As the freelancing world turns to prospects for 2024, many are hoping for a better year. Others are skeptical, concerned that growth may remain anemic. Economic signals are mixed; metrics suggest continuing US economic improvement, but recession whisperers are whispering in the EU and Asia. Despite the range of opinions, the Humancloud.work trend tracker finds freelance entrepreneurs generally optimistic about the freelance revolution in 2024.
In 2023 marketplaces often struggled while others found success. In general, specialty platforms delivered stronger results than marketplaces offering lower cost but undistinguished talent. Platforms like Plannernet benefited from a travel and meeting resurgence. Tech maintained freelancing volume and margins better than marketing services, which had a tough 2023 but has rebounded as companies rely on the power of branding. Platforms like Mash Brands that bootstrapped their way to profitability were rewarded by clients and investors. Eastern Asia, led by Kazakhstan, offered a relatively new and exciting startup hub. Nearshoring freelance platforms Torc, and Flock benefited from wariness over supply chains. Another star: interest in freelancing across the Middle East spurred by Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.
Management consulting platforms, like Catalant in the US, Expert Powerhouse in Germany and Redegate in Poland benefited from investor outsourcing of analysis and due diligence. Consulting platforms also benefited from robust corporate interest in fractional or interim talent. Many consulting platforms include an expert network as an additional income source for platform talent.
The challenge of long-term growth in freelancing
Despite the achievements and optimism, there are challenges ahead as freelancing seeks to expand its role in overall staffing. The dismal reality: despite the benefits of freelancing, and an attractive CGAR of 15/16%, an underlying market problem is likely to stymie long-term growth unless resolved. So long as freelancing opportunity lags in enterprise adoption, it cannot rise to its full potential as an essential factor in modern workforce planning.
There are some green shoots. Although few in number, companies like Unilever believe talent demand will outstrip supply well into the future. They see the value of a blended staffing model. Large traditional consulting firms also welcome freelancers – often alumni or former clients – as part of an augmented client offering. Among large corporates, there is increasing interest in private talent clouds. MBO Partners and Emergent Research surveys found more than half of HR professionals are interested in a private talent cloud that enables easy connections to vetted and sponsored freelancers. But talent clouds require regular engagement to be successful or they quickly descend into low engagement digital talent warehouses not much different than job boards.
HR and procurement pros should be enthusiastic about the opportunity to access vetted, credentialed, professionals. Executives should be eager to work with established experts on site or remotely. The cost efficiency of freelancing should be a major attraction. But HR and Procurement depend primarily on traditional staffing companies for their resource needs. Traditional staffing represents more than 97% of total staffing revenues; freelancing is slightly less than 3%.
Why collaborate with traditional staffing companies
Why ought freelancing build stronger relationships with traditional staffing companies. They have the organization, history, influence, and often multi-generational relationships. Until freelancing leaders are accepted by the large global staffing establishment and welcomed to the club, freelance growth will be diminished, and winners will be few and exceptional. Consider, for example, the impact of HR35 on freelancing in the UK.
Size differences alone are daunting. According to SIA, Randstad, the largest staffing firm, generated just under $26 billion USD in revenue from its 4800 offices in 38 countries. Imagine the strength and influence earned by that level of coverage and access. The top ten largest staffing firms have a cumulative market share of 21%. The top 100 firms accounted for 43% of global revenue and are further consolidating through active M&A. In 2022, 64 of the top 100 staffing firms generated over $1 billion in revenue.
By contrast, the top three public freelance marketplaces – Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer – generated under $2 billion in 2022 revenues together, and the top 100 platforms produced revenues slightly below $5 billion. Less than 3% of total staffing.
There’s also the problem of proximity in location and background. The remote nature of freelancing provides a cost advantage but is disadvantageous in building and maintaining strong client relationships. SaaS was designed for sales convenience, not close connections. Strong relationships between staffing firms and large corporates, and with regulators, supported by a tech and distribution system that has grown up around traditional staffing over decades, provides a powerful advantage.
There is also a cultural gap to overcome. The different in emphasis on client relationship management is vast. Organizational models are different. Project sizes are different. Reward systems are different. Even career paths are different.
Nevertheless, freelancing will benefit from more closely associating itself with traditional staffing. Traditional staffing benefits too; it needs to step up to modern staffing by providing broader access to all the quality resources needed to build the modern blended workforce. As Airbus executive Mina Bastawros put it, “I want an Amazon model: whether I buy toilet paper or a toothbrush, it’s from one place.”
How to collaborate with traditional staffing companies
So-called “freelance to permanent” deals are the simplest version. Freelance marketplaces generally allow clients to buy out a freelancer’s contracts in order to offer them a full-time role. But there’s little scale or leverage gained by the occasional sale. While it provides the marketplace with short-term revenue, it also depletes their talent platform. To be effective, it needs to be managed as a business, not a sideline.
Second, more partnerships are developing. Traditional consulting firms depend on freelance talent to meet client project needs and reduce fixed staffing costs. Many consultancies reduced new employee hiring and are depending on private talent clouds to provide the wide range of expertise required. As Niclas Thelander, co-founder of Outsized put it: “Many of the top consulting firms are now shifting their business model to embrace freelancers, finding that it enables them to serve their clients more effectively, boost growth and adapt faster to a rapidly evolving industry.”
Third, a similar dynamic is expanding interim and fractional roles, and expert network participation. For talent marketplaces it provides an additional revenue source. Heidrick acquired BTG as a means of offering their clients (and talent) interim and fractional opportunities. We’re also seeing growth in corporate adoption of fractionals and interims. These roles are popular across the EU, especially Germany and France, and now expanding in the US as well.
Fourth, some organizations are bringing together traditional staffing and freelancing under a common shingle. A first step could be learning from current efforts by regional staffing companies like Marcher Markholt in Denmark. This firm has brought together freelancing and traditional staffing as an integrated offering to their Nordic clients.
Finally, big staffing is learning how to connect with freelancing. Industry leaders understand the value of freelancing as an additional solution, an opportunity not a threat. As a result, top staffing companies will increasingly invest in, and acquire, freelancing platforms that fit their long-term plans, but likely keep these businesses separate until there’s a clear business model. Randstad’s purchase of Twago and Work Genius’s acquisition of JBC Staffing are two examples.
Market size, location, career paths and culture are not insurmountable barriers. These challenges can be overcome to a significant degree. Client organizations want help in sourcing the blended workforce they need, the best combination of skill, experience, and cost whether full-time or freelance, project or permanent, local, or remote. And, where possible, from a common source.
Additional benefits of collaboration
There is also benefit here in attracting top talent. Talented professionals want to work with platforms that offer the best opportunities. Career interests change over time: full-timer candidates may seek freelancing later or a portfolio of fractional assignments. Staffing firms able to provide a rich mix of opportunity will attract and keep high quality candidates.
Who benefits from this evolution? Probably not the mega-platforms, at least not immediately: Marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr offer a unique service. Platforms aligned with industry verticals will benefit, for example, Spacely in satellites, Trees-Engineering in energy, or Contra for creatives. Consultancies and executive recruiters like Odgers Berndtson benefit by offering additional ways to leverage their community of vetted leaders and senior professionals.
Combining freelance and full-time also provides new product opportunity: the ability to organize the large, blended, teams that enterprise clients need to meet transformation goals. Hollywood talent agencies are able to organize whole movie casts. Staffing agencies should gain this competency.
Last, a stronger relationship between traditional staffing opportunities and freelance opportunities will help individual professionals, whether freelance or traditional careerists. These days professionals are seeking greater career flexibility and choice. The best staffing organizations understand and will actively support talent with hybrid or portfolio career interests as well as more traditional professionals.
A stronger relationship beckons
Freelancing has had a great run since eLance and oDesk joined as Upwork. Freelancing continues to grow as a professional career, with millions of professionals providing value to clients in professions ranging from calligraphy to quantum physics. But it’s time for resourcing leaders – both freelance and traditional – to recognize that the future beckons a closer relationship.
Viva la revolution!