have just one problem, but you need to build trust. We normally start out providing a freelancer to solve a specific ‘pain’ point (help me move my data) but it typically ends up leading to a relationship that can turn into a small team of freelancers that continue intermittently for years.”
- Stay in your lane. On occasion, Torchlite has worked with larger companies, establishing so-called enterprise relationships. But, overall, Torchlite sees its strategy as continuing to focus on the needs of startups, small and emerging medium (SMB) businesses. The challenge: As Marshall puts it, “Retention is tougher when dealing with SMB businesses, particularly these days.”
Remora strategies like Torchlite offer unique opportunity in the freelance revolution, and not only in the tech sphere. Brokerage firms regularly utilize third party investment analysts to curate unique funds for their clients. The movie industry is built on a network of independent producers hiring freelancers in a wide range of areas, from food service to CGI. Events freelancers are tightly connected to sponsoring organizations like the UN. There is hardly an industry where you will not find a Remora strategy in application.
But not all freelance Remora relationships succeed. Even discounting the probability of another pandemic in our lifetime (which we ought not do), It’s a tough sled to create a thriving partnership that continues over time. Srinivasan mentions a number of watch outs for Remoras. Building on his analysis, the challenges fall into four buckets:
- Loss of identity: It’s the fundamental dilemma for the Remora. It depends on its relationship to the Whale for its brand, but faces the prospect of getting too close in its reputation and operations. The result: the startup loses its distinct identity and becomes “another” sub-brand in the shadow of the Whale.
- Loss of control: Whales think about their needs, not the Remoras. And, Whale decisions may force changes to the products and services of the startup, or create new competition, or increase costs, or force it to make new and significant investments to keep up. Loss of control is also a factor in exit decisions, where the Whale has a strong or dominant role in accepting a change of relationship.
- Loss of revenue: Whales are likely to make decisions that impact startup revenue sources or profitability; for example, the Whale may decide to charge for a formerly free service on which the startup depends as a service to its customers, or offer a service for free that the Remora depended on for its profitability.
- Loss of insight: Loss of insight occurs when the Whale owns or controls the startup’s user data. Srinivasan gives the example of restaurant chains in India: “In India, these delivery platforms do not even pass on basic user profiles like demographics or addresses to the restaurants. The restaurants are left with their limited understanding … for whom they can generate no meaningful insights or even consumption patterns.”
Torchlite is a strong example of a freelance marketplace that has successfully implemented a Remora strategy in support of its Whale, Salesforce.com. It has operationalized a clear and customer centric approach to supporting SMB customers of Salesforce who need support – writers, designers, and cloud experts – but on an on-demand basis and an affordable price point. And, in these days of Covid 19, it’s good to know that a company is providing economic as well as career opportunity for its 250 freelancers.
Are you creating a freelance revolution startup implementing a Remora strategy? If so, let me know by writing to me at Linkedin. I’m eager to hear more ways that freelancers are making use of this strategy, and what’s working and not. And who knows, it could be a #freelancerevolution article in Forbes.
Viva la revolution!