Procurement · 2 October 2015

Online freelancing needs a rejig to reach startup and entrepreneur clients

Existing freelance platforms suffer from a lack of innovation and user-centric design
Existing freelance platforms suffer from a lack of innovation and user-centric design

Our technology expert on why online freelancing may be taking off, but needs standardisation if it’s to reach its potential.

Getting freelancers on board can be a great idea. You save time and money, and get instant access to a highly skilled, hyper-specialised workforce. No wonder businesses from diverse industries are getting in on the action.

Online freelancing may have emerged recently but it’s already drawing in professionals from many different fields. Problem is, existing freelance platforms suffer from a lack of innovation and user-centric design. If freelancing is to really take off, there must be meaningful change. Both service providers and businesses must feel completely comfortable in an online work environment, and the whole process must be as streamlined as possible. The good news is, the industry is on a tipping point and all signals point to one unmistakable sign: the marketplace is ready for disruption.

There are two main types of freelance platforms we see today. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, but taken together, they haven’t really been able to tap into the massive potential user base. Online platforms only serve a small percentage of users – that’s because they’re not really designed for ease and simplicity, and as a result, overlook a majority of business clients made up of SMEs, startups and entrepreneurs. Let’s take a look at the existing models.

First, there’s the RFP model. You have to write a carefully-worded project description that’s descriptive enough to attract just the right candidates. Too generic and you get loads of applicants, too specific and you eat up valuable time crafting the job post. In most cases what happens is the client puts up a more-or-less generic post. This post gets a ton of applications – many with inaccurate estimates and deliverables. And the more subpar applications you receive, the higher the chances of hiring someone not suited for the job. What complicates matters even more is that often the bids you get are not comparable with each other, as some applicants will quote their own prices, which are likely to be very different. To find just the right applicant from the pool, you may have to spend considerable time taking interviews and negotiating. It’s tedious stuff.

Then there are the gig platforms. This model solves many of these problems but comes with its own set of drawbacks. Say you’re looking for a logo design service. You’re bombarded with offers from thousands of freelancers, many of them not even relevant to what you’re after. And again, there’s no way really to compare across the gigs as each freelancer offers different terms, such as number of initial concepts, number of revisions, output format and the like. It’s quite easy to get overwhelmed.

A critical problem with both models is the lack of standardisation of services, and if the industry is going to evolve, it’s the first thing to address. Freelance platforms must find a way to standardise services, so users can quickly compare offers from different providers. Think of Amazon. Each product is packaged separately and assigned a unique stock-keeping unit (SKU). When you search for a phone, you see a list of sellers offering the phone, along with fixed prices. Imagine if a freelance platform could package services with well-defined descriptions and fixed prices, along with a list of top-rated providers. You wouldn’t need to write out job posts, shortlist candidates, or take interviews. If Amazon worked on the RFP model you’d need to write out the specifications and technical details (and wait for sellers to send bids) each time you wanted to buy a phone! As a client, it’s not your job to write out the specifications, it’s what you should expect from the marketplace.

Amazon magnifying

The prepackaged concept easily addresses the problem of standardisation and it’s a great time-saver. True, buying a service for a business isn’t the same as buying a phone for personal use but research indicates that 80 per cent of projects on traditional freelance platforms could be packaged into readymade services. Say you need a logo for your new startup. All you really need to communicate to the freelancer is the number of concepts, number of revisions and output formats. If a freelance platform allowed you to simply specify your needs with one-click commands, you wouldn’t have to write and create a job post. You’d simply specify your requirements and be able to see a list of sellers who offer the service.

Standardisation is key to discovery. When you’re looking for a logo design service, you want the process to be as smooth and streamlined as possible. Pre-packaged services makes that possible – you simply choose your service, configure it, see a list of sellers and take your pick. The problem with most freelancing sites is that, in an effort to make projects fully customisable, they make clients do a lot of things that are clearly redundant. Customisation options may afford flexibility, but they’re also not really necessary in about 80 per cent of the time. For a client, standardised services with just the basic configuration options is often enough. You simply plug in your preferences and you’re good to go.

There’s a difference between buying an iPhone and a pre-packed service, however. When you buy a phone, you get the same exact product whether you get it from Best Buy or Walmart. Not so for a packaged service. In an Amazon-like freelance platform, all freelancers may be offering the same logo-design package, but their deliverables will differ. You need a way to gauge the quality of their service before you buy it. That’s where a portfolio comes in handy. An easy-to-view portfolio lets you check out their best work and get a feel for the aesthetic sensibilities and design competencies of a specific provider. Along with rating and reviews from past jobs, the portfolio should give you a complete picture of a logo-designer’s level of skill. Coupled with standardised services, a quick portfolio viewing feature is just the kind of innovation that would attract new players.

It’s evident the prepackaged model can usher in a whole new freelancing experience for both buyers and sellers. Another great benefit of standardising is that it’ll eliminate friction and disagreements during the course of a project. All too often, a poorly-written job post, misinterpretation of the scope of work involved, or other factors leads to disputes. With a prepacked service, there’s no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation – each side knows exactly what to expect or what to deliver. The SKU is like a contract that binds both sides.

All in all, ecommerce is definitely a viable model for freelancing. A freelance marketplace that introduces the concept of prepackaged services and offers those services through a catalogue of SKUs would be able to streamline and optimise how freelancing is done online. It seems standardisation is the innovation that the freelance space has been waiting for, and it’s just the kind of disruption that will reshape the industry.

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Kleanthis Georgaris is the founder and CEO of DigiServed, the “Amazon” marketplace for creative freelance services. An experienced software engineer and digital commerce expert, Kleanthis has worked for several global organisations including Microsoft and McKinsey.