In 2012, Tomas O'Farrel along with a few colleagues created Workana to transform the world of work, and provide autonomy and equal opportunities to talent across the world. While the rise of the gig economy is one of the recent trends, Workana envisioned the growth of freelance work and its need about six years back.
The outbreak of COVID-19 and the disruption it has led to in the world of work has further bolstered the growth of the gig economy. For instance, Ben Huffman, CEO of Contra shared, "COVID 19 is an accelerant to a trend that has been long overdue. We have seen a 10,000% increase in membership on our platform in the last month alone.” Another report suggested that as agencies lay off employees, more former full-time employees are entering the freelance marketplace.
In a recent interaction with People Matters, Workana’s co-founder Tomas O'Farrel shared his journey of creating a tech enabled platform for bridging the gap between freelancers and businesses. He also discussed how the gig economy has evolved and shared some of the challenges most organizations struggle with as they tackle the need to hire more freelancers.
Did you predict this rise of the gig economy when you founded Workana in 2012?
I knew freelancing was going to be a big thing. But I never thought that would become so huge so early.
Back in 2010-11, when I was part of this other startup for 9 years, I started looking for different things to do. After 9 years of constant startup work, over-stretched nights, I needed some time out and then at that time my first son had also just been born. So I decided to stay home and only go to the office in the afternoons. Now I was only able to do that because I was the founder of the company. I realized how wonderful it is to have the autonomy of choosing your own time.
I realized how different people could have different working styles, especially at different stages of life. That’s when I started doing some research.I realized how wonderful it is to be a freelancer and how good it is to work with freelancers as well. But there were also a lot of challenges we identified the freelancers were facing and there were also some roadblocks for the companies that wished to work with them.
How have you seen the gig economy evolve since Workana’s inception in 2012?
When we started we received a mixed response. Out in the market, there were some forward thinking organizations who were more ready and open to get on board freelancers, but then there were others who were others who were reluctant. To be honest it was a new thing and it was very normal for them to have resistance.
Some of their biggest concerns were: How do I hire someone I have not seen or met? How do I know they are working? How do I know they are really good at the job?
Being a market leader back then, it felt like starting a new market from scratch.
But now suddenly in over a few years, there has been a massive shift in people’s preferences. For many now, interdependence on a permanent job has reduced, job security is no longer much of a concern and talent wants more autonomy and freedom to choose their own project they want to work for. Earlier it was mostly the startups that would hire freelancers and work with them but the tight labour market and the shortage of skills have urged the large organizations and MNCs to also hire freelance talent on a project basis or something very specific that needs to be done.
What’s amazing is that with platforms like Workana, organizations have access to a wide variety of talent pool spread across the world. Their search for right talent and required skills is not restricted to a city, country or region.
What are some of the challenges of the gig economy and how are you trying to solve them?
If we think from the freelancers’ perspective, the most common challenge was how do they find work or projects. For businesses the biggest concerns were how do I assess who would be the right talent and how to find them.
With the presence of all these challenges, a platform like Workana made perfect sense. So in 2012 with this very basic idea of freelancing work, we began our journey. We created a marketplace for freelance and remote work in Latin America.
We were the very first to do it in Latin America. For our initial traction, many talented freelancers joined the platform, then we started growing and say in three or four years, we started building teams internally, raised a few rounds of investments. And we did two things:
One, we started working for bigger companies, we realized bigger clients are also facing the same challenges in finding amazing people and started helping them too.
Two, we identified that there is a need for such a platform in other parts of the world too. Took our lessons from Latin America, applied as we expanded internationally. And as we looked at expansion, we started with one of the rising economies of the world: SEA.
As we grow further we aim to revolutionize the world of work, give companies (both Enterprise and SMEs) reliable access to a pool of skilled, on-demand talent. And at the same time provide skilled freelancers with a safe framework to achieve autonomy and career development in a sustainable manner.
How has the traction been for you so far?
Since its launch, Workana has connected thousands of companies with freelancers worldwide.
From small businesses to enterprise, Workana works with all types of organizations which are waking up to the advantages of freelance work. Through its platform, it is helping organizations find qualified talent, wherever they are, and start working right away.
What is the one biggest challenge that emerges for the talent leaders as the gig workforce keeps on increasing?
One of the toughest challenges is around sourcing talent. How do you pick someone you have never seen and never met for a work you don’t know how to do?
On Workana everything is transparent and it helps foster and reinforce trust between freelancers and companies. For instance, you can see the profiles of all our freelancers to know their skills, the work they have done, see their portfolios and read the opinions left by clients who have already worked with them. In addition, before selecting anyone, the hiring manager will be able to chat with them to get to know them in depth and decide for sure. We try to enable companies to find their right freelance talent and establish long-term relationships with them.
How can Tech help in solving the challenges for both talent leaders and the gig workforce as the nature of work transforms with the rise of the gig economy?
Tech-enabled platforms like Workana allow the companies to post the project, specifying what needs done. On the other hand, it allows the freelancers to send their proposals to respective companies. They assure 100 percent transparency and bridge the communication gap between them too. Payment which has also often been a challenge in freelancer-client agreement is also taken care of in a tech enabled platform.
For instance, Workana asks the companies to make the full payment for the project and then holds the money in escrow while the freelancer works on your project.
Technology not only helps bridge the gap between freelancers and clients, it helps build the relationship out in the open with a pillar of trust because trust is the ultimate key thing to happen.
What do you predict for the future of the gig economy?
As the demand for freelancers increases and becomes more and more complex, the technology would need to become more sophisticated. As we grow that would definitely be a key area we work on.
Besides that for companies, and business and talent leaders it is important to revisit their organizational culture and structures and redefine them to make more space for the emerging gig workforce.