One of the questions I regularly get asked by freelance entrepreneurs is how to make their platform more sticky. Or more specifically, how can they make their platform more attractive to top performing freelancers. When top performers congregate in particular platforms, such as Toptal in tech, or YunoJuno in agency, Inex.One as an aggregator of expert networks, Talmix in management consulting, or Patreon among creatives, it naturally attracts other, similar, freelancers.
These platforms – and there are others I will mention below – do a better job than most platforms in managing talent and revenue leakage. Talent leakage is when a platform member leaves the platform as they gain some success. Revenue leakage is the loss of that individual’s revenue generation, but it’s also when platform members contract with clients outside the platform, denying the platform a return on its investment. Informal data suggests that most freelancers are members of 3-5 different platforms. That’s a problem on both sides of the two-sided marketplace. For freelancers it means that they tend not to commit to a platform, and invest little time and effort in helping to make the platform successful. Freelancers who don’t commit to their platform are reluctant to share opportunity or work with other platform members to “hunt in packs.” That reduces their effectiveness in sourcing work, and at scale, it significantly harms overall platform performance. It’s a vicious cycle.
My co-author Norm Smallwood and I first answered the question – what do top freelancers expect from their platform – in our book, Agile Talent. Since its publication in 2016, there has been a rapid expansion of regional and niche platforms in many areas, from diplomacy to pharma clinical trials management to satellite telemetry and AI. And, we’ve seen the growth of mega-platforms such as Freelancer.com which now boasts 50,000,000 members. Slightly larger in population than Spain!
Through my Forbes #freelancerevolution writing, I have a regular opportunity to speak with groups of freelancers on a pro bono basis. Most recently my conversations included an “ask Jon Younger anything about the freelance revolution” with freelance audiences in Copenhagen, Brussels, Moscow, and Boston. Inevitably the topic is raised: What leads top performers to commit to a platform or treat one platform as primary?
So, how can platforms establish a level of trust that builds commitment and engagement? My data continues to show that freelancers want five services from their platform, performed at a consistent level of quality: call them the big five commitment drivers. When platforms regularly and competently provide these services, and invest in their freelancer’s careers rather than inventorize them, freelancers stick and engage. We know that because platforms like Hoxby in the UK, Toptal and Contra in the US, Sneakers & Jackets in France, Appjobs in Sweden, Comatch in Germany, and Mash in Australia are among a number of excellent examples of high commitment platforms.
Here they are again, with additional examples:
Regular work. The number one priority of most freelancers is steady, interesting, work at an attractive rate of pay. Here’s the problem: platforms vary considerably in the percent of freelancers that obtain regular work. For example, the huge global platforms generate work for less than 5% of their platform members; a more typical percentage of regular work among platforms is between 10-30%, depending on the platform and area of expertise. By contrast, more focused and medium sized platforms are able to provide work for 10-30%, and some platforms like Hoxby, Toptal and Itarmi do better still. Smart platforms are always on the lookout for new ways to generate opportunity for freelancers. For example, Expert Powerhouse and Catalant offer consulting expertise but also access to an expert network which expands the opportunities available to their consultants. Experfy established a joint venture with Deloitte. theravenry has added writing to its analytic offering in Asia. Other independent consulting platforms offer interim management. Smart marketing platforms are offering brand audits to increase freelancer revenues.
A strong opportunity flow. A strong business measures more than revenues; trends are equally important. So do freelancers. They want work, but also want to know that their platform is robust and increasingly effective in its ability to offer an attractive and ongoing flow of interesting work for which freelancers are qualified. This lends to a virtuous cycle of growth, the inverse of the vicious cycle mentioned earlier. When a platform earns the commitment of its freelancers, they generate an increased willingness of freelancers to actively seek opportunity, and work with colleagues to generate more complex and lucrative projects, and share their relationships. The starting point here is trust, based on platform performance over time and incentives for sharing and “hunting in packs”. Platforms like Vicoland in Germany and Freelancingteams.com in the US organize freelancers into teams (VICO stands for “virtual organization”) and more effectively seek work through collaborative effort. Platforms like Contra and Hoxby go further, hiring their own freelancers to do the work of the platform, rather than hiring full time staff. Worksome offers a different example: by expanding internationally, they are providing more opportunity to their freelancers. Outsized has undertaken a similar approach by focusing on financial services in Asia, a source of new opportunity. NC Partners in France has expanded into Morocco and Northern Africa. And NS.work connects South African freelancers to European clients, creating meaningful growth for their African freelancers.
Help with business-of-one fundamentals. Almost a quarter of freelancers, according to research by Emergent Research, are budding entrepreneurs. They want to build a business that is larger than themselves, and interested in learning how to manage the levers of business. But, a larger percentage of freelancers are what we call solopreneurs, and are eager to delegate as much of the work of managing the administration of their business to the platform: invoicing, getting paid, compliance with government regulations, planning for taxes. And, they are looking for help in becoming a better solopreneur with help in establishing a brand, marketing their capabilities, and dealing with issues like insurances and saving for a rainy day. The platforms that provide this help with excellence– and go one step further, for example, helping with a profile – reinforce the commitment of their freelancers. This is not to say that freelance platforms need to reinvest these services: companies like Payoneer, Collective a new startup in the US, CollectiveBenefit in the UK, and Cool Company in Sweden offer these services to platforms. Think of it as their administrative “Intel inside.”
Future-proofing skills. I’ve written about this important topic a couple of times. High performing freelancers understand the importance of future-proofing both their technical and professional skills; their income and prospects depend on keeping up. They also know that work is won on the basis of hard technical skills, but often lost as a result of weak professional skills in areas like communication, time management, and teamwork. Top freelance platforms understand the importance of investing in the competence of their freelancers. Hoxby, for example, has appointed a director of future-proofing to help freelancers continue to grow. Toptal goes further, providing regular education, offering scholarships for freelancers to learn new tech, and provides freelancers with both opportunity and editorial help writing on the platform’s Engineering and Finance blogs. Gebeya in Africa provides training to their freelancers. OnceCircle HR, also in Africa, focused on HR professionals, brings their freelancers together for market updates and information on areas of increasing client interest and demand. Matt Mottola, founder of Venture L, regularly meets with freelancers in small groups to provide updates and support. Mash in Australia enables younger freelancers to work closely with their more senior CMO caliber freelancers, and benefit from the mentorship that follow. Weem in France provides a similar connection between their more senior and junior independent consultants, improving the ability of juniors to learn from more experienced colleagues, and generate greater opportunity. Comatch provides a similar service to their platform members.
Feeling part of a community that matters. It’s no surprise that the fifth and final factor that drives platform loyalty is how seriously platforms build a sense of community. Freelancing is a lonely art, and most platforms are organized in a hub and spokes architecture. In practical terms, that means platforms are tilted to operate more as talent inventories (think job boards) than providing the mutual support and defines productive relationships. Strong platforms work hard to make freelancers feel part of a shared virtual neighborhood. For example, platforms like Kolabtree, Lifeschhub and g2i.co regularly survey their platform members to better understand how to support them. The importance of affiliation – feeling part – extends to enterprises who build private or “white label” platforms, for example, PwC’s Talent Exchange, or Deloitte’s Pixel network. Just as with commercial platforms, smart enterprise platforms actively invest in building relationships with their top freelancers, by providing regular work, but also by treating them as members of the extended enterprise, offering access to training and keeping them well-informed about the enterprise and its issues and needs. In short, they invest in the loyalty of their freelancers, rather than take that loyalty for granted. Other platforms take still different routes to create community. Omdena, for example, actively engages platform members in projects that solve difficult social and environmental issues. Platforms like Contra and Braintrust base membership on the recommendation of current members and, like Clubhouse, are only open by invitation, building in community from the selection process onward. The Vendry supports its community by providing an events news channel, hosts meetups and virtual conferences, and maintains the most comprehensive schedule of events on behalf of the events industry. Some platforms like Rise are using Crypto currency as a form of payment to attract top freelancers.
In short, these Big Five Drivers of freelancer commitment continue to be the foundation of a successful platform over the long term, and a successful relationship between freelancers and platforms. But, we are on the cusp of learning a great deal more about what works and what doesn’t in detail. Together with Professor Gerald Cupchik of the University of Toronto, we have invited 75 small and medium sized platforms – representing all major markets, geographies, and areas of independent professionalism – to participate in the first significant global study of freelancing (note. For more information on the Global Survey on Freelancing, contact me on Linkedin). Through this global study, we look forward to sharing more specific insights with Forbes readers on the factors that bind freelancers to the platforms they depend on, what makes for freelance friendly client environments, and how top freelancers achieve economic success and career satisfaction. More soon on this important topic.
Viva la revolution!
HR thought leader, author, teacher and early stage investor. Writing about the freelance revolution and the future of work. Books include HR From the Outside In, HR