The freelance revolution has an identity problem, resulting from spectacular growth. Over the past decade or so, starting with pioneers like Elance and oDesk (merged to create Upwork), we’ve seen – and I’ve described in my book Agile Talent – the emergence of freelancing as an accepted alternative career path, supported by the proliferation of digital talent marketplaces or, freelance platforms. And they are growing, innovating, differentiating, and diversifying at a fast clip. Smart observers like John Healy of Kelly OGC and John Winsor of Open Assembly have estimated the number above several hundred.
Over time, the ecosystem of freelancing has birthed several personalities of platform. Size and professional focus are probably the most influential factors. As for size, large global platforms like Upwork, Freelancer.com and Fiverr provide a functional cornucopia of independent professionals and gigsters; large regional platforms such as Flexing It in India, and Expert360 in Australia also offer large (> 25K) talent platforms but are regionally focused; finally, there are country specific platforms like Ashghali in Lebanon, Gebeya in Kenya, and Expertera in Turkey.
Professional focus is a second factor: Toptal and 10Xmanagement primarily focus on top design, development and application professionals; Experfy is strongest in AI and Machine Learning; AceUp is a platform of coaches; Kolabtree and LifeSciHub offer scientific and medical talent for research and clinical trials, respectively; Inex One represents expert networks; and Hoxby in the UK, and Rise and We Are Rosie in the US, focus on creatives, providing an alternative to traditional advertising agencies and marketing / PR consultancies.
These businesses have in common a two sided relationship: with companies seeking freelance expertise, and the independent professionals themselves. The platform makes a marriage by helping the customer (company) match its need with professionals who have the right skills and experience (client). For this service, the platform takes a fee, usually from both sides, typically a percentage of the value of the engagement.
The UK firm, the Freelancer Club, has forged a different relationship with the freelance community.
You may not be familiar with Freelancer Club. You might not know it’s a pathfinder in the freelance space, created by CEO Matt Dowling way back in 2011. Or that it has 40,000 members. Or that its vision varies from the direction most platforms have taken. Although the site connects with and reaches out to potential client companies (a mix of corporates and startups) as a service to its freelancers, its vision and primary contribution to freelancers is to teach and support individuals to build successful freelance careers through the site. For Dowling’s members, there is more than one measure of success.
Dowling put it this way: “I’m in the business of helping independents with artistic output – people with a portfolio – in photography, web design, art and writing to be successful in achieving their goals. It might be money, or the ability to work from home, or just really interesting work. Not all of our members are looking for the same outcome.”
And, in a meaningful departure from the focus on most platforms in the freelance revolution, Freelancer Club sees its role as helping its members develop their business. As Dowling puts, “We’re in the business of generating reputation and competence, focused on helping our member create viable businesses, not finding them immediate opportunity. Our goal is to help our members present themselves successfully. We don’t take a percentage of what they generate, and we ask for a membership fee straight away. We’re really no different than joining a gym.”
I like the clarity of Dowling’s vision. As he says, “So many platforms fudge what they are really able to do,” a fair point. While some platforms generate consistent work for their independent professionals, many more create opportunities for less than 10%. The Freelancer Club’s alternative approach is to think of the platform as a set of business services provided to UK solopreneurs who, in order to succeed, must begin to think and act as business owners.
Here are the services a member receives:
- Help creating a profile
- Free use of a photographic studio
- Access to meeting rooms across the UK
- Access to collaborative opportunities and pitches
- Showcasing work
- Online masterclasses, workshops and courses
- Collaboration opportunities with other Club members
- Mentor services
- Access to VIP events
- Download guides and templates
- Meditation, health and Yoga classes
- Connect to potential clients for project opportunity
To be clear, like every platform, Freelancer Club receives its share of work requests through the site, and has established a service to match project opportunities coming into the site with members who have the requisite skills and experience. But, again, it takes a different path. Dowling explains: “The freelancer, not the site, ‘owns’ the client relationship. We’re not a marketplace in the traditional sense – we don’t hold money on the site, or take commission, and our involvement ends when we introduce the company to the freelancer.”
I asked Dowling if there’s data showing the impact of club membership on member’s success, and he directed me to a particular data set I found interesting: a suggestion box survey the platform runs for its member which asked: what membership features do you find most beneficial?
I’m always impressed with suggestion systems where people trust their organization well enough to actually offer suggestions. As Gallup points out, trust in our leaders is generally down. But, apparently not at Freelancer Club. Here’s what members found most helpful: 73% – “finding work”, 67% – “promoting my work,” 53% – “pitch opportunities”, 52% – “connecting with other members”, 44% – discounted and free event tickets”, 31% – discounts on brands”, 29% – “blog articles and videos”, 27% – “downloaded templates”, and 26% – “legal and business advice.” Not bad.
According to IPSE, the association of independent professionals and the self-employed, there are close to five million freelancers and solopreneurs in the UK, about 6% of the UK workforce, and producing over one hundred and twenty billion pounds. Millenials and Gen Zs represent half; the other half are Baby Boomers and Xs. They include all professions, but the big growth is in creative areas, tech, and healthcare.
The Freelancer Club was an early innovation when it came on the London scene. Since then, the industry has grown significantly. The UK, and London in particular, has seen great talent marketplaces rise up. It’s also benefited from the growth of a support ecosystem: Companies like Talon FMS providing freelance management system services to corporates, MeasureMatch offering data and analytic support, Payoneer and Skrill enabling payments, Collective Benefits creating the first benefits platform for freelancers, and Jolt offering future-proofing education for independents separately and through platform partnerships. And in that ecosystem, Freelancer Club plays a unique and evidently successful role.
Viva la revolution!